Dossier | Spectacle, Communication and the End of Art | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Spectacle, Communication and the End of Art

  • Student protests, Marche ou crève, Montréal, Spring 2012. Photo : © Mario Jean / Madoc
  • Student Protests, Archicontre, Montréal, Spring 2012. Photo : © Mario Jean / Madoc

Spectacle, Communication and the End of Art
By Trevor Stark

Writing about the recurrent “rumour” of the “end of art” in modern art and philosophy since Hegel, Eva Geulen emphasized its perpetual untimeliness: “As long as one speaks of an end . . . speech is either precipitous or belated . . . . For either the end has already occurred or it is still to come. In the meantime, which the end displaces either forward or backward, the notorious talk of the end circulates.” (1) This duality is crucial to understanding the place of art within the critique of spectacle developed by Guy Debord: for the Situationists, art was already a thing of the past and in need of its punctual and authentic end.

In its “spectacular” end, the corpse of art is preserved as an autonomous institution but with its highest vocation voided: once promising the development of new forms of communication, new ways of picturing and engaging with the world, art under the reign of spectacle is either enshrined as a moribund object of veneration in the museum as mausoleum, or propped up as novelty or speculative investment in the art world, that most rarefied branch of the entertainment industry. Conversely, the Situationists positioned themselves as the historical realization of the avant-garde’s stalled destruction of art: the Dadaists and early Surrealists, for Debord, had critiqued the forms and norms of bourgeois culture to the point of contesting the existence of art as a sector separate from the rest of social life. But, Debord asserted, the avant-gardes had not gone far enough, had not passed from an aesthetic opposition to bourgeois society’s modes of representation to a political opposition to that society’s economic foundation. The Situationists would take the dreams of the avant-garde and the Marxist critique of alienation as two halves of the same project, seeking to accomplish the “supersession and realization of art” — its abolition as a separate specialization and the realization of its liberatory promise directly in life. No longer producing poetry at the service of revolution, Debord sought “revolution at the service of poetry.” (2)

This utopian strain in bourgeois Western aesthetics, it is true, has a long pre-history, going back to Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics where the philosopher proclaimed that art was “no longer the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself.” (3) To put it schematically, for Hegel, art had reached its point of ultimate unity in Classical Greek sculpture and was destined to be displaced by philosophy as the means of accessing or embodying the Absolute. As Fredric Jameson has written, art for Hegel was propelled toward “the abolition of the aesthetic by itself and under its own internal momentum, the self-transcendence of the aesthetic towards . . . the splendour and transparency of Hegel’s utopian notion of philosophy itself, the historical self-consciousness of an absolute present.” (4) For Jameson, however, Hegel’s “seemingly misguided” concept, when read retrospectively through Marx, holds a richer vision of the end: “The dissolution of art into philosophy implies a different kind of ‘end’ of philosophy — its diffusion and expansion into all the realms of social life in such a way that it is no longer a separate discipline but the very air we breathe and the very substance of the public sphere itself and of the collectivity. It ends, in other words, not by becoming nothing, but by becoming everything.” (5)

In Jameson’s reading of Hegel, the coterminous ends of art and of philosophy imply an infinite expansion onto the terrain of everyday life, a movement abolishing specialization in the discovery of authentic modes of being together, the very substance of collectivity.

For Debord, Hegel’s pronouncement that art “considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past” had been vindicated by the history of modern art. (6) But whereas philosophy had been the telos of Hegel’s historical schema, Debord argued for the necessity of taking “effective possession of the community of dialogue, and the playful relationship to time, which the works of the poets and artists have heretofore merely represented.” (7) Debord’s end of art therefore substitutes for Hegel’s metaphysical Idea or Absolute a strictly materialist ideal of community and social dialogue; it is in the shift from representation to praxis, read as a call for revolutionary action, that art can realize its historical mission and dissolve itself in the process. Irreducible to the sort of simplistic subordination of art to politics — or vice versa — with which Debord is often charged, this vision implies a dialectical relationship between the two, each containing the truth of the other. One particularly beautiful Situationist tract from 1963 imagined that “between revolutionary periods when the masses accede to poetry through action . . . circles of poetic adventure remain the only places where the totality of revolution lives on, as an unfulfilled but immanent potentiality, as the shadow of an absent individual.” (8)

