Highbrow or lowlife; the society of the spectacle in the age of The Contemporary.

In her talk at the January MFA seminar 2013 at Whitecliffe College Judy Millar used as the central provocation a debate held between Gilles Lipovetsky, and Mario Vargas Llosa.This debate was held at the Cervantes Institute, Madrid, on 24 April 2012.

The main thrust of the debate centres around a single point of contention: culture as reflective of the ultimate dissolution of a decadent society or its best means of salvation?

In defending the current trajectory of spectacle in society, Lipovetsky identifies individual desire and change for its own sake as the two key denominators of modern life.

These agents are the drivers at the forefront of humanity’s ability to stay one step ahead of pedagogy and tyranny he argues.

Mario Vargas Llosa maintains however that the role of defender of freedoms is that of High Culture. He claims that high culture has always been a place of non-conformity and that the humanism inherent in it’s forms of expression is a “main source for progress and freedom”

Lipovetsky argues that revolution is no longer needed, and that instead the driving forces of self and consumerism will of themselves stay one step ahead of convention and ideology. This seems to ignore the real evidence that human nature has a propensity to hedonism and survivalism. Neither of these traits are conducive to community-building or a less ego-driven approach to the business of existence. Lipovetsky also argues that consumption of spectacle-culture is not passive, as multiple choices require a continuous active navigation of options. It does seem likely however that a majority of Western consumers would opt for familiar experiences and allow themselves only exposure to thinking that mirrors their own rather than choosing to encounter new, difficult and challenging ideas, some of which could broker real social change.

Some support for Lipovetsky’s positivity toward the effects of entertainment comes from a hero photographer of mine, Alec Soth, in his blog post titled should artists be entertainers? (Posted in Flotsam by LBM on Nov 7 2011. http://www.littlebrownmushroom.com/2011/11/). Soth suggests that art works on three levels; that entertainment is the hook to draw the viewer into something more educational and perhaps even transformative. In support of this he refers to the novelist Michael Chabon, who in his essay the Pleasure Principal says the following:

“Yet entertainment-as I define it, pleasure and all- remains the only sure way we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience and the universal hunger for connection.”

(Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/27/books/bk-chabon27)

Vargos Llosa however posits that in the age of The Contemporary “everything can be art, and nothing is”. Inside the safe enclosure of the museum or gallery a viewer can expect to see anything, no matter how visceral or disturbing, and detach from the experience via the endorsement of the institution; after all it’s just art. Thus the art market, and the hegemony that it supports, negate the disruptive possibilities for radical change occurring as the result of viewing an artwork. Expanding on this opinion Millar cites the recent exhibition by Cyprien Gaillard at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, April 2011, the recovery of discovery. In this show a giant geometric pyramid of beer boxes is gradually dismantled and consumed over a period of months, leaving a stinking mess of broken glass and detritus. Millar asks is this rebellion or decadence? The impact of either seems dulled by the implicit endorsement of the event by the institution; inside a safe curated space, anything goes.

Millar goes on to further discuss the role of art institutions in the society of the spectacle. In the example she gives, despite the protestations of the curator that art is not the art market, Klaus Biesenbach promotes the artist is present (Marina Abromavich) via an HBO film, in a way that sets up the artist as auteur and star, with added drama added by way of score and editing. The drama of the promotion is not borne out by the experience of being in the building itself while the show is happening, says Millar, and somehow packages what could be an intense and personal encounter into something played out for the big screen.

Wether society is rotting from the inside out by way of its decadent obsession with consumer culture, or rather that its citizenship are instead charting their own individual courses to salvation via the Arts or Shopping Channels, it seems that art institutions have become a much diluted force for change.

This sense that institutional art has become completely commoditised and thus stripped of any real agency for subversion does open up some new possibilities, and these are in part linked to technology. Millar referred to the promulgation of political revolutionary thought during the Arab Spring and to the activities of Anonymous as examples of internet-based cultural disturbances outside the control of the hegemony. Vargos Llosas maintains that technology breeds encapsulated skill-sets owned by specialists working in isolation, and says that only culture can create a community of interests. This may be so, however technology does offer vehicles for the creation, sharing and distribution of these interests.

In closing Millar poses a particularly relevant question for a group of tentative new artists; in this arena how do you disrupt? How do you challenge or subvert? Or are you content simply to add your output to the weight of existing art-commodity?

Marxists knew that owning the means of distribution was key to revolutionary success. The internet facilitates this means of distribution; a global arena for creativity, thought and citizen-to-citizen exchange as well as for commerce. As art institutions become increasingly reliant on revenue from the paying public, and thus tailor their offerings accordingly, technology continually creates new cracks away from the centre, new ways to enable disruptive and challenging projects on the fringes. This re-marginalisation of non-conformist thinking may well be the key to its survival. Grass-roots activist organisations can exist and interact via the internet, and a resurgence in local community based projects and interventions now exists as a global reality. Artists and writers can design and print their own books, and sell them directly to their audience without the need for major publishing houses to endorse their product. Crowdsourcing can fund-raise for a project, avoiding the circle-jerk of government “creative” funding rounds.

The brief romance that radical art has had with the mainstream, and all the attendant wealth and adulation that the relationship has engendered, may well be over. It may be time once again to make art that earns less and means more.



“Proust is important for everyone”

Original in Spanish ,Translation by Paul Hammond

First published in Letras Libres 7/2012 (Spanish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Letras Libres

© Gilles Lipovetsky, Mario Vargas Llosa / Letras Libres

© Eurozine


The Pleasure Principal excerpted from “Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands”

by Michael Chabon (McSweeney’s: 222 pp., $24). Copyright 2008 by Michael Chabon. Published by arrangement with McSweeney’s Books.

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