One of the most identifiable phenomena in contemporary art today, whether established critics want to believe it or not, is the Lowbrow art movement. Seen on the pages of the heavily circulated Juxtapoz Magazine and popping up in advertisements, commercial goods, and television shows, Lowbrow is everywhere. Sometimes referred to as Pop Surrealism or Juxtapoz-style art, it is a type of art that has constantly evaded definition and academic analysis over the past couple of decades. The movement has become so large and influential in mainstream culture that a valid discussion of this work is absolutely necessary, especially since it has developed its own profitable market, high-end galleries, and successful magazines and publications. The most prominent art and culture magazine that caters to this movement, artist Robert Williams’ (b. 1943) Juxtapoz Magazine, has a higher circulation than highbrow publications such as Art in America, and claims to have the highest circulation of any art magazine. Critics, art historians, collectors, museums, and galleries can no longer dismiss this art: it has too much visibility.
The terms lowbrow, highbrow, and middlebrow originated in the late 19th century as a reference to the popular practice of physiognomy, or face reading. In this practice, the level of one’s eyebrows in relation to the forehead indicated a person’s intelligence: the lower the eyebrow, the dumber the person. While physiognomy did not prove to be scientifically accurate, the terms that stemmed from it remain in our language, mostly regarding the inaccurate marriage of economic class to levels of intelligence. The use of the title Lowbrow to describe an art movement has been controversial since it associates coming from a working class background with being unintelligent. The term “lowbrow” is used both proudly and ironically by many founders and practitioners of the movement, while it is seen as derisive by other artists identified with the movement. I use the term “movement” because although there are many different branches of so-called Lowbrow art that could arguably be separate movements in and of themselves, they feed and influence each other in many meaningful ways, especially in terms of socio-economic distinctions and the favor of aesthetics over the conceptual or analytical. This main distinction renders the movement accessible to anyone that appreciates the particular aesthetics of the art and places more emphasis on enjoyment, and joy itself, than on inaccessible curatorial-speak and concepts that can only be interpreted by the initiated. “Lowbrow” as a movement is interesting because it takes on this term of derision as a badge of identity. There is a keen awareness of the loaded connotations involved with both the term itself and the glossy material that it presents as art. The movement operates from the premise that working class experience and culture should be recognized as art in the same way that the imagery from mainstream popular culture was recognized in the Pop art movement of the 20th century.
There are three, bordering on four, generations of Lowbrow artists to date. The first consists of the forbears of the movement, such as Robert Williams, who started making what is now recognizable as Lowbrow art in the early 1960s and '70s. The second generation are the artists who began to pick up this group of artists’ style and vision in the 1980s when they started to show at galleries in Los Angeles and, to a lesser degree, in New York. This generation was also heavily influenced by street art and graffiti, creating a massive crossover of street art and the comic-inspired Lowbrow art. The third generation are the artists who were inspired by Juxtapoz Magazine in the 1990s and have had relatively consistent financial success as of late. The fourth generation, which is still developing and cannot yet be completely defined, are the even younger artists born mostly in the 1980s and 1990s who grew up with Lowbrow art in their lives. These artists create Lowbrow-style work in classrooms at art schools, and aim for their art to appear in the pages of Juxtapoz in the same way many artists have fervently pursued publication in magazines such as Artforum. The academization of lowbrow art in studio programs is an issue that has not been addressed in-depth critically, as the movement is still seen as an illegitimate, and often non-existent, bastard by art critics, theorists, and historians. It is a difficult movement to write about since it is not a self-defined movement and there are many artists that are lumped into a lowbrow category against their will.
The name Lowbrow was coined by artist and Juxtapoz Magazine founder Robert Williams in reference to the fact that the material for this movement stems from “low” culture as opposed to “high” culture, such as hot-rod cars, comics and illustration, porn, graffiti and street art, tattoo art, carnival/sideshows, and more. The name first appeared in the title of his monograph, The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams, published in 1979. The term was later used in 1995 as a tagline on the cover of the second issue of Williams’ Juxtapoz Magazine: “lowbrow art d’elegance.” The Lowbrow movement is based on combining popular, understandable images from lowbrow culture with traditional oil painting in a figurative and representational style. It is also a blatantly commercial art form in the way that it addresses and embraces the role of commerce in its vision, which increases its accessibility to the masses and decreases its legitimacy to the blue-chip-minded art world.
While there are several strands of Lowbrow art and multiple inspirations and utilizations of lowbrow culture by the artists, the unifying thread that ties the movement together is a focus on the cultural material stemming from working classes and underground culture. The label “Pop Surrealism,” which has been embraced by many of the artists that can typically be lumped into the Lowbrow title, applies to a specific sub-branch of the movement that is largely oil-painting oriented and uses pop culture references in an often surreal fashion. Examples of Pop Surrealist artists that fit under the umbrella of Lowbrow are Mark Ryden, Ray Caesar, Alex Gross, Todd Schorr, Kathy Staico Schorr, and Marion Peck. All of these artists exhibit an inclination towards using disparate symbols and images from popular and working-class cultures to create random associations that are often absurdist in nature. But not all Lowbrow art has these specific characteristics or the historical attachment to the Surrealist movement, therefore it should not be called “Pop Surrealist.” For instance, artists Tim Biskup or Shag do not fit into the Pop Surrealist category: their work is almost completely based in illustration and design, another influence on, or branch of, the Lowbrow movement. Many Lowbrow artists have adopted the term Pop Surrealism to fit their work, even if it does not have surrealistic characteristics, mostly because it is the only popular alternative name for their art.
