Find three examples of work in which the work of others is incorporated.
Find three examples of work that appropriates, copies or references everyday objects and reuses them as works of fine art.
Appropriation art pushes the boundaries of our understanding of what art can be and very much depends on whether you subscribe to the notion that anything can be art. Appropriation artists are in direct opposition to ideas of artistic genius and even authorship, appropriation is about the concept and those who oppose appropriation art criticise that it is devoid of talent and even that it represents illegal theft. Most appropriation artists care little about this, in fact for many this is the very point of their work. Appropriation can be defined as the act of borrowing, stealing or taking over others works, images, words and meanings for ones own ends, including amongst other things; recontextualisation, pastiche and referencing. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009) Appropriation is frequently pervasive with postmodern art and culture and is the borrowing of ideas or images and incorporating them into new representations or objects. (Pooke and Newall, 2008)
In the early twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp challenged the very nature of art with his ready made urinal sculpture ‘Fountain’ (1917). To be successful however, the concept that anything can be art if the artist says so requires others to agree. It was not until the 1960s that this really became the case when pop art explored themes of consumerism, the banal and embraced what was deemed low culture. A decade later the idea began to gain real traction with postmodern artists like Sherrie Levine who took the work of another artist, rather than an everyday object like DuChamp, and presented it as their own work. An approach which challenged the value of art, originality and the myth of artistic genius rather than what art can be.
For the purposes of this assignment I have chosen work that is unified by having been made consciously as the work of an artist rather than looking at how artworks can become significant culturally and their meanings changed through the way they are used. I have chosen the artists and artworks here based on my own interest rather than trying to make some wider comment about what appropriation is in modern art. I have tried however to make a selection that enables discussion of different aspects of what appropriation can mean, as well as the many ethical and legal difficulties this can present.
Richard Prince: New Portraits (2014)
‘New Portraits’ is a series of screen grabs taken from Instagram and ink jet printed onto 6 foot canvasses. Prince experimented with various printing techniques before deciding upon the canvass as the way he wanted to present the series, the surface was tightly wound giving the canvas almost the appearance of photo paper. The printing process meant the whites were brilliantly white and colours intense, saturated and rich. The way the ink fused with the canvas also made the image slightly out of focus: “When I first saw the final result I didn’t really know what I was looking at. A photographic work or a work on canvass?” (Prince, 2015)
Hannah Jane Parkinson (2015) is less enthusiastic about the final effect achieved, she regards the quality as awful, “The text of the comments in particular is so blurry it feels like I’m looking through contact lenses clouded by having slept in them.” Although she does concede this is hardly surprising as iPhone screenshots were hardly intended to be blown up to this size. This is part of the meaning of ‘New Portraits’ however, not only are images not intended to be shown in a gallery setting but they were never meant to have any sort of existence other than a digital one. Indeed, one of the criteria Prince uses when choosing which images to appropriate is that they would only appear, or better still exist, on Instagram. He shows (perhaps wilfully) his age and separation from the young people for who an online existence is so natural they could be termed ‘digital natives’ – he refuses to use the term selfie: “Selfies? Not really. Self-portraits. I’m not interested in abbreviation.” And quaintly thinks that Tumblr is spelt tumbler. By presenting ‘New Portraits’ in this way, Prince confronts questions about art, ownership, voyeurism, identity and image projection in the twenty-first century.
Prince describes his arrival at ‘New Portraits’ as a natural progression in his work. In 1984 he made portraits by asking friends to select five images of themselves and give them to him, he would then select and rephotograph one. This had many advantages, the friends did not need to sit for their portrait and they were guaranteed to like the chosen image as they had provided it themselves. He admires Larry Clark, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, but concedes he would not know where to begin to take a great portrait, he has tried but did not enjoy the experience, he feels more comfortable in his bedroom looking through other peoples pictures: “Looking. Wondering. Anticipating. Hoping. What will be on the next page.”
Before arriving at Instagram Prince experimented with Twitter. He made a series of text/tweets called ‘The Family’, 36 photographs of his extended family, captioned with a short description then inkjet printed. Although he liked twitter it is mainly text based and he wanted to combine images and words, which is how he came upon Instagram: “if Twitter is editorial…then Instagram was advertising.” The iPhone became his studio as he began to explore what was available. He started looking at the Instagram accounts of people he knew, and was soon led down a “rabbit hole” where he would check out new Instagram accounts based on who these people were following and their likes. He describes this as a psychedelic, out of body experience, “where you suddenly look at the watch and it’s three in the morning.” He struggles to articulate why he chooses the pictures he does, but sees similarities to a previous series where he made paintings of jokes – he would read a joke book and if he found one out of 101 it is a good day:
“People on IG lead me to other people. I spend hours surfing, saving, and deleting. Sometimes I look for photos that are straightforward portraits (or at least look straightforward). Other times I look for photos that would only appear, or better still . . . exist on IG.”
