Consuming Culture, Consuming Education

Several related topics rattling around in my head today. Let me start with a nice piece by my friend Rita Valencia….

I’ve never liked nor trusted Sellars. The reason has to do with this brie & chablis network of rich people culture he rambles through, with his cuteness and faux enfant terrible persona. The truth is, what Sellars does (and he’s hardly alone) is to create the right variety of kitsch, tricked out in high culture drag, and calibrates it perfectly so as not to offend anyone or actually say anything. I am immediately reminded of Marina Abramovich, who also has built a franchise on emtpy posturing…with a clear nod to the tastes and values of the ruling class. Her first piece, back in the 70s, was to take a knife and jab it between her fingers until she cut herself…then pick up a new knife and repeat this, trying to exactly duplicate the first series of knife jabs up to the cutting. This was described using words like “ritual” and “body exploration”. Whatever. She later took a drug that caused a temporary state of catatonia and had people watch (essentially). That was it. More recently at MOMA she sat while visitors took turns sitting opposite her. They looked at each other for as long as they wanted.

Here is a recent interview with her from Harper’s Bazaar (harper’s bazaar?)..

Note the interview takes place in her *new* downtown Manhattan townhouse. And also, she is described as coming from a privilged Serbian family (Chetniks no doubt..though I dont really know). As Bootsie Collins used to say, you can’t fake the funk. Class is indelible. Anyway, the point here is that Abramovic is the poster girl for elitist bullshit culture. I will let you stare at me. See what whatever you like, it pays for my townhouse. Now, an artist making money is not the problem, I wish more did, but the problem is that this sort of masturbatory avoidance of content, this de-contextualized trivial narcissistic aggrandizing of self, this self as commodity, is not a critique, it is, rather, just what it is. Self as commodity.

There are countless other examples, and the real issue is one touched on Valencia’s review. It is the issue of finance in art. In theatre, for example; in what way is a play affected by the theatre it is performed in? Would Abramovic be seen differently if she were seated at a table in a storefront at 5th and Broadway in LA? Would I regard her “performance” differently if it were free and done in some creaky little dive on skid row? I suspect I would. I might still think it empty, but the added meta discourse provided by MOMA wouldn’t be there, and really, in Abramovic’s case that is the primary point. When Abramovic did a performance, or rather created one, for the donar gala at MOCA in Los Angeles, Yvonne Rainer wrote an excellent letter of protest.

Ms Rainer cuts to the central points here. Those points relate to the commodity form, and to the exploitation inherent in Capitalism. So, back to my question of a play performed in a small black box somewhere in Oakland, say, and the same play performed at Lincoln Center. Now, in this hypothetical, one issue would be which came first I suppose. Trying to put that aside for the moment, the question I am trying to get at is that culture has a relationship with society. It creates and reflects, and within this complex dialectic resides all manner and degree of meaning. The “meaning” of an artwork (in this case a play) is never without an historic context. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

The moment money changes hands, certain meanings have been set in stone. In late capitalism, these meanings are taken for granted. Once upon a time the box office figures for a new movie were in the business section of a newspaper. Then they switched to the front page of the “Arts” section. Then the “Arts” section became the “Arts & Entertainment” section. Then newspapers sort of died, but thats another story. The idea of commerce had been finally officially wedded to the artwork. I’m not suggesting that it was ever really different, but it was certainly mediated in other ways. Today, the imprimatur of relevance and validity is the monetary. The financialization of art.

I have already written a bit about the idea of ‘space’ in art, in narrative. One might profitably ask how our mimetic faculties process finance. Its a big topic, and one I hope soon to return to. However, the thing that struck me today, after reading Valencia’s review, was the idea of education and the arts. the United States has always distrusted art. Partly this is the legacy of Puritanism, and partly the expansionist capitalist ethos the country was built upon. The Protestant work ethic married to this ethos gave us Manifest Destiny, slavary, and the genocide of over 600 hundred Native American tribes. These psychic wounds have never healed, and for the most part are repressed out of sight. They are the long shadows the US carries on its back. Art was frivolous if not downright immoral. The Dyonisian anarchy of art, the anti-conformist and anti-institutional drive of creation itself simply ran counter to the sensibility of American society. Now, what happened, amidst this trajectory toward ultimate kitsch marketing, as we have today, is that the ruling class — at least parts of it — wanted to give themselves a sense of credibility. One of the ways to do that was to imitate the crown heads of Europe. The Royal families and the Church. So many (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, et al) began to give huge amounts of money to foundations which were either directly cultural, or catered to cultural affairs.

