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Honoré Daumier, One says that the Parisians. . . , 1864
Honoré Daumier, One says that the Parisians. . . , 1864


by Donald Kuspit

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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 reproduction of art eliminates the necessity of experiencing it firsthand, which involves esthetic experience of it. The art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy calls it "esthetic 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 esthetic experience involves "presentational immediacy" or pure "sense presentations," sharply differentiating it from the everyday "experience of causal efficacy" and conventional "symbolic functioning."(3) The psychoanalyst George Hagman thinks that adult esthetic experience is grounded in "the intimate esthetics 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) The art critic Roger Fry distinguishes between esthetic 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, thus obscuring their inherent qualities, and implying that they have little or no meaning in themselves.(5)

For Fry it is hard to become esthetically conscious of emotions and sensations; it requires a sort of willing suspension of belief in the world of action. The world of action’s indifference to esthetic experience, even denial and dismissal of it as inhibiting the action necessary to survive in society, 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. Tuning it out, 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 the "esthetic state," an "altered" state of consciousness bringing with it "an exalted feeling of power" -- vitality, in view of Nietzsche’s belief that in the esthetic 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 understood, firsthand esthetic experience is precluded by the secondhand experience of art in reproduction, whether electronically advanced or old-fashioned mechanical reproduction. If the art work is the privileged site of esthetic experience, or at least its repository and trace -- the social amber in which it is preserved, the expressive space that contains it -- as the quoted thinkers suggest, then its reproduction de-privileges esthetic experience along with it. 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 is superior to the techniques that inform the work’s artistry.

Reproduction trumps art by appropriating it wholesale -- digesting it until it is a shadow of itself. Even in digital art the technology seems to usurp the place of the art. Reproduction levels its sensuality and weakens its emotional effect, subverting its vitalizing evocative power, and making it seem less intelligent than it is, and with that
de-estheticizes it, that is, renders it useless as a means to the end of esthetic experience. Paradoxical as it may seem, reproduction, which claims to serve memory, leads us to forget what is most memorable -- experientially real -- about the art by reducing it to an appearance. The real work is superseded by its cannibalization in reproduction.

Esthetic experience is rare and demanding, for it involves relentless intensification of experience, leading to the dialectical transfiguration and transcendence of ordinary experience. What Mondrian called "man’s drive toward intensification"(7) drives creativity and climaxes in esthetic experience. Reproduction de-intensifies and de-transcendentalizes the art work by reducing it to an ordinary object -- banalizing it into another social phenomenon by stripping it of esthetic quality. Art manifests Geist in esthetic form; reproduction strips art of Geist, which is inherently unreproducible, by, paradoxically, reifying it as an illusion. Reproduction is a false epiphany of the artwork, for it de-sensitizes us to the creative work immanent in it. In a genuine epiphany we become aware of this creative work, and, more subtly, of our own creative work, that is, we creatively engage the art work, leading to a creative apperception of it, to use the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s term, and with that, as he says, acknowledgement of our own primary creativity. We creatively work it through rather than passively accept it as matter of factly given. We are unable to achieve such deep creative intimacy with a reproduction. Codified, historicized, and disseminated as a reproduction -- an impersonal mass product -- the art work appears to lose the idiosyncratic originality, and with that the esthetic uncanniness, that made it personally compelling. We come to doubt its originality, and our own, and eventually discard the idea of originality as a meaningless notion.

Psychologically speaking, 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. Firsthand esthetic experience of an art work involves such internalization. The esthetically convincing art work becomes a part of us -- "original" to us, as it were -- just as it helped the artist become an "original" self: hence its aura of originality, unavoidably idiosyncratic, because of the difference between selves, however universal the art’s appeal.

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 esthetically, 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 esthetic 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 esthetically 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 Andy 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 esthetic 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 esthetics -- the esthetics 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 esthetics. 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. As Brett and Michael Yormark say -- they are the directors of the huge BankAtlantic Sports Center in Broward County, Florida -- "teams are merely the ‘show’ for drawing in an audience of consumers." (Newsweek, December 17, 2007, page 53.)

Skating is "a very technical sport," the champion figure skater Mark Ludwig says, but it is also "a sport of esthetics," and he thinks its esthetics 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 too 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 esthetic 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 esthetic 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 known and mediafähig, if I may invent a word -- offer, however unexpectedly, esthetic 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 esthetic 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.

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 esthetic and intimate emotional experience -- even though the more it is presented as a commodity the less likely it is to function esthetically 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 estheticized 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; esthetically 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 estheticized commodity. An estheticized 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 estheticizing it -- infusing it with the intelligent sensuality Nietzsche attributed to art, thus giving it the aura of art, making it "an" experience. The more esthetically 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 Esthetics: 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 esthetic 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 esthetic purity, or, as I would call it, esthetic fundamentalism, which began with Impressionism. The avant-garde commodity appropriates and subsumes modernist estheticism, 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 esthetic 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 esthetic 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 esthetic 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 1980, 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 esthetically indifferent, although it was still ironically esthetic -- however absurdly scrambled the esthetics -- 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 Zürich 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 esthetic 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 esthetic 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 esthetically 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 esthetic 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.

This text is a modified version of the keynote address of a conference on "Kunst und Kommerz," attended by more than 200 European art historians and economists, held at the Swiss Institute for the Advanced Study of Art in Zürich in June 2010. The conference was advertised with a photograph of Joseph Beuys holding a sign saying, "Kunst=Kommerz."

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art

(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: Esthetic 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, Esthetic 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 Esthetics," 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 Esthetics (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, Esthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 45