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Paradoxes And Problems Of The Reproduction And Commodification Of Art In The Age Of The Capitalist Spectacle By Donald Kuspit
Many years ago, Max Frisch said that “technology [is] the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”(1) I will argue that the technology of digital reproduction of art eliminates the necessity of experiencing it firsthand, which involves aesthetic experience of it. The art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy calls it “aesthetic shock,” a perceptual experience which “shakes” us to the roots of our being, and as such is the most “serious” perceptual experience possible.(2) The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argues that aesthetic experience involves “presentational immediacy” or pure “sense presentations,” sharply differentiating it from the everyday “experience of causal efficacy” and conventional “symbolic functioning.” Unmediated or “direct experience” is “infallible,” in the sense that “what you have experienced, you have experienced,” in contrast to symbolism, which is “very fallible, in the sense that it may induce actions, feelings, emotions, and beliefs about things which are mere notions without that exemplification in the world which the symbolism leads us to presuppose.”(3)
The self psychologist George Hagman thinks that adult aesthetic experience is grounded in “the intimate aesthetics of mother and child,” involving their “affective interplay” in “mutual idealization,” which gives rise to “the sense of beauty… an invariant characteristic of anything that is experienced as ideal.”(4) Building on Kant, the art critic Roger Fry famously distinguishes between aesthetic experience, in which one becomes conscious of emotions and sensations as things in themselves, and ordinary experience, in which they stimulate and are associated with action, obscuring their inherent qualities, and implying that they do not exist for their own sake and have little or no meaning in themselves.(5) For Fry it is hard to become aesthetically conscious of emotions and sensations—it requires a sort of willing suspension of disbelief in the world of action, a phenomenological reduction of it, as it were. The world of action’s indifference to aesthetic experience, even denial and dismissal of it as inhibiting the action necessary to survive in the lifeworld and society—its persistent devaluation, even unconsciousness of aesthetic experience--does not help matters. Only by critically turning the tables on the world of action by regarding it as an illusion, or at best a necessary evil, can one see that emotions and sensations are not illusions, but uncannily real: not incidental but primary. Tuning it out, and thus effecting an ironical transcendence of it, one sees the peculiar transcendence of emotions and sensations. Only then, and with the help of what Nietzsche called the “’intelligent’ sensuality” of art, can one enter what he called the “aesthetic state,” an “altered” state of being and consciousness, bringing with it “an exalted feeling of power”—vitality, I would say, in line with Nietzsche’s idea that in the aesthetic state “we infuse a transfiguration and fullness into things and poetize about them until they reflect back our fullness and joy in life.”(6)
However one might characterize it, firsthand aesthetic experience is precluded by the secondhand experience of art in reproduction, whether it is electronically advanced or mechanically outmoded reproduction. If the work of art is the privileged site of aesthetic experience, or at least the repository and record of it—the social amber in which it is preserved, the expressive space that contains it, a sanctuary keeping it safe from the world of action, which means, from the perspective of that world, that it is safely out of the way (not unlike the mysterious genii in the magic lamp, a prison from which it cannot escape until some deeply serious perceiver unexpectedly comes along)--as all the thinkers I have quoted suggest, then the reproduction of the work of art de-privileges aesthetic experience along with the work of art. Reproduction challenges and mocks the skill that went into its making—especially if it was made by hand and eye and not simply dependent on its concept and ideology for credibility—by implying that its own technology, whether mechanical or digital, is superior to the techniques that inform the work’s artistry.
Reproduction trumps art by appropriating it wholesale—swallowing it and digitally or mechanically digesting it until it is a shadow of itself, to mix my metaphors. Even in the case of digital art the digital technology seems to usurp the place of the art. Reproduction levels its sensuality and with that its emotional effect, thus subverting its vitalizing evocative power, and makes it seem less intelligent and subtle than it is—and that firsthand experience of it can discover it to be--and with that de-aestheticizes it, that is, renders it useless as a means to the end of aesthetic experience. However paradoxical it may seem, reproduction, which seems to serve memory, leads us to forget what is most memorable and experientially real about the art by reducing it to an appearance. The real work is superseded by its cannibalization in reproduction.