When deciding how to present ‘New Portraits’, Prince was unsure, although he was definite about what he did not want to do: he did not want to do anything physical to the photograph, whatever he wanted to do needed to happen inside the photograph. When screen saving an Instagram image you get three or four comments along with the person’s profile (which he felt was important to include.) He not only wanted to add his own comments to feature and be his contribution to the piece but often found his comments would appear out of frame, at the bottom due to the many comments that had already been made. By accident he hit upon a system where he could manipulate the screen shot to include his comments – if he reported those above as spam they would disappear which would enable him to get the effect he was after. The style of the comments he makes is deliberately obtuse and unintelligible, a mixture of nonsense and the seemingly profound. He calls the technique ‘birdtalk’ and it is also the system he uses on Twitter: ” Short sentences that were funny, sweet, dumb, profound, absurd, stupid, jokey, Finnegans Wake meets MAD magazine meets ad copy for Calvin Klein.” The irony is that presented next to other Instagram users comments the absurdity of his words do not seem at all out of place.
Richard Prince is no stranger to accusations of theft and even litigation, most notably being sued by the photographer Richard Cariou when he rephotographed Cariou’s images and slightly modified them for his ‘Canal Zone’ series. Initially the court ruled in favour of Cariou, but Prince was deemed not to infringed copyright on appeal. Prince has consistently (and in typical style) said that copyright does not interest him and that it never even occurs to him to ask for permission. He also comments wryly that others have only become interested in copyright infringement as his success, and wealth, has grown. “For most of my life I owned half a stereo so there was no point in suing me, but that’s changed now and it’s interesting.” (Crockett, 2015)
The alternative modelling collective Suicide Girls responded to being appropriated by Prince for ‘New Portraits’ in pragmatic fashion – rather than threatening legal action (an approach they both could not afford and had little chance of success given the Cariou case) they decided to play Prince at his own game and offer the same images he has used for a $90 rather than $90,000. Like Prince, the comments section was used to change each picture, they added the comment “true art” to each one before printing the screen shots in exactly the same way and at the same size that Prince had. On the Suicide Girls website, co-founder Selena Mooney (aka Missy Suicide) comments that this is not the first time their images had been used without permission for commercial gain, what she objects to in this instance however is the inflated prices that the pieces are selling for and how this is an example of art being put out of the reach of normal people like her for whom the only thing they would spend $90k on would be a house. Of course selling the same images at 99.9% off their original price succeeds as a means of generating publicity, and most likely revenue, for the Suicide Girls website and brand. It does nothing to alter the value of the ‘original’ Richard Prince work, what you are buying for $90 is not the work of an internationally renowned artist who has been validated by the market and thus deemed to be able to command these astonishing prices, but a copy which is only worth the $90 it sells for.
Mishka Henner: Less Américains (2013)
If ‘New Portraits’ represent an established artist elevating the banal and throwaway then ‘Less Américains’ shows an emerging artist appropriating an admired classic. Robert Frank’s 1958 ‘The Americans’ is regarded as the ‘bible’ of photobooks, completely revered in photographic circles and beyond criticism. The title is a pun on ‘Les Américains’, the first edition of the photobook which was published in French because Frank could not find a US publisher – a reminder of how favour and fame can change dramatically over time. ‘Less Américains’ could be described as a ‘remix’ of ‘The Americans’, the 83 images from the original shown in the same sequence, except Henner has digitally erased parts of each photograph leaving only outlines and white space where there were once faces, bodies, graphics and flags. By doing this Henner tackles a number of conceptual themes: the fetishisation of vintage work, notions of authorship and ideas about memory – despite being created from some of the most famous photographs of all time some of the pictures are almost unrecognisable in their abstraction.
‘Less Américains’ is not only a comment on photography but also asks questions about the photobook as an art form that is experiencing a period of huge popularity that shows no sign of diminishing any time soon. The book itself features the images sequenced in the more well known Steidl edition rather than the original French version, except for the cover which echoes ‘Les Américains’. The essay by Jack Kerouac that introduces the book is included although in Henner’s version most of the words are blanked out making the text incomprehensible – the essay is also now credited to artist Elisabeth Tonnard with no mention of Kerouac. Henner chose to self publish the book using print on demand technology which allows him to fulfil ‘Less Américains’ as a physical object with all the gravitas that entails while ironically not requiring the approval of a traditional publisher.
The development of Henner as an artist is interesting and gives insight into his motivations for creating ‘Less Américains.’ He originally studied sociology and was drawn into photography after seeing the 2003 Tate exhibition ‘Cruel and Tender’ and being inspired by the work of the Dusseldorf school of photographers who elevated the seemingly ugly and banal, such as industrial estates, into the profound. He started working as a traditional documentary photographer on long term projects in London and Manchester and was just starting to make a name for himself in this field he dramatically changed direction and embraced conceptual art. He was motivated to reach an audience outside of what he saw as the conservative and narrow world of photography concluding that the documentary work he had been producing had little to do with the truth.