One of the most important practices of the movement is the transferring of comics or illustration to canvas in a traditional, figurative, and representational style, often using oil paints as a medium. Williams became interested in starting a movement based on these principles in the late 1960s. He built a small group of artists with the same principles and they dubbed themselves the Art Boys. Their main concern was the act of taking comics and images from lowbrow American culture and lifting them up to highbrow art status by putting them on a canvas in a technically enviable manner. The cultural influences on the first generation of Lowbrow art consisted of underground comics, hot-rod cars, tattoos, surfer art, and is generally not surrealistic in nature. Williams began creating paintings such as the seminal In the Land of Retinal Delights in the 1960s and had been working on underground comics at the time as well. Before Williams, however, there were predecessors who served as his main influences, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (b. 1932), Kenneth “Von Dutch” Howard (b. 1929), and his peer Robert Crumb (1943), who published Zap Comics out of San Francisco starting in 1968. Williams got his start in Roth’s studio in the mid-1960s, and also worked on hot rods with Von Dutch. It was the combination of these influences that spurred the young artists’ development of a Lowbrow movement.
Technically skilled, representational art was not in vogue at the time that Williams started transferring lowbrow images to canvas: the contemporary art scene was moving away from modernism and abstraction and into conceptually based movements that were focused more on discussing ideas than creating images. Twentieth-century art movements such as Dada deconstructed the definition of fine art, but mostly in the context of making “non-art” objects. Williams and his peers did want to make fine art. Williams remembers that picture-making, especially representational picture-making, was shunned in art schools and the gallery system, and it was the creation of images that particularly interested him. The artist studied at Los Angeles City College and the Chouinard Art Institute in Southern California in 1964, and says that his interest in representational art was strongly discouraged by the faculty. He longed to paint his beloved comics and California lowbrow images in a technically polished manner, but found little interest for it in the mainstream gallery or academic system. Fortunately, there were a large handful of like-minded artists on the West Coast who joined Williams in his quest to create a new movement. In the late 1970s he formed a small group called Art Boys, which included future Simpson’s TV series artist Matt Groening, comix legend The Pizz, Gary Panter, and Mike Kelley. All of the men shared Williams’ vision of taking underground comix and other “lowbrow” imagery and putting them on canvas, mostly with oil paints. The group’s initial art shows were more like parties, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that they started expanding into bigger gallery exhibitions, which were also more like art parties at first. John Pochna’s Zero One Gallery in Los Angeles was one of the first places that this group congregated, and it brought in many other artists practicing similar aesthetics, including Raymond Pettibon. Other galleries that opened in L.A. in the 1980s and became important proponents of Lowbrow art were the Tamara Bane Gallery, collector Billy Shire’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, and Zomo Art Space.
During the time that Roth’s studio was running full-force in California, Andy Warhol’s factory was building steam on the East Coast in New York City. The parallel development of traditional Lowbrow art and Pop art can be attributed to the mood of the times, which included a reaction to the consumerism of the 1950s, and also an awareness of each other’s work. Warhol had his first solo show at the Ferus Gallery in L.A. in 1962 at the same time that Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was forming his L.A.-based design studio, which was later likened to Warhol’s New York City-based factory. According to Roth, he began using pop iconography even before Andy Warhol when in an exhibition around 1960 he airbrushed a replica of a Lucky Lager beer can on a wall in the same way that Warhol would later paint Campbell’s Soup cans in 1962.
The underground comics movement was already well underway at this time, and the hot-rod custom car movement of the 1950s, led by artist Von Dutch, also jumpstarted the Lowbrow movement. The pop influences on these pre-Lowbrow movements were from “low,” working class and counter-culture pieces of Americana while on the East Coast, the Pop artists used mainstream advertising and images as their influence. The East Coast concept was based on replication, and copies without an original (or simulacra), as opposed to creating new images, such as Roth’s comic-based character Rat Fink, and bringing them into “high” or fine art. As Lowbrow scholar Matt Dukes Jordan states, “high-art pop artists create art that ironically and coolly reflects and critiques America’s commodified cultural environment…but instead of bouncing back images of consumer goods….[L]owbrow artists will pick up art from hot rods, pinup magazines,” etc. In other words, Lowbrow artists take specific types of lowbrow art and incorporate these images into high art, while Pop artists were more likely to place popular images in their paintings in order to create a critique of mass culture. Another major difference is that high-art movements were involved in various backlashes against Abstract Expressionism and modernism through conceptual art. Theory became heavily influential as did Duchampian modes of deconstructing the meaning of art. Conceptualism arose in the early ‘60s as a reaction against formalism, with artists such as Joseph Kosuth creating works that probed the meaning of art itself. The roots of Lowbrow art, however, were based in representation and exonerating formalistic qualities such as technical skill. It was not interested in raising questions or discussing theory but in play, humor, and visual pleasure.