“Part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society,” Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

These very insanely rich men created institutions. They created foundations and grants. In fact I am a recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. Nice, it paid the rent that year. But, to stay on message, as Rumsfeld liked to say, the ruling establishment provided institutions that through their economic power were able to shape cultural taste to reflect their own values. This is the Reader’s Digest version …. but at roughly the same time, the late 19th century, the advertising industry was born. One had to sell all these commodities, after all, the immense accumulation of ‘things’ had to be converted back into money. One consequence of this was to siphon off the best creative talent available to work in advertising. Creativity became marketing eventually. The mantra was, maximize consumption. And what advertising did, (again in a simplistic explanation) was to try and provide a personality, as it were, for the commodity — to humanize it, to give it a life (or as Marx labeled it, to fetishize the commodity). Everything began to be thought of as being for sale. Of course, today, it literally is exactly that. If you can find an empty space in any US city, a space without an ad, or without some form of marketing text or image, I would be surprised. Schools sell space to marketers…the sides of buses, the containers for lunches, etc. So, how did this affect education? How did education interact with cultural institutions and advertising? The answer is far ranging…and it’s an answer worthy of several of these blog postings. For the purposes to today’s journal entry, the germane aspect of this dynamic was to validate propaganda. To blur the distinction between propaganda and art. The master discourse is one of commerce. Our lives are colonized by marketing. Our consciousness is shaped by the never ending ubiquitous onslaught of marketed meaning. The drive behind most marketed meaning is that to consume is to make oneself happy, or at least happier. I want to write about the mental health business soon in relation to this.

Our consciousness, our imagination, is occupied by marketers. It follows that education is also shaped by this master discourse. Culture, broadly speaking, is how a society organizes its thoughts about itself, how it determines its values and beliefs. It also goes deeper of course. The artwork, in its purest meaning, is there to awaken us to the mysterious forces that, no matter what else, we contemplate in our (increasingly few) silent private moments, and in our civic public experience. The evolution of late capitalist culture, however, has been to erase our deeper desires and to shackle whats left to the commodity form, to consumption. Human relationships suffer. Curiosity suffers. The imagination suffers. My experience today is that we now facing the first truly brain damaged generation of consumers. Children and youth are stunted creatively. Their capacity for discriminatory judgment has been worn away. This generation dreams commercials.

The US is a nightmare in constant repetition of its consuming practices. So, the empty posturing of an Abramovic or the foppish opportunism of a Peter Sellars, is really beside the point, except that it is symptomatic of the larger madness. Where does this leave education and education reformers? Well…certainly simple notions of reform are pointless to argue about. As a side bar issue, multiculturalism is another topic worth looking at in all this. The ghettoizing or balkanizing of culture, based on various identity political formulations almost always ends with the “selling” of this idea of the self. If black school children from poverty stricken inner cities are taught — often by white liberals — they will be, in terms of arts education — given the most domesticated voices from their community. A “black film” festival. Not a Sri Lankan film festival, or a Mongolian film festival, but just a feedback loop of vetted images and text that reinforces separatness and difference. Or, sometimes, material that is created by white folks that have decided they know how to “raise” up the poor and impoverished by helping their self image or some other shit. What it is, though, is a sales pitch. And its a sales pitch from the man. Bank on that. Ok, to get back on message….today’s culture, the consumer culture, ignores real societal and historical issues in lieu of personal adverts about happiness, self fulfillment, and comfort. It peddles “lifestyles” and wont mention daily human alienation — or if it does, it does so as part of a narrative that says the unusual and occasional societal failure can be rectified. This person was poor, but given a helping hand has managed to become one of the oppressors himself, or herself. Education cannot be reformed. Society has to be changed.