The inspiration for ‘Less Américains’ came from what Henner saw as the creative/destructive relationship demonstrated by Robert Rauschberg’s 1953 work ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing.’ Similarly to Rauschberg, Henner feels he is creating something new from Frank’s photographs through his process of digital erasure. Unlike Rauschberg who completely removed all traces of De Kooning’s sketch without even taking a photograph of it, Henner is using Photoshop to alter a facsimile of the original images which remain untouched. His working methods were to take several months experimenting with erasing different parts of the photographs and meditating on what the results mean both aesthetically and conceptually. He likened this to the way a painter works, playing with shape and texture. For me the work forces close examination of the images and for me to question not only what I am seeing but also my ability to remember, on the one hand the Henner’s images seem recognisable and yet they are also definitely new works. Despite thinking that I know ‘The Americans’ well, some of Henner’s pictures are only recognisable when viewed alongside the source material.. Sean O’Hagan describes them as more like “surrealist puzzles than photographs” and the only reason they are controversial is because of the source material. (O’Hagan, 2012)
Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake (2015)
Adam Curtis describes himself as a journalist who makes films for television (Harris, 2015) but his brand of journalism is not something that is instantly recognisable. His films defy classification: they are history, current affairs, polemic, experimental and opinionated. For more than 20 years he has been producing films that are unified by being made entirely of found, archive footage which is matched with a distinctive narration from Curtis himself, described by Sam Wollaston as “schoolmasterly in tone and apocalyptic in message.” (Wollaston, 2015)
Curtis has long been interested in the way the world is understood and journalisms relationship to this. Among the many themes in his work, it could be argued that exploring this relationship is his main preoccupation. For Curtis, while the world has become seemingly more difficult to understand, current affairs are presented in increasingly simplified terms – mainly as narratives of good versus evil. This is partly a considered strategy by those in power but also one that news organisations are complicit with, he believes that modern news programming and presentation is not conducive to dealing with the complex situations of the modern world which in turn leaves those in power unaccountable and is bad for democracy. Not understanding the mistakes of the past is a concern for Curtis and one he uses Bitter Lake to address – he proves his thesis by demonstrating that a number of major concerns for us the modern world from Islamic radicalisation, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and the banking crisis, can be traced back to events set in motion in 1945 and a meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, aboard a warship on the great Bitter Lake in 1945.
Bitter Lake is made up almost entirely of archive footage, mainly (but not exclusively) unedited rushes from BBC journalists in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is the centre point of the film and Curtis uses this to prove his assertion that by not understanding the mistakes of the past we continue to repeat them. Because Curtis is famous for using found footage Jon Ronson imagines him holed up in a darkened room in some corner of the BBC, searching through hours and hours of forgotten videotape looking for some sort of marriage between his ideas and the pictures shot by others. The truth is slightly more boring, there is no special room only a giant open plan BBC office in London where he watches archive films ordered from anonymous warehouses. His choices are guided by instinct, he looks for a mood that he sees present in the films that can be used to give force to the arguments he wishes to make. This is the antithesis of what we understand as objective journalism – the concept that the world is shown to us exactly as it is, without prejudice or agenda – Curtis makes no attempt to hide the fact that what he is presenting is his world view. From the outset Curtis approaches his work from the opposite end of the spectrum – he already knows what he wants to say and he is searching for ways this can be shown. His view is that there is too much reliance on journalists presenting television and film as literal.
Curtis has an interest in forgotten images, archives and what he calls “hidden material.” This led him into contact with BBC cameraman Bill Goodwin who brought back to London hundreds of thousands of digitized rushes from the BBC station in Kabul – which represents most of what the organisation would have shot in Afghanistan. Goodwin found that no one at the BBC was interested and gave the footage to Curtis who was fascinated by the material, from which 10/20 seconds at most is used for broadcast and much of which had never even been watched back. He found much of the footage extraordinary and was immediately struck by how at odds this was with the simplistic stories that were presented about Afghanistan. This crystallized his opinion that it is not the journalists on the ground who are the issue but the news organisations and the way they choose to use, or not use, their work. For him these journalists are the heroes of Bitter Lake: brave and intelligent people working in difficult situations to trying and make sense of complex situations and he was conscious about not wanting to embarrass them through his use of unedited material.
The way Bitter Lake unfolds is unlike anything else and defies categorisation as either current affairs, documentary or art house cinema – there are elements of all of these in the work. Despite Curtis’s narration providing a strong narrative tie to the images, perhaps half of the film has no dialogue at all which is at first disconcerting and gives a dreamlike feel. Often we are unsure of what we are watching as we have become so used to tight editing that tells us how to react. Sometimes an extended scene is nothing more than a beautiful aside, the shots held longer than we expect having a mesmeric effect. At other times, the seemingly innocuous is transformed by a sudden, brutal act of violence – as a viewer, without the signposts we have become accustomed to seeing the effect is overwhelming. Curtis does not just use archive news footage however, the Tarkovsky film ‘Solaris’, ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’, ‘Blue Peter’ and the Afghan version of ‘The Thick Of It’ are all used almost as a way to make it clear that this is not a typical piece of journalism we are witnessing. ‘Bitter Lake’ is not only original in itself but also has not taken the traditional approach to broadcast being shown only via the BBC iPlayer. Some commentators have been disparaging of this saying that the BBC is showing a lack of faith in the project by not giving it traditional broadcast. Curtis himself sees iPlayer as the perfect way he can present this experimental work outside the confines of normal broadcast, hinting that without the innovation he would not have been able to make the film he envisaged. It is true that it is difficult to see how such a long and complex work could fit into what we traditionally understand as documentary broadcasting.
