Visual Arts - Donald Kuspit - Table of Contents

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Seemingly despite itself, capitalist corporate support of art, which includes support of its dissemination by reproduction, which also capitalizes on art and turns it into capital—corporate publicizing and reproductive publicizing go hand in hand—offers the spectator the opportunity of becoming existentially intimate with art, and with that actively experiencing it rather than passively consuming it, thus making it a potentially enlightening life experience—a kind of therapeutic compensation for workworld banality, an indirect means to the end of self-understanding, indeed, assurance that he is not just a “selfless” worker-consumer robot, but possesses some sort of self of his own, a self not entirely owned and manipulated by capitalism however much it is, not entirely caught up in the capitalist struggle for survival however much it has to be, not entirely reified by everydayness however everyday it unavoidably is.  

Capitalism may seem to force-feed the worker-consumer art and culture—forms of surplus value and byproducts of more necessary labor—as a kind of supplementary compensation and leisure time benefit, but his response to them can make a humanizing difference in his life, and transform art and culture from leisure time products into health-restoring instruments of consciousness.  Removed from the world of action, work, and consumption, and something that seems to defy the capitalist assumption that everything has its price—thus art and culture are priceless however marketable--the cultural work of art becomes vitalizing, piquing curiosity and making demands on consciousness, if in a leisurely way, as the fact that one needs leisure to attend to it, whether seriously or for amusement.  It may be an entertaining distraction from everyday life, but one has to do psychic work to appreciate it—simply to acknowledge its separate existence let alone the environmental difference it makes--suggesting that one takes it seriously despite oneself.  It alters consciousness of oneself and the lifeworld, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, if and when it makes a deep impression, that is, is not routinely appreciated but unexpectedly internalized as a good, life-supportive selfobject, to use the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s term.            

            Spectacularization by way of reproduction and commodification also do the work of art unexpected good—more unexpected yet consistent good than they do the spectator.  For only by becoming a spectacular commodity is the work of art likely to—in fact will--survive in capitalist society, and with that into posterity, for the capitalists who own, sponsor, and celebrate it as a spectacular achievement—who are the powerful elite in the society of the capitalist spectacle—have the power to give it a post-commodity future.  The only way for art to become unconditionally elite—immortal--is to become a spectacular commodity and thus appeal to the spectacular capitalist elite.  The artist becomes what Erich Fromm calls a marketing personality publicizing himself in order to sell his art as an enduring and indispensable commodity—first and foremost as a socially unique commodity, and secondarily as eternal art able to afford a transcendental aesthetic and intimate emotional experience—even though the more it is presented as a commodity the less likely it is to function aesthetically and existentially.  It is the commodity art of the capitalist elite—who are usually also the political and social and even religious elite--that survives in museums and textbooks.  It then becomes a fully realized appearance, and thus sufficient unto itself—transcends the conditions of its making, commodification, and reproduction.  The greatest power the capitalist elite has is the power to create, control, and own the future—to bring works of art into the establishment and pantheon called Posterity.  

Today commodification and reproduction are the only path to immortality—the uniqueness that is unreproducible and thus transcendent.  There will be neither works of art nor commodities in the future—which may be here already—but aestheticized commodities—commodities that represent the entertaining “world beyond,” to refer to Debord’s term, and as such are eternally elite.   Marx called religion the opium of the masses; aesthetically entertaining commodities are the opium of the capitalist elite.  What today we continue to call a work of art is simply a subclass of entertaining aestheticized commodity.  An aestheticized commodity—which is what capitalist society would like everything to become, whether something found in nature or made by human effort—makes the old distinction between artworld and lifeworld, workworld and consumer world, obsolete.  Surplus value is built into every commodity by aestheticizing it--infusing it with the intelligent sensuality Nietzsche attributed to art, thus giving it the aura of art, making it “an” experience.  The more aesthetically elite the commodity, the more it becomes a unique “experience,” which is what Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson, two professors of marketing, in their book Marketing Aesthetics:  The Strategic Management of Brands, Identity, and Image, says the advanced capitalist consumer expects from a commodity. 

