Art in the Age of Libidinal Desire, or Return Critical to Political Art

Pop-Departures-Seattle-Art-Museum-Voorhies-250pxEssay for exhibition catalogue Pop Departures
Published by Seattle Art Museum in association Yale University Press

Now Is Our Time is the title of a video made in 2011 by the Portland-based advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy as part of Levi’s global campaign “Go Forth.”1 The video begins with a series of shots of a young woman. Arms reaching toward the sky, she wears a black-feathered cape and stands on a ledge overlooking Paris, a city revered for its revolutionary spirit. The figure is reminiscent of a modern-day Nike of Samothrace, long admired as a symbol for struggle and perseverance. A swift succession of shots follow: close-ups of legs clad in denim and feet stomping across cobblestones; crimson smoke waffling over a street; a young man dressed completely in dark denim confronting a barricade of riot police. Rapturous images of young, beautiful people dancing, swimming, and kissing—accompanied by a seductive musical score and an assured male voice reciting a poem by Charles Bukowski—sweep the video into its final crescendo where viewers are solemnly reminded: “the gods wait to delight in you.”2 Now Is Our Time is frenetic, titillating, and libidinal. It gives the impression of an unstoppable youth culture on the verge of achieving something important. That, at least, is what Levi’s wants us to believe¾to sense and to feel.

Visual marketing to mass consumers is what pop art originally responded to in the 1950s and 1960s. We know the artists: Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Martha Rosler. They co-opted the glitz, finesse, color, editorial savvy, and zeal of mass advertising to make the marketing strategies their own. And they did it as part of an underlying critique of consumer culture and its influence on a rapidly changing world. Their work had political efficacy because they utilized the very form under scrutiny to destabilize it. How does art today retain political traction when corporations like Levi’s take up the mission “to create positive change in the world” on their own terms and with “consumer sentiment” in mind?3 In this particular case, visual marketing co-opts the aesthetics of protest culture, using the appearance of what is widely believed to be political art for its own capital gain and consumer audience. And the contemporary viewer is now more sophisticated precisely because of our familiarity with visual culture like the Levi’s commercial. Our ability to synthesize complex intersections of commodity, media, and political culture has become too advanced for artists to believe that simply juxtaposing representations of war, chaos, and consumerism has the political capacity to create social change.

What is to be done? That’s hardly answerable here; yet something different needs to be done, something that reframes the common experience of the spectator so that art continues to be a place to rethink the political, to shift perspectives. The situation calls for artists and institutions to create and support art that reflects the uncertainty and challenges of our contemporary life, an art that responds differently, just as pop art once did. The situation calls for art and exhibitions to be something other than what they are, for a belief that they don’t have to be done like that. Criticality is not achieved by making work that looks political. As French philosopher Jacques Rancière astutely reminds us: “The main enemy of artistic creativity as well as of political creativity is consensus¾that is, inscription within given roles, possibilities, and competences.”4

In other words, yes, now is our time to do it differently.

1 The video has been viewed on Levi’s YouTube channel by more than 3,700,000 people as of April 2, 2014, uploaded to numerous other sites, and televised in North America, Europe, and Asia. Levi’s stores had corresponding in-store and window displays with the words “Now” “Is” “Our” “Time” on separate black placards placed behind mannequins wearing Levi’s apparel.

2 The poem is “The Laughing Heart” (1996).

3 “Levi’s Legacy,” Wieden+Kennedy,

4 In “Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Artforum, March 2007.