Conceptual Art: Responses to Capitalism
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Published: Mon, 05 Feb 2018
When Situationism evolved from the Letterist movement, in the middle of the last century, it set itself up in opposition to two other two other politically motivated groups: Dadism and Surreallism. Situationism, however, was only incidentally political, and rather than subverting the art world, aimed only to redesign its context, including the attitudes of the public, so that art could become something anyone could do or enjoy- something integrated into everyday life. Historically, art’s efforts to bring down capitalist structures from within have been very ill-fated, with artists finding themselves ignored, scorned, crushed or – perhaps worse- accessories to political agendas. Artists and writers must work harder than ever to devise means of opposing or exposing capitalism’s deceptions, but many commentators appear to have reached the conclusion that the battle is barely worth fighting. As we shall see, Jean Baudrillard argues that criticism of the status quo is no longer possible through art or literature and that the only efficient way of dissenting from capitalist society is to commit suicide,
“Modern art wishes to be negative, critical, innovative and a perpetual surpassing, as well as immediately (or almost) assimilated, accepted, integrated, consumed. One must surrender to the evidence: art no longer contests anything. If it ever did. Revolt is isolated, the malediction consumed.”
Thus the avant-garde movements in Europe put the artist under pressure to exhibit a certain individuality, while also – rather contradictorily- being a producer, and as prolific, political and reactionary a producer as possible,
“There is a lot of talk, not about reform or forcing the Enlightenment project to live up to its own ideals, but about wholesale negation, revolution, another new sensibility, now self- affirming or self-creating, rather than a universalist or rational self-legitimation. This in turn suggests a tremendously heightened role for the artist, the figure whose imagination supposedly creates or shapes the sensibilities of civilization”.
In a sense, the avant-garde has been socially commissioned to forecast the future, to scouting out new intellectual terrain,
“Aesthetic modernity is characterized by attitudes which find a common focus in a changed consciousness of time… The avant-garde understands itself as invading unknown territory, exposing itself to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters, conquering an as yet unoccupied future. The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured”
Early Attempts to Overthrow Capitalism
In many ways, Dada and Surrealism represent the most successful artistic rebellions against capitalist norms, as they have attacked the conventional assumption of meaning itself, and in doing so drew attention to the ridiculous fact that such an assumption existed at all,
“Dada has often been called nihilistic and its declared purpose was indeed to make clear to the public at large that all established values, moral or aesthetic, had been rendered meaningless by the catastrophe of the Great War… Dada preached nonsense and anti-art with a vengeance”
It is as though the Artist jumped before she was pushed. With its effort to close the gap between producer and produced by making everything equally alien, Surrealism also sought to negate its creator, using,
“pure psychic automatism… intended to express… the true process of thought… free from the exercise of reason and from any aesthetic or moral purpose” . Habermas, too, asserts that Surrealism poses a threat to art’s existential rights, but still fails in two ways,
“First, when the containers of an autonomously developed cultural sphere are shattered, the contents get dispersed. Nothing remains from a desublimated meaning or a destructured form; an emancipatory effect does not follow”. Habermas draws attention to the levelling affect of contemporary communication networks: networks which challenge the hierarchical assumptions of classical Marxism, and which have, in scale, surpassed what any postmodern commentator – even in the 1980s- could have imagined. More so than ever, our media are democratic and interrelated,
“A rationalized everyday life, therefore, could hardly be saved from cultural impoverishment through breaking open a single cultural sphere — art — and so providing access to just one of the specialized knowledge complexes”.
