Winter 2007

Wordy rappinghood

Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures

Edited by Kobena Mercer
Design: Untitled
INIVA & MIT Press, £15.95, $25

This book is part of a series that sets itself the task of ‘annotating art’s histories’. The essays it contains ‘engage with old Modernist blind spots’ – that is, art dealing with Black ‘Queerness’ in New York; Pop art in China, India and South Africa; as well as Chicano ‘Rasquachismo’.

Given the subject matter, it deserves to be an interesting book, yet is symptomatic of the very worst aspects of contemporary academic book culture: the insane language of cultural comment, its fear of images, and the contempt some designers have for anyone else’s creative work.

The book groans with heavy sentences of overly determined observations endlessly qualified by theoretical precedents accompanied by a lot of punctuation. These laboured sentences are not helped by editors and graphic designers who cannot decide where to use capital letters – is it Pop Art or pop art, eros or Eros? What they’re all saying is you can only understand this art if you have read the Word according to the theorists of Cultural Studies, the truth of which is evident in the fact that everything written in this book has apparently been pre-said and vouchsafed by some great mind before. For instance: ‘Where the “both / and” ambiguities of pop art practices had to wait until the arrival of post-structuralist theories to fully reveal the consequences of their unsettling insights, as Australian critic Paul Taylor (1989) suggested, the Dionysian agency of eros abrades upon the ways in which “neo-pop” or “post-pop” ambivalence registers “something of [an] unease about consumerist excess”.’

Many of the essays are interesting because they present bodies of art that are unfamiliar, but the reader is continually bombarded by references to images that are not included. This is the real story here: the unconscious fear that words play second fiddle to images. And this is borne out by the token illustrations such as Esther Mahlangu’s Art Car (1991) and Barkley Hendricks’ North Philly Niggah (1975), which is reproduced on the cover.

If I were Hendricks I would be upset by the way North Philly Niggah is used on the cover. The original is a full-length portrait painted in the manner of a young, arrogant, Renaissance nobleman. It is reproduced on all three faces of the wrapper, each disrespecting the original, in a three-fold act of creative bad faith. One: it is ineptly bisected on the front cover, draining the original power of the image. Two: by reducing this truncated cover into a bookmark on the spine it becomes, literally, a compressed face. Three: on the back cover the whole image is reduced to a thumbprint.

A book of essays is, at its best, a collection of clear voices working together; most fail miserably, as they are created with all the love and co-operation of speed-dating. Normally this is the fault of the publisher, but in academic publishing it is the academics themselves that are to blame. A prime offender is the edited reader; a book only produced to tick boxes in a personal appraisal and to add to a CV.

The effect of all this bad faith is an unreadable book that reinforces the poor reputation of academic critics with the creative public. This is a disservice they do us and themselves, since they are perceptive, articulate people – albeit unfortunately not in the medium of the book because they don’t care enough about that medium.

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