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Lady Gaga – is it art?
A friend recently remarked on the story that Lady Gaga allegedly accepted $1 million from a Russian billionaire for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the video for Alejandro. It's not unusual to be having a conversation about Lady Gaga, of course.
Love her, hate her, or remain indifferent, she is the talking point of 2010. But our friend's main bone of contention about this latest "outrageous" act, from the pop star formerly known as Stefani Germanotta, was that "she's supposed to be an artist".
Leaving aside the argument of whether art and commerce can ever be comfortable bedfellows (even the great classical painters had their rich benefactors) what struck us was that this tabloid-delighting, paparazzi-attracting, globally successful pop singer might be considered an artist, and all that it entailed.
And we wondered why it should matter.
This isn't a debate about whether Lady Gaga is "good" or not (whatever that means). Neither is it an argument about whether she deserves her success (even if the sight and sound of her makes you want to lobotomise yourself with a breadbin, you can't deny she's put the work in to get where she is). Musical taste aside, is what Lady Gaga does art, and therefore deserved of more serious scrutiny than that of her pop making peers?
It's Gaga herself who threw the notion into the ring. In 2009 she told The Sydney Morning Herald: "I'm a performance artist and this is what I do." But what exactly is the difference between a performance artist and a performer? We suppose it comes down to intention. A performance artist seeks to create art with their work, whereas a performer merely hopes to entertain.
So what art does Gaga create? Not the music, surely? The music is, for the most part, quite good. Sometimes it's excellent. But it's pop music pure and simple, and you'd have a hard time arguing it was anything more. Her debut album The Fame sounds like American pop music sounds in the 21st Century.
But Gaga's smart enough to know this.
"I make soulless electronic pop." She told Maxim. But this was not an admission. Rather it was her way of aligning herself with the greatest pop artist of them all - Andy Warhol.
"Warhol said art should be meaningful in the most shallow way," she told the magazine. "He was able to make commercial art that was taken seriously as fine art, to use something simple and shallow and take it to another planet. That's what I'm doing too."
It's Gaga's strongest argument that she might be more than the latest chart sensation. As she's keen to tell the world, her own Haus of Gaga is an artistic collective modelled on Andy's The Factory studio.
And where Warhol turned his own commercial art skills into an influential examination of American popular culture, can we then see Gaga's fame as not merely a product of musical success but an aspect of her art? Can we believe she sought fame only to explore, dissect and expose it, as part of an ongoing creative process?
In an interview with Desi Hits, she declared: "Fame is both the birth and the death of the artist. Because the minute you become famous, the very thing that tells the whole world about you is also the thing that shoots your art in the face." Adding that fame's only purpose was to "amplify my celebrity and not my artistry, and I'm not a celebrity".
Clearly though, Lady Gaga is a celebrity. And until she does something other than make pop records and play concerts, then she's also just a pop singer - not an artist. It's not enough just to state your future plans, as she did in OK! Magazine:
"I want to have an exhibition at The Louvre with all my fashions and technology," she modestly declared. "But not as a Madonna through the years, a fashion exhibit. I'd want it to be like art pieces with explanations and inspirational references. I also want to direct films and music videos."
This somewhat rambling statement reveals Gaga's mindset. Only a place in the finest galleries will satisfy her, yet she seems unclear as to what she might do to earn that. The quote could be summed up in three words: "take me seriously".
The artist Tino Seghal (who recently exhibited at The Guggenheim in New York) agrees: "Lady Gaga, who obviously has all the pop and celebrity attention one could imagine, understands that art provides a legitimacy that pop music and the media cannot match."
Because in the 21st century anyone can make pop music. A band as vapid and art-less as Scouting For Girls can make pop music. And anyone can have hit records. A band as workmanlike and uninspired as Scouting For Girls can have hit records. But not everyone makes art. And Lady Gaga does not want to be like everyone else. She doesn't even want to be like Madonna.
This will be Lady Gaga's tragedy. As a popstar she's resplendent. As an artist she's mute; she has nothing to say. "Fame is addictive, fame is bad, sexuality is complex... blah blah blah". These are artistic statements which would shame a lowly degree course.
And if the pursuit of fame is "the work" then Kerry Katona is an artist, as is Katie Price and Jedward (the X Factor's own Gilbert & George). And if all that separates Lady Gaga from these flimsy, needy creations is a few fancy outfits and expensive videos then it's just not enough. Dressing up and showing off is what pop music is supposed to be about (unless you're Scouting For Girls).
But pop is also about lofty ambition and over reaching. What kept Madonna interesting for so long wasn't simply the great records and "shocking" videos, it was her need for... more. Madonna was never satisfied being just a pop star, even though she was better at being a pop star than anyone else (and fairly lousy at everything else).
For as long as Lady Gaga wants to be seen as an artist she'll keep coming up with stranger outfits, crazier videos and, hopefully, better records (that more closely match her avant-garde image) and the pop world will be a better place for it.
And as with all the best pop stars, Lady Gaga is a mass of contradictions. After all her dismissal of pop and fame, and her pretentious declarations, her initial inspiration remains reassuringly grounded in the dreams of any bedroom-bound hairbrush singer.
"I was 13 when Britney became a star," she told Maxim. "I want to bring back the feeling that I used to feel."
So much for art; she really just wanted to be a Mouseketeer. She can't have it both ways, of course. But she'll try. And it's that futile trying that makes Lady Gaga more interesting than most.
Long may she yearn.