Any active dissent can be transformed into a commodity, a product to assist the perpetuation of capitalism. Catchy slogans devised by revolutionaries are used to sell mortgages, paintings that challenge conventional assumptions about beauty and form are written about in books to be sold, and bought by galleries where their beauty and form can be admired and valued- bought and sold. As the “Anti-Naturals” recently wrote, on the subject,
“It is the nature of the Spectacle to transform all experience into a consumer commodity. It is no surprise, then, that so much of modern capitalist production should be focused on the authenticity swindle. It is not merely that we are told that our authentic self is only a credit card order away. We must be told what and how to purchase. Since, in the midst of the Spectacle, all experience is real only when it can be consumed, it is natural to follow the guidance offered by the array of products engineered to address each particular need. In reality, it is quite easy to mass market to hundreds of millions of individuals,‚ since each quest is identical in its basic features.”
Any words spoken against can be turned into rallying support. Art, like any powerful weapon, can always be turned against those who use it.
“Whatever doesn’t kill power is killed by it.” In this way the Dadaists watched their anti-art works being systematically categorised as works of art, and were forced to focus their whole project completely on the evasion of this recuperation. Five years of agitation against capital, war and morality, brought them to an impasse of suicide or silence. Everything the Dadaists made, said, wrote or performed seemed to be turned against its critical purpose and used against them- and they abandoned the project. Effectively, they went on strike.
The Dadaists left a legacy in the form of recuperated, commodified art works, and in multiple imitations of their style and attitude. Their advocation of collage and photomontage is now everywhere in advertisements, their paradoxically anti-art art surely at the very heart of current post-modernist critical theory. They were correct in their belief that this capitalist appropriation was inevitable while they were merely producing, and not controlling the means of production, but in some ways, they did in fact constitute a challenge to bourgeois morality. Dadaism questioned the philosophical assumptions which justified smug bourgeois attitudes, and uncovered the hypocracy of World War 1’s brutality legitimising propaganda. In the end they felt that their subversions of established values were merely contributing too much to the culture they had been trying to undermine. The Situationist Asger Jorn was emphatic about the failure of Marxist theory, to liberate of art from commodification,
“Instead of abolishing the private character of property, socialism does nothing but augment them as much as possible, rending humans themselves useless and socially non-existent. The goal of the development of artistic liberation is the liberation of human values by the transformation of human qualities into real values. Here begins the artistic revolution against socialist development, the artistic revolution that is tied to the communist project . . .”
Debord and the Situationist Reaction to Capitalism
Debord’s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, represented an attempt to articulate as fully as possible the Situationist philosophy. The term “spectacle” refers to the colonization of everyday life by commodity in late capitalism, an extension of alienation experienced between production and consumption. The spectacle’s subjective, one-directional effect requires a kind of non-participation, eventually resulting in a breakdown of communication between people. Situationism distinguishes between classical and modern forms of capitalism. Where classical capitalism demanded that “wasted time” describes any time not spent at work, modern capitalism actually reverses that, using advertising and other spectacular means to declare that it is the time spent at work that is wasted, and work is justifiable only because it provides the monetary ability to consume. Marx wrote that,
“the worker feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home” The Situationists describe the spectacular society as a place where, “the spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere” . As Debord himself explains,
“So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity. The spectacle is the bad dream of modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is guardian of that sleep” .
However, the spectacle was not unique to capitalist society; the Situationists worked on a theory of the concentrated spectacle that would incorporate individual influences on capitalist regimes. This was principally contrived as a rhetorical framework to include the cult of personality in the dictatorships of places such as Cuba, the Soviet Union and China. The Situationists argued that the same tricks that society used to sell fast cars and kitchen appliances were used to promote and deify figures such as Chairman Mao.
In anarchic efforts to subvert the spiritual and fiscal poverty of urban life under the tyranny of the spectacle, the Situationists developed a revolutionary art, departed from artistic convention. In their article “Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program,” Debord and the Marxist theorist Pierre Canjuers, assert,
“At one pole, art is purely and simply recuperated by capitalism as a means of conditioning the population. At the other pole, capitalism grants art a perpetual privileged concession: that of pure creative activity, an alibi for the alienation of all other activities (which makes it the most expensive and prestigious status symbol). But at the same time, this sphere reserved for ‘free creative activity’ is the only one in which the question of what we do with life and the question of communication are posed practically and in all their fullness. Here, in art, lies the basis of the antagonisms between partisans and adversaries of the officially dictated reasons for living. The established meaninglessness and separations give rise to the general crisis of traditional artistic means — a crisis linked to the experience of alternative ways of living or the demand for such experience. Revolutionary artists are those who call for intervention; and who have themselves intervened in the spectacle in order to disrupt or destroy it.”
