Deep Discounts

Red Grooms' kooky transcendence defines, and solves, the problem with Pop Art.


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More than forty years ago, on the eighth floor of an auditorium in Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis, the artist Red Grooms created a unique installation. He called it The Discount Store (1970). The work was commissioned by the Walker Art Center, which was still in the process of building its now-famous permanent home in Minneapolis. With great foresight, The Walker Center also commissioned a documentary film (by Al Kraning) on Grooms’ project. Watching the film gives some idea of what it must have been like to experience the artwork.

Grooms constructed The Discount Store after visiting a Target Discount store in Crystal, MN. He created huge, ten-foot tall wooden cut-out figures to represent the various costumers in the store. He painted the walls to look like aisles filled with an abundance of cheap goods — everything from toys, to soap, to guns (Target used to sell guns back in the 1970s).

Entering The Discount Store was like walking into a comic book version of the real world. But not a straight comic book. Something more like the comics of R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar, though without the angst or dark sexuality. Grooms developed his style through a fusion of fine arts training (he attended the Art Institute of Chicago) and much time spent looking at folk art and popular entertainment.

Red Grooms has been creating accessible, folksy, often highly amusing works of art like The Discount Store for more than half a century. Now in his late 70s, Grooms has to be considered one of the great masters of 20th century American art. But his name doesn’t come up that often. This surely has to do with the fact that art critics, curators, historians, and theorists tend, in general, to hold Pop Art at arm’s length. Red Grooms has always been, essentially, a Pop artist, especially if we define Pop as art that takes up imagery from popular culture. The Discount Store is a good example of Grooms at his Pop-iest. The work is a celebration of the vibrancy and everyday mayhem that makes up the American consumer experience.

In a brilliant bout of personal reflection, the late, great art critic Arthur Danto once wrote the following:

I have the most vivid recollection of standing at an intersection in some American city, waiting to be picked up. There were used-car lots on two corners, with swags of plastic pennants fluttering in the breeze and brash signs proclaiming unbeatable deals, crazy prices, insane bargains. There was a huge self-service gas station on a third corner, and a supermarket on the fourth, with signs in the window announcing sales of Del Monte, Cheerios, Land O Lakes butter, Long Island ducklings, Velveeta, Sealtest, Chicken of the Sea, … Heavy trucks roared past, with logos on their sides. Lights were flashing. The sound of raucous music flashed out of the windows of automobiles. I was educated to hate all this. I would have found it intolerably crass and tacky when I was growing up an aesthete. As late as my own times, beauty was, in the words of George Santayana, “a living presence, or an aching absence, day and night.” I think it still is that for someone like Clement Greenberg or Hilton Kramer. But I thought, Good heavens. This is just remarkable!

Arthur Danto, unsurprisingly, was a fan of Red Grooms’ art. Observing a work like The Discount Store, Danto saw that Grooms shared his excitement about swags of plastic pennants fluttering in the breeze, crazy prices, insane bargains. Danto and Grooms shared something else. They had both been educated to “hate all this,” to reject the consumer junk of day-to-day American life in the name of something higher. So, for both Danto and Grooms, embracing the intolerably crass and tacky stuff to be found in a Target Discount Store was a giddy assertion of freedom. You can sense the genuine relief in the quote from Danto above. When he finally allows himself to think, “Good heavens. This is just remarkable!” Danto is letting half a lifetime of fussy self-abnegation fly out the window.

But walking through a Target Discount Store today, more than 40 years after Grooms created The Discount Store, one is faced with an undeniable fact. The stuff is ugly.

In a recent blog entry for The Walker Art Center, Kristina Fong noted of Grooms’ The Discount Store that,

What warmed me to this piece is that while it is clearly an observation on abundance and consumption in 1970 (and oh, we only need to look back at last week’s Black Friday to see how “far” we’ve come), coaxing the audience to recognize themselves in those wooden caricatures, Grooms approached this subject with a reverence, even while calling the idea of the discount store “very ugly.”

Here, suddenly, is the other side of Arthur Danto’s coin. It is possible to stand before the infinite teeming junk of consumer society and declare it remarkable. But it is an act of blindness to ignore the awfulness, the emptiness. That is why Red Grooms –
celebrator of everyday stuff and everyday people – thought it necessary to say that he found discount stores “very ugly.” Somehow, as Kristina Fong notes in her blog entry, the very act of making art about a discount store creates a necessary and desirable transformation. The Discount Store by Red Grooms is something different than the discount store by Target.

