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photo-eye Book Reviews: Beautiful Losers DVD

Beautiful Losers DVD, Directed by Aaron Rose. 
Published by American Showcase, 2009.

Beautiful Losers DVD
Reviewed by Alex Sweetman 
Directed by Aaron Rose, featuring Shepard Fairey, Ed Templeton, Harmony Korine, Mike Mills and more. American Showcase, 2009. DVD.

The DVD Beautiful Losers is "a film by Aaron Rose." Shot in video, it is a happy look at twelve artists who came into focus as part of a group -- some say a movement -- through the mediation of Aaron Rose and Christian Strike, co-curators of the landmark 2004 exhibition and publication of the same title. The catalog of that exhibition of around 50 artists has been expanded and reprinted in softcover and is well worth a look. The book is the context/background/foundation of much of the art and many of the artists presented in the DVD. The biographies of the folks you see in the video reside in those pages. Apparently, new media is directed at the now generation which has no time for history while it uploads one billion photographs to Facebook each month. This is important because the DVD spends zero time on precedent and makes this "movement" seem sui generis, which, of course, it is not.  So you will find Basquiat, Clark, Crumb, graffiti, FUTURA, Goldin, Haring, Kruger, Marcopoulis, Pettibon, Pushead, Stecyk, TAKI 183, Warhol, et al, mentioned in the book but not in the movie. As for the street culture that made New York City oh-so charming in the '70s and '80s, that is referred to only in passing -- a kind of background noise for the rise in celebrity of Rose's lower eastside Alleged gallery, a kind of cultural compost fertilizing the rise of "NEXT" in the hothouse art-culture of NYC.

Punk, no wave, surfing, skateboarding, graffiti, taggers and trashers, hip hop, advertising, TV, print to digital media, indie film and music, fetish, fashion, sex, drugs, and the general smash-up of urban life create a rich stew of influences and responses. Artistic fluency in this situation requires a working inter-media familiarity with constantly evolving and constantly expanding visual language systems and their role in the corporate takeover of social reality. At the same time, to survive, one must learn from "the street," the patchwork present and history that is there for reference and quotation, the present moment that is richly inter-reactive and ever new, constantly now, fleeting, transitory, contingent: history in the making and making contemporary art.

At this point in time, Beautiful Losers is a lovely but entirely misleading title for a "movement" that has earned the museum/gallery blue chip equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal Of Approval. These people, except for Margaret Kilgallen who died in 2001, are all winners in this stage of the game of ARTWORLD. They are white, mostly middle class heterosexual males, not unlike the largely homophobic skateboard and surfing cultures, but certainly not reflective of the ethnic diversity and risky criminality of the taggers making their marks on the world across the entire globe. These taggers are responding directly to urban life, a protest that has spread for all the world to see, responsible for the glorious gratuitous decoration of so many large empty wall spaces, and so many box cars and subway trains over all these years.

Public space is one of the final frontiers where individuals can still compete mano-a-mano with corporations (championed by their stylized corporate logos). On a level playing field, the individual can respond to the deadly boring blankness of the anonymous urban passage/street/corridor wall with a flat assertion: I am.

So, street culture is transformed into lines of street wear for sale in Soho boutiques. Graffiti shows up in the gallery district in Chelsea, protected by armed guards. Skateboard culture becomes another marketing theme reaching all the way to Jeff Koons's designs for boards snapped up by investment conscious art collectors as well as 15 year olds from the suburbs. Ed Templeton conducts children's art workshops sponsored by Nike. What else is new? Warhol did show the way. But art is not all about marketing, branding, celebrity, sponsorships, and money. At least there is no gift shop on the way out of this DVD hawking souvenirs, T-shirts, bags, or mugs - as there is in every museum these days. But this is a classier art world pitch, name recognition, continuing the brand associations. Meet the artists you may have only read about. Tattoos and body piercings anyone?

I say this not as dismissive cynicism but as a bit of reality check. Here at the end of the empire stage of American civilization, we see the world restructuring before our eyes. A new world order is emerging and it seems appropriate if not unavoidable to embrace alternative and street culture. But this will cause problems for establishments. For example, when Jeffrey Deitch installed a skate bowl in his Projects gallery in 2002, he created a near riot situation and was almost thrown down the stairs when he needed to clear the huge crowd out of the space at the fire marshal's command. Welcome to the street Jeffrey! But make a note: it can kill you.

The people in this film are all good artists, which makes it well worth a look.  But don't expect art by women or people of color. The huge surfing show up in NYC at the moment (summer 2010) has the same problem -- call it the ten percent solution: ten percent women, and almost 100% Caucasian. That is not my art world. The book does what the DVD does not,  revealing sources, the fathers and even grandfathers of this happening non-movement. In turn, the DVD does what the book cannot, providing DIY art workshops (sponsored by Nike) in addition to the film. We see: sneaker design with Jesse Leyva, poster art with Mike Mills, editing video with Lenny Mesina, paint a deck with Ed Templeton, "find art" with Jesse Spears, make a zine with Aaron Rose, and "character design" with KAWS (Brian Donnelly), all of which are entirely useful and entertaining. These workshops provide skills, which might just make a difference in a young person's life and are of use to educators for this purpose. One important thing the film makes very clear is why art matters. "Make something from nothing," appears as if anonymously on the front of the DVD jacket. Perfect.
—Alex Sweetman

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Alex Sweetman teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he has helped assemble one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of 19th and 20th century photography books in the world. In 1985 he mounted the first comprehensive exhibition of photography books, "Photographic Book to Photobookwork," nearly 400 books and 100 photographs at the California Museum of Photography.