Further reading relating to Good Taste: Project 3

Here is a link to a story about the continued narrowing of education in the UK which I touched on in Project 3

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/arts-subjects-seen-a-hobby-and-could-be-wiped-out-some-schools

And a column about a truly delightful trend which looks at the way people treat each other.  I actually remember speaking with some people in their 30s about the subject covered here.  One of them surmised that Internet dating makes it so easy to view people as objects, which consequently means that it’s easy to treat them as such.  If the following article is a true depiction of the world we live in then we have reduced ourselves to the level of trussed up chickens in the supermarket and not much more –

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2016/mar/29/how-ghosting-became-phenomenon-in-modern-dating?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H&utm_term=164296&subid=11118875&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

 

 

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Project 2.3: Good Taste

Project 2.3: Good Taste

What is the meaning of good or bad?  Words no longer mean what they mean, as the hipster, Donatari, in the funniest pastiche by far in a somewhat disappointing Zoolander 2, demonstrates.  Two hapless male models who have hidden themselves away from the world throughout the last decade emerge to find they haven’t got  clue what Donatari’s saying; A hilarious long introduction which is filled with phrases along the lines of, “That’s bad, man, dope!”  are signifiers in the flat World Two, where the “dominant (Platonic) regime of meaning” is replaced by an “anti-system”(109).

We are asked, ‘Who is to decide what is good taste in the first place?” Is Bach better than Hip-Hop? Are flying ducks bad taste? Are they kitsch? Is kitsch ironic good taste?

  • Does Hebdige make a clear distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture?
  • Whether he does or not, what are main arguments against what he calls the ‘People of the Post’
  • Explain what you see as the difference between high and popular culture today.
  • In light of developments in the media and other branches of the arts and culture, which is ascendant today, the First or the Second World? Is it flat or round?
  • Find four of five examples of contemporary popular culture, the same of ‘high; round-round world culture and the same of high referencing popular culture. You might like to see if you can find examples of popular culture referencing high culture.

(Quotes, unless stated otherwise, are from Hebdiges essay.)

  • Does Hebdige make a clear distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture?

Hebdige makes a distinction between an old societal existence and a new one. In each of those two paradigms there are dominant cultural positions – one that is reflective of the ‘old fashioned ways’ of being in World One and a subsequent cultural position, which is reflective of the new, of modernity. If culture is an expression of those societies which mirrors and informs them, but is also created by them, the whole process a continual back and forth interplay, then it is difficult to say Hebdige is simply discussing one aspect – culture. Rather, he is referring to more expansive, all encompassing seismic shifts – although focusing on two relatively marginal and possibly esoteric cultural objects.  World One is led by the educated few. In World Two the educated few have been shoved aside, and a more ‘populist’ reign has begun. He distinguishes between two modes of being – and very different cultures represent each of them.

He laments the old ways but also acknowledges the lack of democracy and dysfunction there, a place with rules that only a select few were ever lucky enough to be taught, leaving the rest forever outside the inner sanctum, which a tiny ‘priestly caste of scribes’ gain access to (103). He questions the sense of ‘hollowness’, futility, and facile habits which he sees as prevalent in World Two. He sees that whilst things needed to change, World Two offers a void-like, nihilistic alternative.

  • ….what are main arguments against what he calls the ‘People of the Post’
  1. “Truth, insofar as it exists at all, is first and foremost pictured” (105)
  2. They have built a world were “There is nothing underneath or behind the image and hence there is no hidden truth to be revealed”; (105)
  3. Where …”there are no stable systems, categories, or laws beyond the doctrine of the primacy of the image, there is no higher good to be served outside the winning of the game”; (105)
  4. Where “Sense… resides at the level of the atom”; (106)
  5. And …”consumer aesthetics and multiple style elites…” prevail; (106)
  6. It is ….”corrosive and infectious”; (106)
  7. It is a world where “your actual presence is unnecessary”; (107)
  8. Where everything is commodified in some way or other; (108)
  9. It is without norms.
  10. The disciples of the Post aim to render all that we see “meaningless” (making it OK to bully, deride and ambush others since they cannot feel anything of meaning);
  11. They set out to nullify any significance surrounding concepts of good/bad/legitimate/illegitimate; and (109)
  12. “..to replace the dominant (Platonic) regime of meaning – that is representation – by a radical anti-system which promotes the articulation of difference as an end in itself.”;(109)
  13. Making it possible to “erode” authority. (109)
  14. They see the “centralised source” of an “oppressive power” but what actually happens when you remove all meaning is a vast nothingness –empty of meaning leaving us free to “serve whatever gods we choose, to celebrate artifice, to construct ourselves in fiction and fantasy, to play in the blank, empty spaces of the now.” This sounds remarkably similar to the state of being utterly disconnected to any history as quoted in a previous project, explored by Frank Ferudi. (109)
  15. There is no “I”; (110)
  16. ..rendering life “a journey made by nobody to nowhere”; and where (110)
  17. “…Everyone can be …an amateur” “without education” but a little bit of training. (111)
  • Explain what I see as the difference between high and popular culture today

 Privately educated children are fewer and fewer – people can’t afford it and it’s actually thought by some people (well, maybe only a lone journalist) to be ‘trendy’ to send your children to state school nowadays. Those who do go, as they always were, are taught the full range of humanities in ways state education cannot hope to emulate. And in any case the state is continually narrowing the range of subjects and educational focus, even to the point where some schools chose to ignore National Book Day recently since dressing up as characters from stories apparently had no ‘educational’ value. Despite gallant efforts by helicopter parents amongst non-privately educated children there is still a very clear distinction between those educated privately and those who aren’t. High culture is absorbed into privately educated children’s lives. In extreme cases any form of culture, other than what goes on outside of school, is shunned in state schools. (Thankfully the Book Day story is not representative of all state schools but that it can happen at all is noteworthy.)

Conversely ‘high’ culture is often state sponsored, whereas popular culture is far more commercial, reliant entirely on advertising and ticket sales. Ballet, opera, productions at the RSC and National Theatre are funded by relatively large Arts Council grants but even those are under threat. Opera struggles and according to Darren Henly needs to make itself relevant to modern audiences. Even as I write there is a crisis surrounding funding at the ENO which is currently facing bankruptcy, and which receive an enourmous level of subsidy. Bill Bankes-Jones, artistic director of Tête à Tête, stated on Facebook that the sums amounts to £60 per visitor, which compares with less than £1 for other state funded arts organisations. (2016) Henly writes in The Guardian, “The fate of English National Opera’s chorus has stirred angry debate in the last week. Of course I feel concern for individuals in a company, but opera itself faces problems greater than ENO’s if it fails to make itself relevant to 21st century audiences. Arts Council England must keep its eye on the big picture.” (2016)

Popular culture on the other hand such as pop music, commercial TV, and cinema must rely on advertising revenue and the popular vote. Even the BBC although state funded is commercial nowadays – selling programmes and relying on revenue from non-BBC branded channels where they can advertise as well as rerun old programmes which cost nothing to make. Reality television, soap operas and light entertainment dominate the schedules. Over the last 20 years less and less high quality drama is made in relation to the number of channels available because production costs make it prohibitive, meaning less ‘juicy’ work for production crew and actors. That’s been quite a long ongoing trend which people were talking about when I graduated from drama school in 1994.

