Here is Andrew Gilbert's contribution to the blog game / experiment I proposed in January. A topic was provided -- Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop -- as well as various materials (images and text), and he was required to make a post following the directions I gave. I recommend taking a look at the materials in order to better appreciate what Andrew has done, as well as to see how the post came about, but everything that follows certainly works perfectly well as a stand-alone piece.
In the comments section I've written very briefly about what I had in mind when I selected the materials, as well as some initial thoughts on the finished piece in general.
Andrew is the author of two excellent blogs The Kinodrome and The Fifth Terrace.
Although this post is concerned with Art and Capitalism, it is gender theory that provides us with a scaffold to mount our questions:
"The challenge of rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche's claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that 'there is no 'being' behind doing, effecting, becoming; the 'doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed -- the deed is everything.' In an application that Nietzsche himself would not have anticipated or condoned, we might state as a corollary: There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results." (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble)
Butler constructs her theory in a manner that allows its application to most any conception of identity, not limited to gender. I hope to entertain these concepts in the realm of individual self-expression within Art, and participation within a consumer culture. To cut to the heart of the matter, I am considering notions of responsibility—both individual and societal, which I believe will facilitate a greater understanding of the complexities of our world and how to better mount an opposition to a system(s) viewed as oppressive and destructive.
What follows is my attempt to personalize this quandary, which is so enamored with abstracts and iconic names and faces:
I had a friend in college who was my first dissident—my first brush with radical politics. Over pizza he prodded the barricades of my complacency with his Marxism-Leninism, at the movies he attacked me for drinking Coke. It was tantamount to being a card-carrying member to the IMF or WTO—I was doing my part to finance apartheid and the destruction of the ecosystem. He organized book clubs and reading circles. He opened up brave new worlds through his twin passions of literature and comic books. He professed the ability of the artist to galvanize social movements, of their responsibility to condemn injustice wherever possible.
Years later (a few months ago) I entered a thread of comments on his facebook page. Alan Moore had recently condemned the comic book industry for their draconian practices and imperialist agendas and this old friend was ridiculing him for it. When I chimed in on the side of Moore my comments were promptly deleted. My conversation with this friend moved to email—a private conversation that no one could see. He is now a successful and talented entrepreneur within the comic book industry. He explained that by censoring me he was protecting his friends who work in said industry. He assured me he was still a radical leftist and an anti-capitalist. The correspondence ceased when I raised doubts about ones ability to simultaneously occupy both sides of this argument—that by doing the very things he condemned in capitalist plutocracy he couldn’t possibly represent any kind of movement against it. The person who once decried the imperialist methods of censorship and discrediting of dissenters and critics was now wielding that power on a microcosmic scale with real world implications. I am still doubtful that mere subversion on his part can balance or offset these actions.
Forgive me for sounding like vindictive sour grapes, but is this not the most perfect example of delusional self-exemption? Of a doer convinced of the justification of their deeds by extraneous contextualization and apology? Here we also find the raison d'être for critiquing capitalism and the art world convinced that it is its opposition: the perils of Utopian thought—of the ends justifying the means.
Because politicians and experts are consistently defining humanity in economic terms, I feel we should establish some boundaries for our perceptions of the system we all exist within—even the most critical among us. I believe that Slavoj Žižek provides some of the most concise assessments of capitalism—allowing us to visualize an ethereal entity that we must all go to bed with. Something we can barely name, yet we all live and breathe: "...capitalism today is a matter of everyday religion in the sense of its built on trust..." (X)
He expounds the concept elsewhere:
"One of the most striking things about the reaction to the current financial meltdown is that, as one of the participants put it: 'No one really knows what to do.' The reason is that expectations are part of the game: how the market reacts to a particular intervention depends not only on how much bankers and traders trust the interventions, but even more on how much they think others will trust them. Keynes compared the stock market to a competition in which the participants have to pick several pretty girls from a hundred photographs: 'It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one's judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligence to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.' We are forced to make choices without having the knowledge that would enable us to make them; or, as John Gray has put it: 'We are forced to live as if we were free.'
Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote that, although there is a growing consensus among economists that any bailout based on Henry Paulson's plan won't work, 'it is impossible for politicians to do nothing in such a crisis. So we may have to pray that an agreement crafted with the toxic mix of special interests, misguided economics and right-wing ideologies that produced the crisis can somehow produce a rescue plan that works – or whose failure doesn’t do too much damage.' He's right: since markets are effectively based on beliefs (even beliefs about other people’s beliefs), how the markets react to the bailout depends not only on its real consequences, but on the belief of the markets in the plan's efficiency. The bailout may work even if it is economically wrong." (X)
Is this not unlike Pascal's motto, conjured by Žižek in his writings on Alfred Hitchcock: “even if you don't believe, kneel down and pray, act as if you believe, and the belief will come by itself"?
With the line: 'We are forced to live as if we were free.' we arrive at the concept of participation. If we take Žižek and Butler to be accurate, then capitalism is predicated upon individual participation. Whether one can fathom the "bigger picture" is unnecessary. It's very proliferation and longevity is determinate upon deeds: the individual’s identity- the doer- is totally irrelevant. To go a step further, such a critique of capitalism reemphasizes the concept of Adam Smith's Invisible Hand—of a self-regulating, adaptable, regenerating system.
The best metaphor I can conceive is of a phalanx of shark's teeth: rows upon rows in a constant state of replenishment. Does it matter if one tooth was sharper, or whiter, or bigger, or lesser than any of the others?
An example par excellence of these abstracts can be located in the film Czech Dream (Vít Klusák & Filip Remunda 2004). The filmmakers set off to document the creation of a hypermarket that will intentionally never be built. Instead they create a massive ad campaign for the grand opening of what will literally be the front of the store—a Hollywood set piece simulacrum.
The narrative emerges from the individuals whom they employ to see the concept brought to life: photographers, composers, survey and focus group experts, graphic designers, etc. Everyone is fully aware that this store will never be built.
What is most striking are the reactions of the ad industry representatives: all firmly disapprove of the ethics of the filmmakers, yet they all see their contributions through to completion and absolve themselves of any responsibility. They claim to have provided a service and however the employer utilizes that service is the sole responsibility of the employer, even if the employed understood exactly how their work is to be deployed.
Czech Dream was only conceivable through the willing participation of everyone involved—even those vocally opposed to it.
Let us turn now to an example more specific to the art community.
Shepard Fairey is of interest because he occupies two signifiers: he is both the auteur à la Andy Warhol and entrepreneur à la Donald Trump.
Consider this criticism of his work, which eloquently paraphrases many prevalent objections to Fairey:
"Can Shepard Fairey honestly be described as an artist who can critically assess the "unholy union of government and big business," or offer comments on the "underpinnings of the capitalist machine"? Yet that is exactly how he is promoted in the press release from the Merry Karnowsky Gallery of Los Angeles, where his solo exhibit Imperfect Union opens on December 1, 2007. Missing from that press release, and all other promotional materials released by Fairey, is any mention of his working hand in hand with that "capitalist machine". In a Nov. 3, 2007, interview with the Guardian, Fairey glibly stated, "I'm not against capitalism. If I was, I wouldn’t live in the US. If you get up everyday, work and spend money, you’re participating. But that doesn't mean I don’t want to critique it." - or profit handsomely from it for that matter." (X)
The question is whether or not we believe Fairey to be self aware—and if the answer even matters at all. The consideration of an artist's intent seems to cloud the more pertinent conversation of its implications. Recall my radical friend who adamantly believes in the emancipatory power of embedding anti-capitalist ideas within a consumer product, within one of the largest industries in the country. Here is a prominent criticism of Fairey’s methods:
"I believe Fairey exemplifies in many ways the operational model of capitalism. He extracts resources, largely from political struggles of Third World and working class people, and then slightly processes those resources (images), commodifies them (strips them of any history or relationship to where they came from), and sells them on the market. Like capitalism he simultaneously sells high-art versions to wealthy elites and then cheaper mass-commodity versions to the very same communities he is taking images from. This is how the making of all corporate products works." (X)
Is this not unlike the delusional attitudes of the ad agency folks of Czech Dream? A larger picture is emerging where individuals do whatever they want, and then refuse to consider any consequences of their actions, and retreat into a defense of their ability and/or intent for their actions. Is refuting social responsibility a defense mechanism to protect one from questioning ones constructed worldview? Or better yet, to protect one from considering their place in the social system?