Vik Muniz: Pictures of Garbage (2009)
Vik Muniz is a Brazilian born artist who is famous for appropriating famous images and art history and popular culture and reworking them using everyday materials before photographing the results. He could be described as a photographer but his work is often a mixture of drawing and sculpture with photography being used to record the final result. For example, ‘Action photo, after Hans Namuth’ (1997) is a recreation of the famous photograph of Jackson Pollock in his studio producing his iconic action portraits, but rendered using Bosco chocolate syrup. Muniz first experiment with this technique was following a project he undertook documenting sugar plantation workers on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Originally he intended the work to be a series of photographic portraits but was inspired to ‘draw’ images of the workers and their children using sugar and then rephotographing the results. ‘Sugar Children’ (1997)
His series ‘Pictures of Garbage’ represents an altruist break for Muniz, he describes reaching a point in his career where he wanted to step away from the fine art world and give something back, coming from a poor family he realised that it was only luck that had led to his success and with a twist of poor fortune he would have never have been able to achieve the lifestyle he had achieved. He was drawn back to Brazil and specifically to Jardim Gramacho – a huge 32 acre open air landfill site outside Rio. The waste is picked over by an informal workforce of Catadores (waste pickers) who make a living by reclaiming and recycling useful items from the dump. Muniz expected the Catadores, people at the extreme end of consumer culture, to be beaten and broken. Instead he found survivors. This changed his approach, instead of painting portraits he began a collaboration with some of the workers: first he would photograph them in a scene inspired by classical art before recreating these images in his studio using rubbish from Jardim Gramacho. The Catadores became Muniz’s art assistants; picking rubbish from Jardim Gramacho and transporting to Muniz’s studio where he directed them from a platform to produce sculptures before capturing the finished work as a photograph. There is an interesting irony in the use of rubbish here: the Catadores scavenge for items in the dump that have value or can be reused – an enterprise which takes huge effort for small reward. In collaboration with Muniz, the sculptures and subsequent photographs they make have no use value and yet the finished work sells for tens of thousands of dollars on the art market.
The project was also made into a documentary film ‘Wasteland’ (2010, dir: Lucy Walker) in which the humanity of the Catadores and their impressive resilience really comes through – despite their apparent desperate situation living in abject poverty literally in rubbish they are positive, likeable and driven to make their lives a little better, for example Zumbi who educates himself with the books that have been discarded in the tip as well as using these to set up a library for his co-workers. At the end of the process, the workers/art assistants attend the opening of the exhibited works at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art with Muniz and he donates all proceeds from the sale of the work to the workers cooperative. It is a feel good ending despite the fact that the very next day the Catadores will be back amongst the garbage, trying to provide themselves with some sort of living and existence. This has led some to criticise Muniz for at best being naïve in his intervention and at worst exploitative. To me he is an idealist, driven by the need to use his success to do some good in the world and particularly the country of his birth which is clearly faced with many challenges. Can art really change the world? I am not so sure, I do however admire Muniz’s need to try and make a difference, especially in this practical way that enables the Catadores to be collaborators in the project rather than recipients of handouts and pity. Whether this seemingly non political approach does anything to make real lasting changes I am not sure, I am also not sure how Muniz would go about achieving this or even if it would be desirable for him to do so.
Broomberg and Chanarin: Holy Bible (2013)
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have worked together since the early 1990s, their politically motivated, conceptual and thematically designed projects developing in steady continuation since then. In 2008 the pair spent time embedded with the British army in Helmand Province, Afghanistan and their practice has focused increasingly on the depiction of war since then. The output of their experience was typically conceptual as they left their cameras at home and chose to ‘document’ events by exposing 50m long pieces of photographic paper to the Afghan sun. The project culminated in an exhibition ‘The Day Nobody Died’, a nod to the fact that their time in Afghanistan coincided with the deadliest month of the entire war. The project is definitely anti-mainstream war photography, that does not mean they do not respect those who choose to document war zones and are willing to pay the ultimate price like Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros who they describe as a different breed. They are only interested in visiting conflict zones to explore ideas about how human suffering is documented and then consumed as images and how individuals respond to this. They see the debates about photography and its relationship to truth and authenticity to be arguments that are long over, the only question that remains is what constitutes evidence. Against charges that their work is anti-photojournalism they respond that it is not, but it is anti-empathy.