The avant-gardizing and idealizing of the commodity as aesthetic entertainment is the grand climax of its capitalist development.  And, one might add, the post-avant-garde or post-modern development of avant-garde or modern  art—the ironical destiny of what Clement Greenberg called aesthetic purity, or, as I would call it, aesthetic fundamentalism, which began with Impressionism.  The avant-garde commodity appropriates and subsumes modernist aestheticism, reminding us of its connection to capitalist innovation—the capitalist invention of novel commodities.  Thus Yves St. Laurent’s Mondrian dresses and rainboots obscure and even shed their commodity identity by their use of Mondrian’s pure abstract art as decorative design, raising their exchange value as well as that of Mondrian’s purity, thus reifying abstraction as a marketable commodity.    

Even countercultural anti-art, such as Duchamp’s readymades, and anti-elite non-art, such as Kaprow’s happenings—the pseudo-art of the pseudo-eureka moment, as I think of it, more particularly, throwaway art made by quasi-chance in contrast to art made in the belief that it would last forever, that is, art that identifies itself with eternity rather than the specious present—will be acculturated as elite commodity art and preserved in the museum of the capitalist spectacle.  The literary critic Murray Krieger has written about “the fall of the elite object,” but he fails to note that it rises again as an elite commodity, as everything collected as capital does.  The society of the capitalist spectacle is a society of collectibles, and everything is collectible in a capitalist society—from automobiles to matchboxes, from so-called primitive artifacts to the archeological relics of sophisticated antiquity—and as such museum-worthy, and with that immortalizable, which makes it all the more marketable.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx celebrated bourgeois capitalism for its liberation of work, and the remarkable technological achievements that made it possible—including mechanical and eventually digital reproduction--but he neglected to note that bourgeois capitalism liberated objects from banality (which is what Duchamp’s assisted readymades may be about) by making them spectacular commodities. 

Certainly Duchamp’s Large Glass—ironically anti-elite art resurrected as the ultimate elite art, glass fragments, thin foil, lead wire, and dust resurrected as a one-of-a-kind collectible, not to say irreplaceable unique commodity--has become an entertaining aesthetic commodity, as he himself recognized when he deplored the fact that spectators came to regard it as beautiful and tasteful, undermining his insistence on what he called its aesthetic indifference and tastelessness.  Duchamp’s Large Glass may once have demanded psychic work, which the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal says differentiates art from entertainment, which makes no psychic demands on one, but it has been theorized to death, confirming that it has become theoretical entertainment—or is it that theoretical work has become entertaining in postmodernity, making the art it operates on unworkable in experience?--and thus no longer works as either anti-art or art.  I suggest that without Man Ray’s publicizing and reifying photographic reproduction of the Large Glass covered in dust, it would not have gained art historical consequence as a break with and even negation of art, certainly its disruptive re-conceptualizing.  Duchamp set it on the self-destructive path to Conceptualism--so-called dematerialized, and one might add demoralized art.    

If concept is more important than material, which is used to illustrate it if it is used at all, then any material can have “the status of art conferred” upon it, which are the words Breton used to justify Duchamp’s readymades.  All this means is that art has become a label that can be pinned on any old donkey.  The label “art” is the tail that wags it so that it is seen in a new way, without being new.  The label gives the found object surplus value—marketing something as new always gives it surplus value—as though to compensate for its loss of use value.  Being labeled art does nothing to change the found object, except in the gullible mind of the spectator.  “Art” serves as the object’s Emperor’s New Clothes, until some clear-eyed skeptic points out that the object is naked—just another object, assisted into becoming “art” by so-called theory.  As the Conceptualist Sol LeWitt suggested, the more trivial the concept—and the more indifferent its material execution--the more ironically better the art, suggesting just how perversely meaningless the idea of art has become.  Conceptualism vacates art, that is, turns it into what Dufrenne calls a vacant signifier, sometimes inhabited by an ideology or theory, a sort of hermit crab that lives in its empty shell, finding temporary shelter in the vacuum of art when it is unwelcome in the world, which treats it indifferently or hostilely.

