Gaga Aesthetics: Art, Fashion, Popular Culture, and the Up-Ending of Tradition

This is not really a book “about” Lady Gaga, and it’s certainly not a book about Lady Gaga’s lyrics. Nevertheless, a few lines from “Applause” – the closing track to Gaga’s third studio album, Artpop, 2013 – will help us into Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas’s themes:

I’ve overheard your theory, “Nostalgia’s for geeks”
I guess sir, if you say so, some of us just like to read 
One second I’m a Koons fan, suddenly the Koons is me 
Pop culture was in art, now art’s pop culture, in me.

Rhyming “me” with “me” is extraordinary of course (if mainly in its mundanity). Such a move signals the high-neoliberal context of the song’s production, and the pop-industrial context of its circulation, which is the site of our authors’ enquiry into art. In Gaga Aesthetics, Geczy and Karaminas deftly historicise and evaluate a range of concepts that Gaga is using here to sketch out her aesthetic project, particularly the knot of art and popular culture. 

Art, to Geczy and Karaminas, is taken not to be any particular set of forms, nor necessarily a set of conditions in which those forms are met by an audience. It’s not about things being placed on plinths, declared art by an artist, or consecrated as art by placement in an institutional collection. Rather, art is what certain (i.e. good) work does: art brings us into an encounter with our fragility, our unresolved contradictions, our perishability, and our tragedy as individuals and as a society. “We would like to see this book,” they write, “as contributing to the growing chorus of voices who see ‘art,’ the activity that art performs, as finding its place in practices and formats not previously recognised but whose validity can no longer be ignored.” The authors’ contention is that art can – must – do what it does even from within the vehicles for production, circulation, and critical reflection which we associate with mass culture, or more nefariously with the culture industry.

Geczy and Karaminas’s idea of art’s proper activity is taken from Adorno, who provides the theoretical foundation for the authors’ analysis of music video, fashion, and, to a lesser extent, television and film in the twenty-first century. The foundations provided by Adorno, however, are also themselves the object of rigorous, ambivalent examination and critique.

Gaga Aesthetics proceeds dialectically, introducing concepts from Adorno’s aesthetic thought in succinct, clearly defined chapters before returning to reappraise or transpose each idea in later movements. Early chapters ring arpeggios out of kitsch – importantly, as a sociological rather than a mainly aesthetic category – the ugly, culture, tradition, and difficulty. Adorno’s thinking is clarified, often, by detailed and delightful exploration of its historical and personal contexts, and particularly the collaborative modes in which many of its major moments were developed. Adorno’s co-authored work with Max Horkheimer is examined, but so are more expansive partnerships with, for example, Thomas Mann – who met Adorno in 1934, when both were living as exiles in California, and to whose Doctor Faustus Adorno contributed a chapter. 

All this reflection on collaboration, and the dialogue implied by dialectical thinking and writing, leads tantalisingly to the question of the Geczy and Karaminas’s own ways of working together. The writers make reference to a few of their many co-authored works throughout Gaga Aesthetics, especially Critical Fashion Practice: From Westwood to Van Beirendonc (Bloomsbury, 2017). Readers of Gaga Aesthetics will surely need, on some unbearable, metabolical level, to know how the authorial voice in the first person plural came into being. I get the sense that Geczy and Karaminas precisely don’t want to offer an answer to this enigma that would help us sleep more comfortably at night. By withholding the administrative details of their collaboration, they create an Adornian artwork of their own: they offer a mirror up to our cultural anxieties and vulnerabilities. These include an anxiety about authorship and authority which has only become more urgent in our age of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and in a media landscape characterised by endless, decentralised remixing of original material.

Geczy and Karaminas’s analyses of kitsch – in Moschino’s 2019 autumn/winter collection, for example, with its acerbic bad-taste excess – make a convincing case for contemporary fashion as a mirror to the failures of our political-economic moment. Kitsch in this context is used to “show up” the corporatisation of desire and taste, and the hollow promise of class mobility in the free market of the present, like a rosé stain on white jeans. The authors make a similar case for Lady Gaga’s performance of her own celebrity, as laying plain our social constructions of gender. Rightly so: this is the woman who sings, after all, “I wanna be the girl under you / I wanna be the G.U.Y” (“G.U.Y,” Artpop, 2013). Perhaps what is most virtuosic in Gezcy and Karaminas’s analyses, though, is their resistance to caving in and reading their cultural objects on terms other than Adorno’s – terms on which they are begging to be read. 

Lady Gaga, like many other artists and objects of enquiry in Gaga Aesthetics, asks sometimes quite directly to be taken on the level of feeling – on the level of what the body knows. Giving an interview with CNN’s Maggie Lake about her perfume, Fame, in 2012, Gaga pronounced: “I don’t think that women need to smell, you know, interesting. I have an interesting mind, but I want to smell like a slut, to be totally honest.” In Adorno’s aesthetics, too-obvious “feeling” is prone to co-option by a culture industry set on anaesthetising its audience – which is surely one reason why Adorno is often harshly characterised as snobbish (you can hardly imagine him as the G.U.Y, or dancing to G.U.Y with any particular vim). Yet, surely, the garments that we wear on our bodies, the music that we play in clubs, and even the distinctions we make between the complicity of a Koons object and the knowing irony of Absolutely Fabulous work on the level of our embodied and affective lives. In this refusal to collapse into “feeling” as a primary site of art’s action, even when considering art that announces itself as operating on and through the body, is Geczy and Karaminas’s most tantalising entanglement with Adorno left tangled. 

Making generative offerings of such tangles, rather than eliminating them, is Geczy and Karaminas’s project, compellingly carried out. These knots are, after all, their own evidence of our culture’s irresolutions: the stuff of art. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2022. 

Gaga Aesthetics: Art, Fashion, Popular Culture, and the Up-Ending of Tradition
Vicki Karaminas and Adam Geczy
Bloomsbury Academic, 2022
RRP $170 AUD

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