What’s most interesting and up to date is the culture emerging out of the Internet where names such as Pewdiepie, The Most Famous Artist and Cara Delevingne dominate and astound people with their self-promotion and level of following. I’m astounded anyway – how on earth do they do it? Whatever the answer, these digital-superstars have none of the problems of the ENO. “News that supers such as Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne can charge up to $300,000 per post astonished many. But while few models can expect to earn anywhere near that amount, their posts can still prove lucrative once they establish an engaged following.” (Saul,2016)

How do I know about The Most Famous Artist? My 11 year old son told me. You too can visit his Instagram and see a wide style of paintings, many traditional, which he has picked up in flea markets, and then altered, sometimes simply by dipping them a bit of paint, often by stencilling something over them such as designer logo, and then he sells them onwards. He also posts photographs of his life, including ones where people have derided him in some way. One photograph shows where someone had scrawled “Asshole” on his van (perhaps it was him!). Watch the film about him here: http://www.widewalls.ch/the-most-famous-artist-meaning/. He has only been doing it a couple of years and was a PR digital entrepreneur who lost his business in part by getting naked for a video which went viral, leaving him looking apparently rather ‘foolish’. He attracts a lot of rage but when you consider his day as outlined in the video, he is a very busy, hard working, if not a little sad (and I mean that in the old fashioned sense, rather than the mean-spirited modern sense). The fact he has become so well known, (although most famous of all artists – perhaps not – just the name is evidence of the anti-system Hebdige describes) is thanks to his incredibly good marketing skills, which if you want to be a star via the internet you need to embody. Is he an artist? What he does with paintings isn’t original, whatever that may signify.  Famously Duchamp did it before him, for instance, “adding two small dots, one red and one yellow” to a landscape, as described in David Evan’s anthology, Appropriation. (Duchamp,2009:40) The difference being, Duchamp didn’t have the Internet to hand but also, he “realised very soon the danger of repeating indiscriminately” wanting to protect against such “contamination” (Duchamp,2009:40). Matty Mo (The Most Famous Artist) is certainly someone who is creating ‘art’ within and according to the social constructs of the time in which he lives, doing so indiscriminately and seemingly, although we can only surmise, with the sole purpose of selling; it is the marketing which makes his work qualitatively different to other artists who are primarily driven to explore the human condition. The sadness I touched on earlier is perhaps something I noticed, which relates to the lack of substance in his enterprise.  But then, maybe I’m projecting. Or simply being a snob.  Will he ever be more than a footnote in history, if that? Who on earth can tell how the future will preserve today’s work. And what will emerge as long-lasting. We have an unprecedented digital way of recording nowadays. And when you think about the past, it becomes clear that social mores have a huge influence over who has been lauded to date; and there is now a resorting, as we go back and unearth artists that have been missed thanks to the structures which dictated prosperity. Of course, I am alluding to women artists who weren’t considered valuable during the times they worked in, or even afterwards, and are only now coming to the fore. Hannah Hoch, who I’ve written about several times, being one of them.

Television is not irrelevant nowadays but we watch it mostly via the Internet

Other Internet stars include:

Personalities – Tyler Oakley, Casey Neistat, JennaMarbles, iJustine, Leafyishere (scandal re comments about an autistic person) Rhett & Link, Damn Daniel (given a life-time supply of Vans – shoes –because his friend filmed him and mentioned him wearing them, despite the fact that the video was on Snapchat and deleted within 24 hours)

Unboxing reviewers – TechSmartt, TechRax (tests products, mainly Apple, by destroying them in quite odd and violent ways)

Gamers – Pewdiepie, CinnamonToastKen, Jacksepticeye, Markiplier

Educational videos – Vsauce (philosophy, science, logic), CGP Grey (geography, science of Star Trek, politics) ColdFusion (technology)

Ranters – GradeAUnderA (discovered a mathematical formula but has a nihilistic anti-culture channel) JaclynGlynn, nigahiga

I have my wonderful, clever, funny 11 year old son to thank for this extensive list of Internet personalities (and a contribution or two from a very sweet eight year old who wants to be a YouTuber when he grows up). Both clearly spend far too much time in front of the computer. What they have shared with me though is that although many of these people would undoubtedly be described as coming from a ‘flat’ earth, some of them – particularly the educational ones are not quite so easy to categorise as such. Rhett & Link are funny, thoughtful, amusing and entertaining. Vsauce is filled with incredibly interesting, intelligent articles.  Although my oldest in particular could certainly do with less screen time, he can in no way be described as lacking in deep, complex and astounding thoughts and knowledge. He knows things about the world I would never have known at his age, and tells me things I had no idea about now (mind you – he has done since he could speak!) The other day, in an attempt to help me, he told my youngest, “I know it’s hard to understand, but Mummy has a life separate from us…” And shortly afterwards, “Seriously, Mum, I thought about it and when I think of history, it’s hard to image that it occurred without me. I cannot imagine it without seeing it through my eyes… but I watch people older than me when I’m on the bus and see that they were all my age once…and that a whole world has existed without me.” So, despite growing up in World 2, a flattened place, where it is apparently OK for The Independent*, a supposedly serious media outlet, to post an edited, constructed, article showing an actor feeling upset and openly laughing at his misfortune, which is nothing more complex or clever than small minded bullying, my son is thoughtful, bright, empathetic and interested in others. Presumably there are lots of other children growing up in the digital age just like him.

Our external modern world is interlaced with elements of ‘Kitsch’.  I have just spent the grand total of £3 on some tumblers with small pink flamingoes stencilled on them.  I shall drink my wine out of glasses my father would have been horrified by, rather than wine glasses.  That’s because I want to view myself as someone who is understanding and part of the Kitschiness, which it’s just as clearly “anti-system” as anything I’ve mentioned above (although not cruel to anyone else, perhaps only to any decent wines I might buy, which would be better served in a proper glass).

What artists such as The Most Famous Artist,and before him Jeff Koons, are doing is exploiting the language of “anti-system”.  And presenting it back to a world where all meaning is violently exploding from within itself.  “However, the consequences of the assault on representation for Écrivains and image makers are, on the whole, rather more mundane.  First the referent (the world outside the text) disappears.  Then the signified, and we are left in a world of of radically ’empty’ signifiers. No meaning.  No classes.  No History.  Just a ceaseless procession of simulacra.” (109)

*Perhaps they could sack the person who made the video on The Independent, and film him whilst doing so, and then publish that online too.  Why is The Independent making such things?  How extraordinary and horribly sad that we live in a world where that is not only acceptable but common place.