Since Duchamp, theory serves as compensation for artistic and aesthetic inadequacy, not to say failure.  Art must conform to theory—fit into it as though into a Procrustean bed—to be convincing and taken seriously, suggesting that, because it is dependent on theory for credibility, it is not convincing in itself and is pseudo-serious.  Thus the conceptualized object brings itself into question—falls flat on its banal face--when it tries to walk without the crutch of theory.  More pointedly, seeing through its theoretical pretensions—its conceptual clothing--one sees that it is another commodity, and a fraudulent one at that, for it has no use value, that is, experiential value, however high its exchange value.  The theorization of art completes its commodification:  theoretically experienced—if theory is a way of experiencing—art is experienced as a commodity.  Today any found object can be theorized into art, and with that commodified, even as every commodity is an art object in theory.  Art has become subservient to theory, another actor in the theater of theory, another pretender to significance by reason of its theoretical acclaim—the applause theorists give it because it seems to exemplify their theories.  To use the Emperor’s New Clothing metaphor once again, theory becomes the Emperor’s New Clothing on the commodity art has become in Capitalism.  Or, to put this another way, all theorization serves capitalist purposes, suggesting that Conceptual art is the most ingeniously capitalist con game ever invented.  Thus mind loses credibility and independence by humbly serving Capitalism and trivializing itself by falsifying art.            

 The tacky work of conceptual art—but, as I want to emphasize, the only psychic work invested in it is labeling it “art” with as much ideological and theoretical pomp and circumstance as can be mustered--becomes a tactic in the postmodern game of art poker.  It is a game in which bluffing is hyped as innovative and revolutionary; the bluff is called when the work is recognized to be a pseudo-event and image-object.  Conferring the status of art on something is pseudo-creative.  It makes something appear to be art by designating it art, which is not much of a creative act, if it can be called one at all.  Conceptualizing something as art is not the same as creatively working to make art—working some subject matter imaginatively through to master it emotionally and intellectually, to use the psychoanalytic idea of “working through”--unless conceptual deception is creative.  Nonetheless, it is the way a pseudo-artist becomes a pseudo-aristocrat--a celebrity, a fixture in the society of the spectacle.  It is a society in which the art spectacle plays a crucial role, for it shows how easy it is to turn realities into appearances and persons into impersonators, not to say imposters.  Wearing the royal robes of celebrity tends to be dehumanizing in that it makes the celebrity forget that he is all too human.  Or one becomes a readymade human being, and thus no longer has to work at being human.

It has been said that the artist was the rock star of the eighties, but Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2, 1913, already rocked and rolled—was already all shook up.  She is an entertaining pseudo-human being, indicated by the fact that her  movement is modeled on the awkward, eccentric, seemingly precarious—and thus absurd--movement of the figures in early moving pictures, which themselves seemed to be in precarious movement.  It has been said that Duchamp was influenced by Muybridge’s photographs of figures in motion, but I think they are a secondary influence to the figures in the early movies, which move in a much more jerky way, making the figure a kind of joke, and her mechanical movement a joke played on her body.  She’s a star in an avant-garde movie, entertaining us with her quasi-seductive quirkiness—all the more entertaining because she seems to be performing a Futurist fan dance with the quasi-Cubist planes to which her body is reduced.  She’s all the more entertaining because she’s a pseudo-human being—an updated version of E. T. A. Hoffman’s wind-up doll—a mechanical toy performing a spectacular dance on command by the artist who invented her.  Duchamp realized that the moving picture was the future of art, all the more so because it involved mechanical reproduction as well as mechanical movement, and thus was aesthetically indifferent, although it was still ironically aesthetic—however absurdly scrambled the aesthetics--in the technologized Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2.  Writing to Alfred Stieglitz, Duchamp declared that photography led him to despise—his word—and devalue painting, for photography had superseded it and the camera had made the paintbrush obsolete.  He said he was waiting for some new technology that would supersede photography and make the camera obsolete, rendering them despicable and valueless.  One wonders if the computer, which functions digitally, would have done the job.