I would like to propose a mental experiment.
Consider these images.
What is the context for these images, other than this post? Personally, I see them everywhere. I also see variations of the exact same images and similar-but-not-quite-the-same versions. I have to ask myself what purpose or meaning these images have. Certainly, we can explain away any criticism of them as patterns—that is, social symptoms of something deeper than personal expression. Without context or the traditional reductionism of isolating each and literally defining them without any broader connection, we are left with three objectified female forms.
It all seems rather compulsive, does it not?
Multiply this scenario by a million—do we arrive at the art community predicated upon participation?
Orson Welles disseminates similar notions in his film F for Fake. Like Czech Dream and Exit Through the Gift Shop it exposes both the invisible hand of a system by way of patterns as well as the indictment of everyone involved by way of participation—including the filmmakers!
Welles not only parallels Art with a Capitalist production model, he intertwines them, makes them one in the same. By setting aside all abstract justification for art and focusing on the practicality of the system, we see the manufacturing of a human need (meaning, purpose) to be exploited as a market. The human condition is thus commodified.
Elmyr de Hory is the stain in the image of this system. His work shatters the protected reality of the Art world by underlining the capitalist requisite of class-structure. It is not meaning nor aesthetic that provides a work with its value, but rather it's exclusivity. A Picasso original is not unlike a Louis Vuitton bag—its importance is that it is only available to those with exorbitant wealth. Its very purpose is to advertise such wealth in the hope of enticing one to desire it. It is possible to argue that de Hory embodies what the critics of Fairey call into question—exposing the construct of a system via their adopted production and distribution methods: mimesis as subversion.
Consider Jonathan Rosenbaum's assessment of Welles in his essay on F for Fake:
For a filmmaker who studiously avoided repeating himself and sought always to remain a few steps ahead of his audience's expectations, thereby rejecting any obvious ways of commodifying his status as an auteur, Welles arguably found a way in F for Fake to contextualize large portions of his career while undermining many cherished beliefs about authorship and the means by which "experts," "God's own gift to the fakers," validate such notions. (X)
Is it not possible, then, to consider all artists as brands, or brands in the making? Despite Welles’ greatest efforts, his film (and Rosenbaum's essay) are currently products of an umbrella corporation that, like Fairey, appropriates the works of diverse filmmakers, homogenizes them, reduces their personal politics to mere platitudes, and sells them as collectibles. A market has opened up that blends "high art" and "mass commodity". I am speaking of course of the Criterion Collection.
Even Welles had to participate in the system he consistently subverted—both as an actor appearing in some of the most wretched works imaginable, and as a spokesperson for countless consumer products. The justification has always been that he used the proceeds to sabotage the system, but I would argue that the system Welles took part in has outlasted Welles. His films are increasingly esoteric, excluded from much of the academic film world beyond Citizen Kane. Most film students in my experience cannot be bothered with anything but that film. Welles has become the darling of a shrinking collective of isolated intellectuals who are seemingly communicating only with themselves. And while I would champion his works to my dying breath I must ask: so what did he really accomplish?
Is the legacy of la politique des auteurs a paradigm shift with which radicals and subversives can be folded into the system they seek to destroy? Rather than allowing these public figures to raise awareness or galvanize a social movement are they now unwittingly shaping new demographics and lifestyle groups to be sold to? It seems to me like a practical capitalist solution to a societal problem: consider the reactions that arise from conservative condemnation of radical works. Rather than drawing attention to these things, they are allowed to continue unimpaired, and non-threatening to the rest of society. I must add that I am not criticizing this system from outside, but from within. My shelves are lined with hundreds of boutique label DVD's.
Let us now enter Exit Through the Gift Shop.
The success and failures of the film lie in its multiple interpretations. Is it an objective document of the life cycle of a radical movement, from grass roots to corporate assimilation? Does the film fit the pattern discussed above of exposing the workings of system via mimesis? Is it the reactionary prescription of blame onto a handful of individuals for the corruption of a movement? Or, rather, does it serve to discombobulate our simplistic definition of 'movement'.
Short answer, yes.
We must consider the treatment of Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brain Wash. The question is whether Guetta symbolizes the complete commodification of the 'movement', if he facilitated this commodification, or if he is directly responsible for it.
