Pop Life opens at the Tate Modern

    Apparently, Pop Life at Tate Modern was going to be called Sold Out. But the curators grew nervous. Which is unfortunate, because, to my ears, Sold Out is not only a punchier title for the show, but also a more appropriate one. Rarely have I seen this many artworks crammed into a single display, piled this ‘igh, and flogged this cheap. The Tate’s busy bazaar of poppy art has set out to investigate the dynamics of selling out. It’s a pertinent topic. With the memory still fresh in our minds of Damien Hirst relieving himself of the contents of his studio for a mere £70.5m at Sotheby’s the day after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, art’s present relationship to commerce does warrant some worrying about.

    Another of the titles discarded for the show was, I hear, Warhol’s Children, which would also have been accurate. Warhol opened the sweet shop from which most of the kiddie artists paraded before us here have been shoplifting. His notorious quip that “good business is the best art” is repeated in a wall text at the outset of the current investigation, where it supplies motivation as well as consolation for the noisy artistic shenanigans ahead: the porn and the hip-hop; the merchandising and the balloon-flying; the flogging of T-shirts, souvenir curios, hats, scale models and, in the case of Andrea Fraser, the artist’s own body, for a quick shag in a hotel, at $20,000 a pop, with an unknown collector. The resulting video has a room to itself in here.

    I should quickly add that I don’t mind most of the seedy sex in which this show is so rich. It is about time goody-goody Tate Modern risked upsetting some vicars. Those who think unsightly sex has no place in a gallery should address their complaints to the ancient Greeks and Romans who pioneered its presence. Art’s dubious relationship to pornography has 2,000 years of tradition behind it. The question is not: does showing Fraser having sex with a stranger constitute an appropriate offering for Tate Modern? The question is: does it constitute good or meaningful or instructive art? I don’t like the piece. It’s creepy and showy. But you could hardly ask for a clearer presentation of the exhibition’s central conundrum: if you make art about selling out, are you yourself selling out? In Fraser’s case, the answer is surely a loud yes. If she were ugly, if she were shy, if she hadn’t been ambitious, she wouldn’t have made the work.

    Pop Life’s stated aim is to investigate art’s supposedly new relationship with the com­mercial world. Once Warhol and co had begun making art about Campbell’s soup tins and Popeye movies, the way was clear for a more mercantile approach to creativity. Instead of learning tactics at an academy, art could learn them in the high street. Thus, Keith Haring opened his Pop Shop in Manhattan in the 1980s and filled it with badges and baseball caps of his own design, in an effort, it says here, to bring art to a wider public. And when Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas opened their infamous east London Shop and peddled an assortment of trashy home-made thingummies from it, they were, it says here, being subversive.

    Sex is such an obvious and popular way of aiming low in the commercial world that this show definitely needed to have lots of it on display. To have avoided it would have been dishonest. So Jeff Koons has been wheeled out of his erotic retirement to re-enact, in full colour, the energetic love-making he set about with his then wife, the former porn star La Cicciolina, in photographs, ceramics and room-sized action sculptures, locked away in a private space that is accessible only to the over-18s. Even poor old Cosey Fanni Tutti has been tracked down to her home for redundant artists and persuaded to repeat the seedy leg-spreading in Knave magazine that constituted her particularly distasteful contribution to modern art. Cosey kidded herself that flashing her bits at us in the 1970s constituted an act of empowerment. The only thing I ever smelt rising up from her unmade bed was the pong of narcissism.

    That’s the point here. The best works on show would have been good art whether they were involved in a commercial contract or not. Right at the beginning we learn that Warhol used to charge his celebrities a fixed price for the portraits he did of them and would offer a discount if they bought two. But his Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, David Hockney have stood the test of time unexpectedly well. Indeed, they seem to get better as they get older. The red Self-Portrait of Warhol that stares at us as we enter, peering out vulnerably from beneath a fright wig, is the most moving and melancholy exhibit here. Warhol’s dark introspection seems even to project some of its depth onto the fully reflective surface of Koons’s infamous silver rabbit, which shares the agenda-setting duties in the opening room. I have seen that rabbit scores of times and never before noticed how nervously it addresses us.

    The really talented artists involved in this frantic parade, the Warhols, the Hirsts, the Koonses, would appear pertinent whatever situation you put them in. More scary, and a good deal less predictable, is the effect that the badly thought out commercial transponding has had on the show’s lesser lights.

    Chief among these would be Takashi Murakami, the unaccountably popular peddler of brightly coloured Japanese cuteness, who has somehow managed to set up a factory in New York on the Warhol model, from which he mass-produces cheap art in outrageously expensive forms: paintings, sculptures, videos, books and even web pages. The junk you buy in a Japanese convenience store has imagined itself to be art, and is charging accordingly.

    Murakami is by some way the shallowest artist ever to make it into art’s big commercial league. Beyond the giggles and the brightness, he offers nothing. Yet he gets a room to himself here, whose highlight is a video of Kirsten Dunst in a blue wig and gingham stockings prancing around Tokyo with a cast of Ginza girls miming Turning Japanese.

    Although the Tate should be commended for tackling its topic head-on, I found myself searching for more valuable story lines to follow as I Dodgemed my way through the buy-me colours and see-me logos. There is, after all, more than one way to sup with the devil. Weak artists sit down and never move again. Strong artists take their fill, and leave.

    I was much taken by a row of photographs of the rising stars of the American art world taken in New York in the 1980s by David Robbins. The black-and-white pictures have the air of a class portrait about them, and some of the sadness of a vanitas. What’s surprising is how few of the portrayed artists went on to have important careers. Cindy Sherman, yes, and Koons and Jenny Holzer. But the rest ended up in art’s dustbin, with their sell-by dates long passed. It’s the show’s fiercest message: he who lives by the rules of the high street dies by the rules of the high street