Vulgar Appropriationism

I am not sure if my title is a good one for the phenomenon that I wish to describe. Perhaps I should use the adjective “vernacular” instead of “vulgar” (as in “vernacular modernism”; Miriam Hansen uses it “because the term vernacular combines the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with connotations of discourse, idiom, and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity, and translatability”). And perhaps, instead of “appropriationism,” I should say “detournement,” or even the much-dreaded “postmodernism.” In any case, these are just preliminary thoughts, that I would like to develop further at some point

What I am calling “vulgar appropriationism” is this: the way in which pop/commercial media today often appropriate formal structures from more-or-less “high art,” or even avant-garde art, of the 20th century, and use them in ways that negates the aesthetic or conceptual radicality of those structures. I can think of a number of examples of what I mean: for instance, how Spencer Tunick‘s “installations” (or “happenings”?) of masses of nude bodies are appropriated by Joseph Kahn in his video for Kylie Minogue’s “All the Lovers”. Tunick says that he “stages scenes in which the battle of nature against culture is played out against various backdrops,” and that his “body of work explores and expands the social, political and legal issues surrounding art in the public sphere.” But these self-reflexive meanings drop out in Kahn’s video, which presents Kylie Minogue as a Goddess of Love floating above a mass of lovers of all races and genders, all dressed in white and undressing themselves, making out and generally acting sexual, in both hetero- and same-sex combinations; there are also “kitsch” elements like fluttering doves and a galloping white hourse. I find Kahn’s video wonderful, in a way that Tunick’s works are not. This is partly because of the dynamism of Kahn’s editing, but also because the specific erotic content, and its link to Kylie’s persona as well as lyrics, gives the video a specificity of content (even of narrative) that Tunick’s works (with their more self-reflexive modernist concerns) simply don’t have.

Another example is Gaspar Noë’s recent video for Animal Collective’s “Applesauce”. This video appropriates its background from Paul Sharits’ 1968 “flicker film” N:O:T:H:I:N:G (excerpts of which can be found here). I don’t think serious art critics take Spencer Tunick very seriously; but Sharits is a major figure in the “structural film”. As it says on the youtube page: “N:O:T:H:I:N:G is a film being deplenished of all, of any signified stance and involved only in the manner of film itself. Just the drawing of a bulb, the projector light and a chair remain in the space of the screen. But these are just random disruptions of monochrome frames.” Or elsewhere: “Sharits’ works reduce the process of filmmaking to its most basic components – the projector, the filmstrip, light and duration.”

Now, I have only seen the excerpt of this film that appears on youtube; which means, really, that I haven’rt seen it at all, since really seeing it would require the sort of immersion that comes, not just from seeing it in an otherwise all dark room, but also seeing it on actual film, not via video transfer, which erases whatever stutter effect might come from the actual progression of film frames. Sharits’ work is a high modernist one, which reflects quite rigourously upon the characteristics of its medium (though it may well have a psychedelic sensorial effect when seen properly — obviously I don’t know).

Even though Gaspar Noë is himself evidently interested in formal processes and psychedelic modifications of the sensorium, from a high modernist viewpoint you could only say that he has destroyed the essence of Sharits’ work. Not only has he turned it into video, but he has used it as the background against which we see the silhouette of a female figure, in extreme closeup, eating a mango (I think; eating a mango comes up in the lyrics to the song, and it sort of looks juicy like a mango, but it is not possible to tell for sure). Now, the shadowy figure is extremely sensuous, as we do sort of see her lips, and the bites she takes, and the juice dripping from the fruit. Noë instructs viewers to watch the video in otherwise total darkness; so it is fair to say that he seeks to provide for digital/electronic media, an ecstatic equivalent to the effect on Sharits’ film in its older medium. Nonetheless, I still think that we have to say that Noë has eliminated the self-reflexivity, the materialist rigor, and the conceptual lucidity of Sharits’ work; he has replaced a Kantian (or Clement-Greenburgian) purity with an aesthetics of hedonism, and has denatured the meditative essence of Sharits’ film by reintroducing those very elements of moviemaking (the human figure against a background, an implicit narrative, a sense of representation) that Sharits had taken such effort to get rid of. (Not to mention that, as a music video, we have a soundtrack that is a pre-existing song; as opposed to the silence of the Sharits film — even though the latter supposedly gives a visual equivalent of a Buddhist prayer drone)

In any case, the point I am building to is this: I vastly prefer Noë’s work to Sharits’, just as I do Kahn’s to Tunick’s, precisely because these recent music videos are hedonistic, impure, unrigorous, and filled with the figurative and representational content that high modernism sought to get rid of — in short, I like these appropriations precisely because they are “vulgar.” They present themselves as part of the everyday world that high modernism took such pains to separate itself from; they have none of the negativity that Adorno demanded of art in a capitalist, commodified age. The only claims that I can make for them politically are ones that occur on the level of content (e.g. Kahn and Minogue are evidently supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians). Nonetheless, I think it is highly significant that music videos like these (and I think there are many other similarly interesting works) are engaging in formal invention without such invention implying either self-referentiality, or negativity, or a purist rejection of “mere” content or “mere” representation. I’d like to say that these works are (finally) escaping from the prison of sublime modernist aesthetics; they no longer seek to maintain modernism’s self-proclaimed distance from the “Real.” They embody a new sort of immanence, or actualism.

