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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stark Modernism: Fine Art and Iron Man

Iron Man has an Alberto Giacometti statue in his living room.

Let's talk about that.

Iron Walking Man

The sculpture is instantly recognizable as a Giacometti, a piece from the latter part of his career. Tall and gangly, it is of a striding human form, roughly cast of iron on a heavy metal base. The work is dramatic and eerie, and it's difficult to not perceive, in Giacometti's works from this period, the long shadows of those caught in the holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the firestorm at Dresden. They are just on the verge of abstraction, forms of careful if roughly rendered geometry, Giacometti revealing fundamental underlying forms by literally ripping clay off of the wire frames of his models to expose the ragged armature.

This is humanity stripped horribly naked.

And it's sitting in Tony Stark's house in Iron Man 2 while he drunkenly parties on what he believes to be his very last birthday, a masterpiece totally overlooked.

The choice of including this piece is deliberate, as all production decisions must be by nature, and it fits with a whole number of other choices in the first two films regarding artwork and its display and the way it fits into the life of Tony Stark. And it fits into the films in the way it fits into Tony Stark's house: as a conversation piece at best, a status symbol, something that Tony Stark has the money to purchase.

I think the implications of that for Tony Stark's character and for the art world as a whole are kind of intriguing, personally. Like, I think it's clear that the filmmakers have done their homework on these pieces: some of the artists (Pollock) are (tragically) an enduring part of the popular art world mythos but Giacometti isn't as well known, nor are some of the other artists that are named dropped in the films. What's the point of going to the effort to include these works? Why have recurring scenes in the films dealing with art? Is it just to show off that Tony is really rich?

Well, the introduction of Jackson Pollock is pretty telling. It comes early in the narrative of the films and serves in part as an introduction both to Pepper and her place in Tony's life, and Tony's asshole capitalist personality as well. Pepper tells him the Pollock is for sale, he asks whether it's a good example of his "spring" period, Pepper points out that "spring" isn't the season but where Pollock lived and then there's this exchange:

"I think it's a fair example... I think it's incredibly overpriced."
"I need it. Buy it. Store it."

So what we learn here first of all is that Pepper knows her art history, or at least knows enough to have a sense of what is or is not a fair price for this work. That tells us that she's intelligent, canny, and a rather hardheaded busineseer in her own right.

Tony, on the other hand, is kind of a jackass. The dude has the money to throw around even on an overpriced Pollock which...

Ok let me take some time out here to ramble a bit about Pollock. Pollock is very much a product of a particular kind of mythmaking that's not all that uncommon in the modern and contemporary art scene, a production cycle that's been going for a long time whereby the Avant Garde of struggling artists who break the boundaries of convention (in Pollock's case, by drizzling paint cum-like all over huge canvases), are adopted by the art world, and consecrated on the strength of their avant garde cred--they're given critical attention, much ink is spilled lionizing them, and with any luck they die of substance abuse or venereal disease, which ultimately allows those who invested in their work as avant garde artists to sell the art for much higher prices. Pollock's mythology is particularly American and is inextricable from the post-war rise of American Abstract Expressionism as a major cultural power. The canvases were colossal, the art was masculine and powerful, there was a sense of almost mystic energy to the works of Pollock in particular... I mean one of the Color Field painters (Rothko I think, maybe) once remarked something to the effect of "Europeans paint pictures, we paint paintings," which does a pretty good job of expressing the arrogant, larger-than-life nature of these characters.

So Pollock, who I frankly consider a boring and lousy painter, has this whole web of myth around him that the film makers are keying into, right? Masculine, edgy, emblems of American exceptionalism... there's a lot each man in the other. So from that perspective Pollock is an interesting choice.

But more than that, the Pollock here is an empty vessel, a signifier for the audience, above all, of money and of an aesthetic world that they have limited access to. There's no content in the painting itself (we never even see the painting!) it's simply an aesthetic stock that Pepper is investing in for Tony, abstract art that's been abstracted into mere market value. Tony doesn't get what he's buying, he doesn't care that it's overpriced, it's there, so he needs it, not for display, but to just have... somewhere.

This is fun stuff because it's a fairly easy way for the film makers to convey the fact that Tony is a superficial toolbag. It's not just that Tony Stark can buy modern art, he can buy it without even understanding a damn thing about what he's buying.

And he can also give it away without a thought. There's an incredible moment early in the second movie where Pepper angrily confronts Tony about the fact that he has apparently donated their entire Modern Art collection to the Boy Scouts of America. The ethics of donating modern art to hotbeds of homophobia aside (oh yeah you know I'm not gonna pass up any opportunity no matter how tangential to throw a sucker punch at the Boy Scouts), Pepper is furious because while it is technically Tony's collection, she has acted as the curator of the collection and knows way more about it than Tony does.

