Several related topics rattling around in my head today. Let me start with a nice piece by my friend Rita Valencia….http://www.timesquotidian.com/2012/06/07/go-ask-alice-i-think-shell-know/
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?).. http://www.harpersbazaar.com/magazine/feature-articles/marina-abramovic-interview-0312#slide-1
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.