  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Spot on, John. You’ve posted an updated account of the basic critique we explored some years ago for Patrice Greanville (sp?) regarding placebo art. The situation within the arts really is quite pathetic, but of course American culture in general is being slowly throttled so that the transfer of wealth upwards can take place with greater efficiency, less resistance, etc. It does seem as if a new mode of denatured being is being minted and field tested…but another part of me believes this never actually works…or at least not in the way the elites always wish it would work. Neoliberal, free market economics can pave over the entire planet and eliminate the majority of species and it will always remain a form of wishful thinking. I’m looking forward to reading more of what you’re thinking…and also responding more too. Very strong work.

  2. Joanna Perry-Folino says:

    In regards to educational “reform”….again we are back to educational institutions must be dismantled. Okay. There is no actual reform possible; society must be changed. So what are these educational institutions that are eliminated replaced by? Are they replaced with nothing formal? Do we return to apprenticeships? Does a playwright mentor a student playwright one on one? Does a beekeeper mentor? What are we looking at? I believe this probably would be superior to what we have now. But unless all of society collapses…. which it may….we are not likely to see this happen any time soon.

  3. john steppling says:

    Joanna, you’re looking for very literal concrete solutions. They dont exist. There will be some institutions that are better, some worse. Some individual teachers will be great, and of course others terrible. One can try individually to teach with some vision — that doesnt change the over reaching fact that the society reproduces a particular way of thinking. One has to be able to analyze the conditions, to analyze the societal discourse and to find various ways to resist it. You cannot think in these one dimensional ways about really complicated issues. If one looks at the conditions in schools in the US, one has to be blind not to see the reality. Does that mean you stop teaching? Of course not. You seem to want to “solve” the whole thing with a recipe…..none exists. You slog forward telling the truth as you understand it. I don’t happen to think education in the US, as we’ve come to understand it, has much future. Its irrelevant — and I don’t see that reform of this or that feature is going to alter that. I suspect new kinds of schools may gradually develop. Community level, or linked to radical practices of resistance in other fields. George McKay’s book Radical Gardening is the sort of hybrid I am thinking of. The tenured academic, for the most part, is irrelevant. Its same in the arts. Curators and artistic directors almost ‘cant’ find ways back to relevance through the insitution. Even the most enlightened. The problem is structural to a degree. I have no formula for suddenly making it all work. There are no blueprints. Its a road of discovery……and probably so it should be.

  4. Joanna Perry-Folino says:

    You state “I suspect new kinds of schools may gradually develop. Community level, or linked to radical practices of resistance in other fields. ” I am pretty certain such schools exist now to some degree although they may not be formalized. Is this not what Paulo Friere explored? Augusto Boal? I would be very interested in knowing where such schools are currently and how they function. Hopefully, anyone reading this blog who knows of them will comment. I disagree that there can be no reform within the system. I am not looking for practical easy answers and I am not “slogging” through anything; I am trying to find ways to change curriculum within a damaged structure to broaden the discussion and re-form in a more effective manner. I really doubt the entire system will be dismantled and re created over night. And yes, being a practical person working within a very flawed institutional system it is not enough for me to theoretically tear things down without creating ways to rebuild. For me the “road to discovery” exists within the hearts and minds of students and teachers, regardless of the setting.