Hebdige, D. (1999) ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up  The Face‘ in Visual Culture: A reader (ed). J. Evans, S. Hall. London: SAGE Publications p 99-124

Henley, D. (2016) ‘English National Opera Singes to Vote on Strike Action‘ in The Guardian (online) http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/feb/08/english-national-opera-choristers-strike-vote (Accessed on 26th March  2016)

Bankes-Jones, B. (2016) Bill Bankes-Jones (Artisitic Director). At: https://www.facebook.com/billbeejay/posts/10153475856621056 (Accessed on 27 March 2016)

The Most Famous Artist (2016) (Artist). At: https://www.instagram.com/themostfamousartist/?hl=en  (Accessed on 26 March 2016)

Duchamp, M (2009) ‘Apropos of Readymades’ in Appropriation (ed). D. Evans, London, Cambridge Massachusetts:White Chapel Gallery/MIT Press p40

Saul, H. (2016) ‘Instafamous’ on The Independent (online) At:http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/instagram-model-natasha-oakley-iskra-lawrence-kayla-itsines-kendall-jenner-jordyn-woods-a6907551.html (Accessed 27 March 2016)

Barlett, E (2016) ‘Ben Affleck’s face while listening to bad reviews is hilarious‘ on The Independent (online) At: http://indy100.independent.co.uk/article/ben-afflecks-face-while-listening-to-bad-reviews-of-batman-v-superman-is-genuinely-hilarious–WkG992FqWgb (Accessed on 27th March 2016)

Thank you to my two older children for their knowledge of Internet celebrity.

Also – worth saying, not sure I accomplished “notes” here.

Image (c)Sarah-Jane Field 2014

Notes for Project 3: Good taste

Notes for Project 3: Good taste

I really enjoyed reading the essay by Dick Hebdige, The Bottom Line on Planet One.

As I read through it I kept wondering if the reasons I agreed with so many of his assertions about Planet Two is because I’m now heading into middle age.  Would I have found him so agreeable if I were more like one of his students, “living in the pagan, post modern world”? (1999:100) I think I may have attempted living there for a time but I didn’t grow up in England as that world emerged.  So it never really made any sense to me, even when I was at university and playing the role of ‘student’ with such aplomb. Perhaps I live up to the notion that we become more conservative the older we get.  My poor old Conservative father (late) would disagree about me being conservative with either a small or large C.  “Where did I go wrong? How did I produce such a Troskyite!” he would bemoan, even though I was no-where near as politically minded on any side of the political spectrum as I am now, since I didn’t know anything about English politics. In fact, I had simply disagreed with him about Thatcher being the most marvellous thing ever – he truly thought that, and seemed desperately threatened that I didn’t.

I remember very clearly coming here from South Africa first in 1984 for a two week holiday and then in 1986 for good when I was 16.  It was a really strange experience.  I was in a state of culture-shock for years afterwards.  I remember how several aspects of being in this country made me feel weird.  One of the main things was something about the advertising that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Was it because there was so much more of it?  I’m not sure.  Was it because the billboards were not sun-bleached so the colours were much brighter or bolder? Perhaps.  Were the billboards bigger?  I don’t think so. But even the packaging was different; more vibrant and brighter.  Packets of chewing gum suddenly seemed strange and alien.  As did all the chocolate bars, sweets and crisps.  Along with the television, which was on all day; there was so much of it.  I recall Baker Street, for that is where I lived briefly with my grandmother, as somewhere covered in billboards, with massive faces looking down at me and giant sized things to eat, as well as huge letters spelling out words and names.  To borrow a cliché it really was an assault on the senses.

I’m not sure why this is relevant but I was constantly reminded of that experience as I read through the essay. The description of World Two is perhaps the reason.  The paradigm epitomised by The Face was the England I came to and it was so far removed from anything I had ever experienced before, and even though I had grown up in a household that claimed to be liberal, more than a little avant-garde, and progressive, the truth is both of my parents existed firmly in World One, and had no idea about World 2.  In fact, both often said that England had changed beyond recognition whilst they were away in SA for 14 and 16 years respectively. The England they left at the end of the 60s was still dominated by the very tail-end of World One and the England they returned to felt thoroughly of World Two,  as described by Hebdige.

I think one of the most true things I have read in all of the fascinating writings I’ve been reading lately is Hebdige’s point that Godard, via his statement “This is not a just image.  This is just an image”,  “…made the future safe for the The Face, the political, ideological and aesthetic roots of which lie as much in the 1960s, in Mod, Pop Art and the myth of the metropolis and Situationism as in Mrs Thatchers 1980s“. (1999:106) (Italics mine)

The world my parents came back to, and the one I entered for the first time as a sentient being (I was 6 weeks old when we had left England in ’71) was driven by whatever it was I saw and didn’t recognise in those billboard adverts on Baker Street, and on the packaging of snacks, and covering the food all along the aisles of Marks and Spencer’s.  “The construction of the ‘popular'” which, as Hebdige describes, was built on “notions of fair play, decency, egalitarianism and natural justice”(1999:120) had been replaced by something else, and my father never found a way to adjust to the new World.  He was a comedian and despite the changed environment, he carried on doing his act as always, which he had put together in the England of the ’60s, and adjusted in the SA of the 70s (culturally thirty years behind at the very least).  It became less and less relevant.

The Face reflects, defines and focuses the concerns of a significant minority of style and image conscious people who are not, on the whole, much interested in party politics, authorised versions of the past, and outmoded notions of community”. (1999:121) The progression towards a more socially democratic world has of course been positive. But something has also gone awry.  There is now a hardness to people, a lacking. I’m not sure there was ever the rose-tinted version of reality that people who lived prior to the 60s sometimes tell us about, or the television documentaries often try to convince us of.  But the enormous social shifts we’ve witnessed throughout these last decades may have resulted in the proverbial baby being thrown out with the bath water.  Or maybe I just see the new World a little through my dead dad’s eyes; viewing it with some level of confusion about where or how to exist in it.

It is strange that my father felt Thatcher was such a positive force, when as Hebdige says, she, or rather, the evolutionary social changes her name and reputation embody, were in fact just as responsible for the paradigm shifts described in his essay, and which my father found so difficult to adjust to, as the more subversive and anarchic elements were. The legacy from that era is profound, although I do believe that societal tectonic movements were rumbling long before Thatcher arrived on the scene.

I will answer the questions in the course folder in my next blog post, but wanted to write this down as it had been on my mind.  Hebdige’s essay ends with a quote from his student’s work by John Cowper Powys.  In it we are told that people will always love, hate, and experience a host of other human emotions despite the ever-increasing ‘flatness’ and ‘inhospitality’ of World Two. I will end with a quote by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy from her book, Mothers and Others, (2009:295);  “I have no doubt that our descendants thousands of years from now (whether on this planet or another) will be bipedal, symbol-generating apes.  They will probably be technologically proficient in realms we do not even dream of yet, as well as every bit as competitive and Machiavellian as chimpanzees are now, and probably even more intelligent than people today.  What is not certain is whether they will  still be human in ways we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathetic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”

Image of my father working as a comedian during the early 1970s

References:

Hebdige, D. (1999) ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up The Face‘ in Visual Culture: A reader (ed). J. Evans, S. Hall. London: SAGE Publications pp 99-124

Hrdy, S B. (2009) Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. London:The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

 

Part 2: Project 2b Separation Perfected

Part 2: Project 2b Separation Perfected

Read Guy Debord’s chapter, Separation Perfected, making your notes in the usual way.

  • Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view
  • What do you think Dubord means by the ‘spectacle’?
  • First published in 1967 – has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?
  • Does his view that we ‘see the world by various specialised mediations’ mean that we are having our view controlled or that we simply don’t know is propaganda and what is not?
  • Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx had to say on the subject). Is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or an extreme reification? [1]

The Society of the Spectacle is such a challenging book that it’s tempting to focus only on the ‘easy’ bits. It is possible to view the spectacle, as Dubord points out, in the “limited sense of the ‘mass media’ …(its)… most glaring superficial manifestation” (loc 506); and in our modern terms also impossible not to equate the spectacle with the Internet, which I have done at length here. However, it encompasses so much more.

We are asked in the brief to concentrate only on the first chapter, rich with pithy sentences that have been used repeatedly by others in explanations about what the spectacle is, but beyond that, the rest of the book is a complex and profound exposition of history, economics, philosophy and sociology as seen through the eyes of Dubord. Taking those pithy phrases out of context risks more than a degree of reductionism.

The contents of the Society of the Spectacle offer a pre-cursor to what Hannah Peterson in an article about modern artists in The Guardian refers to as “Hypercapitalism”. “In the age of ‘hypercapitalism’, the tentacles of the corporate world extend further into our lives than ever before. Even the words that were once used to signify creative rebellion – DIY, pop-up, grassroots, punk – have all be been co-opted, fetishised, used to sell coffee, flog old furniture and entice property buyers to up and coming areas.” (2016) The nostalgically tinted, slightly de-saturated adverts that McDonalds produced when it changed its image a few years ago is a case in point. Nostalgia is trendy and sells.

Tom Vague in an introduction to Society of the Spectacle states, “capitalism could appropriate even the most radical of ideas and return them in the form of harmless ideologies” (loc 33) and shortly afterwards, “Alternative lifestyles can be turned into commodities, safely recuperated and sold back to people, inducing a yearning for the past”. (loc 45) Lots of current and not that distantly-past advertising images spring to mind; New Labour, Ikea, Heinz, Facebook, Pears.

Images, because, as Dubord explains, that is how we receive and understand the world. Just a few years later Berger describes how the capitalist system is intrinsically reliant on images used as publicity in his television programme and book, Ways of Seeing (1972). Politics, charities, healthcare, education, every aspect of public and private life all make use of images to sell themselves. Institutions become commoditised, packaged, and given varying expensive makeovers. The spectacle, as Dubord see it, is life economised, separate from reality but also insidiously part of it. “The specialisation of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous images, where the liar has lied to himself” (loc 438).

More than a world view

Society of the Spectacle is not just a philosophy, nor merely a ‘world view’ – the direct translation from Weltanschauung. Rather, it is a critique of modern western life, capitalism, and the critical theories that led up to and including Marxism, as well as the movements that evolved in opposition to capitalism. It also offers surprisingly resonant predictions about how capitalism and its detractors will unfold and have done. It is an ethnographic excavation performed from within. It is a blueprint for a different way of existing, and of conceiving reality. It is an extraordinary document that is difficult to fully comprehend because of its depth, richness of ideas and the alternative and original model of reality it suggests.

Perhaps all comprehensive descriptions of humanity, such as Marxism and capitalism, are at their simplest understanding, merely models that enable examination of the systems they describe. If so, then Society of the Spectacle is so complex because it is a model that dissects and deconstructs all models that came before it, whilst also providing an entirely different model by which it might be possible to mediate reality.

Complexity

The Situationists were damning of modern life and Society of the Spectacle is a rally cry for the destruction and replacement of our culture; a recipe for re-starting from scratch, doing away with capitalism entirely, and all its ‘enemies’ too, which only exist in opposition to it. It examines our culture, which evolved out of the industrial revolution where factories and the significantly increased and mechanised production of goods changed the fundamental way in which we live (although it could be argued that the agricultural revolution was really the start of it). Since the industrial revolution lives are governed entirely by economic productivity and commercialisation. The Situationists recognise modern industrialised life as one that is in the thrall of such productivity and the ‘things’ that emerge from it; empty of the real, a pathological lie spread through the unreal images we are subjected to, the publicity, but believe and render as reality. Simply put (if that is possible), we see people looking more beautiful, more powerful, happier, having higher status than ourselves, and are told by the publicity this becomes possible when people live in a house that is decorated a certain way, wear clothes that sport certain labels, drive cars that concur with impressions of class. We buy into all of this, going to great lengths, and sometimes deep debt, to make sure we have an approximation of those images in our lives; and then imagine that we are those people we see in the images (images that are ‘designed’ with sophisticated and manipulative means to look a certain way). Like all well-versed pathological liars, for we lie blatantly to ourselves when we accept the images as truthful, we believe whole-heartedly in the illusion even though there is some sense of knowing too that it isn’t real. The anorexia, depression, anxiety, pill popping, and debt-ridden existences that abound are testament to the fact that on some level we know it’s all false. Nevertheless, the things we produce and the images we use to spread the word about them, govern how we live, who we fundamentally are, right down to how we perceive of right and wrong.

Images of ‘things’ can pertain to material, such as houses, cars and clothing; or ideas such as political ideals (New Labour) and experiences like packaged holidays; or even sponsorship of under-nourished African children. But what all those products have in common is that they are commoditised and sold to us through images.  The spectacle is a reality that is essentially false, but made real by the fact we buy into it, and render it real. “Reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real.” (loc 458) I lie to myself, I begin to believe the lie. I get angry if someone questions the lie. I rage if anyone deconstructs the lie. I live in a constructed reality based on falsehoods. The lie becomes my reality. I know it isn’t real but at the same time I cling to it as truth and therefore it cannot be a lie because I have made it true.

The problem with this, according to Dubord, is that we are living in the ‘negative’. “In a world that is topsy turvy, the true is a moment of false”(loc 460). We are not really living. We are not experiencing the full gamut of life. We exist only through images of the unreal. “The concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe,” (loc 491) & “The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep” (loc 496). In order to sustain the lie our lives are dominated by work; even when we’re not working, we’re involved in ‘leisure persuits’ which are just as governed by production as our work lives are. We sleep walk through life beholden to the forces of productivity. Nothing we experience is separated from productivity. We are prisoners to modern economics. “The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn.” (loc 533) Here, a development from Marx’s thoughts about the way in which we work, which Marx and Dubord believe is essentially bad for people, and says that our economic system makes us lonely, isolated, disconnected from each other. It’s unhelpful for humans who have evolved as social creatures and who fare better emotionally and socially in groups. But the spectacle is not interested in humanity’s well being. Even though it often makes claims to the contrary. Anyone who has watched television in the States won’t have failed to notice that a significant proportion of adverts sell healthcare and medical products.

“The spectacle originates in a loss of unity for the world…The spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites is as separate.” (loc 540) How does it reunite us? By telling us, through images which we see in advertising, TV programmes, films, and now on social networking sites, that we will be acceptable to others and ourselves if we have the right baby-buggy, boots, haircut, phone, computer. Or, more insidiously, if we believe in the correct state or productivity governed version of morality, which goes far beyond obvious moral dilemmas such as killing and stealing, but has inveigled its way into issues that might seem utterly unconnected to morality, such as what we feed our children or how we choose to sleep, for instance.