I am not sure i can actually support any of these claims, but this posting at least gives some indication of where I am trying to go.

10 Responses to “Vulgar Appropriationism”

  1. Thank you for articulating this thought. I was just in Buffalo looking through Sharit’s archives. I like how the structuralists were trying to break moving images from their narrative bent. Once we take stories away from moving images we can explore other things. Particularly I’m interested in how it can simply be one image followed by any other. Somehow I’ve seen the work i’ve been making and collecting here ( ) as being descended from folks like Sharits or Hollis Frampton, but always felt that what I was doing was impure in comparison. This post is right up my alley. I’m not sure if I can extend your thought here to my work ( no major pop group has approached me yet) but it is none the less invaluable as i think about what I am doing.

  2. Justin Remes says:

    Interesting post, Steve! Other music videos that appropriate content from “high art” and/or avant-garde cinema include Wendy Morgan’s video for Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” (2010) and Kate Garner’s video for Milla Jovovich’s “Gentleman Who Fell” (1994) (each of which borrows elements from Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon”), as well as David Mould’s video for Blur’s “To the End” (1994) (which appropriates the imagery and formal structures of Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad”).

    I should add that seeing Paul Sharits’ work on YouTube is problematic not only because of the erasure of cinema’s stutter effect, but also because of the intrusion of (in this case, quite severe) lossy compression, which completely negates the monochromatic purity of Sharits’ frames.

  3. Burke Hilsabeck says:

    This is a really interesting post. I’m wondering if at least a portion of the “impure and unrigorous” qualities of these works has to do with the fact that they are on video. There’s plenty of impure and unrigorous film, of course (Frank Tashlin!), but one operation that is occurring here is the movement from film (at least in the case of Sharits) to video and a consequent aesthetic and even ontological transformation of the image. (Video allows one to think of these images as existing between or before media.) This operation is connected, I think, with the issue of genre, the movement from gallery space to the more private worlds and screens of music video.

    I know you’ve written about this elsewhere, Steven, but do you have a way of comparing the spectators of these particular films and videos? Noe’s is a particularly strange one–at least by his account!

  4. Richard Grusin says:

    Hi, Steve. I like this a lot. I would be interested in thinking about this phenomenon in terms of remediation, rather than appropriation, because I think that remediation is a more active and transformative way of understanding what you are talking about here, one which foregrounds the relations among different media and mediations that you are detailing. In calling these appropriations, you risk implying that the aesthetic content is somehow stable or unchanged as it moves from one medium to another. But as you so clearly articulate, the remediation of Sharit’s cinematic experiments by Noë’s digital/video ones translates and deforms the cinematic medium in the process. I would call this “vulgar remediationism” or something. Anyway, thanks for alerting me to the Noë video, which I had not seen.

  5. michael says:

    So, what’s at stake in (yet again?) challenging modernism’s self-ascribed hegemony in aesthetic theory and practice? Put another way, how much of the critical force here derives from the stipulation that these are indeed “appropriations” that are “vulgar,” so that their very “vulgarity” can be rehabilitated?

    As I’m certain you know, Joan Hawkins has engaged many of these issues quite powerfully in her Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (Minnesota, 2000). Perhaps you can make further headway with these observations by distinguishing them from hers?

  6. Justin Remes says:

    Another thought struck me today: Mieko Shiomi (who, like Sharits, was closely associated with the Fluxus collective) composed an event score called “Shadow Piece No. 3″ with the following instructions: “Performers eat various fruits behind a white screen. A light projects their shadows on the screen.” I don’t know if Gaspar Noe is familiar with Shiomi’s work or not, but since the “Applesauce” video features a shadowy figure eating fruit, one could argue that this work is appropriating (or remediating, pace Richard’s comment) both Sharits’ “N:O:T:H:I:N:G:” and Shiomi’s “Shadow Piece No. 3.”