This moment has all the import of the moments that come before and after. We have Pepper as the intellectual core of their operation, we have Tony oblivious to the real value of things, prone to making snap decisions for emotional reasons, and we have art functioning as an empty signifier of wealth, an object that is a void vessel for meaning.

And then the scene transitions to Tony taking down a Barnett Newman painting and replacing it with a Shepard Fairey portrait of... himself.

And this is fascinating to me because the artwork here is still being used in a fundamentally symbolic way but rather than the empty vessel for wealth that it's represented before, it now represents a whole range of things.

Consider: Barnett Newman is totally old guard art. He's a color field painter, of the same generation that spawned Abstract Expressionism so it's artwork that was shocking at the time of its creation but is sort of part of a general indistinct mishmosh of Abstract Art in the popular mind now. It's stuff for elites to look at and make educated hmmming noises over in posh galleries. Pollock's is dribbly and squiggly and kind of a mess; Newman's is orderly and geometric and usually just one or two colors. And that's pretty much what people know about the work.

I could go into what makes Newman's work cool here, the aesthetics of the thing, the scale of many of his works that dwarf the audience and create a whole abstract environment... but I won't, because it's not really necessary to grasping Newman's use here. Here, he represents simply old, consecrated art, art that the critics have already acknowledged as Real Art with Real Value.

Shepard Fairey on the other hand is absolutely New Guard. He's an artist that got started in the Street Art scene and is part of the same countercultural outlaw set as folks like Bansky or arguably, twirling the clock back a bit more, Keith Haring (known for his abstract cartoony style and notable for being one of the many artists to fall victim to the AIDS crisis) or Basquiat (whose muddled canvases often include text and highly iconic and symbolic figures, and whose rise to fame paralleled the rising clout of hip hop culture in the fine art world). So, he's assuredly hip, happening, and New, and he's working in the tradition of figural Pop Art rather than the less visually recognizable Abstract Expressionist tradition. What's more, the image itself is in the style of Fairey's famous (infamous?) "HOPE" illustration for the Obama campaign but with, of course, Iron Man's suit depicted.

So, I think we could read into this as a sign that Tony Stark is, despite the financial troubles the company is ostensibly facing (we're told that a lot but we never really see the impact of his erratic behavior at all, in one of the series' structural failings) still a cultural icon, and a fresh cultural icon, one that represents an upset to the old guard (presumably the military industrial complex that he abandoned). He's shaking up the power structure in much the same way as Barack Obama was (ostensibly) to shake up the corporate-owned plutocracy that is the American government.

And yet the optimistic symbolism might not be the full story. The scene comes in the context of Tony Stark's increasingly erratic behavior as his body is slowly poisoned by the technology keeping him alive, and is surrounded by indications that he doesn't understand or have command of the symbolic meanings of the works he buys and sells. He likes the Fairey piece because it's his face as fine art; that seems to be pretty much it.

It's telling that this film came out just a month after Bansky's documentary "Exit Through The Gift Shop," which features Fairey among other artists. The film takes a satirical look at street art culture and the way street art has been co-opted and become a part of the crass capitalist art making machine, all through the lens of one man's transformation from amateur documentarian into a famous street artist with the cool and vapid name "Mr Brainwash." Fairey himself is featured in the film prominently. The lesson of the film seems to be that the art market can quickly adopt, consecrate, and corrupt nearly anything, no matter how illegal, and the various lawsuits and ethical questions surrounding Fairey (some launched by Fairey himself at other artists for appropriating his work in the same way that he appropriated the works of others!) seem to bear out that dour observation. There's something hollow about Fairey's work, particularly when you consider his penchant for appropriating not corporate symbols but symbols of resistance from less fortunate leftist artists. His art, like some of his pop art predecessors (I could name the remarkable hack Roy Lichtenstein here), is low impact, low content, and seems to be style over substance. Though, in fairness, he's at least got style, unlike the aforementioned Lichtenstein, who made a living off of stealing the work of comic book artists, blowing it up, and making it look like shit compared to the often well rendered originals.

This is not then the replacement it might at first seem. Fairey is absolutely undeniably a consecrated artist, just as the Abstract Expressionists were the anointed avant garde, destined for greatness, of their own day. Someone who makes art for the Obama campaign is barely countercultural at best. And Iron Man 2 certainly seems somewhat cynical about the pop art stylings of Fairey, associating it not with Pepper's calculating eye but with Tony's blithely acquisitive self-promotion.