An answer may lie in Banksy's editorial decisions regarding Guetta—portrayed as a harmless buffoon, someone who seems to genuinely love what he is doing, yet is completely ignorant to his position and implications. Guetta is a human figure, albeit a pathetic one. It is hardly an effort to mock him, but that is precisely what many have done. Whether intentional or not, a certain cynicism emerges from the film that is akin to certain attitudes toward Christopher Guest or Coen Brothers films or even of The Jersey Shore: we observe human folly from a privileged perspective. As spectator-consumers were are absolved from the sins of these people, whose punishments are meted out in digestible increments for our entertainment.
It can be argued that Banksy is humanizing Guetta in order to illustrate how any hapless individual can wind up in a signifier position. Guetta did not infiltrate a harmonious system and contaminate it with his capitalist drive, rather capitalism allowed the movement to have its fun, to gestate organically, to prove it could be sold, then anyone who happened to be there would willingly make this transition to commodity under the delusion of personal expression. If it wasn't Fairey or Guetta it would have been anyone else. Capitalism bets on this predictable and negative assessment of humanity—it call always rest assured that individuals are convinced of their own autonomy.
One must also consider the prevalent reading of this film as a hoax or mockumentary—both of which I’d consider possible. The problem is not in the reading, rather the dead end of Kantian relativism that plagues postmodern cinema, regardless of how clever or poignant it can be.
I should clarify that I am not proselytizing a proto-fascist dismissal of a complex film. Quite the contrary, I have had many a stimulating conversation on all the films discussed, both at the water cooler and the kitchen table. But, like the secret email correspondence with my radical friend, I have to question its worth if it never impacts our lives to the point of facilitating a change. I am not convinced that the 'enriching of ones' life' is anything more than bullshit to avoid responsibility to other human beings. I am in a privileged position to be enriched by art—this does not justify my callousness in the face of oppression.
Film is of interest because moving images comprise a language; one that Peter Greenaway has argued eludes most people on the planet. If compared to the written and spoken word, most of us are functionally illiterate to the image language, making it all the more easy to be manipulated.
From an interview with Banksy:
I think its pretty clear that film is the pre-eminent art form of our age. If Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci were alive today they'd be making Avatar, not painting a chapel. Film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it's probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just re-decorate it. (X)
From an advertiser in Czech Dream:
All ad manuals always use the example of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was an ad made to order. It was a paid advertisement. A mega-billboard on the ceiling stating that God is great. It was done for dough. It was made to order and it’s art. Its goal was not to be a beautiful image that would evoke emotions. The commission was... "paint the ceiling so its obvious that God is great. And it must blow everyone’s mind. Here is the dough".
Everyday, in the most mundane of domestic activity, we are confronted by a popular set of ideologies that espouse that everything is the way it is because that is how the world works. It is what it is as my old manager used to say. This form of circular logic is incredibly flexible and up to the task of deflecting most observations and criticisms of both the problems of such a mentality and the flimsy scaffold upon which it rests. Yet it prevails en masse—some call it ignorance, others call it apathy or ambivalence. Regardless, I believe we may find a better comprehension of why this is so prevalent by searching within the theories of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Please be mindful that I am arriving at such concepts by way of Žižek, and I have quite a way to go before I fully comprehend these ideas. Yet I cannot resist using a particular component to help tie all the threads of this inquiry together.
I would like to propose that rather than touching upon some greater truth, these ideologies conform to what Lacan calls reality: a construct of symbolic order to assuage (or conquer?) the primordial unknowns of the Real—that unexplainable and terrifying chaos of the universe. When we are confronted with a proof (a stain) of this construct we are prone to aggressive reactionary measures. We want the stain destroyed so that balance can be restored to the order we have either created or subscribe to.
I believe this to be crucial, particularly for our questioning of Art, for it is easier to condemn capitalism and agree with Žižek about its metaphysical survival mechanisms than it is to attack our sole refuge of culture. Much of what I have discovered in researching this post, as well as in my own experiences with people, is that economics and consumerism and political authority are easier to be at odds with. There is something inherently cold in our perception of them. But to condemn or indict Art is to be met with the same zealotry of religious people when one not only questions the existence of god, but also exposes the practical, non-life-affirming policies that are informed by such beliefs.