  5. An example

  6. Here’s something at UCLA regarding educational reform….is it really “irrelevant”?

  7. john steppling says:

    Joanna……I agree there are places out there. I said as much. And certainly there are individual teachers doing exceptional work…..which i also said. They are a very small percentage, though, in terms of the institutional landscape. I think also, there is a real question in terms what the teaching is doing when it happens in an institutional framework. I looked at the link you provided….and I know a bit about that place….and its very impressive on one level…..but……if you look at the lecture series, its ENTIRELY made up of academics. All have doctorates, all work within the institutional system. I wonder why that is. Why are there ONLY professors in this lecture series? I mean, are we to believe they are the only people out there qualified to speak? This is really a central issue, because it casts a long shadow on *how* we educate and how we learn. Its also linked to our vast obedience to authority. Now maybe you dont slog, but i do. I keep teaching in the ways I can because that’s what I do. I often question how and why I continue, though. But….I believe it matters. I’m not arguing against teaching or continuing to try having that oppositional voice that is in general so lacking. But…..I dont see reform of the institutions as possible. Ive no idea where the Freire institute gets its money, but it would be interesting to know. I do see they got a Fullbright grant, though. See, I am just always suspicious of a certain kind of NGO mentality. Putting that aside for a second… terms of this discussion, there are several issues looming in the background. One has to do with the natural self perpetuation of the system….from the pov of institutes like this. And how that affects the content and method of the teaching. Beyond that, I was reading an article just now….as I prepare to answer your comment…..and its a Freire based center…..having seminars on education and practical steps to help teachers etc. And at the beginning the author says, well, we know teachers face many problems….too many students, long hours, helter skelter schedules, and so forth. We need to devise ways to help with practical matters for teachers facing these problems in the educational system. — ok right…well this is the problem isnt it? The system has teachers in situations where they have too little time and difficult schedules and too many students. So…..can this be “reformed”? This is my point. I m not sure I even care ….. whatever is meant by reform in this context. The competitive nature of school, with grades and degrees etc is going to continue because a society based on competition and standardized thinking is always going to look to validate, at the end of the day, the validity of the system. There is something at bottom that suggests a validation of the system…and that success means students will be better equipped to gain success within this system. Im probably being unfair to a degree….and I dont know enough about this particular place…..but thats what it feels like to me. All the talk of liberatory teaching and globalized thinking starts to feel like a new version of the very thing i was writing about……MacArthur foundations, Carnegie et al…..they are not there to help people overthrow this system of gross inequality and exploitation….they are there to validate it by proving even some of the poor (!) can be raised up. And this is a tricky topic because they may even create alternative schools with comparitevly radical curriculum…..and yet, the lectures are given by academics …tenured professionals of the very system that appears to be criticized. Thats reform. Thats what reform is. Its like a band aid on a gaping superating wound. So I guess i just dont trust places that have a lot of money because i want to know from whence that money comes. So….i wonder would Freire himself be comfortable with an institute at UCLA? I wonder how that works. Now……it bothers me that you say “theoretically tear down”…without providing ways to rebuild. Well….first off, empty activism is pointless….unless there is a solid theoretical understanding of where one is…..where one lives…..the system under which we live. Thats crucial. You think this is ‘only tearing down’? I would hope that within my entries are the seeds for rebuilding. If they werent there, then I would wonder what I’m doing. But I think you look for a particular kind of blueprint for re-building with what you see as ‘practical’ formulas and plans. I dont really believe that thats possible at this point. I send people ideas all the time…books, films, all manner of suggestions for courses and teaching. I do it almost daily because people write me and ask. Do I have a schematic blueprint for how to construct a new educational system? No, but then I dont think you can actively participate in anything that reinforces this system. I applaud you for doing what you do, but its not what I do. I dont WANT a job at a major university….for one thing I would be fired the first day. But secondly, not having a degree, not having the approved credentials, renders me outside that system so no job offer will be forthcoming. Murray Mednick is a great teacher of playwriting. I know of none better. Has a single university ever called him and offered him a position running a department? No, of course not. So, when I read about how these institutes….the Freire Institute in this case….have invited activists and organizers…..boy, I’d really love to know who they were, because what I see on the site are only Dr so and so from this or that University. The meta-narrative, if you will, is THE SYSTEM IS VALID…..we are the opposition FROM WITHIN the system…..and it feels like token opposition. I recall marcuse writing about (in a totally different field) about repressive de-sublimation. This is repressive educational de-sublimation. its a way to let pressure blow off. I mean, it just feels to me a good deal like many NGOs out there….and here i would suggest Arundhati Roy’s essay on NGOs. A justly famous piece. They are there to stop real revolutionary changes from happening. Genet once was asked about his work with the Palestinians. At the end he said, if they ever get their own country, on the day they do, then i want nothing more to do with them. This comment bothered people. But i understand it. In a sense I cant draw a picture of what I want……as Marcuse also said, we cant know what an unrepressed society would like. Well, I cant fully know what a revolutionary education model would like. I can know what its not. I can know when actions are counterfeit…..but to call out those counterfeits shouldnt be called, in my opinion, ‘just tearing down’. What you seem to see as tearing down is the first step in rebuilding, to my mind, the first step toward really through the illusions of reform. I dont work within the system. You do. Thats a crucial difference. So yeah, for me its irrelevant. It cant not be… is connected financially to a huge infrastructure predicated on continuing capital and class and money. You know, Malcolm had that right, Follow the money.