Duchamp’s nude makes an abstract spectacle of herself, suggesting that she  symbolizes the unrealistic society of the modern spectacle.  Duchamp realized that art had to become part of and serve the society of the spectacle if it was to survive in modernity.  From the Nude Descending the Staircase through the Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even to the raped and murdered nude in the Étants Donnés, Duchamp turned the nude, and with her art, into a spectacle, maliciously dissecting and debunking the beauty she symbolized and embodied in traditional art.  The graces and the muses were all female, and the misogynist Duchamp de-idealized their bodies, stripping them of their aura of sacredness.  He was an abusive Paris who relegated the three goddesses to the dustbin of mythology.  Duchamp endorsed photographic reproduction because it de-idealized reality, stripping it of the spiritual import that made it more than a mere appearance.  Ironically converted into an appearance by photography, reality could no longer symbolize human ideals, and as such became a valueless illusion—a spectacle.  Duchamp is the emblematic master of the disillusionment with art that is the dirty secret of avant-garde art, a disillusionment for which mechanical reproduction is in no small part responsible.    

The tendency to spectacle in 20th century avant-garde art—the fact that it increasingly exists under the sign of the spectacle, and from the beginning struggled to compete with the populist spectacles of the entertainment industry--was evident before Duchamp’s sinister spectacularization of the nude.  It was preceded by Picasso’s spectacularization of her in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  Fauvism made a spectacle of color—treated color as pure appearance rather than as external reality, often implicitly symbolizing internal reality.  It is well-known that Cubism and Futurism were informed by the first moving films, indeed, struggled to emulate and compete with them.  However crudely dynamic, they were spectacular—a new species of spectacle.  Cubist collages borrowed from the media—often used newspaper headlines and advertising labels—to signal their spectacular character and advertise themselves and their modernity or newness.  I suggest that Cubism can be understood as an unstable dialectic of public spectacle and hermetic abstraction.  It can also be argued that Expressionism spectacularized emotion and Surrealism spectacularized the unconscious.  One of the founders of Zurich Dadaism was a vaudeville performer, implying its indebtedness to spectacle.  Indeed, it can be argued that the Dadaists turned social entertainment into anti-social spectacle, as Huelsenbeck’s Memoirs of a Dada Drummer implies.  From Monet’s water lily murals to Pollock’s all-over paintings spectacle has become standardized in abstract painting.  No doubt the murals on the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are also spectacular, but they enlisted spectacle in the service of transcendence, which is why they are more elevating than entertaining.                    

Today one cannot help wondering what exactly the status of art is—if it has any status apart from the status its commodification and mass reproduction confer upon it--especially since they seem to mock its presumably high status by popularizing it in the mass culture.  Everything in it is subject to the common denominator consciousness of ideologizing publicity.  Clearly mass reproduction and corporate capitalism work in strange, miraculous, dialectically slick ways, indicating their absolute power over consciousness.  They have the magical power to create souvenirs of an experience we never had and no longer need as long as we have the spectacle.  The spectacle is wish fulfillment at its most ironically consummate.  Capitalism understands the deep human need to believe and trust, and brilliantly manipulates it by giving us faith in a make-believe aesthetic world populated by commodities—appearances of a reality that never existed—signaling there is nothing left to believe in and trust. 