Initially, the work the Situationist International produced was aimed at ridiculing formalist conceptions of the art object: Asger Jorn bought amateur paintings at flea markets and painted over them, subverting notions of authority and value. Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio invented a style of “industrial” painting where the canvas was over a hundred metres long, then cut strips off for potential buyers, thereby subverting traditional preconceptions of art’s autonomy. In reality these processes were eventually absorbed by a capitalist art market – bought, sold, exhibited, written about, and for the most part, politically neutered. In his 1974 book Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Burger points out that the avant-garde artist’s main goal is to shock the viewer, typically accustomed to organic or formalist works of art, in the hope that “such withdrawal of meaning will direct the reader’s attention to the fact that the conduct of one’s life is questionable and that it is necessary to change it” He goes on to state that,
“Paradoxically, the avant-gardist intention to destroy art as an institution is thus realized in the work of art itself. The intention to revolutionize life by returning art to its praxis turns into a revolutionizing of art”. This is the kind of logic that prompted the Situationists to agree to stop producing art in 1961, when they decided to cease considering themselves artists. Any remaining members unwilling to abandon traditional forms of art, including Jorn, Pinot-Gallizio, and Constant found themselves either being forced into ideological resignation or expulsion.
“It is a question not of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, but rather of refusing the spectacle. In order for their elaboration to be artistic and authentic in the new and authentic sense defined by the SI, the elements of the destruction of the spectacle must precisely cease to be works of art. Once and for all. . . . Our position is that of combatants between two worlds — one that we don’t acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist.”
In The Situationist City, Simon Sadler write that, in abandoning early Situationism, the Situationist International “abandoned its imagining of utopia – a devastating decision, surely unprecedented in the history of the avant-garde, and yet at the same time surely the situationists’ greatest contribution to that history: the recognition that in changing the world, avant-garde art cannot be a substitute for popular redistribution of power” It seemed that the SI recognized that for any avant-garde to succeed, it would do best striving to produce artists, and not art.
The Dadaists, too, were aware that both art and artist are part of the capitalist system, and consequently as guilty in their participation as any other commodity or worker. Marcuse and Adorno, in contrast, argued that the Dadaist project was misguided for its attacks on conventional art. They saw art as an autonomous entity, separate from capitalist interests, and something intrinsically apolitical that must be preserved rather than aggressively undermined. For Adorno, art bears an essential negativity derived from its peculiar Form; its rearrangements of reality are conducted according to a system quite alien to those of capitalism. This “Form” grants art a: “refuge and a vantage point from which to denounce the reality established through domination.”
While Adorno and Marcuse criticised the anti-artists for attacking artistic Form, they agreed with the avant-gardists in their slightly utopic aspiration of abolishing the distinction that existed between art and the rest of reality. In fact, Marcuse wished to see a society organised around the aesthetic principles he believed resided only within art. Both argued that this integration could not be achieved if artists were allowed to participate. Art should be kept apolitical and protected, in a realm conducive to calm reflection that might remind us of the truth an authentic life can afford us after the revolution.
