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‘Remix’ As A Cultural Phenomenon In Our Postmodern Society’S Art

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‘Remix culture’, as defined by Eduardo Navas, can be seen through ‘specific forms of expression using pre-existing sources (such as sound, image, text) to develop work that may be considered derivative while also gaining autonomy’. As an example of ‘remix culture’ that has dominated contemporary arts, Stella McCartney appropriates Sulawesian plaid motif of the 16th century into her high-end fashion designs, ‘Chinatown Plaid’, a collection which was showcased in the fall of 2013 in New York City. In the postmodern art world, the new is constantly being ‘hacked’ out of the old, a prevailing approach in contemporary art and design practices where many current pieces are influenced by preceding artists and artworks. To be able to comprehend ‘remix’ as a cultural phenomenon, we define it first in its original music context – the reinterpretation of an existing song, where the main idea of the original prevails through the remixed version.

Between the turn of the 20th and 21st century, people began to utilize the term ‘remix’ to other media besides music, such as visual projects, literary texts and fashion. Another term that has been widely adapted to refer to these practices in non-music areas is ‘appropriation’, which has been extensively adapted by the contemporary art world in creating new pieces, as Patricia Krieg writes that ‘with appropriation art, it is the idea, if anything at all that is original’, however, the works do gain autonomy derivative of the inspired artwork or artist. Stella McCartney’s ‘Chinatown Plaid’ remix features the graphic plaid patterns evocative of the plastic woven laundry bags usually seen all over Chinatown’s Canal Street in New York City, with reporters and fashion magazines labeling the pieces ‘Chinatown Chic’ and ‘migrant worker chic’. However, what much of the public do not know is the fact that the patterns actually originated from the elite and fashionable communities of Indonesia during the 16th century where it had been produced and consumed before being adapted into oversized bags used by migrant workers in neighboring Asian societies later on. The design’s roots are found in Indonesia’s southern headlands of Sulawesi, where the communities lining the Bugis coast hand-made and sold the silk sarongs with the plaid motif for local and international trade. The garments are also often reserved to be worn for formal and celebratory occasions in traditional Indonesian cultural festivities.

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McCartney’s ‘Chinatown Plaid’ remix caused global hush, leveling charges of ‘cultural appropriation’ from critics and the public eye about her and the similar designs released by Céline – ‘mostly, I wonder whether the ignorance of the Céline shopper … regarding the history of this particular print and the low-class implications of the object it debuted on, adds to the value of the newly interpreted high-end piece … or hinders it’ writes Hanger Hiatus. Subsequently, many failed to consider the basic premise that her newly released collection exemplified ‘high-low’ cultural fashion; high being the European-American fashion design standing, and low being the Asian street culture influence. Radar magazine applauded McCartney for giving the ‘refugee bag pattern’ a ‘180 degree metamorphosis to high-end’ through borrowing the motif and applying it to luxurious brands and refined forms of apparel. Concurrently, European editor of the US edition of Vogue, Hamish Bowles, commended McCartney’s designs for displaying ‘supreme elegance’, contrasting their initial origin of patterns decorating cheap, storage bags for Chinese migrant workers. Some also argue that the appropriation is not an issue at all, with Pham noting that this is something ‘roughly equivalent to using Scottish tartans as an influence, … something Tommy Hilfiger and plenty of other designers have been doing for eons’.

The controversy surrounding McCartney’s ‘remixed’ designs, also recalls the work of Mike Bidlo, a renowned artist known for his appropriation of famous artworks by 20th century masters Warhol, Duchamp, and Picasso. Bidlo’s contribution to remix culture culminates in his approach to the modernist works as ready-made pieces – forces to be reckoned with, exemplified in his version of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (1917), called ‘Fractured Fountain’, (2015). He has been described as a performance artist who, because of his preceding in-depth research of the works and individuals he is appropriating, creates ‘social sculpture’, in the way that he almost wants to adapt the persona of the given artist’s life and art approach whilst he recreates their work.