After a gradual influx of small galleries that catered to the movement on the West Coast in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a community of Lowbrow artists, fans, collectors, and curators began to congeal into a solid and recognizable entity. The founding of Billy Shire’s Los Angeles gallery and shop La Luz de Jesus in 1986 was an important leap for the developing movement. The space contained, and still contains to this day, a professional gallery with curated shows and a massive shop containing relics of lowbrow Californian culture from the 1950s such as tiki gods and hot-rod toys. If a person could not afford an oil painting, they could have, for instance, a figurine that either inspired the painting or was designed by the artist and mass produced.
While comic figurines were popular in the United States starting in the mid 20th century, cartoon figurines of a different sort were also popular in Japan. Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, first drawn in 1974, revolutionized toy collecting and popular imagery in both Eastern and Western cultures, focusing on the super-cute rather than the American inclination towards the heroic. In the late ‘90s Hong Kong designer Michael Lau’s small vinyl toys gained popularity, starting what is now known as urban vinyl. Taking most of his influence from skateboarding, surfing, tattoos, and graffiti, Lau’s figures combined the popular kawaii or “cute” Japanese aesthetic with a more American street and urban feel. The phenomenon of kawaii culture in Japan and its influence on the Lowbrow art movement should not be underestimated. While Williams was creating more humorous and raunchy images at the start of the movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it is apparent that a shift in Lowbrow culture happened in the 90s concerning a “cuteness” factor. Takashi Murakami, the father of a similar Japanese Lowbrow movement he refers to as “Superflat,” influenced an entire generation of artists with his flatly-rendered, hyper colorful, cute paintings and toys that were inspired by Manga art and the kawaii sensibility that has become intrinsic to Japanese culture.
Manufacturers such as Toy2R in Hong Kong, and American manufacturer Kidrobot (founded in 2002) began taking blank figurines like the Qee, the Munny, and the Dunny and having Lowbrow, street, and graffiti artists in both Asia and the Americas put their custom designs on limited edition figures. The collectibles are a main component of Juxtapoz Magazine’s pages, which features new designer toys in every issue, and are often sold at Lowbrow art galleries. There have even been designer toy boutiques such as the Kidrobot store and Toy Tokyo that are entirely devoted to such art-related toy collections. Designer toys were a major factor in creating a community surrounding Lowbrow art. While there have been small pockets of Lowbrow artists and their devoted collectors for over two decades, it wasn’t until the introduction of urban vinyl that a larger audience began to build until Lowbrow art became a world-wide phenomenon. There are toy-trading parties in just about every major city in the world, which have introduced a vast majority of the Lowbrow artists through these toys. The extensive reach of Lowbrow art and culture through urban vinyl, Juxtapoz Magazine and other popular Lowbrow publications such as Shepard Fairey’s now-defenct Swindle Magazine, and the international rise of Lowbrow galleries shows the extensiveness of this movement and its proliferation through media and commerce.
One of the first major appearances of Lowbrow art in the mainstream art world was the 1992 group exhibition "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The artists included were mostly established artists with lowbrow influences such as Mike Kelley, but Williams was included in this major exhibition as his influence could not have been ignored. His inclusion was especially important since the artist such as Raymond Pettibon, who was in the show as well, began his career in L.A.’s “lowbrow” galleries. In 1993, artist and curator Craig Stecyk organized “Kustom Kulture: Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, Von Dutch, Robert Williams and Others” at the Laguna Art Museum, which also traveled to the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle. In 1994 Juxtapoz Magazine was birthed on the back of these two seminal exhibitions, with Stecyk listed on the masthead as photography director. It took a year to publish a second issue, and a year after that in 1996 to hire Jamie O’Shea, the first full-time copy editor. While the magazine had a following in California from the first couple of issues, it wasn’t until the late 90s and early 21st century that there was a mass audience reading the magazine. Today the magazine claims to have the highest circulation of any art-related magazine, although they do not give a number on their website. One source states that the number is around 127,000.
The artists that were profiled in the magazine between 1994 and 2000 were instrumental in shaping the current state of the movement. The work represented on the pages of Juxtapoz was diverse in its use of influences, style, and subject matter, although comics, illustration, and figuration were still at the core. Some of the art was based in street art, while other art was based in design. Towards the end of the 20th century, a hybrid of all of these styles began to appear in new artists’ work: spray paint was used in conjunction with clean lines and cartoon-based figures, tattoo graphics were mixed in with surrealistic landscapes. Even though there were, and are, still artists that follow one particular vein of Lowbrow influences, such as the artist Shag and his design-based work, a new identifiably “Lowbrow style” has arisen. Artist Camille Rose Garcia (b. 1970), who was vastly influenced by reading Juxtapoz magazine, is an artist that utilizes various elements of Lowbrow art to create her own version of Lowbrow paintings. Examples of other artists that could be placed in this category are Mars-1, Jeff Soto, Souther Salazar, Liz McGrath, and Clayton Brothers.
As Juxtapoz’s popularity rose in the late '90s, the practice of incorporating a wide variety of traits associated with Lowbrow into an individual style became increasingly popular. More galleries that catered specifically to the movement arose in California, and by 2001 curator Jonathan LeVine had opened his Pennsylvania gallery Tin Man Alley, which moved to Chelsea in 2005 and became the Jonathan LeVine Gallery. The rising popularity of Lowbrow art spawned a new generation of artists that converged around Juxtapoz, also influencing younger generations of art students at universities.
