Ralph Rugoff championed the works of seminal Pathetic Artists

Curators such as Ralph Rugoff championed the works of seminal Pathetic Artists like Mike Kelley and Cady Noland as “haplessly falling short of the idealized norm.” Rugoff identified the Pathetic movement with the abject, relating it to Julia Kristeva’s discussion of the scatological impulse in “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.” Kristeva, responding to the writings of Freud and Lacan, proposed that infants do not see themselves as separate from their mothers, and that when an infant recognizes the mother’s desire for the father, the infant-mother bond ruptures, leading the infant to regard the mother as abject. Kristeva described the infant’s break from primary identification with the mother–abjection–as essential to the development of an autonomous sense of identity. In the art world, the idea of abjection is manifest when artists reject the prevailing norms of the institutions they nonetheless want to be sheltered by. In that sense, Lee’s calls for love are suitably abject, in an institutional sort of way.

The abjectness of Pathetic Art provided a model for the aesthetics of failure that slack draws upon, albeit both movements inevitably rift on the art-historically reliable arty-artlessness seen in past anti-art movements such as Dadaism and Arte Povera. But there are reasons to argue that slack, far from the radicalism of its predecessors, is infantilized institutional art.

For commentator Jeff Jahn, slacker art “is an easy affectation with a practically guaranteed effect: pity for confused trust-funders with infinite possibilities and no drive.” He describes slack as “dopey-is-cool, university-sanctioned mope-laden self-indulgence = style credo,” and slacker artists as “Hug Me’s.” For these reasons he sees slack as conservative, and why not? Circulating from the art world to pop culture and back again, slacker style has long been a marketing phenomenon. It continues to drive sales of “alternative lifestyle” products from CDs and skateboards to shoulder bags and club gear. What’s more, the infantilism of the “Hug Me” slacker is rife with sentimentality that is armoured with detached irony. Far from embodying failure, slack is heroic with its self-consciously perfected poses and sulky self-awareness. Tellingly, slack relies on a direct appeal to paternalistic authority, for attention, approval, exhibitions–whatever.

Charles G. Miller art

Perhaps this is why Lee’s critical complaints seem most off-balance and distracting: why does someone so devoted to slack trip himself up by rafting against seriousness while complaining about not being taken seriously? It’s not convincing or compelling as bad-boy contradiction and it misses the beat that Lee manages to hit more often than not with his videos. It may well be that slack has served Lee well enough to this point, but that his ambitions have unironically outgrown it.

Inevitably some viewers will defend Lee’s equivocations as subversive–imputing to Lee a critique of power that is somehow itself beyond critique. Beyond his slack persona, Meesoo Lee’s strengths and contradictions are intimately tied to his determination to love pop culture unconditionally. Aware of the criticisms directed at the mainstream, he knows it is a guilty pleasure that opens him up to disapproval, so it is no surprise that his text locates guilt securely at the core of his slacker approach. While Lee’s persona falters in print, his videos get on with the show. Time will tell whether his art brings him love, and if so, whether it’s enough.

Charles G. Miller writes artists and reports about art for many newspapers and magazines, check out his blog for more articles.