there is 1 post from September 1996

September 24, 1996

Genius Envy

In the go-go days of the ’80s art market, it seemed as if any old stockbroker with a creative streak and a penchant for self-promotion could have been crowned “King Midas of SoHo.” In fact, one of them was. Back in, say, 1983, when Saturday afternoon gallery strollers encountered a ready-made, plexiglass-encased vacuum cleaner courtesy of Jeff Koons, they usually had the same, amazed, open-mouthed reaction: “I could have done that.”

Unlike Warhol and Duchamp before him, Koons wasn’t out to infuse everyday objects like soup cans and blonde movie stars with extraordinary meaning. Instead, Koons was interested in eliminating meaning - parodying shiny things by making them even shinier. By proclaiming himself the “most written-about artist in the world,” Koons became the ultimate art world parodist. Only by crowning himself King of Pop could he skewer the other King of Pop.

More than a decade on, today’s parodists know that those who can, do, while those who can’t, redo. Still, they must ache for the life that Koons enjoyed - wine-soaked gallery openings, ArtForum covers, an Italian porn star for a wife. But, since the bottom fell out of the art market just around, say, October 1987, the parodists of today can’t hope to enjoy Koons-like riches. Instead, they’re stuck with nonprofit art spaces - where society types masquerade as curators - or the web. Thanks to the brass ring of press coverage and ad banners, most choose the latter. These days it’s easy for a young, budding parodist to get hooked on the illicit thrill of digital caricature. Combine a need to blow off some work-induced stress with the common desire to surf a bastardized version of the corporate web site, and boom - the Zippy the Pinhead active filter appears. It’s the equivalent of that first hit of reefer for the kid in the schoolyard. It’s safe, it’s easy, and if their hand eye coordination is good enough, Alt-Tabbing away when the boss walks by will be just as natural as palming the smoking joint when the wrestling coach spotted them behind the high school gym.

Eventually, they’ll turn to stronger stuff and need to steal to support their habit. The standard web browser’s View Source command is the Saturday Night Special of the web. Sure, HTML is easy as hell, but outright robbery is a hell of a lot easier. Armed with a browser, all one needs to jumpstart a web counterfeiting career is some free time and a web server.

And maybe a C-note for a domain name. Case in point: everyone’s favorite web whipping post, Slate, spawned two ripoffs, Stale and Stall. Both swiped layout and images. Both took cheap shots at the khakied ones from the northwest. But Stale had the $100 for “,” and won the publicity contest hands down.

Sure, your mother told you never to judge a book by its cover. But on the web, image is everything. If the game were based on what’s actually beyond the URL, Stall would be the obvious nominee for the Parody Pulitzer. In the book review category, Stall’s review of Kathy Acker, My Mother, where “250 pages of the book are blank” smartly appeals to the postliterate in all of us. Stale, on the other hand, tries to combine the worst of a decade-old Wendy’s ad with Upton Sinclair in “Where’s the Beef, Inspector?” Nevertheless, Stale wins the ad banners, while Stall languishes with obscure-joke banners.

Stale better watch their back, because sometimes the grandest plans of a parodist backfire. After all, who’s not to say that Stall couldn’t reinvent itself as a parody of Stale? The more likely scenario, however, is that the “Oprah syndrome” takes over, and the cult of the victim (in this case, Kinsley) grows over time. In New York, a mediocre subway mugging transformed an ordinary commuter into the “legendary” Bernard Goetz. On the web, The Squat helped catapult The Spot from just another Southern California soap opera to Cool Site of the Year. If Microsoft were smart, it would acquire both Stale and Stall, set up alternate production staffs, and reap the ad revenue from all three.

Don’t laugh - metaparody’s been done. Some of the web’s more jaundiced parodists have found that the thrill of vandalizing the unsuspecting mark dulls after a while, and instead turn sights on themselves. On the one hand, it’s a way of keeping one step ahead of the pack, of outparodying the parodists. On the other hand, or with the other hand, it’s a bit autoerotic. Sure, it may feel good for a while, but eventually you’ll just go blind. It used to be that high-profile crimes required high-profile tools - automatic weapons, getaway cars, Swiss bank accounts - and thus limited the number of people that could actually pull them off. But on the web, with such easy access to the weapons of choice - browsers, text editors, Paint Shop Pro - the work of the Way New Parodists seems to elicit an oddly familiar response: “I could have done that.”

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