So, although they expressed their rejection of this view in different ways, the Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists all aspired to a collapse of the distinction between art and the rest of life in present: “everyday life”. Instead of waiting for the revolution, all three argued that the integration of art and life was in fact necessary for the achievement of revolution, a revolution made possible only by a combined cultural, ideological and economic assault on capitalism. Asger Jorn, again, on the failure of the socialist revolution,
“The capitalist revolution was essentially a socialization of consumption. Capitalist industrialization brought humanity a socialization as profound as the socialization proposed by the socialists – that of the means of production. The socialist revolution is the fulfillment of the capitalist revolution. The one element removed from the capitalist system is saving, because consumption’s richness has already been eliminated by the capitalists themselves… Real communism will be the leap into the domain of freedom and of value, of communication. Contrary to utilitarian value (normally known as material value), artistic value is the progressive value because, by a process of provocation, it is the valorization of humanity itself.
Since Marx, economic politics has shown its impotence and its cowardice. A hyperpolitics will need to strive for the direct realization of humanity.”
Walter Benjamin’s Authentic Opposition: Crisis of Reproduction
Walter Benjamin is probably Adorno’s most established opponent, particularly since “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, a work that concentrated upon defining the ‘aura’ of traditional art preceding 1900, and assessed the decay of this aura under the impact of new media and cultural technologies. Benjamin argues that art has lost its “authenticity” because of mechanical mass reproduction in our capitalist-orientated culture industry. He is concerned about shifting attitudes to art, which came about as a consequence of the introduction of mechanical means of reproduction.
“Formerly unique objects, located in a particular space, lost their singularity as they became accessible to many people in diverse places. Lost too was the ‘aura’ that was attached to a work of Art which was now open to many different readings and interpretations”
Unlike his Frankfurt School colleagues, however, and especially unlike Adorno, Benjamin argues, this loss of authenticity is actually a positive thing, because it democratizes and politicizes art. Benjamin’s claim that art’s loss of authenticity might actually help free people, not enslave them in a capitalist culture industry starkly opposes Adorno’s ideas. In addition, each stage of reproduction of an original work of art also contributes to its loss of aura.
According to Benjamin, then: culture has been transformed into an industry; thus art has become commodified; contemporary culture is the machinery by which oppressive ideologies are reproduced and disseminated; new media technologies such as phonographs, film and photography, serve to destroy art’s “aura” and effectively demystify the process of creating art, making available radical new access and roles for art in mass culture; the spectator has become a collaborator and participant, who joins the author in determining the meaning of the production of the work of art. Art is “successful” only when it enables the critical contemplation of a viewer.
Benjamin happily equates authenticity with authority- the authority of oppressive institutions such as the church or the state- and history. As Benjamin explains, the work of art’s authenticity is “the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced”
Until the 20th century, artworks retained their aura, their “authenticity” precisely because of their inability to be mass-reproduced, whether religious artifacts or one-off paintings commissioned by individual wealthy patrons. This conception clearly presents aura and authenticity as profoundly undemocratic, as the means of artistic production remain in the control of the rich and powerful, then able use such art to maintain control over the masses. The introduction of mechanical means of reproduction of art, particularly photography and film, caused the very foundations of this setup to be radically altered. For the first time it was possible for anyone to acquire the means to take photographs of a work of art, or at purchase an image of the work. However hard cultural elites in the late 19th century had tried to protect the aura of art works,
“the social advance of the masses and the invention of media such as film, which depends upon distribution to the masses, had led to the inevitable ‘decay of the aura’ in the 20th century”. Benjamin marks the distinction between manual and machine reproduction of art,
“The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical, and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility,” he states, “Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis a vis technical reproduction”
Benjamin states two reasons this occurs. Firstly, machine reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction; secondly, “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”. So mass-produced copies are able to engage with the wider world in a manner not possible for the original or one-off copies. Benjamin summarises his ideas concerning reproduction by asserting the technique “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. Many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” So to allow the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, is to reactivate the object reproduced,
“It is these processes that lead to the “tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind”
In Benjamin’s conception, then, state and religious authorities have steadily lost the ability to control general access to such works of art, particularly since the 20th century began. This is most apparent in relation to the cinema, which destroyed the traces of aura with which art had been traditionally imbued; Benjamin cites art’s historical value as a fundamental part of magical and religious rituals. In the process, capitalism strips art of its the idealistic, theological “halo”- to some extent a happy consequence and restorative, as it returns the art object to its non-utilitarian presence, its everyday reality.