Resonant today

Reading through the Society of the Spectacle, it really is difficult not to become excited by notions that appear to describe our modern lives so accurately. Especially in relation to the digital sphere. As an interesting exercise replace spectacle with the word Internet.

“The spectacle is capital to such a degree that it becomes an image.”

(loc 547)

Or

“The oldest social specialisation, the specialisation of power, is at the root of the spectacle. The spectacle is thus a specialised activity which speaks for all others. It is the diplomatic representation of hierarchic society to itself….” (loc 499)

Or

“But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practise of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught.” (loc 466)

Or

… the spectacle is “a negation of life that has become visible” (loc 463)

How images are made is secondary to their being a visual manifestation of capital. Be it pixels or ink dots, the end result is the same – “capital to such a degree that it becomes an image”. The sentiments expressed by Dubord undoubtedly resonate more today than before the technological revolution, when the digital sphere became so embedded in our lives. Whilst it’s true that some of the political tone of Society of the Spectacle seems outdated now, especially when you compare it how people are writing about post-capitalism (Korody 2016), many of Dubord’s sentiments speak directly about how current economic and sociopolitical systems operate, and how the Internet especially is a digital expression of those systems. It is, however, a mistake to think of the spectacle as merely images. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (loc 442)

But those images are designed to make us want stuff. “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realisation the obvious degradation of being into having.” (loc 479). The accumulation of ‘stuff’, Dubord argues later in the text, generates religious fervour and zeal in a society that is hypnotised by the images it sees, a society continuously advertising and promoting stuff to itself. “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour.” (loc 483). Our concrete life is “degraded into a speculative universe”. (loc 491) Which describes accurately the digatised and virtual medium of the Internet. Debord without knowing of the Internet accurately predicted many of its downsides, so it is not surprising he has become more interesting to people.

As I have researched the spectacle I have stumbled across videos and articles claiming an increased interest in the spectacle and The Situationists. All of it, content made by people whom I shall never meet and am unlikely to converse with, even though I can usually leave a comment beneath many of these items. I can sit here at my desk, isolated with my expensive computer, commenting, thinking and writing, before uploading my thoughts to the Internet, so that others, who won’t ever meet me, can read them on their own costly ‘things’.   Mishka Henner in the talk I went to at The Photographers Gallery said he liked the Internet because he was able to get into a conversation with the people who interacted with his art due to the words they left in the comment section. But the spectacle is “the opposite of dialogue” (loc 487), says Dubord, and touch is less critical now than sight, perhaps a sense consigned to history (loc 486). The spectacle gives the appearance of enabling conversation but it in fact offers nothing of the sort. What it does gives society is a nihilistic approximation of something that looks like it might be a dialogue. We are “consumers of illusions” (loc 624).

Who’s in control?  

Last year I wrote about Dan Ruschkoff, who in a TV programme called “The Virtual Revolution […] talks about how online companies capture our clicking habits and then feed back behaviourally targeted advertising, which in turn eats away at our authenticity by telling us who we are and thereby disallowing us from actually finding out who we are organically.” The more sophisticated the algorithms, the harder it is to resist this if you access anything online at all. Spotify tells me what I like to listen to all the time. Facebook decides which of my photographs are worth viewing. I can’t look up a holiday without being bombarded with Thomas Cook adverts for weeks afterwards. And then there is the problem of a limited number of umbrella companies owning all the media outlets. If we see something stated as true in any form of visual media, but especially on the Internet, we are in danger of simply accepting it as truth. As Dubord said, following criticism of The Society of the Spectacle, he has changed the wording in the following; ““What is good appears, what appears is good.” Now it says simply; “It is so.”” (loc 393)

Reification

Earlier, I made the following statement:

“(We are acceptable to others and ourselves) ….if we believe in the correct, state and productivity governed versions of morality, which go far beyond obvious moral dilemmas such as killing and stealing, but have inveigled their way into issues that might seem utterly unconnected to morality, such as what we feed our children or how we choose to sleep, for instance. “

Recently an article published across various platforms reported how mothers lie about sleeping with their babies as the NHS guidance is for babies to sleep alone in cots on their backs. (Griffiths/Summers 2016) Despite the fact that mothers have routinely slept with their babies throughout our evolutionary history, it is now deemed unacceptable, unsafe, dangerous, and morally questionable. New mothers are told they must put their babies in a cot and are given very clear safety instructions which only pertain to cots, rather than being offered well researched advice about co-sleeping and some basic facts about alcohol, smoking, sofas (modern materials). This leads to many mothers feeling extremely guilty about the fact that their babies sleep better, as they do, when they’re sleeping together; thanks to a highly evolved, biological expectation in infants who will in most cases respond positively to a close, warm, breathing mother. And although many babies adapt to sleeping alone for long periods of time without difficulty there are plenty who don’t. So mothers choose to co-sleep in spite of the publicity telling them not to, and then exist with the ‘knowledge’ that they are potentially risking their babies’ lives. When asked about co-sleeping at health visits, mothers might choose to lie because they are afraid of being chastised. Which ultimately prevents anyone from giving them accurate safety advice about how to ensure they lower the genuine risks, regardless of where their babies sleep. Statistics are couched in terms and phrases made by organisations that suggest co-sleeping is the major cause of sudden infant death syndrome, even though a significant number of deaths occur in cots, car seats, or buggies.

I owned a cot. I paid nearly £200 for it. I went through various hoops of un-conditioning in my head by reading a huge amount of material when trying to understand why I felt better, my baby slept better and things worked well for us when we slept together. Eventually I gave up on the cot. It became a very expensive laundry basket. My friends said, “Oh you’re so lucky he falls sleep anywhere!” But then I hadn’t conditioned him into thinking he could only sleep in a cot with a black-out blind covering the windows. Whenever a decision such as this is made, consciously or not, a cost-benefit ratio comes into in play. The other mothers raised children that slept through the night far sooner than mine, which at times seemed rather desirable. But the economically produced ‘things’, the cot, the blind, must continue to be mass-produced in order to sustain our economy (along with a whole load of other things). In order to uphold the continued making of these things, mothers are given (unconsciously by society) a set of emotive, charged messages which uphold that particular train of production.  These message are: The cot will keep your baby alive. You cannot. You are capable of killing your baby. Here, the cost benefit ratio swings in favour of economics on many levels, not least of which is the continued mass-production of objects.

The production of the cot governs the lives of new mothers and its mass-production results in her feel guilty and worried, even morally inept. What’s more, well-meaning people go into the houses of people who come from societies where there are no cots, or into countries where cots are not used, and tell those mothers they are wrong, that their culture is wrong, that they risk killing their babies. This is despite the fact that many cultures don’t even have words for cot death and sudden infant death syndrome is far rarer elsewhere than it is in Western cultures, or even unheard of. (Jackson 1989)

In reality, there is no moral virtue relating to the use of or rejection of a cot. And I’m not suggesting everyone should give up on modern furniture or other baby related items designed to make life more comfortable. (How each mother reaches her particular brand of parenting is deeply personal and steeped in her own history). Yet, tied up within the production and selling of cots and the whole baby paraphernalia market, is a whole set of moral codes structured by a society whose reality is informed by the needs of economics and the over-production of ‘things’, rather than our biological needs. Dubord refers to these inauthentic needs as psuedo-needs and differentiates between those and primary needs (loc 615, 636, 637). In actual fact, cots and cradles have been around for a long time and baby artifacts date back to Egyptian times at least. Additionally, in cultures very different to ours, objects such as cradle boards, for instance, enabled women to continue working while their babies might have been propped up against the nearest tree. So, it is important to realise it not the object that feeds into the social structure in which we live. Rather it is the relationship we have with the entire productive process behind the object that shapes who we are, from the very beginning of our lives and throughout.

