The Vernacular Vision: Robert Rauschenberg and his Influences

Michelle Lynn Rinard
Oct 21, 2014 12:02AM

Robert Rauschenberg has been concerned with what art should be throughout his very long career, and expressed an immediacy for the intersection of art and life. Prefiguring Rauschenberg, Walter Benjamin thought that art should be political, and emancipated from the traditional values of art. Art should say something that contributes to the voice of the people. Rauschenberg had the same questions regarding the purposes of art, and challenged the traditional notion of l’art pour l’art. He insisted that art and life should intersect, and in the age of new technologies, embrace our contemporary moment.

This exhibition features seminal works by Robert Rauschenberg, combined with artists working in his lineage. Together, these works all consider the realm between art and life, while embracing new media and intermedia to convey the current mode of perception. Rauschenberg insisted that the only way to be true to art was to acknowledge our surroundings of everyday life, which becomes reflected in all of these artists’ works. By combining media both textually and intertextually, these works speak to our everyday lives. Rauschenberg was the first to consider the intermediality of painting and sculpture, and extended his interests to sound, technology, and whole environments.

The importance of these featured works is the vision that they communicate to the contemporary viewer. Brian O’Doherty, a New York art critic, discussed Rauschenberg’s innovative work in terms of the “vernacular glance.” The vernacular glance is the relationship between the everyday viewer’s perceptions to the urban environment, which from the influence of television and cinema and advertising was an agitated and reactive mode of vision. Beginning with Rauschenberg’s Combines, these works perceived a similar viewing experience to that of the vernacular vision of the urban environment. In Rauschenberg’s own words: “I was bombarded with TV sets and magazines, by the refuse, by the excess of the world… I thought that if I could paint or make an honest work, it should incorporate all of these elements, which were and are a reality.” (1)

Today, Rauschenberg’s work, along with other revolutionary artists in his shadow, has exploded across the long lengths of the internet age. Artsy, a website designed for sharing artistic work as well as scholarly ideas, has taken the pivotal ideas of Walter Benjamin and Robert Rauschenberg to the next level. So what happens when the work is spread across millions of viewers on a computer screen? The most important part of Rauschenberg’s work is transported – his ideas. By sharing these ideas, the artwork is no longer “museum painting for museum walls.” It is shared painting – reproduced to be exchanged across millions of viewers, extending the knowledge and intellect of one person to the contemporary audience. As our world becomes more digital and our perceptual condition changes, so does our viewing of art and painting, which becomes more a part of our everyday world – as Rauschenberg wanted.


(1) Quoted in Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), p.345.

Michelle Lynn Rinard