Street Art and You
Many pieces of the Lowbrow puzzle are interconnected with street art movements. While street art has a complex history that also touches on class issues, as well as race, I'm going to forewarn my readers that this is by no means an exhaustive account of street art as a whole. Many graffiti writers were based in New York City and graffiti's renaissance peaked during the late 1970s and the 1980s. While street art began as a separate movement from Lowbrow and on a different coast, the two eventually fed off each other and intermingled. A large number of galleries in New York City showed street artists in the 1980s and became a sizable trend and commodity in the fine art world. The street art movement and post-Juxtapoz era Lowbrow movement have become more entwined throughout the past fifteen years through the youth culture’s incorporation of “underground” aesthetics and practices into a recognizable combination of street and Lowbrow. Established graffiti artists such as Futura 2000 have crossed over to showing their work in Lowbrow galleries and have put their designs on products such as vinyl toys, which are a major part of the Lowbrow culture. Lowbrow artists, even those practicing a Pop Surrealist style, often use elements of street art such as spray paint and stencils in their paintings.
With the integration of street art into mass marketing and mainstream society, practitioners of graffiti art and culture have begun a process of self-interrogation and exploration. What initially began as an assertion of existence by a minority became a pervasive medium to which a multitude of audiences have an increasing amount of access. Graffiti is now used widely as an advertising tool by major corporations and is practiced by a multitude of art students that are deeply married to the ivory towers of academic art. Graffiti and street artists straddle the line between subversion and convention as they juxtapose illegal activity, fine art, and the creation of a commodity. New forms of street art are increasingly created by students coming out of art institutions and the halls of academia, who have lived the majority of their lives in suburban privilege. Through comparing the work of historical, or traditional, street artists next to emerging, street-to-shelf artists, we can explore issues that address not only the direction of street art, but also the whole of contemporary art and its relation to commodity.
The formation of graffiti as a culture in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with the rise of hip-hop and new forms of expression concentrated in New York City’s black and Hispanic communities. The movement consisted mostly of disadvantaged youth who were staking their claim to importance and recognition in a world where they were repeatedly dismissed and ignored. Graffiti tags asserted the writer’s existence as an attempt to shed their perceived invisibility. Placed on subway cars, trains, and the walls of buildings, the signatures and images projected the hopes, dreams, and personalities of both the individual and the community. A representation of identity, the illegal markings insisted on being seen, pervading neighborhoods outside their own and reaching a large audience. Graffiti writing was rooted in an anti-establishment sensibility, with a finished product that was not for sale and the artist’s knowledge that the work was temporary. The transience of tags and bombs, due to their likely erasure or “buff” by the city or building owner, lent an authenticity to the intentions of the movement and the artists themselves.
Throughout the ‘90s, graffiti became increasingly popular among American youth, counter-culture movements, and “hip” adults as well. The advertising industry and large corporations began to catch on to the growing trend, and started hiring artists to create graffiti-style ads. This co-optation was diluted in measure partly because of the fact that graffiti writers had been appropriating the tools of advertising and the media from the beginning of the movement. Graffiti, after all, is mostly an advertisement for the writer.
It wasn’t until around the time that graffiti and street culture reached its twentieth birthday that advertisers and the media began appropriating graffiti’s style and image to sell their products. A prime example of this phenomenon are the billboards that artist Kaws (b. 1974) tagged, most notably the Captain Morgan billboard at the end of the Lincoln Tunnel in 1993. The Captain Morgan Company later retaliated by creating a graffiti-style billboard advertising their product, thus co-opting an already co-opted guerilla tactic and utilizing the aesthetic as a source for street credibility.
Numerous graffiti artists tag or plaster over billboards as a way to disseminate their name and message while at the same time the amount of companies that utilize graffiti to sell their product has been growing exponentially. Over the past decade especially, a number of well-known, traditional graffiti artists have undertaken projects for major clients. Most notable is the example of TATS CRU, a Bronx-based crew consisting of ten artists who have ceased illegal tagging in favor of commercial work. The group’s break from creating subversive street art to sanctioned street murals and advertisements has generated disdain from artists who still practice the medium traditionally (illegally) as TATS CRU used to in the 1970s and 1980s. Corporations such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Hummer have commissioned large murals that were placed on building facades on the street as opposed to on billboards or posters. This guerilla advertising began by being strategically marketed to minority demographics, with its focalization in New York in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Now as New York City gentrifies as a whole, graffiti and street art has become a selling-point that realtors use to attract young professionals to their neighborhoods. The war between authentic and inauthentic graffiti continues on the street amongst artists. An advertisement TATS CRU painted for the Hummer in Brooklyn was “defaced” by taggers with phrases such as “sell out,” “sham,” and “no blood for oil,” begging the question of whether or not the tags added or subtracted from the ad’s authenticity and street credibility. The crew responds to criticism from their peers by insisting that a situation where artists are able to support themselves from making art is always positive. The argument for authenticity and selling-out is often divided amongst lines of class in the street art community. From my personal experience, it is (ironically) the suburban-raised, more financially privileged artists that rally for the idealized notion that graffiti artists should not make money from their art and the artists that are fighting for basic survival, like rent and food, that look for ways to “sell-out” and make a living from their art. Making money from your art in an “authentic” and critically-sanctioned environment is a privilege that most artists without an academic or financially secure background do not have the luxury of persuing.