Their ‘Holy Bible’ project follows directly from their previous work, the 2013 Deutsche Börse prize winning ‘War Primer 2’. For this they reinterpreted Bertolt Brecht’s original ‘War Primer’ – a 1955 book in which he coupled newspaper clippings with his own four line poems, keeping Brecht’s original text but matching them with contemporary images of the war on terror. While researching ‘War Primer 2’ they came across Brecht’s personal Bible in which had placed clippings and small annotations after running out of notebooks – the proved to be the genesis of the ‘Holy Bible’. At the same time they came across, and were deeply influenced by, the writings of Adi Ophir – a radical Israeli philosopher with particular expertise in the Old Testament. His book ‘Divine Violence’ (a section of which provides the afterword of the Holy Bible) draws parallel between the violence of The Bible and the violence of the modern world and reads it as a parable for modern governance and its relation to catastrophe and punishment. This struck a chord with Broomberg and Chanarin and their interest in how photography is used to understand the world and yet is often drawn to power, war, catastrophe and sites of human suffering.
Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’ contains images sourced from the Archive of Modern Conflict superimposed over a reprint of the King James version of the Old and New Testaments. Each of the 512 images are accompanied by text underlined in red which not only provides a new caption for the images but also a strange narrative throughout – one which is very much open to individual interpretation however. The Archive spans the history of photography and provides an unofficial version of the history of war which is opposite to the straightforward narratives we have come to expect. For example, there are shelves containing the personal albums of Nazi soldiers that contain pictures showing familial intimacy, human emotions, tenderness and desire – all counter to the narrative we are used to seeing and morally difficult to cope with. Although the time they spent in the archive was difficult and depressing spending so much time around images of suffering and death they also came across humour. They found a large collection of photographs of magic tricks and used these as a running motif throughout, almost to punctuate and relieve the horror of the disturbing images of death and destruction that are also contained. Each of the magic images are combined with the phrase “and it came to pass” which provides a running motif and strange kind of punctuation throughout.
Can the Bible be seen as an everyday object? It remains the best selling book of all time but perhaps the time where it is the centre point of many peoples lives is gone – although it undoubtedly is hugely important to Christians all over the world and Broomberg and Chanarin’s appropriation of the sacred text could be seen as provocative at the very least and blasphemous by many. The work is fundamentally an object and requires experiencing the artefact itself to understand and disseminate. Much can be gained from the tactile feel of the book, I am not a religious person but holding Broomberg and Chanarin’s Holy Bible instantly transported me to school assemblies, weddings, funerals and christenings – the Christian touch points of my life. Apart from the names of the artists on the spine and the publishers name on the back, to all intents this is a real bible with embossed gold text and a cover with a texture that gives the feel of imitation leather. The pages are gold edged and there is a familiar red bookmark ribbon down the centre. For me the feel of the paper is the most tactile, it is a strange thin but strong paper that almost has the feel of tissue which I have only ever experienced in a Bible. The book somehow demands to be red from cover to cover, the obstruction of the text by the images make reading it as an actual bible impossible. The highlighted text seems captions each image but the connections are not obvious although they seem to form some sort of narrative, albeit with oblique and possibly personal meaning. The initial feeling I have when looking through the book cover to cover is to question the truth and meaning of what I have seen, not being overtly told how I need to respond to the images provides a puzzle and leads me to questioning old notions of truth and objectivity – the apparent hallmarks of photojournalism. It is also a physical struggle to get through with every page demanding attention and thought to link what has gone before – not to mention the length. I wonder what the archives of the future will look like, in the age of citizen journalism when anyone and everyone record almost every moment of their lives and experience how do we log and make sense of this? Despite this seemingly improved way of collating images the same old eco system of photo journalism driven by editors who are increasingly accountable to ad agencies and revenues prevails. Perhaps the only question remaining is the one that Broomberg and Chanarin ask with the Holy Bible: what constitutes evidence?
Miriam Elia: We Go To The Gallery (2014)
I have chosen to include ‘We Go To The Gallery’ by Miriam Elia for a number of reasons: I have owned the book for a while and it is a work I admire, the object itself is a convincing imitation of the Ladybird books I read as a child, it contrasts starkly with Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’, the threat of litigation by Penguin books and Elia’s response is interesting, and, unlike the other works I have chosen which are all quite serious, it is funny!
‘We Go To The Gallery’ is a parody of the Peter and Jane Ladybird books of the 1960s and 70s and pokes fun at the contemporary art world – the innocence and old fashioned optimism of Peter and Jane contrasting in amusing ways with the nihilism of the modern art scene. The book is instantly recognisable as the Ladybird books it pastiches, the size, printing, choice of paper, design, artwork and style of writing are all instantly familiar to anyone for whom the original ladybird books formed part of their childhood. For the first edition, a print run of 1000 funded by £5000 raised on Kickstarter, Elia used the Ladybird logo on the cover, thoughts of copyright did not occur to her because she was producing an artwork. When the project gained attention on social media, Penguin books, who own Ladybird imprint, sent legal letters stating that Elia was infringing their copyright and ordered her to pulp the remaining books. Elia obliged but then went on to rework her original changing the artwork and the children’s names to Susan and John and inventing her own publishing imprint, Dung Beetle books, in place of Ladybird. The new artwork was achieved using models from a modelling agency with the “right look” and dressing them in period clothes before enacting the scenes. The second edition of 5000 has now sold out and a more affordable mass market edition of 20 000 is now selling well.
