Stepping over the Line
Amy Gahyun Lee
Aug 20, 2018
‘From a very early age I was always fascinated by those who transgressed the norm, who defied convention, whether in painting or in music or anything. Those were my heroes – the artists Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali and, in rock, Little Richard.’
– from David Bowie’s 1992 interview with LIFE magazine.
Having reinvented himself many times over the course of his career, David Bowie was a cultural icon who realized work beyond the context of any given time period. As such, his music doesn’t fit neatly into any particular genre. As a leading figure of the Glam Rock movement in the mid seventies Bowie’s artistic vision influenced the fashion industry and inspired stylistic trends among the youth of the day. His creative expression also extended to the medium of film as he acted in several movies and television programs—his uncanny portrayal of Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film, Basquiat having found favor with the art world at large. In light of this broad range of artistic expression it is clear that David Bowie had a deep appreciation for how important visual aesthetics were to engaging his audience.
Thinking of the line as an abstraction that demarcates between different fields, David Bowie was a figure who made a career of boldly crossing this line many times over. As an artist he was never complacent, and he was always experimenting in new fields to generate new concepts of value to inspire others. There are other pioneers like Bowie throughout the history of the world who have opened new spaces of culture by stepping over said line. And while some of their radical ideas may not have taken hold in the mainstream, they nonetheless always managed to change the course of history. A great example are the conversations among the Dadaists at the Cabaret Voltaire in the early twentieth century who aimed to challenge the art world’s status quo with their claim that the spirit of contemporary art does not reside in its production, if not in the collaboration among artists creating a new vision of the world.
With the modern era’s dissolution of the hierarchy distinguishing between high culture and low culture, ‘collaboration’ and ‘collaboration between genres’ has become profuse. Contemporary artists who appreciate the value of collaboration such as Gilbert & George, Christo and Jeanne-Claude—and more recently, Elmgreen & Dragset, Allora & Calzadilla, and Tim Noble & Sue Webster—have all managed to blur the line between their respective artistic identities in producing oeuvres representative of new unified visions. This idea also applies to the cross pollination that can happen between artists—like the famous example of Andy Warhol and Jean Michel-Basquiat influencing each other’s work. The duos of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, and Duchamp and Man Ray are other great examples.
There are also cases where individual artists become more versatile in their own right by taking up new artforms beyond their primary means of expression. Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen, and Sam Taylor-Wood each made their marks on history both through fine art as well as with film. According to Rudolf Rugoff, Director of Hayward Gallery, ‘film-making requires special skills and what Steve McQueen and Julian Schnabel have done is display different skills – like a boxer suddenly taking up football.’ Characterized by sensuous depictions of characters’ emotional states, as well as sophisticated expressions of images and scenes, films by McQueen and Schnabel demonstrate a visual conviction considerably different from the language employed by those who are dedicated exclusively to the art of filmmaking. Nowadays, many young artists seek to expand their oeuvre beyond the boundaries of traditional visual art. For them, stepping over the line means finding new tools and frameworks that will best represent their ideas.
The proverbial line between different modes of artistic expression protects our existing concept of the world; nevertheless, we can never expect to experience new worlds if we don’t summon the courage to step over this line. And while there is no guarantee that stepping over said line will lead to progress or the development of our current concept of the world, it will ensure the driving force behind the movement of history. Perhaps the world today is need of David Bowie’s heirs apparent—those with the courage to step up to, and over this line.