Aesthetic experience, however understood, is rare and demanding, for it involves relentless intensification of experience, leading to the transcendence and dialectical transfiguration of ordinary experience. What Mondrian called “man’s drive toward intensification”(7) drives creativity and climaxes in aesthetic experience. Reproduction de-intensifies and de-transcendentalizes the work of art, returning it to everyday life by making it an object of ordinary experience—banalizing it into another social phenomenon, so that it loses its numinous quality--its aura of exceptionalism. Reproduction strips art of Geist, suggesting that what is unreproducible is easily reified. It is a kind of false epiphany of the work of art, lacking aesthetic purpose and evocative power. No longer can the individual work, relegated to its place in history by being socialized as a reproduction—disseminated as a mass product—become the catalyst of aesthetic experience: a genuine epiphany and intensification of experience, making us conscious of our own primary creativity, to use the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s term. Mediated and codified by reproduction, the work seems to lack the idiosyncratic originality that drew us to it in the first place—if we are not simply studying it for art historical purposes. We even come to doubt, even deny its originality, and finally come to dismiss the idea of originality as meaningless.
More crucially subjectively, we are unable to internalize over-mediated art—art reduced to commonplaceness by widespread reproduction--as a symbolic good object, and with that a resource for emotional refueling and cognitive refreshment. If the work is seriously good enough, it will put us in touch with our primary creativity, as I have suggested. It is what aesthetic experience at its most intense accomplishes. Short of that, the original work can be psychically nourishing, for it helps us originate ourselves, as it did for the artist who made it—hence its aura of originality, unavoidably idiosyncratic because of the difference between selves.
Idiosyncracy hints at differentiated originality—the capacity to differentiate, which is implicit in creativity--but reproduction trivializes idiosyncratic nuances, making them seem inconsequential. It makes the work seem seamlessly integrated by playing down its differentiated character, thus undermining its creative integrity and particularity. Without its idiosyncratic nuances, it loses its expressive edge and aura of originality. Reproduction is a kind of de-differentiation of a subtly differentiated work of art, making it seem systematically even dogmatically given, rather than the idiosyncratic, uncannily original product of subjectively difficult, intricately nuanced, self-realizing creative labor. The problem with the reproduction is that it is paradoxically selfless and thus can never be original.
It certainly no longer affords what the philosopher John Dewey called “an” experience that has transformative effect, but simply another experience one can casually take or leave. It no longer enlightens us about emotions and sensations; reproduction re-embeds them in the world of action, neglecting and even trivializing them. Reduced to accessories of action—a sort of ornamental background music to action, adding a bit of excitement to it if sometimes distracting us from it--they lose value and meaning in themselves: the value and meaning art struggles to make us conscious of, and that art itself loses by being subsumed into the world of action as a decorative backdrop for more important concerns than it. As the history of social action shows, art gains credibility, and with that respect, to the extent it serves the commercial, political, and religious powers that be. There are always connoisseurs capable of experiencing it aesthetically, but they are a minority, even if they belong to the commercial, political, or religious elite that uses art to reinforce and glorify its power and further its interests.
Digital reproduction undoubtedly makes for a more refined reproduction than mechanical reproduction, which seems crude in comparison. Digital reproduction is so sophisticated that it seems adequate to the art it reproduces, even as convincingly “artistic.” Indeed, so convincing that it may lead one to believe that it is as good as and even better than the art it reproduces or copies--so “adequate” that one doesn’t have to bother to look at let alone experience the actual art. The reproduction becomes adequate for the purposes of scholarly analysis, and comes to replace the original it copies, to the extent that it begins to seem original in its own right. It seems to have an aesthetic of its own, and as such capable of effecting the same revolutionary transformation of consciousness as the original work. Mechanical reproduction makes no pretense of being adequate to the art it socially mediates, and no pretense of being as aesthetically satisfying—have as much experiential potential—as the art it reifies, for all reproduction is reification, but my point is that both modes of reproduction sell art short as an experientially unique creative product—a product not like any technologically produced everyday product, however much art may incorporate elements of the technological society in itself.