Another famous example of a graffiti artist creating for a large advertising campaign is that of Cope2’s (b. 1968) poster for Time Magazine in SoHo in 2005. The artist reportedly received over $20,000 compensation for tagging the billboard that asks, “Post-Modernism? Neo-Expressionism? Just Vandalism? Time. Know Why.” According to the artist, he paid his dues in the graffiti world by spending well over two decades illegally tagging New York City, not to mention doing time in prison for vandalism. These days Cope2 says he should receive financial compensation for his art, as do many other legends of his generation. The artist has also published a 272-page book outlining his career as well as designed sneakers for Keds, among other ventures, most of which are booked through his manager.
The infamous Futura 2000 (b. 1955), who has been involved with the graffiti art scene since its inception in the 1970s, is not only considered a forefather, but an innovator that thinks outside of the traditional boundaries of street art as well. The artist was one of the first well-known writers in New York and was also one of the first to break away from particular conventions of graffiti writing, such as a focus on lettering. Through a utilization of more abstract forms and composition, paired with the use of an airbrush combined with the traditional can of spray paint, Futura is often assessed as being a main influence in the cross-over of graffiti into the realm of design and fine art. In the early nineties he began to collaborate with the record label Mo’ Wax designing album covers in a partnership that continues today. This visibility brought him a plethora of commercial ventures, including design-based work for various apparel companies. These days he is involved with more design, fine art, and creating his own music than illegal tagging. His limited edition vinyl toys as well as his work on collectible blank figures such as the Munny, Dunny, and Qee, are another of Futura’s recent foci. Graffiti will always be a part of the aesthetic, mindset, and culture that his work grew from, but his art practices have evolved over the past thirty years, as can be expected by any fine artist.
Kaws, whose illegal tags appeared on Captain Morgan, Molson Ice, and numerous other billboards in the New York City area, has also crossed over from a guerilla style to more commercially and socially sanctioned work. He is now known more for his designer toys, figures, and illustration-based work than for the tags that began his career. Almost completely focusing on design, Kaws recently opened the Tokyo-based store OriginalFake which sells toys, apparel, and accessories that he has designed.
The concept of artists, particulary “urban” artists, paying their dues and thus being able to make money from their art in commercial ventures, has even been adopted by event planners selling the experience of street art to corporations and private clients. As a full disclosure, I am one of these art-event planners and have hired graffiti artists to paint murals for my wealthy clients’ events, thus employing my friends that needed to make money from their art and allowing my clients and their friends to experience a culture that they are not a part of for a short window of time. Myself and the artists are keenly aware of the clients’ fetishization of our urban culture and starving-artist status and take ownership of our role in the event, hopefully having a cultural exchange that we benefit financially from and do not walk away feeling violated by the unavoidable power dynamic that takes place between wealthy patrons and artists.
Most recently, the German car company Audi planned a fete in Los Angeles called #PaidMyDues that curated 15 “urban” style artists’ work and integrated them into a promotional event used to rebrand Audi as cool and hip. The organizers anticipated the criticism of appropriating urban culture to promote their brand as well as anticipating and speaking to, backlash from other artists, thus embracing the concept of artists being able to make money from their art in whatever capacity they deem fit. The title of the event was like a preemptive middle finger to nay-sayers at the same time as an invitation for discussion. It is easy for events like this to illicit excitement at the same time as uneasiness from street artists attempting to make a living from their art. The reason that street art and Lowbrow art as a whole fits so well with and is used by marketing endeavors.
Over the years, graffiti art and culture have become enmeshed with new branches of related artistic styles and genres. A strand of the Lowbrow movement involves the integration of graffiti art and street culture with illustration, design, and traditional oil painting. While graffiti, tagging, and train writing grew out of the East Coast and New York City metropolitan area, the Lowbrow scene originated on the West Coast in California. Both movements were based on a more subversive, anti-establishment sentiment and they grew into an intentional commoditization of their art. The intersection of the two movements is their analogous core concept of accessibility to the art that they present, whether it is through public display, creating affordable products, or making a product that is easily understood.
In the case of street graffiti, historically the artists not only created for each other, but also for any and all passersby. Often targeted to the community where they originated, the art addresses issues of community and the lack of accessibility to what is considered “fine art.” Scholar Sarah Giller points out in her essay, “Graffiti: Inscribing Transgression on the Urban Landscape,” that, “[a] survey conducted by the NEA in 1982 suggests that out of those questioned, 10% of blacks, 18% of Latinos, and 24% of whites attended an art exhibition in the last twelve months. Perhaps more striking, 89% of Latinos surveyed and 84% of African-Americans surveyed had never taken an art appreciation class (in comparison to 79% of whites).” Therefore, art on the streets also serves as an attempt to counteract the lack of accessibility and experience of art in communities that were/are often deprived of such privilege.