For Benjamin, an artwork’s “aura” refers to its uniqueness and the “phenomena of distance, however close [an object] may be”. He uses gives the example of distant mountains and a tree’s bough over head, – both contain “aura” because they are images have not been effectively reproduced mechanically .
Beyond the concepts of aura and authenticity, Benjamin’s concepts of reproduction and reversibility represent the core of his concerns about way in which art’s role in society has been fundamentally altered in the 20th century. Benjamin proposes that the artwork’s aura of authenticity has withered away because of its reproduceability, and the process of reproduction brings art into closer proximity with a mass audience. However, paradoxically, as the authenticity erodes, the work’s essence becomes forefronted in the process, as it starts to become designed for reproducibility. As Benjamin describes it,
“for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. . . . From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for an ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics”.
Benjamin’s commentaries on the effects of reproduction inspired other writers, such as Lechte,
“it is the process of reproduction as such which is revolutionary: the fact, for instance, that the photographic negative enables a veritable multiplication of ‘originals’. With the photograph, therefore, the spectre of the simulacrum emerges, although Benjamin never names it as such. The photograph as simulacrum by-passes the simple difference between original and copy”
Barbara Kruger’s Situationism and the Irresistible Collage of Society
Barbara Kruger addresses the negative aspects of capitalist society as an artist, writer, curator, lecturer and graphic designer. Her art is displayed both inside and outside museums and in a range of different forms. Occasionally her prints are framed and hung on the walls of museums and galleries in the traditional fashion, but Kruger is endlessly inventive, and often writes text to be printed or projected directly on the walls or floors of a museum.
In Picturing “Greatness”, a photography exhibition curated by Kruger in 1987 for The Museum of Modern Art in New York, text was printed in large black type across a central partition. Kruger selected photographs for this exhibit from the museum’s collection, and according to the words on the partition, the photographs were mostly of “mostly famous artists” who happened to be predominantly white and male. The text on the partition claimed the works “can show us how vocation is ambushed by cliché and snapped into stereotype by the camera, and how photography freezes moments, creates prominence and makes history”. Kruger’s work continually questions the definition of art, artists and the ways in which “great art” should be exhibited. In this work, Kruger challenges the overwhelming dominance of male artists and draws attention to the female’s apparent invisibility in western art history. Just like the Situationists under Guy Debord, she has altered the meaning of art by recontextualising it. Crucially, the visitor to Kruger’s exhibition does not need to be familiar with the original photographs before seeing the show- even the uneducated viewer could read Kruger’s text, look at the original images and come to their own conclusions about the meaning. Thus the work achieves a kind of unique political democracy.
Kruger has a background as a graphic designer, and as such creates effective bold images which are in many ways visually indistinguishable from advertisements, but rather than trying to sell a product, appeal directly to our social conscience. The subject of her text is always “I,” “me,” “we,” or “you”, as though Kruger engages in conversation with the viewer. Her messages probe the assumptions of the capitalist status quo: “You are seduced by the sex appeal of the inorganic,” “When I hear the word culture, I take out my checkbook” and “We have received orders not to move.”
Similarly, Constant, of the COBRA group, proposed a city as a kind of physical expression of his utopia of “free play” which, in parts, bears striking resemblance to representations of the Internet, in books such as “Mapping Cyberspace” (with wild lines pouring out of the metropolis perhaps representing bandwidth and site traffic). Made with perspex and bike parts, Constant’s models and his diagrams for New Babylon demonstrate his yearning for future as something mobile, organic, animated, and self-celebratory. For Constant the city was a sort of perpetual festival of leisure. With its intricately connected wires suspending clear circular layers, ramps and walkways, Constant’s New Babylon recalls some kind of tensile organism. As Constant describes it,
“The unfunctional character of this playground-like construction makes any logical division of the inner spaces senseless. We should rather think of a quite chaotic arrangement of small and bigger spaces that are constantly assembled and dissembles by means of standardized mobile construction elements like walls, floors and staircases. Thus the social space can be adapted to the ever-changing needs of an every changing population as it passes through the sector system.”