Finally

There was no romanticised idyll prior to capitalism and I doubt very much there is any utopia to come. However, Society of the Spectacle, effectively deconstructs the reality in which we exist with extraordinary clarity, questioning the very basis of our culture. The post-capitalists today suggest a different way of existing, which according to the article mentioned earlier (Korody 2016) includes a universal basic salary for everyone, much higher reliance on automation and mechanisation, and safe, hygienic housing for all. It’s diffcult to see how the UK, a country where the disparity between rich and poor is greater than it has ever been, where the long-held structures of class are being firmly upheld, despite the progressive blip during the second half of last century promising a more evolved state, will ever be quite so social minded as that (Korody 2016). It’s encouraging to read that some countries are already looking at the ideas suggested by post capitalists, who develop many of the ideas explored in Society of the Spectacle.  The book itself is incredibly complex and complicated.  It has been critised as needlessly so but as Vague points out, the difficulty rightly reflects the enourmous task of addressing all that is so unhelpful to humanity within our culture.

Bibliography

Dubord, G 1967, Society of the Spectacle, [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.co.uk (accessed 08/03/2016), introduction by Tom Vague: The Boys Scouts Guide to the Situationist International edn, Bread & Circuses Publishing, Paris, Preface by Sam Cooper.

Griffiths, S & Summers, H 2016, Fearful mothers lie to GPs about sleeping with baby, viewed 17 March 2016, < HYPERLINK ” http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Health/article1677747.ecehttp://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk >.

Jackson, D 1989, Three in a Bed, 2003 3rd ed, Bloomsbury, London.

Korody, N 2016, Architecture after capitalism, in a world without work, archinect.com, London, viewed 19 march 2016, < HYPERLINK ” http://archinect.com/features/article/149935222/architecture-after-capitalism-in-a-world-without-work” archinect.com >.

Peterson, HE 2016, Where have all the art punks gone?, viewed 16 March 2016, < HYPERLINK ” http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/16/generation-y-young-british-artists-punkhttp://www.Guardian.com >.

Berger, J 1971, Ways of Seeing, 1971, BBC & Penguin Books, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] (The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.[1]) (Wikipedia n.d.)[1]

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(Marxism)

 

 

Part 2: Project 2a Situationists and Bourdieu

Part 2: Project 2a Situationists and Bourdieu

Consider Bourdieu’s statement that

“in conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism, society is merely confirming itself the tautological certainty that an image of the real which is true to its representation of objectivity is really objective”

What do I think this statement means?

Do I agree with it, and if not, why not?

 

Society ‘believes’ in the reality, the apparent truth, of photographic images. It’s hard not to because photographs, despite being flat (or perhaps because), ‘look’ so much like reality, according to how we have been conditioned to see. Bourdieu is saying photographs appear like true life because photography is a product of society’s ‘way of seeing’.  Our way of seeing is part of our cultural interface and not something we can separate from all that easily, if at all.

We believe in photography as a truthful objective recorder of life despite the fact that most of us, including non-photographers, hear stories for instance about Photoshopped images all the time. (There is too much emphasis on the ‘evils’ of Photoshop. Photographers and artists have been successfully altering images since photography’s birth. Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void is an old example of an image that played with society’s trust in photographic images.  Prior to that painters painted in the style of the epoch in which they existed – elongating necks, clearing skin, flattering kings and queens throughout art’s history.)

Despite a long habit of people pointing out that photography cannot be trusted, society continues to confer on photographs ‘a guarantee of realism’ (Bourdieu, 1969). We do so because photographs reinforce our perception of reality due to the way we interact with them. We don’t interact in the same way with ballet for example.  Things get more messy with soap-operas.

But as Bourdieu points out early in his essay “photography captures an aspect of reality which is only ever the result of arbitrary selection, and consequently, of transcription” (Bourdieu, 1965) Like any artistic expression, photography is an interpretation of reality, regardless of clever montage created with old or new technologies. But it’s hard for our human, fallible brains to recognise and keep hold of these facts. It’s what makes photography so powerful.

People interested in making propaganda, or as John Berger calls it, publicity, have made great use of photography’s power of persuasion from the very early days. Bourdieu states that this is because photography “(from its origin) [it] has been assigned social uses that are held to be ‘realistic’ and ‘objective’”. (Bourdieu, 1965)

This is not entirely true. In fact, Pictorialism is a clear example of photographers doing the opposite, trying to emulate expressive paintings by creating painterly textures, moods and lighting in their photographs. It is true, of course, there are many examples of photography being used to record life for scientific purposes, most famously, Muybridge’s horses, but interpretation even there is unavoidable.  After I went to the Drawn By Light exhibition last year, I wrote: “And I was …()… fascinated by the photographs of psychiatric patients by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond who was one of the first to use photography to document science in this way – although it has to be said the portraits are very much an expression of the photographer and his time rather than merely documentation.” In any case, it is a mistake to see science as entirely objective and authoritative.  (Reading through various opposing child-rearing methodologies has proven to me that you can prove whatever you want to with the right data and a well thought out argument.) Photography has been assigned uses that appear to be  objective, but it has in fact been used both artistically and scientifically since its inception. The artistic style of Pictorialism was dismissed, thought to be a sign of a lack of confidence by photographers and within photography in the 1920/30s. But even the highly focused and stark style of the f.64 club is dependent on interpretation and promotes a specific, consciously chosen way of ‘seeing’, expression rendered in a certain way. And many of the habits of Pictorialism seem to have made a comeback due to the ease with which we can add effects digitally, although one could argue a snobbishness surrounds some photography being made to look ‘different’ as opposed to an ‘unadulterated’ photograph, especially where technology is used. Such work might be considered ‘ersatz’.

Photography has “presented itself with all the appearance of a ‘symbolic communication without syntax’” (Bourdieu, 1965).  This is something to ponder quite seriously. As human beings continue to evolve, why are we currently communicating more and more with images rather than words and syntax? “We are all photographers now” is a sentence I have read repeatedly in various articles about photography and the Internet. Why are we  all communicating with a language which, without the shape and form of spoken or written words, taps into our base, pre-conscious, pre-history selves?

And as far as the Internet goes; we have created a vast, digital-realization of the super-brain organism.  And the Internet is awash with images. The Spectacle, described by the Situationists, “is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”. (Debord, 1967). The Internet is The Spectacle digitised.