The Lowbrow movement is also extremely aware of and focused on accessibility to art, but it is mainly approached from a consumerist standpoint. While many of the artists belonging to this genre are involved in acts of street art and graffiti, the main focus tends to be design-oriented work that is easily transferable to such low-culture items as T-shirts, watches, wallets, and other accessories. In theory, anyone can afford to own a piece of Lowbrow art since the prices range from a few dollars to several thousand dollars.
The creation of a hyper-commodity in combination with an art object is not a new concept. Eminent Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has created a brand-name empire, transferring his “Superflat” art to a multitude of ownable art objects including the ultra-popular Louis Vuitton multicolor handbags. Keith Haring, famous for his subway-drawings in the 1980s, opened a store in downtown Manhattan in 1986 named the Pop Shop, where he sold T-shirts, bags, buttons, and a large selection of affordable collectables to the public. Haring’s concept in creating the Pop shop was to make his art and designs available and affordable to a wider public. Murakami and Haring, of course, were following in the footsteps of artists such as Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, both of whom propagated the union of high and low arts in relation to commoditized culture.
Artists Shepard Fairey (b. 1970) and Craola (b. 1975) both straddle the line between street artist and designer, graffiti artist and Lowbrow gallery artist. Fairey, in particular, has advanced from his famous OBEY posters and stickers to an empire of artistic commercial ventures, including the 2008 presidential campaign for Barack Obama. The intention of the OBEY GIANT campaign is to foster consumer and viewer awareness of advertising through similar propaganda images and tactics. In its essence, the campaign is consciously hypocritical since Fairey is essentially creating his own fiscally successful empire out of a dissent to capitalism, legality, and the status quo while at the same time using capitalism as a tool to promote his art and integrate it into the status quo. Nonetheless, Fairey’s art has garnered an internationally audience that is tied to the counterculture and a message of dissent.
The intersection of graffiti and Lowbrow art, along with the commercialization of street art, has been slowly but surely merging the act of graffiti into capitalist ventures and out of its original intention as an act of transgression. The debate continues as to whether the positive aspects of the commoditization of graffiti art outweigh the negative, and as to whether the aesthetic itself has been tarnished by its association with commercialism. Lowbrow artist Gary Baseman, who has won three Emmy awards for his Disney’s TV series, Teacher’s Pet, insists that selling within the mass-culture system does not need to mean selling out. The artist coined the term Pervasive Art regarding the phenomenon of art that is widely distributed in numerous forms. Baseman’s philosophy is that if an artist sticks to his or her aesthetic and does not compromise their message, then the art that they create, in all its forms, is not bastardized.
The transformation of street art into a more design-oriented, market-driven art is consistent with the overall direction of New York City, and Manhattan in particular. With the last vestiges of underground and subversive culture being overtaken by luxury condos and the ever-persistent yuppies, hipsters, and trustafarians, graffiti-based movements are belonging more and more to realm of gentrification.
The delineation between graffiti-art and art-graffiti has deepened exponentially as many new artists who work in a graffiti style increasingly have never worked on the streets. Or, they work on the streets as an act of novelty and self-promotion in an attempt at art-stardom within the confines of the white cube.
Breaking it Down
“Even the great revolt is enslaving.”—Robert Williams, Rubberneck Manifesto
Like street art, Lowbrow art is based on the principle of equal access and visibility. While art sprayed and plastered on the city street might be free (and illegal, therefore retaining “cred”), it has become a piece of nostalgia because of the aforementioned use of graffiti as a marketing strategy for corporations, and a kind of style sheet for fine artists. The shift of the underground to way-above-ground meant that the idea of accessibility had to be rethought. Instead of rallying against the ruling capitalist system, Lowbrow artists took cues from the high-art infrastructure by creating their own galleries, printing shops, publishing companies, design firms, and stores. The cross-over of street artists and Lowbrow artists meant that their shared sense of counter-culture and accessibility could combine to create a new definition of democratic, urban-identified art.
It is difficult to discuss Lowbrow art in the language of art criticism and theory, particularly because it is not a movement based in the mainstream art world, but rather exists, by choice, outside of the contemporary “high” art world. That does not mean to say that Lowbrow art isn’t fine art. In fact, the opposite is true: its intentional use of high-art mediums, such as oil painting, immediately gives it access to a long tradition of fine art. The term lowbrow should only be used to describe the cultural influences of the movement, not the end products created.
The other reason that art of the Lowbrow movement has not been critically assessed in depth is because it is a movement that emphasizes visual pleasure rather than intellectual or analytical assessments. “Aside from Robert Williams’ editorial copy, Juxtapoz [Magazine] has lacked critical dialogue” and emphasis has been placed on the intellectual accessibility of the art. Lowbrow magazines such as Juxtapoz are, “written in a conversational style,” rather than in an academic tone. In Robert Williams’ introduction to the Summer 1996 issue of the magazine he states, “We don’t care. It’s not a matter of good or bad. ‘Good or bad’ is over. It is now a matter of relative interests, the energy and pleasure (or pain) you get from interests relative to you.”