We are tempted, even, to say that there is an aspect of redemption present in the work of art that is not present in the actual store. That is why, I think, Fong uses the word “reverence” when she describes Grooms’ art. Red Grooms’ palpable and obvious love for the people in the discount store, even as he pokes a little fun at them, makes The Discount Store something more than just a record of people buying stuff and fulfilling their base desires. The word “reverence” is therefore not inappropriate. Arthur Danto also sometimes slipped into this quasi-theological language. He once wrote a book, probably his most systematic statement of his own views on art, called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1983).

Danto was aware that using the word “transfiguration” was to risk falling into outright religious categories. The Transfiguration is the episode, found in all three synoptic Gospels, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. At the top of the mountain, the Apostles see a vision of Jesus in all his radiant glory. They recognize that Jesus is the point of contact between the human and the divine. Danto was willing to play around with these religious terms because he felt they helped us to understand something crucial about art, even non-religious art. Art objects are no different than any other kinds of objects, in the metaphysical sense. The materials that Red Grooms used to make The Discount Store are no different than the materials to be found in a Target Discount Store. But some are works of art and others are not. The work of art creates space, a little gap between itself and reality. This gap is what makes art, art. It is also why art “transfigures” the commonplace. You see objects in a new light when you look at them as works of art, just as the Apostles saw Jesus in a new light when they went with him up the mountain.

It is, then, unfair for Danto to make so much fun of George Santayana and his breathless comments about beauty. The line that Danto quotes, where Santayana speaks of beauty as “a living presence, or an aching absence, day and night,” is actually from one of Santayana’s letters. Santayana was responding to an acquaintance named Thomas Munro, who was a professor at Columbia University and had written a book called Scientific Methods in Aesthetics. Munro sent a copy of the book to Santayana, hoping for comments from the great man. Santayana was not especially impressed with Munro’s book, thinking it a fairly dry exercise in academic philosophy. Santayana pointed out that he was raised on the likes of Ruskin, Pater, and Swinburne and that “beauty, (which mustn’t be mentioned now) was then a living presences, or an aching absence, day and night.”

Santayana went on, in the letter, to argue that art has become, over time, more and more, “an abstract object in itself, to be studied scientifically as a caput mortuum: and the living side of the subject — the tabulation of people’s feelings and comments — is no less dead.” Santayana contrasted this with the atmosphere of his younger days, when art was approached with an attitude as that of “poets and persons touched with religious enthusiasm or religious sadness.” A person touched with religious enthusiasm for living art that is relevant to people’s actual feelings and experiences? That sounds mightily like Arthur Danto.

It is almost as if Arthur Danto – occasionally disgusted by a younger, world-denying aesthete version of himself – forgot his own aesthetic theory. Trying to love the world as it is, he would wax poetic about the beauty of Velveeta cheese and the wonders of Chicken-of-the-Sea. In fact, as anyone who has ever attempted to eat either of those products can attest, there is much that is ugly about them. Red Grooms knew this too. That is why he made The Discount Store. He made it not to celebrate Target Discount Stores as they currently exist, but to redeem something about the human desires, frailties, dreams, and necessities that are to be found therein. Target Discount Store is, after all, a troubling place, a repository of waste, economic exploitation, greed, destruction, and cheap goods most of us find ourselves buying despite the fact. The Discount Store by Red Grooms is a place of hope. Danto, in defending works of art like The Discount Store, sometimes found himself in the less enviable, and downright unnecessary, position of defending Target Discount Store.

20th century debates between critics like Arthur Danto on the one side and Hilton Kramer on the other sometimes put the rest of us in the unfortunate position of choosing. Either we must endorse popular consumer culture as the only world we’ve got (and thus the only place for beauty to exist), or we must deny consumer culture completely and look for an aesthetic purity that exists, somehow, outside the actual world. In fact, latent within Danto’s theory was a third option, a form of immanent transcendence that he seemed only half aware of himself.

Bob Dylan once said the following about Red Grooms:

I loved the way everything he did crushed itself into some fragile world, the rickety clusters of parts all packed together and then, standing back, you could see the complex whole of it all. … What the folk songs were lyrically, Red’s songs were visually — all the bums and cops, the lunatic bustle, the claustrophobic alleys — all the carnie vitality… everything hilarious but not jokey… I loved the way Grooms used laughter as a diabolical weapon. Subconsciously, I was wondering if it was possible to write songs like that.

That is something Arthur Danto loved about the work of Red Grooms, too. But the phrase “diabolical weapon” adds a crucial difference. The difference between The Discount Store and Target is that the former is a kind of diabolical weapon against the latter. Because we have The Discount Store, we do not have to live in a world that is only filled with discount stores. The way Red Grooms’ art makes the world larger is a kooky version of transcendence, no doubt. It is a form of aesthetic religiosity that operates by means of “carnie vitality.” I’d like to think that Danto and Santayana could both have endorsed the transfigurative reverence of that carnie vitality. • 19 February 2015