I have watched a lot of videos on YouTube about The Situationists over the last few days and also read some of (but not all quite yet) The Society of the Spectacle. I LOVE the ideas and would dearly like to see a copy of Guy Debord’s Mémoires and wonder what those people would have made of the present state of the world. Everything I’ve come across so far seems incredibly prescient and accurate in relation to today. But as I absorb the ideas I keep thinking about chickens and eggs.

Which comes first? The images or the society?  They are borne out of each-other and feed into each-other. And the continuous back and forth flow between the two become self-prophesising.

We Westerners do indeed have a history of seeing in a certain way, that leads us to making photographs which reflect and project back that way of seeing. And which reinforces the way we see. The “tautological certainty that an image of the real … is really objective” suggests that Bourdieu believes society thinks that photographs tell the ‘honest truth’. In fact, individuals know that photographs don’t always (if ever) tell the honest truth. However, so much of photography, especially vernacular and advertising, looks so much like reality that we believe in the images even when we know intellectually, they have been manipulated in some way. That manipulation may be digital, as in when a female model is made to look younger. Or it may have been produced for commercial purposes, such as an advert with a family looking like they’re having the best time ever driving along the motorway, because the makers want us to think the car they’re in has the ability to transform life, filling it with fun, love and happiness. Or the manipulation could be the conscious or unconscious choice of images posted by a friend on FB or Instagram, chosen specifically to make his/her friends (and perhaps the poster too) think that their life is one long, happy, marvellous existence, because that is what the ‘publicists’ tell us life should be like. “The image is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (Debord, 1967).  Capital can be many things, as systemised by Bourdieu, and the images of accumulated capital reinforce the belief systems we buy into, perhaps even increasing the value of the capital over time. All of which continue to serve in the reinforcing and mirroring and projection –  which I have described above.

When society looks at such photographs, individuals within that society, even though they know there may be some falsehoods, want to believe in the ‘reality’ represented. So they do.  Society then internalises the message communicated and projects it out again, so that when society looks at the image, it can say to itself – yes; that is the reality; I am part of the reality. This is what the tautology in Bourdieu’s sentence refers to.

Photographic images are part of reality ‘represented’. Not because they were used in scientific purposes originally, and so are attached to supposed truthful, authoritative occupations.  But rather because to  be human requires a system of mediation, which can only ever be represented, between the organic data inside each of us and the everyday business of existing.  Photographic images are a part of the language of the post-industrial cultural interface.  Part of the illusion of self. And other. (Baggini, 2011)  We have little choice but to believe in most, if not all, aspects of the reality of that interface.

 

 

Bibliography

Bourdieu, P. (1965). The Social Defenition of Photography. In J. Evans. & S. Hall (Ed.), Visual Culture: A Reader. Sage & Open University. 1999.

Debord, G. (1967). Society of the Spectacle . Paris. In G. Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Int. T. Cooper 1977, Trans. Black & Red).  Bread & Circuses Publishing.

Baggini, J (2011). The Ego Trick. Grant Publications. Grant. 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2: Notes for Project 2 The hierarchy of legitimacies

One of the things that has troubled me with this essay is the language but I do think some of the things I find offensive are down to translation.  Instead of ‘peasants’ we can refer to an underclass, for instance. But then again, maybe I’m quite wrong and he does actually mean peasants in the old fashioned sense of the word.  Because of the time this was written (not that long ago in the scheme of things), and because the word peasants, if referred to certain sections of society today, is not that kind, it is difficult.

The other thing that is troubling are the sweeping statements – perhaps again down to translation, but also probably due to an altered sense of what is acceptable in 2016 as opposed to 1960.

I had to do some research about Bourdieu (since I had not heard of him) and after a very brief search and minor education about some of his ideas I see that he is concerned with ‘cultural capital’, and that is what he is discussing in the essay.  He is comparing various levels of cultural capital and making observations about the value of that capital, and how a dearth might present itself.

There seem to be two separate distinct parts to the essay, one of which comes across (perhaps due to translation) as though Bourdieu feels immensely superior, and one of which doesn’t.  So for me, the section titled ‘hierarchy of legitimacies’ is far more observational and anthropological – noticing and measuring.  I can’t work out if he is criticising practitioners who attempt to legitimise their craft, (crafts from the middle brow sphere such as jazz, photography and cinema) by transferring ‘models of behaviour’ from arts that sit higher up the chain of authority such as painting, sculpture, literature and theatre.  Or if he’s just suggesting that is what happens.

Bourdieu suggests that the middle brow arts are more accessible because people do not feel ‘as forced as they do in other areas to make the effort to acquire, preserve and communicate’ (pg 177) scholarly backgrounds from the upper echelons of ‘legitimate’ art.

As I look at the diagram on page 177 and note that fashion, advertising and design are placed in the sphere of the arbitrary I am reminded of a blurring of authoritarian social structures, which I mentioned in the last project.  Fashion, photography and fine art for instance are not always so separate now.

I wish I could say whether his arguments can be applied to contemporary forms of artistic expression.  But at the moment I’m having trouble trying to figure out what his arguments actually are.  Is he saying that the vast majority of people do not have the wherewithal to understand or appreciate high art?  But that middle brow art does not come with the same academic and tightly defined social baggage, so is less frightening for people?  And that the underclass are simply kept out of the picture because their interests are squarely placed in the sphere of the arbitrary? (My first proper partner, a boy from Workington with a very strong Cumbrian accent, who came from a long line of miners but had aspirations to become a camera man – and was successful, would have referred to this sphere as the “Bingo and Chips” sphere.  It was he who introduced me to foreign films and photography. His social history and political knowledge was greater than any of my friends’ whose received pronunciation had been learned in expensive schools and handed down by parents who picked them up at the end of term in Audis and BMWs.  He does not fit neatly into Bourdieu’s categories.)

I do, however,  keep thinking about Tate Modern,* one of the busiest, most successful ‘attractions’ in the UK, a space filled with photography, installations, and video art. And the middle classes.  I took my son there when he was 7 to do a school project.  We watched a short film where some cubes of sugar have petroleum poured on them and then disintegrate.  He loved it!  Kader Attia’s installation reminded him of a YouTube video so he could relate to it.  I have not seen him react with such enthusiasm in the National Gallery.  Titian, Rembrandt or Manet have never elicited such excitement (although Malevich sent him somewhat crazy, I must admit – he kept saying they were like optical illusions, which he loves too.  But then Malevich is modern art so maybe my son’s enjoyment of it confirms some of what Bourdieu is saying). Is this child-like appreciation relevant?  An unadulterated enjoyment of something that requires minimal education?

Of course, an educated appreciation of any art, even middle-brow photography or jazz, can be very satisfying.  It is also jolly nice to feel superior about having some knowledge and understanding when you know others might not have it.  To have a relatively decent degree of ‘cultural capital’, which I have clearly demonstrated exists in our financially, restricted, single-parent family, perhaps gives us an advantage in some areas (Although, I note, we have less cultural capital than others I know, such as the children of parents who attended Oxbridge for instance, where the habit of learned appreciation is greater than in my family).  But I feel very uncomfortable with some of the statements made in this essay.  And I am confused by the different tones in the two sections.  I do feel this is quite tricky to tackle without having a deeper understanding about Bourdieu’s ideas and my afternoon looking at a couple of YouTube videos hasn’t helped enough.

