Gaga over Warhol

By Vanessa Thorp

Lady Gaga has conquered the pop world and now, as she unleashes new music, she's trying to be taken seriously in the art world too. Vanessa Thorp examines her chances

High-concept pop maverick, Lady Gaga.
High-concept pop maverick, Lady Gaga.

The message is crystal clear: do not buy Lady Gaga's latest album or download tracks because she is "over" and "no longer relevant".

Many will be happy to obey, but it's not quite that simple. The clarity of the instruction is undermined by the fact that it is Gaga herself who is telling her audience to chuck her over in favour of something new.

Her promotional trailer for the album Artpop is not the first to deploy reverse psychology in the marketplace, but the flamboyant New York singer could well be the first to bill her campaign as the birth of a new artistic movement. Citing the work of pop artist Andy Warhol, Gaga, 27, is setting out "to alter the human experience with social media" and to "bring art culture into pop in a reverse Warholian expedition".

So what exactly is she asking fans to sign up to? An early clue came last week when Gaga, who has already sold 23 million albums, was forced to release Applause, the first single from the album, a week early after it was leaked online.

Gaga, born Stefani Germanotta, quickly put out a "pop music emergency" tweet to her millions of followers before taking to the streets of Manhattan, with her face painted, to promote the track. Far from a disaster then, since her perverse advertising push for the album was under way, and she will sing the song live at the MTV Music Awards on Monday (Sunday in the United States).

This will be her first performance following hip surgery in February, and the first time fans will see her newly reduced body shape. Unusually, the Gaga body has been more in focus than the Gaga wardrobe this summer because of a series of nude photo sessions for the next cover of US fashion journal V Magazine, and work with the avant-garde Serbian artist Marina Abramovic.

It's all part of a concerted association with the art world that is to be clinched next month with the launch of a social media app that seeks "to make connections between music, art, fashion and technology".

True, you could argue these connections are already there, but these will be Gaga's own connections, fabricated in her bespoke Haus of Gaga workshop. Her team promises to "explode on to the physical and virtual universe" with the album, which will announce a new age, "an age where art drives pop, and the artist once again is in control of the icon".

Cynics may wonder whether the move towards a legitimate art-world platform is simply a strategy to refresh the Gaga brand. And yet the connection with Pop Art has credibility, not only because of her ironic epigrams about "lying profusely" in interviews, or her preoccupation with fame (her bestselling debut album of 2008 was called The Fame), but because she has picked up on abiding themes in the work of Warhol, the artist who once said: "Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art."

The movement known as Pop Art began in Britain in the mid-50s, but was taken to the heart of New York's art scene by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol, who wanted to steer culture away from its association with elite groups.

Irony and kitsch became central elements, as did highlighting the methods by which art was being reproduced for the masses. As a well-heeled Manhattan student, the young Gaga's thesis was on the art of Damien Hirst and the New York-based photographer Spencer Tunick.

The influential Tunick has said he approved of the singer's use of her "phenomenal success".

"Any time there is a new perception within the mass culture, there is growth and enlightenment. Whether it's through museums, mass media and, in Lady Gaga's case, music, the inclusion of depth and art into a viral expressive mass outlet like pop music is invaluable in the expansion of new ideas. Hats off to Lady Gaga."

Tunick said Gaga's involvement would "bring a new perception or an experience of the avant-garde to a mass audience: "Any artistic intervention into the masses will only move societies in borderline conservative countries to have more acceptance towards human rights issues, women's rights and artistic freedom. Art cannot change the world within a bubble. It takes artists like Warhol, Koons and Abramovic to make strong waves of change in conservative societies."

Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller also sees Gaga's creative ambitions as entirely acceptable, even necessary. "She's not Warhol. He was a genius who was consistently blank rather than outrageous. But she is doing exactly what she should be doing as a pop star, looking at everything that has happened in the 20th century and now, in the digital era."

If people are outraged, that is in the pop tradition, he argues: "It's about being provocative, and a lot of contemporary art is also about pushing boundaries and innovation. You end up remembering those who did it first." He admires Gaga, he says, for building a community among her fans, who are known as Little Monsters to her Mother Monster. "She nurtures them rather than just communicates."

Pop music's links to the avant-garde date back to its birth and were solemnised when Yoko Ono married John Lennon. More recently, while the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has recorded a rock track, Abramovic has worked with Jay-Z. Gaga first talked of working with the performance artist in 2010 and has just made a Kickstarter video to raise funds for a centre for the practice of Abramovic's patented exercises, designed to train artists for physical endurance.

"She is a hardcore student," she said of Gaga. "I had to blindfold her, and she was in the forest for three hours, eaten by mosquitoes and spiders, scratched by the bushes. It was quite incredible."

Gaga has also worked with the Canadian artist Terence Koh, performing together in Tokyo to an ecstatic, if bewildered, crowd at a cosmetics promotion. "When I'm around Terence I just want to poop out art ideas non-stop," she has said.

Koh sounds less convinced, concluding: "Art is a diamond. The rest is just soft, silk pillows for art to tear apart."

For some, however, it is more than Gaga's artistic credentials that are in doubt. In 2010 the feminist writer Camille Paglia pilloried the singer for peddling explicit imagery in a meaningless, asexual way. "Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution?" she asked.

Fans swiftly countered that, for them this is why Gaga is subversive. By highlighting both the artifice and her status as a plastic pop mannequin with the trademark deadpan expression Paglia has called her "flat affect", the singer is really being more honest. If so, there are echoes of the "deeply superficial" Warhol again.

Yet even among those who get the Gaga message, some have issues with the music itself.

"Lady Gaga has presented herself as a high-concept pop maverick from moment one," said music writer Kitty Empire. "She has consistently referenced Bowie and Warhol, and even came complete with a warehouse-cum-atelier of her own, Haus of Gaga. The trouble is, with the exception of her Bad Romance single, which sounded properly alien and exciting, much of Gaga's musical output has been thoroughly conventional dance-pop. Her new single, Applause, is no exception." For all that, Empire admits that, as a diverting entertainer, Gaga can still deliver. "Her get-ups and pronouncements and cultural nods are roughly 347 per cent more fun, and preposterous, and outre, and enjoyable than most other mainstream pop artists. So when Gaga sings, 'Now art's in pop culture's in me', it's not entirely posturing."

Who: Lady Gaga
What: New album, Artpop, due out in November
Also: Performing on the MTV Awards, Monday afternoon

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- TimeOut / Observer

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