Penguin made no attempt to take legal action about the second edition. Instead, possibly ‘inspired’ by the success of ‘We Go To The Gallery’ they released their own Ladybird books for adults in October 2015, eight titles including The Hipster, The mid-life crisis and The Hangover. Elia responded with a mock up cover on her website for a book she may produce in the future: ‘We Sue An Artist’ and a printed response available on her website and published in The Guardian. With typical sardonic tone she reasons that Penguin were right to produce the new Ladybird books as independent artists are worthless to the economy, unlike Penguin who employ more people, who will feed more children, who will be able to buy Ladybird books. Also, and for me most cuttingly the “new books clearly demonstrate that it is the working class, not the intelligentsia, who present the greatest hazard to our cultural, artistic and political heritage.”
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This project requires reading an extract from “The Society and the Spectacle”, ‘Separation Reflected’ by Guy Debord on pps. 95-98 of the course reader before considering the following questions:
Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?
Weltanschauung is defined as a particular philosophy or view of life, the term literally translates as ‘world view.’ It is a fundamental concept in German philosophy and epistemology which was first said to have been used by Kant before being popularized by Hegel.
Freud discusses Weltanshaunng in ‘A philosophy of Life.’ Near the beginning he notes the difficulty in translation as Weltanshaunng is “a specifically German notion which it would be difficult to translate into a foreign language.” Attempts to do this are so futile “it can hardly fail to strike you as inept.” He offers this useful definition:
“By Weltanshaunng, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.”
The pursuit of Weltanschauung is one of mankind’s ideal wishes – it leads to security in life as one knows what to strive after and how to organize emotions and interests to the best purpose.
It could be argued that the entirety of ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is Debord arguing that the spectacle has become Weltanshaunng, although, he definitely does not see this in the positive terms defined by Freud. The spectacle also represents an intangible and yet ubiquitous way to control society – Debord argues that citizens often do not even realise what is happening. The spectacle represents ideology and alienation.
In paragraph 1 Debord states:
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”
With “all of life” Debord is clearly beginning his case for the spectacle as Weltanschauung – for the rest of “Society of the Spectacle” he will seek to define what exactly the spectacle is, but here we are left in no doubt of the important hold it has over citizens as being omniscient and overwhelming.
The notion that the spectacle is something intangible is quickly asserted with:
“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
This suggests the spectacle is ideological while referencing the Marxist notion of alienation.
In paragraph 5 Debord directly mentions Weltanschauung:
“The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung which has become actual materially translated. It is a world vision that has become objectified.”
The choice of “world vision” rather than world view here is an interesting distinction – it suggests that the spectacle is forced upon society rather than citizens sharing its ideology. Despite being seemingly intangible and difficult to pin down, “has become actual materially translated” shows that the spectacle is something that is real. “Materially translated” and “objectified” suggest the concept of commodity fetishism, the Marxist idea that misplaced value is placed onto objects due to capitalism – Debord seems to be suggesting here that the concept of the spectacle represents an extension of this idea from reality to the conceptual.
What do you think Debord means by ‘the spectacle’?
This question is accompanied by the reassurance that this is more difficult than it sounds and that it is the attempt that is important here, which, after reading through the extract for the first time came as gentle reassurance! Debord writes in a way that is both difficult and simple, you seem to gain insight for it only to slip away proving allusive. The individual paragraphs in ‘Society of the Spectacle‘ each define what the spectacle is, yet, this can sometimes contradict what we have understood and read previously or can give emphasis to something we have not yet considered. As I come to understand a little more what Debord is trying to achieve through ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ I recognise that this is the point – the spectacle is a concept which is difficult to define – this is part of the spectacles intention in fact. It is pervasive, far reaching and infiltrates all parts of society without even being acknowledged as existing by a large number of people in society.
Some of the language and terms in the extract are recognisable to me in what has been studied already, particularly from Marxist theory, although not necessarily presented in the same way. The more I read the more I began to be able to pick out ideas of commodification, alienation and ideology which seem to be the main thrust of Debord’s argument. Debord reasons that the spectacle represents a kind of evolution of commodification – the final form of the commodity will be the image – no longer a physical object we can own, having being replaced by appearing. The circulation of images becomes more important than the accumulation of commodities. Buchanan observes that in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ it is not producing or owning things that drives society forward but how things appear and how they make us appear to ourselves that matters. The spectacle is the illusion that our fragmented, alienated life is in fact whole, true and authentic.
Sturken and Cartwright assert that Debord saw the spectacle as a metaphor for society – we live in an ongoing, constant spectacle. Through the spectacle we no longer experience life directly, life has become representation. The spectacle is an instrument of unification and a world vision that forges a social relationship among people in which images and practices of looking are central.
Pooke and Newhall define the spectacle as being used by Debord to characterize pseudo-events and commodified interactions under capitalism.