Let us compare the ideas we’ve entertained herein. One of the tenants of the various anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist movements is the dependence on individual participation. When we buy a product, we cast a vote that says ‘yes’ to the status quo. When we purchase, say, animal products, we are not merely agreeing with the subjugation and slaughter of sentient beings, we are agreeing with the practices of an unregulated industry driven solely by profit. We are saying YES to the countless documented cases of workers rights violations, exploitation of illegal immigrants (21st century slavery), we are saying YES to disastrous chemical warfare and insurmountable ecological destruction, and we are saying YES to the fatal practices of food science that are shortening the human life expectancy and fostering outrageous epidemics of cancers, obesity, and innumerable genetic manipulations to the human body.
When we cast a vote for a work of art, what are we saying YES to? If the piece is sexist, we are saying YES to sexism, or rather patriarchy. If we buy an Obey shirt we are saying YES to the capitalist system, to the class warfare that segregates millions of humans to poverty and homelessness. We cannot pick and choose what components of the society we like and ignore the ones we dislike. If fact, it is this very mentality that corporate America depends upon: dividing and conquering us with "lifestyles".
The smoke screen that we all erect in someway or another to ignore this reality is founded on individual performance—in reassuring ourselves of our beliefs to counterbalance our contradictory actions. We put our faith in the doer in order to excuse the deed. For us to do this we must rely on an essentialist-naturalist argument, which is typically predicated upon Platonic binaries that 'define' the 'essence' of man and woman. And make no mistake, Plato differentiates between the two and there is no reconciling them.
This is what Gary Francione calls "moral schizophrenia", where we condemn one action and defend another identical action through semantics. One example is the differentiation between the ethical treatment of certain animals: Michael Vick is a monster for his treatment of dogs, yet McDonalds is in total compliance for their treatment of chickens and cows. To bring this back to participation, Francione advocates for a boycott of the NFL for allowing Vick back into the game—for saying YES to what Vick symbolizes. (X)
I opened this post with Butler’s theory of performativity in gender because I believe these concepts to be a key component to better understanding participation. There are one or two key components that will help flesh out this post:
...the distinction between the personal and the political or between private and public is itself a fiction designed to support an oppressive status quo: our most personal acts are, in fact, continually being scripted by hegemonic social conventions and ideologies.
. . .
Butler underscores gender's constructed nature in order to fight for the rights of oppressed identities, those identities that do not conform to the artificial—though strictly enforced—rules that govern normative heterosexuality. If those rules are not natural or essential, Butler argues, then they do not have any claim to justice or necessity. Since those rules are historical and rely on their continual citation or enactment by subjects, then they can also be challenged and changed through alternative performative acts. (X)
We are now treading in murky waters. As per Žižek's principles, we are all integrated in a system that only really exists in our belief in its existence. As Exit Through the Gift Shop, F for Fake, and Czech Dream help us realize, the same can be said of information—fine art, street art, or any other facet of consumerism. The difficulty here is the absence of a scapegoat: there is no enemy to vanquish, no Mr. Brainwash to ridicule. We are the system, and only our performance can change it. Žižek has argued elsewhere that the current catastrophes facing humanity cannot facilitate the collapse of capitalism: the system will not fail because it survives on speculation, exploitation of crisis and uncertainty, and is constantly borrowing from the future. Instead, he argues, what is more likely is a migration away from capitalism as people awaken to the patterns of stillborn solutions offered by the system. Just as religion fails—one cannot pray away the nuclear disasters in Japan—secular belief in the system is equally emasculated.
We must consider Art among these bankrupt solutions. While I will always defend the necessity of expression and culture as an essential component for human survival, it cannot solve our problems merely through commentary that is sold to those predisposed to agree with it. My DVD collection will not deliver a blow to the system I wish to abolish. Artistic subversion can only prompt a shift, it can never embody it. Let me be clear, this 'shift' is not some romanticized revolution or dramatic action captured in iconic images; it is the domestic and banal choices we make everyday. It is whether we choose to say YES or NO to minutiae that supports the system. More aggressive action may be inevitable, but we cannot equally 'scapegoat' our solution to simplistic fantasy. We must strive to make ethical and just decisions as often as we can, otherwise we're just performing to convince ourselves.