This is the postmodern psychotic state of society, as distinct from the modern aesthetic state of the self.  Modern art was nourished by internal reality, traditional art was nourished by external reality, postmodern art is unrealistic or mock realistic—it can be argued that it begins with Pop Art, which celebrates and theatricalizes commodities and their appearances (already theatrical and celebrated, that is, given surplus value by publicity)--which is why it seems emotionally hollow, intellectually negligible, and aesthetically shallow however socially sensational it may be.  The issue that haunts this paper is whether ideology, including the ideologies of technology and corporate capitalism, which converge in the ideology of the spectacle—a mind-numbing dumbing down of consciousness—represses, even denies, or at least systematically suppresses, interiority and subjectivity, or whether the spectacle grants them a new lease on life, bringing with it a fresh consciousness of feelings and sensations, more broadly, of subjective possibility, indeterminate yet invigorating, despite capitalism’s apparent determination to manufacture spectacular appearances that belie and discredit their reality, for feelings and sensations interfere with efficient functioning in the world of action and technological society.  They are the unconscious ghosts in the human machine that now and then cause it to malfunction, like mischievous gremlins, and always threaten it—and the social machine--with complete breakdown from within.  They are the internal reality that reminds us that the external world of technological action is incompletely human.  Feelings and sensations tend to assert themselves—rebelliously intensify--whenever human beings are “caught up in the creativity…of a machine,” as Winnicott says, reminding them of their own creativity and giving them humanizing hope.  They are a sort of “wearing of the heart on the sleeve,” to use his expression—sometimes a broken heart--in defiance of the conformist pressure to take one’s place in the heartless social machine.  Such “compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living,” Winnicott writes, while intense feelings and sensations can lead to “creative apperception,” a manifestation of primary creativity which “more than anything else…makes the individual feel that life is worth living.”(14)   

“By slaying the subject, reality itself becomes lifeless,” Adorno said,(15) that is, merely appearance, as Debord would say.  For Adorno the social result is pervasive indifference (including aesthetic indifference), the final manifestation of alienation and dehumanizarion.  But the capitalist spectacle, however life-negating as Debord argued, and reifying as Adorno said of the culture industry that produces it, is constructed of appearances, and if the spectacle can convince us that appearance is reality, implying that we can never experience anything but appearances—that the sense of reality is a subjective consequence of the spectacular realization of appearances, that the sense of reality is a byproduct or aftereffect of the totalization of appearances in a popular spectacle, suggesting that popularity and reality are correlate, more pointedly, that reality is always and only what is popular--then the spectacle, despite its reifying effect (thus reality is reified as well popularized appearance, that is, popularization is a form of reification), may have a de-reifying effect on life.  Capitalism, after all, may have surplus experiential value, that is, make an unconscious subjective and existential difference, thus redeeming itself and the spectacular society it constructs, not to say the spectacle it makes of itself.  The dominant Zeitgeist is Capitalism—it defines and drives our times--suggesting that there must be Geist in it, if in the perverse form of the spectacle, and the reproductive technology that makes it seem timeless.                    



            (1)Quoted in Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image:  A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York and Evanston:  Harper & Row, 1961), i

            (2)Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Samvega:  Aesthetic Shock,” Selected Papers (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1977), I, 82

            (3)Alfred North Whitehead, “Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect,”An Anthology (New York:  Macmillan, 1953), 535 

            (4)George Hagman, Aesthetic Experience:  Beauty, Creativity, and the Search for the Ideal (Amsterdam and New York:  Rodopi, 2005), 3, 4, 6

            (5)The distinction is developed in Roger Fry, “Art and Life” and “An Essay on Aesthetics,” Vision and Design (Cleveland and New York:  Meridian Books, 1963), 1-38

            (6)Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York:  Random House, 1968), 421

            (7)Piet Mondrian, “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality,” The New Art—The New Life:  The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, ed. Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James (New York:  Da Capo, 1993), 101

            (8)Andrew M. Colman, Dictionary of Psychology (Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001), 197, 195

            (9)Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York:  Zone Books, 1995), 14-18 in passim

            (10)Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (New York:  Harper & Row, 1971), 107

            (11)Wilson Bryan Key, The Age of Manipulation (New York:  Henry Holt, 1989),  4

            (12)Mikel Dufrenne, “Why Go To The Movies?”, In the Presence of the Sensuous:  Essays in Aesthetics (Atlantic Highlands, NJ:  Humanities Press International, 1990), 131, 133-34

            (13)Boorstin, 37

            (14)Winnicott, “Creativity and Its Origins,” Playing and Reality (London and New York:  Tavistock and Methuen, 1982), 65

            (15)Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 45