The Appeal of The Spectacular

Sylvette Babin
“In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle is the model of the prevailing way of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production.” In 1967, when Guy Dubord wrote these words in The Society of the Spectacle, it was difficult to imagine what proportions this “model” would take in the twenty-first century. Yet, although not everyone necessarily endorses Debord’s idea that the spectacle is synonymous with alienation of the individual, an examination of its various forms in society today — and particularly in the field of contemporary art, where the appeal of the spectacular is increasingly unrelenting — is nevertheless relevant.

In preparation for putting together this issue (which, in fact, bears some similarities with No. 58, Extimité ou le désir de s’exposer, published in 2006), we explored the phenomenon of reality television, which has recently extended into the field of art — notably with the American program Work of Art and its Québec version on this fall’s TV schedule, Les contemporains — and the growing abundance of international art fairs, biennales, and “blockbuster exhibitions,” all with the goal, admitted or not, of expanding the audience for art. In an era in which proliferation itself abounds, with competing cultural offerings and multiplying means of communication, managing to stand out has become a huge accomplishment. In this environment, there is pressure in cultural fields to develop new strategies for promotion and dissemination. But at what price? Is the imperative of expanding publics and circulation (ratings, numbers of visitors and collectors, sales made, number of website visits, and so on) influencing artists’ choices and orientations? For instance, were it not for the instant popularity of TV shows such as Work of Art, the works produced during that series might not have justified an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

When it comes to publishing art criticism — particularly in newspapers and journals — the spectacularization of culture and transformed expectations associated with new reading habits have led to changes in direction that, though sometimes obviously positive from the point of view of opening new markets, nevertheless create the risk of dumbing down content (articles shortened to “friendlier” formats, taking inspiration from the model of mainstream magazines such as People, more glamorous content, and so on). A categorical refusal to operate this way might lead ineluctably to isolation. Such deliberate isolation would no doubt affect critical discourse by encouraging prefabricated thought about art. And so the question arises, who actually controls art production? Do artists and presenters succumb too easily to market demand or to the desires of the masses or of publics more interested in entertainment? Will political leaders, with their priorities oriented toward productivity, success, and financial autonomy, win out over artists and organizations privileging more comprehensive, more conceptual, or less conventional analyses, risky art practices, and profound reflection?

Although the leisure society is now a thing of the past (work having gradually regained its title as supreme value), the fact is that behaviours and tools initially linked to entertainment are now infiltrating all spheres of production and dissemination. In the name of communication and promotion, the use of social networks and the Internet 1.0 is now integrated into all cultural enterprises. These days, it’s all about outreach. Given this perspective, could new modes of communication be envisaged as vectors of social emancipation?

The spectacular in art could be the subject of many thematic issues, as it raises many questions. At this moment, we thought it would be a good idea to offer, among other things, a reinterpretation of The Society of the Spectacle in view of current social and artistic debates, and to take a fresh look at new communications networks in the era of globalization. Thus, while reflecting on the utopia of the end of art announced by the Situationist International, we examine the potential that the spectacle might have to create social links and initiate mediation, especially in participatory practices and political projects. But in observing the different facets of the spectacular through the prism of a number of the artworks and analyses included in this issue, we must admit that not all positions are optimistic, and that criticism of the spectacle is still among the preoccupations of contemporary art.

In our last issue, Michel F. Côté wrote his final Affaires de zouave. He returns, in tandem with Catherine Lavoie-Marcus, for a new column, Schizes, which presents an interview with a “special guest” (alive, dead, or fictional) related to our theme. In this issue, Guy Debord has been invited to give his comments on the Quartier des spectacles de Montréal.

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]

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