When American Pop Art emerged in the 1960s, the joke was that it looked better in reproduction than it did in reality—looked better as a reflection in the mirror of reproduction than when seen in person, an idea valorized by Warhol’s wish to be a star so that he could meet real stars face to face and see that they didn’t look as perfect as they did in their photographs. Their faces, like his, had blemishes, which made them real. But he didn’t like their reality, only their glamorized appearances. It was the kiss of death for aesthetic experience and the ironic negation of Walter Benjamin’s theory that reproduction was socially progressive in that it eliminated the cultic aura art had in pre-modern—pre-enlightened—societies. As Warhol’s populist commercial art shows, reproduction serves the cult of the celebrity, whether it be a person or a product—presents a person as a commercial product, and a commercial product as peculiarly personal, that is, with a crowd-pleasing personality. Two decades before Warhol’s crowd art, Benjamin’s theory was brought into critical question by Theodor Adorno’s theory of the culture industry—a deliberate response to Benjamin grounded in the realities of capitalist Hollywood and mass culture. For Adorno, art is the victim of mechanical reproduction, and with that a mode of deception—like all reproduction.
We are all members of the society of the spectacle, which is correlate with capitalist society. Warhol, who presciently called himself a business artist, was also a celebrity artist, that is, a servant of the society of the spectacle--an artist who, like it, preferred appearance to reality—who celebrated appearance at the expense of reality, indeed, used it to obscure and deny reality. The society of the spectacle is a postmodern society, in that it has given up on external as well as internal reality, treating both as codified appearances. It has given up on what psychoanalysts call reality testing. Modern art grappled with both realities, dialectically teasing out their inherent aesthetics—the aesthetics of their own dialectical relationship--which became its own reality. Postmodern art subsumes modern art—and reality, internal and external--by reproducing it as a cultural code: one among many, and thus of no special consequence. Postmodernism kitschifies modern art and its modern reading of reality, and reality as such. In postmodernity and postmodern art the shock of the new becomes the schlock of the neo, as a New York saying goes, and reality is de-realized and de-personalized, completing the much acknowledged process of alienation and dehumanization in modernity and modern art. Postmodernism is the triumph of derealization and depersonalization over reality testing and self-realization, that is, the realization that one is a particular person not a social robot, or, to use Winnicott’s language, has a True Self, capable of “spontaneous gesture and personalized idea,” as he says, however routinely false to oneself one may be.
I might emphasize that I mean derealization and depersonalization in their psychotic sense: the postmodern society of the spectacle—in which art is part of the spectacle and makes a spectacle of itself—is a psychotic society. Derealization involves “an experience or perception of the external world as unreal, strange, or alien, as it were, a stage on which people were acting.” Dare one say performing in a spectacle? Depersonalization involves “a feeling of emotional detachment or estrangement from the perception of self, as if one were acting in a play or observing one’s physical and mental activity from without.”(8) It is the feeling one has watching oneself perform. The so-called defamiliarizing effect that modern art has been said to aim at, and that has been reified in postmodern art, may be a psychotic symptom.
Homo Spectator is socially, culturally, and economically dominant, as the Situationist Guy Debord argues. For him it is not clear that Homo Spectator is Homo Sapiens. In the society of the spectacle, we live in fantasy not in reality, and we are unable to distinguish them. As Debord writes, “the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance…it [is] a visible negation of life…a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself.” “It turns reality on its head,” even as “the spectacle is real.” It establishes “the empire of modern passivity”: the “image of the ruling economic order,” it is “beyond dispute” and “demands…passive acceptance.” Where in an earlier capitalist stage, there was a “downgrading of being into having,” the current capitalist stage “entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all effective ‘having’ must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearances.” The society of the spectacle relies on “technical rationality” to produce pure appearances—especially mechanical and digital reproduction, the most rationalizing technologies for producing appearances, the more spectacular the better: “the spectacle is…a technological version of the exiling of human powers in a ‘world beyond’—and the perfection of separation within human beings.” Art has credibility and exists only as a marketable, “technical” appearance in the society of the spectacle--as what Debord calls an “image-object” in the service of the “dictatorial freedom of the Market,”(9) which is the ultimate spectacle and the ultimate reason for its existence and credibility. Those who can afford to own the most marketable “artistic” appearances, as well as the business artists who produce them, become part of the spectacle, that is, marketable appearances in their own right—those image-objects called celebrities.