While Lowbrow art is based on visual pleasure and not whether it has been ordained by critics or “the establishment,” the shunning of critical dialogue has led to some really boring, highly derivative work to be created. This lack of interest in dialogue means that articles published by Lowbrow-affiliated writers have been acts of sheer cheerleading. It is my particular view that when art is engaged critically and challenged, more interesting art tends to be created. While it is inevitable for any movement to eventually degrade and congeal into a style (i.e. Abstract Expressionism was a movement, but pieces are now made “the the style of” abstract expressionism), I believe that the diversity of styles and voices that contribute to the branches of the Lowbrow movement have the potential to keep this movement healthy for a much longer period of time than is “normal” for high-art movements, especially with the addition of critical dialogue.
In an interview I conducted with artist Thomas Woodruff, who is the chair of the Illustration and Cartooning Department at the School of Visual Arts, he echoed these concerns of creative stagnation in figurative and illustrative art. Woodruff, who does not consider himself a part of the movement but is often lumped into the category of “Lowbrow artist,” speaks more frankly than I have seen written in any discussions about the movement. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Woodruff says, he brings up some important criticisms that I have also discussed in my reviews of Lowbrow exhibitions. For instance, the commercial and financial success of the Lowbrow market has meant the creation of a Lowbrow style, or formula, which when simplified I have called, “an overload of tattoo-style swallows, five-point stars, poster-style letters and spray-paint drips.” Throw in a girl with large, sad eyes and you have a stereotypical Lowbrow painting. I’m sure the founders of this movement never intended the creation of Juxtapoz to result in boring, predictable art. But when any movement has relative commercial success, it becomes appropriated by imitators, homogenized by the market, and consumed by consumerism.
A positive aspect of the commerciality of Lowbrow art is its inherently accessible nature. While on one hand it is a movement based on the “high” tradition of oil painting, it is also a movement based on affordable art. Since the illustrative style of the art makes it perfect for replication, it can transfer easily to everyday items, and collectibles, that are available to a wider economic range of connoisseurs. Rather than associating commerce solely with a degradation of art’s ability to stay pure and free of financial interference, it should be evaluated realistically. Commerce and art DO go hand-in-hand, even in the high art world. Denial of the fact that art is a product to be bought and sold is like denying the man behind the curtain. As Lowbrow artist Ron English stated in a survey that he completed to be used in my thesis, “The only people who aren’t interested in commerce are people with trust funds.” In society’s present infrastructure artists need money to create; and why shouldn’t they be fiscally compensated for their creations?
Lowbrow art is at least transparent in its commitment to commerciality. Part of its transparency comes from the fact that it is a movement based on beauty, on visual pleasure, and therefore obviously sellable. Artist/writer Bill Beckley’s compiled essays in his book Uncontrollable Beauty on the apparent taboo on beauty that has pervaded contemporary art to a certain extent over the past few decades. In his essay in the anthology, critic Dave Hickey states that “[b]eauty has become associated with the corrupt old market,” and that within contemporary art there is a, “[s]imple gripe: beauty sells.” Perhaps this is why the Lowbrow movement has received hardly any critical attention and little to no respect in the mainstream contemporary art world. Hickey ties commerce to beauty, and beauty to a democratic access to art, just as Lowbrow artists often do, whether intentionally or not. “Yet the vernacular of beauty, in its democratic appeal, remains a potent instrument for change in this civilization.”
The other side to the “beauty is good and democratic” argument is that some criticize Lowbrow art as simply unintelligent. Woodruff stated in my interview, “I just wish [Lowbrow art] was a little smarter…you can be amused by it like a child with a mobile above their basinet, but …most Low Brow artists aren’t doing anything except for the shiny mobile.” I believe it is true that many Lowbrow artists have fallen into a trap of creating “pretty” just to sell, but at the same time there is an argument to be made in support of creating art for the sake of beauty. The Lowbrow movement might not have dense theoretical writings associated with it, but that does not mean it is completely without thought or purpose. A movement that focuses on visual pleasure, beauty, and accessibility is still a movement that has values, intent, and ideas. Williams outlines these values and ideas in his “Rubberneck Manifesto”:
But there exists another facet and he is where I state my dictum, this is the act of simply being attracted to something visually, base curiosity! The purest form of art is to give way to simple visual interest. To look at what you find yourself driven to see. Higher notions of art tend to confine art with lofty moral restrictions. When art is passed off as a quasi-religion which can only be administered and interpreted by a special-order of priestly elites, the system invariably stifles imagination.
Of course, I do have to acknowledge the problems that arise from the saturated Lowbrow market just as I would acknowledge these problems in the mainstream, “high” art world. By completely condemning critical analysis and the notion of an expert, Williams ends up opening his movement to the creative stagnation which he was originally fighting against.
There are examples of Lowbrow artists that address sociopolitical issues in their work rather than just painting pretty pictures. Camille Rose Garcia, for example, considers herself a sociopolitical artist, with some of her focuses being the evils of the pharmaceutical industry and environmental concerns. Her paintings are still like candy-colored crack for the imagination, but there are also tangible issues being addressed at the same time as being available for the appreciation of beautiful images.
