The mythology of General Idea has hovered in a haze around the top floors of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) throughout “Haute Culture: General Idea, A Retrospective 1969–1994,” which runs until January 1. The Paris-based curator Frédéric Bonnet, in a magnificent design layout, has created five themes that clarify the group’s contribution to contemporary art.
From its inception in 1967, General Idea—aka AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal—used the AGO as a context for art propositions that challenge social values. The artists presented sophisticated personae rich in the trappings of bourgeois society, which contrasted wildly with the contemporaneous counterculture. They parodied society—and art society in particular—with the aim of cultural subversion.
In the 1960s, artists were challenging many cultural tropes: Allan Kaprow’s Happenings had initiated audience participation; Fluxus communicated through unorthodox media; Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and Roland Barthes’s essay “Myth Today” sent minds spinning; and Andy Warhol nurtured the cult of personality.
General Idea took from all these and created its own unique mythology. Its conceptual art continuum used the art world to infiltrate life. Disingenuously, the members presented themselves as “wannabe” artists looking to be famous artists. Associating the art world with glamour in their publication FILE Megazine, they wrote, “we wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamorous we could say we were artists and we would be.” Their fictional identity was a facsimile of the “real” thing. And, ironically, it came true.
FILE played off the name and visual emphasis of LIFE magazine, initiating legal action (the charges were eventually dropped). Its contents became deeply meaningful to a growing artistic milieu that evolved from collaborations with Vancouver’s Western Front and other artists in North America and Europe. General Idea exploited television formats of the era with Test Tube (1979) and subverted a well-known milk advertisement in Nazi Milk (1979): the work showed a young, blond farmer’s son sporting a milky Hitler moustache. In XXX (Bleu) (1984) the group mimicked Yves Klein, dragging stuffed poodles soaked in International Klein Blue paint across three canvases.
Significantly for a collective of three male artists, General Idea also addressed issues of gender and sexual repression—much like the British artist duo Gilbert & George, but with less aggression. General Idea became “mating poodles” in Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (1984), and with their appropriation of Robert Indiana’s “Love” motif (in AIDS, 1987) they joined the forefront of AIDS activism.
Looking back, it is curious that General Idea received its greatest recognition internationally. Studying art in South Africa in the 1980s, I learned about the group through American magazines, and found its flair revitalizing. General Idea left a legacy of widespread global impact for modern Canadian art.