In the society of the spectacle, publicity is the only ideology. “Publicity acquires the significance of an ideology, the ideology of trade,” Henri Lefebvre writes, “and it replaces what was once philosophy, ethics, religion and aesthetics. The time is past when advertising tried to condition the consumer by the repetition of slogans; today the subtle forms of publicity represent a whole attitude to life.” He adds: “publicity is the poetry of Modernity, the reason and pretext for all successful displays. It takes possession of art, literature, all available signifiers and vacant signifieds.”(10) Publicity is a way of “engineering…consent,” to use the felicitous phrase of the sociologist Wilson Bryan Key. Publicity “assaults human perception at both conscious and unconscious levels, especially the latter,” making it difficult to “easily discriminate between fantasy and reality.” It is a form of “psychological indoctrination,” leading to “self-deception” and the forfeiting of individuality.(11) “The essence of ideology is to create illusions, disguise the real, and substitute something unreal for it without this substitution being apparent,” Mikel Dufrenne writes. “Why combat ideology, if not to free: and free whom, if not the individual?...Only the individual has to be freed, and precisely because he is alienated”(12)—from his self and his humanness. Dufrenne notes that deconstructionists think that the “anti-ideological…calling on the subject” is in epistemological fact calling on another ideological code. Dufrenne counterattacks—his word—by observing that “a similar terrorism rages in the interpreters of the system” as exists in the system, informing deconstruction’s obsession with its codes.
Writing about “pseudo-events,” and by extension “pseudo-images”—in effect pseudo-art—the historian Daniel Boorstin notes that “from their very nature [they] tend to be more interesting than spontaneous events….pseudo-events tend to drive all other kinds of events out of our consciousness, or at least to overshadow them….the experience of spontaneous events is buried by pseudo-events.”(13) Pseudo-events and pseudo-art give rise to pseudo-experience—experience which is not spontaneous but simulated and “spectacular.” It is socially manufactured and ordained experience, and thus pseudo-personal. The False Self has false experience, that is, as Winnicott indicates, it is incapable of “creative apperception” of reality, to use his term. A reality-deceiving pseudo-experience occurred at the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year. In an article in the New York Times dated February 22, 2010 and headlined “After Skating, A Unique Olympic Event: Crying,” Juliet Macur describes how crying was turned into spectacle, that is, stripped of its subjective meaning and spontaneity and objectified as a programmed marketable appearance. Crying was commodified as a pseudo-event by the television media that publicized it, that is, used to stimulate the sales of the products they advertise in the intervals between their reporting of Olympic events. Media analysts have shown that more visual spacetime is given to the money-making advertising agenda than to the “live” sporting event whose every detail they claim to be covering. The event becomes an entertaining adjunct to the advertising, not vice versa. It is derealized and depersonalized, while the technology of advertising “realizes” and personalizes the product. The event is used to market the product, and becomes a way to publicize it—part of the sales pitch—completing its derealization and depersonalization, that is, its pseudoification and psychoticizing.
Skating is “a very technical sport,” the champion figure skater Mark Ludwig says, but it is also “a sport of aesthetics,” and he thinks its aesthetics have been corrupted by being turned into “theater.” He notes that “he had attended a U.S. Figure Skating training program in which skaters participated in a mock kiss-and-cry.” Kiss-and-cry was rehearsed and simulated, losing reality and personality by becoming a staged appearance. Indeed, David Michaels, “a senior producer for NBC’s Olympic coverage and the network’s director for figure skating,” points out that the Olympic stadium has a “kiss-and-cry area.” “’It’s gone from a blue curtain and a bucket of flowers on the side to plastic ice sculptures and crazy sets. It becomes a big design element that everyone works hard to figure out…. The network often adjusts the lighting to make it look more realistic and less like a TV set, he said, adding that one of NBC’s cameras is attached to a small crane that swoops into the kiss-and-cry from above.” He adds: “The value of the kiss-and-tell is basic…if you add up the total amount of airtime that the kiss-and-tell gets relative to the skating, it’s a very large percentage.” What is supposed to be an “unscripted moment” in which the skaters let “their guards down,” becomes a scripted moment in which the skaters let their guards down on cue. Thus spectacle triumphs over reality by simulating it, falsifies a life event by turning it into a pseudo-event, thus devaluing it and subverting its significance.