*What’s so Great About Tate Modern – an article looking at Tate Modern’s popularity.

2: Notes for Project 2

Read Pierre Bourdieu’s essay, The Social Definition of Photography, and make notes.  Here are my notes (sometimes just quotations that have stuck out for me, sometimes thoughts that spring to mind as I read through it)

  • “in fact, photography captures an aspect of reality which is only ever of an arbitrary selection, and consequently, a transcription” pg 162
  • …but seen as realistic and objective recording because it “has been assigned social uses which are held to be realistic and objective” such as capturing wedding, births, recording crime scenes, animals in nature, science experiments and medical conditions
  • “symbolic communication without syntax”
  • in keeping with a way of seeing that has dominated since the Quattrocento 
  • photography has not been used to “invert the conventional order of the visible”pg 163, and “appears to be a recording of the world in its most true vision”
  • consider “socially conditioned forms of perception”  – my biggest interest I would say is how we perceive according to our culture but it is extremely difficult to imagine how perception is visually alternative in another’s view – however much I know it must be.
  • pg 164 – “the photographic act in every way contradicts the popular representation of creation as effort and toil”.  For me, at any rate, I have begun to distinguish between various types of photography and the type I am most interested is conceptual.  The pressing of the button is not quite an irrelevance but it doesn’t really matter who does that bit.  Which would lead me to need to look at what conceptual art is, is it an art etc. The concept is ‘trapped’ or rather represented inside the flat, one dimensional image rather than being a bit of furniture you can touch in a gallery room.
  • “which, by abolishing effort (by simply clicking a button and relying on the mechanical eye to record as opposed to painting, drawing, sculpting), risks depriving the work of the value which one seeks to confer on it it
  • “Without a doubt, photography (and colour photography especially) entirely fulfils the aesthetic expectations of the working class.”  I love this sentence.  It reminds me a little of Larkin’s attitude towards the ‘girls’ in Whitsun Weddings – “…girls/in paradise of fashion, heels and veils…” and “the nylon gloves and jewellery substitutes…”.  Both this essay and the poem were written in a different time , without today’s perceived social correctitude.  Also, worth noting that colour, has by now made been made acceptable for ‘Art’ by Elgeston, Freidlander and Leiter. Things change.
  • ‘prohibitions’ make up the rules for amateurs and ‘popular’ technique, confirmed by lack of technical competence and poor quality of cameras – these encompass an aesthetic that must be recognised and then images compared to that and deemed failures
  • popular aesthetic rejects blurred, unfocused pictures as clumsy or unsuccessful
  • within the above parameters a picture can only be defined by its social function
  • aesthetic is identified with social norms
  • the meaning of the pose adopted only understood in relation to social convention
  • “striking a pose means respecting oneself and demanding respect” pg 166
  • there is little meaning in the word – ‘natural’ since it is a cultural ideal that must be created before it then reinforces the notion that it was, as in holiday snaps (somewhat cynical as perhaps true in some cases but perhaps not in all, although I get the point)
  • Family and family celebratory photographs show us who we are meant to be within social relationships that are defined and reinforced by photographs – all of this is covered in Family Frames by Mariane Hirsh in great detail
  • Frontal pose deeply rooted to cultural values, manly, demanding of respect ; compare this with images of women in repose staring lustily at the viewer on a chaise lounge.  I am also conscious of how a fontal pose is confrontational, demanding  – yet we see it as strong.  Compare this to Jean Leadoff’s description of how the Yequana greet someone when they come across a tribe they do not know.  It’s very different!
  • “The portrait accomplishes the objectification of the self-image”
  • All photography is objectification – surely, and I suppose here he is saying that poses in amateur or vernacular photography are indicative of this, that people are objectified through culturally based, unconscious symbolic gestures
  • I really think, despite the use the of the word, peasant (which has changed in meaning during the years since this was written) that his assertion that people not blessed with the luxury of having been born into the upper echelons of society “internalise the pejorative image that members of other groups have of them” is a fairly accurate description.  Body language does indeed tell us a great deal about self-image and the image that gets projected onto and into people by others too.
  • I am not sure that by conforming to conventional postures one is “seeking to control the objectification of one’s own image” pg 168.  Conventional postures, derived by culture, give the person an illusion of control, and provide a shape, making it possible to sit and pose in the first place.  It leaves the person feeling naked otherwise.  And too vulnerable.  So does that mean he seeks to control the objectification…. or happily acquiesces to the objectification provided there is a ritualised language in place? Maybe I don’t understand what he is saying fully here. (And elsewhere I hasten to add!)
  • Photographs provide an image that is more real than the individual, are defined by their social relationships as witnessed in the pictures (how else can we be defined? – we need a structure of some sort in order to exist)
  • This is quite a tricky thing for me to read because I think I might secretly agree with a good deal of it, but feel it says things which are utterly against many of the virtues I uphold and aspire towards.  The problem though is that if you remain bound by a narrow set of conventions about what is tasteful or not, acceptable, works well  – then you’re limiting yourself quite a lot in your creativity… maybe that is what he is saying though…
  • Aesthetics obey cultural models rather than arbitrary (of course! – seems an obvious thing to say but then I’ve been reading about varying cultures and the idea of norms for some time)
  • I think Bourdieu is actually unfairly down on just one section of society because actually, much of what he says can be applied to pretty much everyone – expect the cultural elite, a few educated and erudite souls who are lucky enough (if you view it that way) to have transcended the tastes that are bound up within society – also he is writing at a different time… and he actually seems rather more old fashioned than the decade in which he is writing.  So much has happened with imagery since he wrote this – not least of which, famous actors on the front of magazines, naked and pregnant, now seeming normal and not at all shocking, (don’t they?  or maybe I’m wrong?) Also, people will photograph literally anything to put on social media nowadays too.  Taste in these photographs are irrelevant.  William Klein says in a documentary about his work, everyone posting stuff to FB is extremely avant-garde of them, photographing their breakfast, bus stop, selves, books they are reading, children’s everything etc etc etc… For me, what that leads to is people wanting images that transcend that – i.e. highly polished, advertisment-style images of their babies wearing wings, tiaras or leg warmers, curled up in buckets and draped over furniture.  As I write that I recognise Bourdieu’s words as being fairly accurate when he says ” (they) expect every image to fulfil a function”  So, maybe what he says is true about what people expect from photography ‘proper’, despite the fact they might ignore the conventions and rules for social networking purposes”pg 171
  • “Taste that requires an element of charm and emotion for its delight, not to speak of adopting this as a measure of its approval, has not yet emerged from barbarism”  pg 174. Such an intellectually narcissistic thing for Kant to say – and I really hate that I want to agree and fear, horrifically, that I may be wrong for doing so (it so goes against the grain in me to admit to any feelings of imagined superiority…it’s wrong, wrong, wrong, every cell in me squirms!!)  I’m an awful person for thinking Kant can possibly be right!!!!
  • The final section categorises various levels of taste – placing photography not quite in the upper levels, but in a middle brow, right alongside jazz.

This essay is incredibly complex and I felt it was necessary to record these notes in order to make sense of it, and then hopefully with something that is less rambling than it might otherwise be (as is my habit!)