  7. tomsakic says:

    Excellent article. I am only wondering, what is really new in these works, namely, wasn’t “vulgar appropriation” (what’s great term in itself) of high modernist art already done in postmodernism, in the 80s and 90s, and now we are far beyond it as the concept, as we can witness the return of high modernism, and new stage of pop post-post modernism. Or is it happening again, the appropriation of modernism? Namely, is not the whole Tarantino (and Tarantino-like) cinema doing the same thing you are describing here? Or e.g. Lana Del Rey’s music – namely all personal experience moderated through that art is basically experienced first through other art and media (they are working with pieces of previous arts, i.e. it’s all quotes and references and “junk of the pop culture” like alluvions after the flood), not first hand as experience described in modern art. What you’re writing about used to be called Postmodernism, basically.
    As for Gaspar Noe, I think his latest feature film, Enter the Void, was great piece of high modernism cinema. I am interested, what do you say about his recent video for Nick Cave? >

  8. tomsakic says:

    And this recent link to Tom Hawking article about David Lynch influence:

    “But I can’t help wonder whether something is being lost in all this Lynchmania, because citing Lynch as an influence has become a convenient synonym for “we’re kinda into weird shit,” or perhaps more accurately, “we want people to think we’re kinda into weird shit.” It’s become a sort of cultural shorthand, in the same way that playing any of the innumerable versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has become a way for TV/film producers to say, “HEY EVERYONE SOMETHING VERY EMOTIONAL IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.”

    In this respect, pop culture Lynchmania shares the process of meme-ification that’s afflicted serious political issues, and it has the same inherent problems — reducing the complexities of David Lynch’s work to a zig-zaggy floor and a dancing little person is great if you’re just trying to proclaim to the world that you’re more interesting than your contemporaries, but less so if you’re actually trying to explore Lynch’s world and the themes and ideas that inform his work.”

    and: “It’s branding, not meaning”.

    As though the latest sentence is true, I cannot agree that there is no content in such appropriation. I tend to believe that in mediated world nowadays young people and artists have only one way to gain experience, and that is thru media and existing cultural products, thus their art and their dictionary is mediated thru existing cultural artifacts and references. To put it short, Leonard Cohen is modernist (and after all, he was formed in 40s and 50s) and his lyrics do read as first-handed, modernist insights, while Lana del ey, to say what she feels, has only one way, and that is to say “like Jim Morisson” or “the voice of Nirvana says: Come as you are”. But that started, as I sad, in 80s, and in 1990s we already had Kurt Cobain of Nirvana trying to say what he feels, and he came with this line: “gimme Leonard Cohen afterworld”, and Mercury Rev came tih the line “I’m stuck in Leonard Cohen’s mind”. So as Tom Hawking says, to say what you feel, you have to use the reference, dropping Leonard Cohen or David Lynch or Jim Morisson as the password to the ORIGINAL, immediate (modernist!) experience. That is, I believe, what you called vulgar (or vernacular) appropriationism”. Maybe I don’t like word “vulgar” as it has pejorative sounding, more it is “popular” or pop appropriationism.

  9. Adam says:

    I’d like to take issue with your understanding of Sharits, and of structural film in general. The dry, Adorno-and/or-Greenberg-style high modernism ascribed to them just doesn’t jibe with my own experience of them. Structural film marked a turn towards the spectator as a focus for the filmmaker – you might find a film like Wavelength to be boring and uninteresting, but Snow’s concern with orchestrating the viewer’s attention is just as important as anything within the frame. (For me, the meaning of the film, and significance of the final few minutes, comes from the accumulated experience of the viewer.)

    But my arguments about Snow, Frampton, and Gehr aside – I make them to my students and sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t –  Sharits is something else entirely: an overwhelming, bombastic filmmaker. His work doesn’t provoke hallucinations, but it does inspire awe: seeing a film or installation of his is, to repeat myself, an overwhelming sensual experience. Some of his best films do have figural and semantic content – T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G and Piece Mandala seems like films Noe would love – but my favorite films of his are, like, Shutter Interface or N:O:T:H:I:N:G, more abstracted. Shutter Interface – a low-quality recording of the four projector installation is online here: – is just flashing colors (and an extremely loud barrage of pings on the soundtrack – Sharits’ films are usually meant to be loud), but it’s just about all my mind can process. And yet it really is beautiful. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, as much as I love it, does provoke a slightly different experience. It’s just as overwhelming (a word I can’t stop using to describe Sharits’ films) but also largely hinges on the interrogation of its violent semantic and figural content, i.e. through repetition and fragmentation it pushes itself towards meaninglessness at the same time that it is actually doing violence on the viewer through its punishing maximalism. That’s one hell of an experience, but, again, different. Shutter Interface is pure aesthetic, sensorial bliss. It doesn’t leave much room for contemplation, far too loud and fast for that, but forces the viewer to try to take in what feels like the limit of audiovisual experience.

    In general I’m in favor of vulgar appropriationism, but the received wisdom about experimental film tends to privilege theoretical understandings of the work over their actual effects.

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