Postmodern art events are not much different than postmodern sporting events. Indeed, the spectators—fans--of both become part of the spectacle, a point made transparently clear by Yves Klein’s organization of an art opening—certainly a pseudo-event--in which the only “works” on display were the invited audience, who were only to happy to exhibit themselves, and who, in their own way, were for sale, all the more so because by becoming part of the spectacle of art they became marketable as celebrities. As Boorstin writes, “the hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media”—created by dissemination as a media reproduction, one might say. “The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.” Does Klein’s exhibition of the spectator, and later incorporations of the spectator into the theatrical space of the spectacle that the postmodern work of art, like the postmodern art museum, has become—for example, in Bruce Nauman’s and Dan Graham’s installations—make him a hero of art, a big man, or an art celebrity, a big name? Warhol seems to have been a small man inflated by media publicity and his use of the media in his postmodern art into a big name. With postmodernism, the psychotically reified False Self comes into its own, just as art becomes a psychotic spectacle—not simply a theater of the absurd, but beyond absurdity, for absurdity has its own reality, while the postmodern theater that is the spectacle makes no pretense of addressing reality, offering instead psychotic entertainment. There is not much difference in principle between the dancing mannequins of the Radio City chorus line and the static mannequins in a Vanessa Beecroft installation, however costumed the former and naked the latter. They are both glamorized robots, that is, derealized and depersonalized—psychoticized and reified—human beings, more particularly, theatrical appearances.
The entertaining celebrity is a capitalist robot in a merchandizing spectacle, and today anyone can become a celebrity robot, or rather buy a “Celebrity Look with a Photo and a Click,” as the New York Times tells us, making her a pseudo-celebrity, which is almost as good—good-looking--as the unreal thing. As the Times tells us, also in the February 22, 2010 issue, “Selling a Celebrity Look” is Big Business. All the would-be celebrity has to do is look “at gossip blogs to get fashion ideas from celebrities.” Thus, on CelebStyle, Kate Mitchell saw a photo of the actress Kate Winslet “in a navy shift dress with a white cardigan and recreated the look”—on the cheap, one might add. “’I was so excited,’” Mitchell exclaimed, “’because I was like ‘I own that dress and it was like $40’.” Winslet’s dress probably cost somewhat more. Winslet, a theatrical marketing personality, has done her job: she has sold Mitchell a bill of goods in more ways than one. Mitchell identifies with Winslet by way of her clothing, and wearing the clothing Mitchell may believe, however unconsciously, that she is Winslet, certainly as attractive, fashionable, and even as good—or at least glamorous—an actress as she is. Why isn’t she in the movies and making big money? Any woman can “Buy the Clothes of the Famous”—or at least clothes that look like those of the famous—and feel famous as she walks down the street, perhaps hoping that some Hollywood agent will notice her and give her a job, the way the ingénue actress played by Anne Baxter replaced the aging Bette Davis character in the film “All About Eve.” Hope springs eternally, and so does ambition.
Mitchell may get tired of pretending she is Winslet, and prefer to be Angelina Jolie. Her fantasy can come true by going to INFDaily and clicking the “Shop this look” badge to purchase—instantly and inexpensively--clothes like those Jolie is wearing in her photo. Paradoxically, copying Jolie or Winslet Mitchell becomes “original,” suggesting just how debased the idea of originality has become. Dressing like Jolie and Winslet, Mitchell has the illusion that she is true to herself, even though she has falsified herself by trying to look like them. Wearing clothes like theirs, she in effect becomes them, but who are they? Mitchell has forfeited her reality, not to say autonomy and identity, to become an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy of a Platonically perfect idea of a Fashionable Appearance. If, as Winnicott says, the psychotic often unconsciously feels unreal, then a Fashionable Appearance compensates for the feeling of being unreal, even as it confirms that one is unreal. It is no accident that the actor and actress have become the ideal types in the society of the spectacle, for the most celebrated of them are able to impersonally perform an appearance so that it seems real and personal. They have mastered the art of pretension: the society of the spectacle is a theater of imposters, a Platonic cave in which media mannequins fake existence by reproducing it as a stereotype. The term “hypocrite” derives from the Greek word “hypokrites,” which means a stage actor or one who plays a part: in the society of the spectacle everyone is unwittingly a hypocrite, like Mitchell, who simply wants to play a part in the spectacle—naively pretend to be someone she isn’t, suggesting that she doesn’t know who she is, and has no interest in knowing. Without realizing it, she is self-defeating. Self-knowledge and self-realization have become meaningless in the society of the spectacle, for there is no self to know and realize--or rather one can only realize and know oneself by becoming part of the spectacle. Finding oneself reflected in the mirror of the spectacle, one becomes a spectator of one’s reified appearance, completing the realization of oneself as an image-object.