The art establishment still doesn’t quite know what to do with most street-influenced Lowbrow artists. A recent review in the New York Times of his first museum survey at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art essentially dismissed Shephard Fairey because the blur between commercial and fine art has been done before in the Pop Art movement. In the few attempts critics have made at discussing work stemming from Lowbrow movements, there has been a disregard for the much larger art historical context that includes the history of lowbrow art and not just the history of high art movements. Critical discussion of Lowbrow art has also been limited by viewing it through the same lens with which one would view “high” art, which includes the hysterical routine of ignoring the man behind the curtain (art is a commodity to be sold).
Critic Ken Johnson, who I respect as a former teacher and as an art critic, makes a huge error that reveals a generation gap in stating that Fairey’s “street cred has been worn out by his all-too-successful commercial ventures.” Maybe twenty years ago this would have been true, but just about every major, respected street artist has partaken in commercial endeavors by now. The notion of “selling out” no longer has the same impact on one’s street credibility; nowadays, it’s seen more and more as “selling in.” Statements such as Johnson’s unfortunately reaffirm what critic Jerry Saltz described to me in a personal conversation as a huge disconnect in the minds of his generation of art critics with this movement: they just don’t “get” it.
But really, it’s not just a generation gap: that’s not fair to the over-40 crowd that actually does understand Lowbrow art and its role in contemporary art. It boils down to a fine art establishment that is so engrossed in what has been sanctioned by the powers-that-be in Chelsea, Art in America, Artforum, et al, that work being shown outside of their immediate and comfortable sphere does not count as high art, no matter how fiscally successful or massively recognizable it may be. This seems to be one of Fairey’s main points in his work: even after the success and acceptance of artists like Warhol and Barbara Kruger, the art cognoscenti still have a hard time placing commercial, design-oriented, Lowbrow art on the same level as fine art because of its accessibility to the masses and overtly commercial nature. Art that doesn’t need to be explained by curatorialese and encased in verbose art-language is dismissed as too dumb to be high art.
Post-Juxtapoz Lowbrow art is essentially fine art that is transparent about its commerciality. The movement has a historical background, a specific source of inspiration (lowbrow Californian culture mixed with street art and sometimes surrealism/realism), and a strong intent: to raise specific “lower” art and images from commercial realms to the status of fine art. The question now is whether this fiscally successful and popular movement should be recognized by the established, “high” art world. With more and more Lowbrow, Pop Surrealist, and Street artists being picked up and represented by blue-chip galleries (Banksy, Fairey, and Mark Ryden, for instance) it is hard to delineate high art from low art, highbrow from lowbrow, and Lowbrow as a movement.
I am mostly interested in promoting critical discussion of Lowbrow art because of my background in art history. The movement’s place in art history, and in academic portrayals of art history, are going to be determined by what is written about this type of art. Often it seems that outsider artists are only outsiders until they are recognized by the mainstream art world. Upon recognition, their work turns into a genre of “outsider art,” a term which has lost much of its value in the past couple decades. “We have pillaged subcultures and plundered the avant-garde for so long…nothing could be more empty than [the word] ‘underground,’ a space and place long ago colonized and commodified beyond recognition…” If underground art is essentially a misnomer, and Lowbrow art is far too popular to be considered underground, then is it now merely a fine art movement that has maintained an intentional separation from the mainstream art world and will, therefore, not receive what I think is its proper place in art history? It is my hope that more academic writing will be generated about this movement and as the power in ivory towers transfers from one generation to the next, Lowbrow art will be included in critical and art historical dialogue.
In my eight years studying art history and art criticism, I was always astounded by not only the reluctance, but the sheer defiance of my professors to even involve themselves or their students in discourse on this movement. My master’s thesis on Lowbrow art at the School of Visual Arts’ Art Criticism and Writing program was ultimately rejected as not being academic enough and I never received my degree partly because of my audacity to write about Lowbrow art and define it as a movement. I find this sad for personal reasons, of course, but also for academic reasons. It was interesting to see the high emotions and heavy resistance to entertaining even the idea of discourse around this subject amongst my professors. Many even lashed out at me personally, inferring that my love of commercial art meant that I was a wealthy conservative championing corporate greed and thus flying in the face of their beloved socialist-minded theoretical art. “Their” art, even though sold for millions of dollars, was created for purportedly pure, high-minded reasons that had nothing to do with money. To them, for art to be ethical, money had to be an unfortunate bi product of the act of creation. A movement that was openly OK with money and commerce was filthy, wrong, and not “real” art.
I was confused by these debates that ensued up in our ivory tower, especially since Lowbrow galleries were like the poor, redneck, ghetto cousins of the high-earning high-brow artists that were seen as the creators of culture while the critics and historians, safely earning their salaries in institutions, were the protectors of culture. Lowbrow/Pop Surrealism/Street Art was met with a roll of the eyes and a cluck of the tongue like the drunk coworker at a holiday party. I can hear the voices of my friends reading this right now yelling, "fuck them! we don't need them," and all the other defiant crap we tend to throw around when we're feeling discarded, but I want to reserve a place in the art history books for this movement. If you ask me, even with its fragmented and complicated branches it is still the most identifiable and cohesive movement of the past several decades. The rest of contemporary art just looks like a mish-mash of random appropriation to me, with a large percentage being a conceptual circle-jerk for the initiated. Lowbrow might be headed towards becoming a genre or style, but at least it is identifiable as something of its own and accessible to everyone.