Therefore, in accordance to Eduardo Navas’ definition of remix as being an act of being ‘derivative while also gaining autonomy’, Bidlo’s inherited knowledge of the original artist’s practice allows him to create new pieces which may seem imitative of the source artwork, however, has changed its character in the context of an independent artistic creation. Even Duchamp’s urinal was the exact expression of the object, but his idea of taking it out of its typical context was original. It is not the final sculpture itself which displays the brilliance of the work, but it is in the ideas and ‘authorship’ surrounding it. Bidlo’s practice of remix, through taking the iconic urinal form in a completely new material, shattering it then piecing it back together, elevates the object itself from deliberately having ‘no substance’ to a radically transformed piece. Bidlo’s bronze appropriation of Duchamp’s urinal evoked a sense of sacredness, drawing from Greek and Roman formalities as they were dramatically lit and presented on several pedestals. Appropriation art has been labeled as ‘the most radical challenge to the copyright laws to date’, but despite upholding the urinal’s iconic form, Bidlo’s works are made exclusively to his own artistic practice and does not intend for his works to be confused with the source works he appropriated. Thus, his works are often signed with his handprint and the titles he uses are embedded with details indicating that his works are ‘NOT’ the work of the source artist.

As there is no uniform means of appropriating, artist Yasumasa Morimura offers another perspective of art practice which contributes to ‘remix culture’ as he embeds himself into iconic scenes in order to critique mass media, popular culture and its effects on identity through the appropriation of renowned artworks, while celebrating and satirizing their enduring influence in the art world context. This can be seen in his remix of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earrings’, ‘Vermeer Study: Looking Back (Mirror)’, 2008. Even the legendary Pablo Picasso quoted that ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’, as he generously borrowed from Manet and Ingres, amongst many others, evident in the subject matters of his works. Morimura is a contemporary Japanese artist who uses extensive props and digital manipulation to insert himself into portraits of historical artists and the settings of famous art pieces. These recreations of iconic works result in ‘simultaneously reverent and satirical’ self-portraits which ‘skewer traditional notions of beauty while revealing a deep appreciation’ for the source artworks he appropriates. Alongside the idea of mimicking famous works, Morimura’s practice is saturated with originality as he transfers his creative act from the confinements of a canvas to his own physical body. “I don’t do my painting on a canvas,” explains Morimura. “I do my painting on my face.” In ‘Vermeer Study: Looking Back (Mirror)’, Morimura harnesses video art to capture an installation of Jan Vermeer’s studio, inserting himself into the scene, assuming the identity of both the painter and the subject. The complex work exhibits both characters exchanging glances between themselves, and ends with the final image which closely resembles Vermeer’s ‘Girl with an Earring’ (1666). Craig Hodgetts and Hsin Min Fung write that ‘with the freedom to download and remix, … our culture has staked out an age in which identity is forged by the individual who assumes it’ with Morimura becoming a prime example of an individual harnessing creative strategies such as recontextualization and appropriation, which define remix culture, as a means of conveying a dynamic perspective of identity. Appropriation art has been labeled as ‘the most radical challenge to the copyright laws to date’ writes Lynne Greenberg, however its universality and frequent appearance in the contemporary art world reveals that many of the works exhibit a changed character in the adaption of a work, not the exact expression of an idea; a differing context, and an independent artist’s creation.

Through the recent works of Stella McCartney, Mike Bidlo and Yasumasa Morimura, the ‘remix culture’ that has dominated our postmodern society’s art and design sphere is evidently depicted through their works being prominently influenced by preceding artists and artworks – from appropriating cultural textile patterns, to reconstructing objects with different materials, and even the deliberate insertion of new identities into recontextualized iconic settings, ‘remix’ has become a dominant creative strategy, harnessed by contemporary artists to create compelling and thought-provoking works which may draw from old works, but present new ideas.

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