Is there any saving grace to the commodification and theatricalization of art as part of the psychotic spectacle of reified appearances in capitalist society? The process of commodication and theatricalization is completed by the corporate sponsoring and publicizing of the art, which gives it the unmistakable imprimatur of money. Does the incorporating of art as capital do it any good? Does it make aesthetic experience possible for the many rather than the privilege of the one by making art accessible to everyone, if only because everyone believes in money? If aesthetic experience is a species of critical consciousness in that it creates what the psychiatrist Silvano Arieti calls a margin of freedom beyond biological, ideological, and social determinisms, does the capitalization of art, correlate with its mass reproduction, which amounts to a new determinism, create, however unexpectedly, a margin of freedom for the overdetermined masses? Does capitalism foster critical consciousness for the masses even as it publicizes and celebrates art as part of the spectacle of mass society—a commodity among commodities--suggesting that capitalism, however unwittingly, is more humanizing than any other economic system, despite its bad reputation as a system of reification? Does it, in attempting to give the corporation a big name by giving the artist a big name—of course the corporation’s name is bigger than the artist’s to begin with, more widely know and mediafähig, if I may invent a word—offer, however unexpectedly, aesthetic self-enlightenment to the masses, helping them to become differentiated individuals, that is, gives them the opportunity to realize and personalize themselves—to have an out of the ordinary “original experience?”
I think so, however haphazardly, intermittently, ironically: it brings with it the expectation of existential liberation through art—it becomes a means of psychic survival. Art becomes the extraordinary in the ordinary--a breath of psychic fresh air in an otherwise stale life, in which the basic concern is to physically survive. Art becomes the relief from the relentless cycle of work and consumption that is the substance of everyday life. The capitalization of art allows it to be experienced as extraordinary—an emblem of capitalist creativity--for capital itself is extraordinary, since without it nothing can be created: it has the power of life and death, like God. Unless it is a form of capital, art would not function, let alone be held in high esteem, even regarded as sacred, for nothing can function without capital, which is sacred by definition. It is thus to art’s advantage to be appropriated by capital, to be taken under its generous wing, ironically allowing it to function as a margin of freedom within capitalism—dare one say a mental escape from it?--however subject to its iron rule: make money. If nothing else, the corporatized exhibition—an exhibition to which the corporation lends its grandeur, an exhibition which the corporation blesses with its enigmatic presence (for who among the masses knows how a corporation works however much they are part of its capital, and thus incorporated?)—creates the possibility of a margin of psychic freedom, bringing with it a sense of individuality, even of unique identity, in the anonymous spectator, in effect de-massifying him, if only for the nonconformist moment of his aesthetic experience in the margin of social freedom called art, a margin capitalism paradoxically creates by sponsoring and reproducing art as a symbol of its own creative power: its power to innovate and change. As Adorno and others have pointed out, the development of avant-garde art, with its creative freedom—some would say nihilistic license—is directly correlate with the development of capitalism. Schumpter argues that capitalism is “creative destruction”; the same has been said of avant-garde art. Art, like capital, arouses curiosity, which is the beginning of consciousness, and can lead to self-consciousness—consciousness of the creativity of the self, often in response to its everyday suffering. Curiosity may become wonder, which may become comprehension. Capitalized art can start something which may not end, changing the lifeworld of the spectator however much he must conform to the workworld and the consumerworld. But then capitalism is nonconformist.
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