My eventual approach to gleaning a closer reading from the text was to break down each paragraph and then write whatever response came into my head. This could be an observation or recognition of some sort of nuance or sometimes a question. This approach helped and yet I still find a personal definition of the spectacle difficult to articulate. In the spirit of Debord’s writing style here are some personal responses represented as bullet points:
- The spectacle is everywhere.
- We do not know who controls or orchestrates the spectacle – such a notion may not even exist in a simple way we can comprehend.
- The spectacle is a means of control but in a much more subtle way than we have come to understand – for example in capitalist structure of worker/owner.
- We are complicit with the spectacle but may not even recognisee what the spectacle is or even its existence.
- Debord uses terms, phrases and ideas that have a resonance, particularly with Marxism, but they are somehow changed which emphasises that the spectacle confounds our conventional understanding. For example: “the spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced” suggests Marx’s description of ideology through which social relations are perceived in an inverted way (Marx uses the analogy of a camera obscura which gives an upside down view of the world) and groups this with the tangible idea of commodity production. This is a difficult but effective combination of both the abstract and the real.
The book was first published in French in 1967. Has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?
A strength of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ is that Debord did not confine his argument to specifics that would date his theses. This means that the ideas presented translate to the 21st century making them all the more powerful and Debord seemingly prescient.
Despite this, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ does not achieve Debord’s revolutionary intent, today it is seen as an important work of philosophy rather than a political manifesto with real purpose to change the world through revolt. Debord himself became depressed in later life that his insights ceased to be a call to arms but rather a banal, if accurate, description of the modern condition. (Hussey, 2001) The spectacle as a term has become a cliché appropriated by post modernism to describe any contemporary process.
Will Self views the “genius” of Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ as characterising “the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post -industrial manifestation” and that it reads “as fresh as paint.” He recognises the importance of the “pseudo-events” which act to convince the citizens of the spectacle that they are able “to progress into a better future” when it is only the anointed few, the celebrities, who are imbued with the money and power that signify the ability to make choices. Debord’s concept of the spectacle has been so thoroughly appropriated by society that it is no longer used as short hand for the consumer society or post-ideological character of western ‘democracy’ which is woven by the internet and late capitalism.
John Harris believes the frequency that the spectacle is used to describe the “image saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures” leads to it sounding banal, yet, the frequency used also “speaks volumes about the power of its insights.” ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ points towards much that is prescient in the culture of the 21st century:
-Celebrity culture and the portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us live it.
-The driving out of meaning in politics.
-Warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion”, for example, the Che Guevara T-shirt.
-Social media and “the white noise of most online life.”
The book describes that everything we consume, and if we are not careful, everything we do embodies a mixture of “distraction and reinforcement” that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme – ideas which we now term neo-liberalism.
Personally, the more I think about the themes contained in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ the more I feel it articulates suspicions I have held for a long time – what is it to be a citizen in a late capitalist society in the 21st century? We are told we have never had so much freedom and access to information and yet it is also accepted there is no alternative to the lives we lead. There is so much information that we are unable to process it – what on the internet is real and what is false? There is no longer any distinction in political life, no left or right – only a consensus that this is the way things need to be. Facebook seems to represent the clearest example of how human experience has become inauthentic, spectacular and false – what people now understand as friendship. Our online presence is the way we present ourselves rather than through real life – more real than the real world. As John Harris observes “even the way we relate to each other has been so commodified it is no longer genuine.” There is no more depressing modern sight than that of citizens who seemingly only have an experience through the prism of their smart phone – if we do not record our experiences then they no longer happen and by doing this we lose the ability to live our lives directly.
Does his view that we “see the world by means of various specialized mediations” mean that we are having our view of the world controlled or that we simply don’t know what is propaganda and what is not?
My first reaction in my notebook to this quote from chapter 18 is ‘what does various specialized mediations mean?’ Perhaps it is that the spectacle makes us see (and believe?) the world that it is presenting.
“We see the world” reminds me of the term ‘global village’ popularized by Marshall McLuhan in reference to the growth of media in the early 1960s, and is term that Debord would surely have been aware. The access to information that we can experience through the internet has the potential to make us participants in this global village that is now a reality. The more likely response however, is that we passively take in the view of the world which is presented to us through rolling news and media outlets. We feel connected to what is going on without questioning that the views that we are presented with are those that the broadcasters choose to show – that which is deemed worthy of reporting. We feel a closeness to citizens around the world which is false.
I am not sure when the political world view reached a consensus through neo-liberalism but I am old enough to remember a time when there seemed to be real difference, not only in politics but in art, literature, music, films – even the high street. It seems today that we accept the homogenization of our lives without question, even those who oppose what they see as mass conformity struggle to define how or even what they are against. We believe that we are sophisticated readers of the modern world and its representations, we think that we would know propaganda if we saw it. This is because we think of propaganda in back and white 20th century terms rather than the complex description of the spectacle given by Debord which typifies propaganda in the modern world.