Analogues with the Internet are irresistable. Equally, he could have been referring in a general way to those unique social structures which have grown from the anti-globalisation movement – structures which, although provisional, pragmatic and short term, are nevertheless ideologically committed to social change and serve as emblems of the ongoing struggle against capitalism, a battle fuelled entirely from reserves of creativity.
Constant’s is city as collage, similar to that celebrated by the less politically motivated group, Archigram, in the UK (many of whose members now design massive architectural features for megaband stadium concerts). In this time of desperate connectivity and complicated layering of urban cultures, with invisible webs of communication engulfing us, the need to understand the city as a place beyond work and production seems more pressing than ever.
The Situationist reaction to capitalism is also excellently expressed through anti capitalist collage: for example that of the General Lighting and Power group, whose slick mock-advertising images of soft focus female forms in leotards and computer graphics of office interiors and car accidents, wryly annotated with entertaining aphorisms such as:
“Aerobics is necessary: progress implies it” (“I see you baby, shaking that ass”)
“God is in the retailing”
Comparisons to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger are obvious. Charles Rice, too, has observed the oversized billboard signs now proliferating in major cities, arguing convincingly that they serve to perpetuate the distance between the real and the impossible,”these spatial fantasies effectively deliver identification with the distant and the unattainable”
Many writers have noted the similarities between the Situationist’s idea of the ‘derive’ (that is, the navigating of a city via means and routes other than those originally intended) – and the experience of “surfing” the internet. Colin Fournier, architect and educator makes some potent observations on this area.
It would seem that many of the characteristics of the internet reflect the S.I.’s utopic city. The things considered prerequisite for their utopia: an ephemeral, negotiable type of city, where uses were determined by the population, surfing the web is like the idea of drifting or “deriving”, flaneur-like, through a city. The Situationist city and the web are uniquely flexible, anarchically dynamic: spacial relations secondary on any given route. The internet always seems to somehow recall the old Surrealist idea of using a map of one city to find one’s way around another.
Art as Capitalism: the Media’s Re-appropriation of Images
Increasingly, the media is becoming governed by imagery, and the average consumer is overwhelmed by visual information on a daily basis. Through sheer competition, the commercial sphere has been forced to use stranger, scarier, more extreme imagery to earn the attention of bewildered customers. Magazines such as Vogue have lured artists to their pages, where they are seen as innovative, visionary powers for re-inventing a complacent visual vocabulary. Thus, the traditional hierarchy of photography, in which the commercial and conceptual worlds were segregated, has been broken down into a fluid, integrated world- mutual respect has ensured that crossing the boundary either way no longer carries the taint or disrespect it once did.
A new generation of artists have grown up with the rather cynical and postmodern idea that all things are commercially viable. Contemporary art school graduates are less likely to see their ventures into the commercial realm as contamination, and more as a necessary aspect of their endeavor. Commerce is incorporated into art at every level, from the means to the ends to the theme. That the common thread of art and fashion- the human body- has become such a commodity, seems like an obvious extension of this. Fashion spreads frequently borrow art photographers for their pages and mimic, in the case of Diesel and others, with considerable irony- the current art world trend towards narrative ambiguity and deliberately theatrical tableaux that recall “theoretical” artists like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.
Russel Wong is one such new generation artist, his work strongly informed by today’s cultural fascination with celebrity. Wong has become famous through striking portraits of personalities from sports to music and movies, famous for capturing moments of vulnerability, warmth and humor. A number of Wong’s photos have been used on the covers of international magazines.
“My photos are never confrontati
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