  8. John and anyone else who may be reading this…..
    Conceded. Much truth in your response. I wonder if you had gotten a degree and played the game and it had made your life easier and you had won a Tony and people were doing your plays all over the world…if you too would be self-blinding; or if Mednick would have been had they let him into the system without a degree???? Would he be running Cal Arts? Would it even matter? Does it matter? It seems like most people do what they can to 1. survive within the system 2. gain power within the system ….when they are really only being used by it. Personally, it’s depressing considering I spent 25 years within this system that at its core is counter to liberation….progress and change. Ah well. Maybe it’s time for me to leave for good. Maybe it’s time for everyone to leave. People writing scripts for Hollywood TV shows. Those working in hospitals. Anyone teaching at a college or University anywhere. Our entire capitalist system is no longer working any way. And it can not/ will not be fundamentally changed. And yet people will not give it up because, as someone once said…they like the eggs too much. 🙂

  9. john steppling says:

    “another question is that when we seperate producing knowledge from knowing the existing knowledge schools become easily places for selling knowledge that corresponds to capitalist ideology” Paulo Freire.

    So…..i mean, an institution would have to have as its mandate, the goal of destroying itself, in a sense. The goal is to not need this school if we follow a path of real learning. But that would mean all those professors wouldnt be getting any more grants or foundation money. They would be out of work.

    But there are places that do great work…truely, and are funded by giant corporations sometimes. This is Gramsci’s thinking on hegemony, actually
    …..the Ford or Mellon Foundations can afford to fund that which is exactly critical of them, because its not a threat, because they are in
    in a hegemonic position. So… a certain level, it always has to return to the community outside these systems. Because ideology, as my son lex pointed out to me, as theory more than bedrock models. The good work done , which is paid for by foundations say……has to be supported….this Friere insitutue should be supported….but you have to use it, ultimately, to take it back to the community. Its dialectical. The landscape is ever shifting….and whatever is learned,
    whatever is produced in a way, the production of knowledge, is great. But the Rockefeller Foundation isnt there to help the revolution — and again, there is something in the very DNA of any institution that will always marginalize a threat to its existence. There is another part that is about perpetuating its own importance….not about change. And the old models of institutions are clearly about reinforcing the status quo — thats why they came into existence. So, i think its great to use these places……take what one can from them……teach how one can…… “what is indespensible to me is to be critical”…Paulo Freire. Its a proces. Learning is always a process. Its not about creating the ultimate school or ultimate course. Its about the change that can come out of that dynamic. And i think with places like the one you link to, a certain stagnation takes hold. It cant help but do so. And soon its saturated with this weird virus of academic authority. And its more than that, though. A certain subtle shift in meaning, in the way knowledge is transferred. The US became a research nation. A data processing culture. And its why the arts suffered, partly. So, if we’re talking teaching the arts, I would say, rigor is very important. Freire said something, rigor is not universal, but the need for it is universal. I always feel its important to bear in mind how easily, in a commodity culture, that knowledge and creativity not become “things”. And to help prevent that, one has to be critical of all institutions. One more quote of Freire’s…”Liberating education is not a manual of clever techniques,but is rather a critical perspective on society and school, learning FOR social change”. See thats the thing. I say irrelevant, because that model is moribund. But….one can and should use what one can…and certainly take the money one can from the man. But you cant take it so as to become part of this establisment….or to create a new pre-formed establishment…….but to step into the unknown of real revolutionary change.