Who knows, though. Apparently Fairey is friends with one of the producers of the film, which is how the piece got in in the first place (it's not Fairey's work, just a spoof of his style). So, maybe this transition means nothing. I'm still tempted to read it as a symbol of false starts, false promise, and rebellion sold to the highest bidder, though, because it fits with the ongoing disaster that is Tony's life, it fits with the trajectory of the Marvel films as more and more of the military-industrial "good guys" turn out to be morally compromised (if not outright villains themselves), and it fits with... wow, can I just say here that it really fits with the catastrophic disappointment that is the Obama Administration and its much vaunted Hope and Change? As I've tried to emphasize elsewhere, it's hard to pretend like the stuff you carry around in your head isn't having any sort of impact on your understanding of art, and I'm not sure if it's even a good idea to read this moment in the second film divorced from the events of Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier, and NSAgents of SHIELD.

Regardless, the big takeaway from all this, from the Giacometti that Tony almost busts the hell out of during his battle with Rhodes to the Pollock early in film one, is that the art world, for Tony Stark, has fuckall to do with art (and from his stage shows it's pretty clear that he's got breathtakingly tacky taste aesthetically), it's all about $$$$.

I can't help but think of a description of a similarly mind-bogglingly wealthy figure who doesn't seem to really get art: "He doesn't seem to study pieces as much as he blindly collects them like pokemon cards."

Of course, that comes from a video by The Rap Critic of TGWTG and is directed at Jay-Z's wince-worthy "Picasso Baby" vide--er, sorry, wait, "performance art":

I'm not gonna try to say what he said since he already said it better but the basic gist of the video is this: art appears in the song as a status symbol rather than as an object in itself. Unlike the namedrops in the songs of folks like Janelle Monae or Saul Williams, there's no statement being made by allusion here, nor is there meaning behind the half-hearted mimicry of Marina Abramovic. Hell, even Gaga's got a bit more weight behind her namedrops. "First I am the Koons and then the Koons is me"? There's some interesting stuff there about celebrity culture and the way pop and art circle around each other, as they do in the work of Koons, famous for an unbelievably tacky ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and his monkey Bubbles. And as far as performance art goes, rapping the same song for six hours with breaks vs vomiting weird green liquid all over another woman is obviously... uh... well, I was going to say it should be obvious which is more worthwhile but I don't think I can say it with a straight face. Say rather I guess that Gaga is going to the kind of weird extremes that I'd expect to see from an actual honest to god performance artist?


In the third Iron Man movie, which features very little of the artistic name dropping of the first two films, Tony says, of his life post-New York: "There is no art opening there is no benefit there's nothing to sign there is nothing except the next mission." While this is an indication of the way that he's become unravelled post-New York, it's also interesting in the way it includes the whole art scene and celebrity benefits in the same category of frivolous bullshit that belongs to his past life. Pepper, in the films, for all her knowledge of art history, never speaks of art for its own sake but always in terms of value, buying, selling, collecting. Both characters seem to me sides of the same coin: part of a consumption culture that manipulates art objects as symbols and investments (which are, of course, also simply empty symbolic vessels).

Art represents, in the films, not a source of enlightenment or relief but an empty ego mirror, reflecting wealth and fame back at the viewer. They are mirrors that reflect only the already gilded. And the effectiveness of those cultural touchstones comes from a general sentiment on the part of the audience that this is what the art world is.

I think these scenes are therefore not just a way of glimpsing Tony's internal world and his interactions with Pepper, or a way of reflecting on the symbolic content of the films, but a window into the place of contemporary art in our culture. And if this is an accurate bellweather, wow, art isn't faring so great in our day and age. And if it isn't, well, who's to blame--the foolish Tony Stark? The knowledgeable but coldly calculating Pepper? Or the system whereby Pollock and Rothko and Fairey and Newman and Lichtenstein and Koons and even Picasso, baby, are homogenized and converted into the same broad High Culture, inaccessible to the lower classes, misunderstood by the wealthy who own them, unimpeachable by reputation and canonization? In these films, art has already been abstracted into myth. It's no wonder that it should be a symbol only of that which has been rendered untouchable, just like the superrich that wreck so much havoc on the world.

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  1. I'm not entirely sure what this does to your reading (moving the line from the third movie to the first, and subsequently pre-New York), but the line "There is no art opening, there is no benefit, there's nothing to sign, there is nothing except the next mission." is from the first movie, not the third, when he's trying to convince Pepper to steal Obadiah's files.

    imdb reference:

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