The film maker Adam Curtis seems to be highly influenced by Debord. He uses archive news footage along with a very personal viewpoint expressed through voiceover to try and make sense of the world. In a short segment he made for Charlie Brooker’s satirical Newswipe programme, he presents the idea that the news is so depressing and we are so detached from the events it contains that the only response is “Oh dear” – a defeatist reaction that has also become central to political control. He explains this by examining the political landscape of Putin’s Russia. We would normally associate Russia with the heavy handed propaganda and control of the Soviet Union, Curtis explains however that in modern Russia control is maintained by much more subtle and confusing means. Putin’s director of communications Vladislav Surkov has helped Putin remain in power for 15 years using techniques he learned from his previous life as a dealer of avant-garde art. Surkov turns Russian politics into a “bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre” the aim of which is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they can never be entirely sure what is really happening. Surkov achieves this by backing many disparate groups in Russia, some of which are even enemies of Putin, before (and this is key for Curtis) letting the people know what he is doing. The effect is that no one knows what is real or fake and all opposition is kept constantly confused – the constant shape shifting is unstoppable because it is indefinable.
Curtis then transfers his gaze to the political situation in Britain and recognises a similar situation – after all, Russia has always had a strange, fractured and controlling political situation so this approach by Putin and Surkov is hardly surprising. He argues that in Britain everything told by politicians and journalists is confusing and contradictory – a position which plays into the hands of those in power. For example: the war in Afghanistan which nobody seems to know was a victory or defeat; ageing disc jockeys who are prosecuted for crimes that alleged to have happened decades ago while no one in the city of London has been prosecuted for the endless financial crimes being revealed there; the war in Syria which was initially against the Assad regime which we were told was evil until we discover his enemies were even worse and began bombing them keeping Assad in power.
The epicentre of our non-linear world is the economy and Curtis presents George Osborne as the closest we have to a “shape shifting, postmodern politician.” The economy is growing and yet wages go down, the importance of cutting the deficit is used as a reason for austerity policies but it is revealed the deficit is actually increasing, quantitative easing contradicts austerity and debt reduction. Vast amounts of money has ended up in the top 5% of the wealthiest people and this is prevented from becoming a scandal because nobody seems to have a clear idea of what is happening.
The strange mood of our times is that nothing makes coherent sense. We live in a “constant vaudeville” of contradictory stories which stop any real opposition from appearing because they cannot counter with a coherent narrative of their own. Individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a constant state of uncertainty. For me, Curtis’ description of the power of the media and politicians in the 21st century and the techniques they use to confuse and control is compelling and goes a long way to articulate and further much of what I understand from Debord’s arguments in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’.
Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx said on the subject); is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or extreme reification?
Marx saw reification as being omnipresent in capitalism with all of its elements invoking a greater or lesser degree of reification. The fact that capitalism subordinates the lives of millions is obscured by commodity fetishism – an extreme form of alienation.
Lukács took this further by stating that modern capitalism is such that commodity fetishism can be extended to all fields of human activity – even consciousness.
John Harris uses the example of Facebook to prove the power of Debord’s argument and its relationship to reification: the Facebook friend is used as a way to monetise everything on the website, this inauthentic incorporation leads us to believe that the Facebook friendship is real when in fact it is classically, unbelievably spectacular. I find Harris’ argument compelling here and am led to conclude that the spectacle is indeed extreme reification.
I now feel quite seduced with Debord’s thrust in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ although I would by no means pretend to fully understand it. From a position of frustrated lack of understanding that I experienced at the beginning of this project I have slowly began to comprehend what Debord is explaining as well as appreciating his complex means of expression which is necessary to project the complex, contradictory nature of the spectacle. I have read through the rest of the book and it does not get easier as it progresses nor has my ability to glean meaning at first read through improved. I will stick with it however and return every now and again because of the respect I have gained and insight achieved from the first section that is the basis of this project. Hopefully further reading (I intend to ‘dip in and out’ in the future) will broaden my understanding, I can understand what John Harris means when he describes the well-thumbed copy of the book that he owns.
Workflow wise this project has helped me get back on track somewhat. Having felt a little lost and disappointed following the previous project I was initially quite perturbed by the even more dense and difficult to understand words to be studied for this project. Rather than take a ‘hopefully it will all make sense soon’ approach like I had with Bourdieu I stuck with this and revisited the text a great deal, much more than I have for any of the other projects so far, eventually breaking down the extract into digestible pieces and considering these in isolation. I often wrote whatever came into my head as a response rather than trying to come up with definitive answers, sometimes just writing questions. This way of working through a difficult text through writing seems to have been a small breakthrough for me. Similarly, I have tried to worry less about what I am writing for the project and encouraged the words to flow which has given me a strong sense of accomplishment – a lot of what I have written may not be directly relevant and I have certainly missed out much more that I could have said but as is stated in the course notes “it is the attempt [that] matters at the moment.” My new mantra!
Keywords and concepts for further research:
Appropriation art, Weltanschauung, the spectacle, reification, alienation, simulacrum
Key figures for further research:
Sherrie Levine (After Walker Evans), Walker Evans, Michael Mandiberg (www.afterwalkerevans.com), Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, Lichenstein, Jean-Paul Satre, Feurebach, Kant, Hegel, Marx.
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Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage
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Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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