  10. Joanna Perry-Folino says:

    “…and certainly take the money one can from the man.” I wonder if it is possible to do this and not become tainted and co-opted by a corrupt system. The only way you can justify perpetuating this system by buying into it , taking from it and letting it support you is if you are lying to yourself and to some extent being a hypocrite ….again too many of us (the generic us) like the eggs too much…and we are in effect supporting the system we are working against. It’s pretty hard to say no to a paycheck when your kids are hungry and the rent needs to be paid. One can not but see the hypocrisy in this, no?

  11. john steppling says:

    Joanna, thats absolute nonsense. Honestly. What in the world are you saying…..turn down money because of some magical property you attribute to this money??? Tainted….because of what? JESUS. You take the money because it helps you pay the bills, because it helps you do what you are trying to do. I find that remark very frustrating……I really do. Its bougeois morality of the silliest sort. YOU TAKE THE MONEY BECAUSE YOU NEED IT. YOU TAKE THE GODDAMN MONEY BECAUSE THE SYSTEM ROBS YOU EVERY OTHER WAY POSSIBLE AND THAT MONEY IS MONEY EXPLOITED FROM WORKERS BY A SYSTEM SO CORRUPT AND ONE SIDED AS TO BE TANTAMOUNT TO PURE THEFT. The idea that there is even the smallest amount of hypocricy attached to that is so idiotic that I almost don’t know what to say. I mean this sort of thinking is what keeps people from understanding the great immorality of capital. I just throw my hands in the air and give up. Honestly. I give up.

  12. You support the good work. No matter who is doing it, while simultaneously engaging in the critical process. Build from pedagogical models that are honest to their conditions. All money is blood money. We all have lines we will not cross, and it’s a fluid engagement that has no one answer. So you do the good work while dealing with he difficult questions. In the meantime you support the grassroots, always. ALWAYS. And you map out the assets and utilize them. Who in the community can and is willing to give what to help keep the critical process happening? This is why it’s called work:)

  13. Joanna Perry-Folino says:

    Hmmm. I didn’t really make myself very clear. I guess I was trying to say what Lex articulated better than I….”We all have lines we will not cross, and it’s a fluid engagement that has no one answer. ” I still think I personally need to ask myself at what point do I say I don’t want to work for the man. I want to go off and live on an island and grow fruits and vegetables and barter. I want to live on a commune, at Dancing Rabbit and develop my own monetary system because I don’t want to openly contribute to this more corrupted system. Yes, it is bourgeois thinking and I suppose it is not hypocritical to live off the man when that man is exploiting everyone ….but something about it troubles me. Something feels like rationalization. Just a feeling, an inclination I am examining. Not necessarily a reality, a logical conclusion. I am simply thinking out loud which is part and parcel of self examination even if the thoughts are silly. This is after all a blog and not an essay. My ideas do not have to be brilliant or agree with yours or even rational. They are simply feelings and questions. If you think this was stupid, well….I give up too. So now that we have both given up….is that the end of the conversation? I would like someone else to pipe in. Hello out there????

  14. Of course something troubles you. If it didn’t I would be troubled haha. My only hope is that people take seriously the slivers of power that they have and utilize them and build.

  15. I think you guys are agreeing more than you think — you’re just talking about two different kinds of money-gathering. One’s referring to something like the occasional check (grab it, take it, milk it); the other’s a relationship (which one can’t help but be wary of if one’s critically minded — i.e., it’s not mere bougieness to experience some remorse when one gets in bed every month with a compromise…).

  16. jillian says:

    Wonderful post. Thought provoking. Thank you, John.

  17. I feel the collaboration itself is just not the emergent phenomenon, however is inflicting the emergence of something at a better degree?

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  19. You made a number of good points there. I did a search on the issue and found the majority of folks will agree with your blog.

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