This Spring, two museum shows pegged to age groups are facing off from each other across the length of Manhattan. Downtown, through July 5, the New Museum of Contemporary Art is presenting the first in its series of “generationals”—tri-annual surveys of contemporary artists aged 33 and under—titled “Younger Than Jesus.” Uptown, through August 2, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is offering “The Pictures Generation,” a historical look at the artists—most famously Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince—who re-introduced representational art to the Conceptualism-heavy New York art world of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (The Met round-up takes it name from the seminal 1977 exhibition, “Pictures,” in which some of these artists made their initial splash.) It’s tempting to see the concurrence of these shows as a demographic smackdown—Baby Boomers vs. Millennials—but more relevant, perhaps, is the fact that both shows betray a similar conceit: That artistic expression is inevitably a byproduct of whatever visual technologies are shaping society at the time an artist comes of age. This isn’t a new idea, exactly: It’s easy to see how, in retrospect, Impressionism was sparked by the advent of photography in the mid-19th century. But lately, the role that the media play in shaping aesthetics has become foregrounded as a curatorial conceit. In this sense, “The Pictures Generation” and “Younger Than Jesus” seem to represent art in the ages of television and the internet, respectively.
Consider that in the 1950s and 1960s when the members of the “Pictures” group were young and impressionable, the media were much more top-down than today. Hollywood still kept careful control over the lives of its stars, and the public’s perception of them. Broadcast television and radio were both deeply hierarchical, offering a limited menu of programs over an equally limited number of outlets. Given this context, it’s easy to see how a Cindy Sherman, willfully subsuming her person to cinematic archetypes, could arise, or why Orwellian paranoia informs a lot of the pieces in the “The Pictures Generation.”
Likewise, it’s no surprise that these artists were attracted to the anomic homages to Hollywood proffered by the Nouvelle Vague, or to texts like Roland Barthes’s essay, The Death of the Author”—which, among other things, stipulated that writing, rather being conditioned by an author’s specific experience or background, was actually “a tissue…of quotations.” This notion comported with a mindset conditioned to see pop culture as something handed down from on high, a lingua franca to be mastered. Not coincidentally, it also offered a philosophical justification for the Appropriation Art of figures like Prince and Sherrie Levine.
In contrast, today’s media are nonhierarchical. The internet allows the building of online communities through blogs or applications like MySpace and Facebook where information is shared, and cultural memes can be produced, consumed and deconstructed simultaneously. Mobile devices like the iPhone and apps like Twitter only intensify this effect. So even though studios and record companies continue to churn out movies, TV shows and pop music, much of this material is increasingly becoming fodder for mash-ups and fan fiction. Meanwhile, stars collude with publicists to make their lives transparent on a plethora of online gossip sites. Plus, it doesn’t take much to be famous anymore: Thanks to YouTube and reality television, ordinary people can become as globally recognizable as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The result is a sort of fishbowl society where the line between the public and private melts away. Yet when you consider the potential for governmental intrusion in this situation, the artists of “Younger Than Jesus” don’t betray nearly the same level of alienation as their “Picture” forbears. If the work of the “Pictures” artists seems redolent of film noir’s dark glamour and cynicism, the art in “Younger Than Jesus” displays the anarchic, DIY spirit of PeeWee’s Playhouse. This is especially true of the Ryan Trecartin’s video installations in which tween-like characters chatter endlessly about nothing and everything, rather like Smurfs contemplating the Apocalypse.
The difference, it seems, is in the generational relationship to media: While Baby Boomers were passive consumers, Millennials feel some measure of personal control. If it isn’t the fulfillment, exactly, of the old Marxist dream that workers would own someday the means of production, it is a recognition that the internet permits consumers to dictate the terms of consumption. Just ask the music industry, which almost went out of business thanks to online file sharing, or newspapers like the New York Times, struggling to maintain print editions that no one wants to buy, while attempting to figure out ways to monetize online content that no one wants to pay for. If the “Pictures” artist were rebels without a resolution, the twenty-somethings of “Younger Than Jesus” now have the tools to effect a real visual revolution. Whether they’ll use them remains to be seen.