The supreme example of the historical consonance of art and revolution, for Debord, was linkage of the artistic revolution of the German Dadaists with the social revolution of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacist League in the years directly following the end of World War I. An editorial from 1962 claims that “the genuine dadaism was that of Germany . . . [to the extent that] it had been bound up with the rise of the German revolution after the 1918 armistice.” (9) However, with the quashing of the German revolution, the Dadaists found themselves “immobilized,” as Debord states in the Society of the Spectacle, “trapped within the very artistic sphere that they had declared dead and buried.” (10) For Debord, the “formal annihilation” of the Dadaists had expressed negatively what the modern revolutionary movement had to discover positively, namely that “the language of real communication has been lost” and that “a new common language has yet to be found . . . in a praxis embodying both an unmediated activity and a language commensurate with it.” (11)

For Debord, the “spontaneous revolt” of oppressed people across the world, exemplified by the Congolese struggle against Belgian colonial rule, rather than the “anticommunication” of American and European neo-avant-garde art, was “Dadaism’s most worthy sequel, its legitimate heir,” because it constituted the appropriation of the “foreign language of the masters as poetry and as a form of action” on the part of a people “held, more than anywhere else, in a state of childhood.” (12) In the global view of the Situationists, such outbursts of self-determination across the world were fundamentally allied with the “inseparable, mutually illuminating project” represented by “all the radicalism borne by the workers movement, by modern poetry and art in the West (as preface to an experimental research toward a free construction of everyday life), by the thought of the period of the supersession and realization of philosophy (Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx) and by the emancipatory struggles from the Mexico of 1910 to the Congo of today.” (13) All were directed toward a rediscovery that “communication . . . in all cases, accompanies intervention in events and the transformation of the world” and the denunciation of “all unilateral ‘communication,’ in the old art as in the modern reification of information.” (14) In the contemporary opposition to the society of the spectacle, it was communication that had to be rediscovered, for “communication . . . is the ruin of all separated power” and “where there is communication, there is no State.” (15)

The Situationist concept of communication provides a useful corrective to the common misinterpretations of the spectacle as a synonym for the mass media, a construct borne of an alleged anti-visual bias, or a naïve split between alienated representation and creative spontaneity. If Debord defined the spectacle as “a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself,” then its opposite was not just a refusal of the image, but a concept of life and of subjectivity based upon communication and community. (16) “One must lead all forms of pseudocommunication to their utter destruction,” Debord proclaimed, “to arrive one day at real and direct communication (in our working hypothesis of higher cultural means: the constructed situation).” (17) In his prioritization of communication, Debord is again very close to Marx, who asserted in Theses on Feuerbach, “The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” (18) That is, Marx’s vision of the “human essence” is one which is “transindividual,” in Étienne Balibar’s terms, one which exists only practically between individuals and not as a transcendental a priori. (19) Debord likewise asserts that “community . . . is the true social nature of man, human nature,” and pits the entire Situationist project against spectacle’s drive “to restructure society without community.” (20) Communication, for Debord, is that which opens up interiorities and abolishes separation, founding the potential for community as a space for the subject and for life against capital.

This most utopian and “impractical” aspect of Debord’s thought — the linkage of the end of art with the birth of communication — may paradoxically be the aspect of the Situationist project that retains the most promise for the present. For if the “festive” modes of communication that spread during May 1968 were, for Debord, “a rejection of art that did not yet know itself as the historical negation of art,” the same “diffusion and expansion” of the aesthetic impulse runs through contemporary contestations from Occupy to the Québec student protests of 2012. (21) In moments of exuberance and of violence, in creative appropriations of urban space and disruptions of the sonic order of the city by the casseroles, and in the abundance of leaflets, posters, and online manifestations, the movement in Québec exceeded the initial demands for tuition freeze and birthed communities transcending the category of the student. The omnipresent symbol of the carré rouge could not help but poignantly refer back to Kasimir Malevich’s call in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution to link the construction of a new abstract language in art with the construction of a new social order: “Wear the black square as a sign of world economy; draw the red square in your workshops as a sign of the world revolution in the arts.” (22) These protests for the preservation of values (such as universal education) threatened by the economistic worldview, and the creation of new modes of communication with which to conduct such protests, manifested precisely Debord’s dream of realizing directly, in life, the highest historical ambitions of art, but without art. In moments when the very communicative fabric of everyday life is remade, to paraphrase one of May ’68’s famous slogans, these desires are taken for reality.

Notes
(1) Eva Geulen, The End of Art: Readings in a Rumor After Hegel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 1.
(2) SI, “All the King’s Men,” in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 155.
(3) Quoted in Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn (London: Verso Press, 1998), 82.
(4) Ibid., 77.
(5) Ibid., 81 – 2.
(6) Quoted in Geulen, End of Art, 10.
(7) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 133.
(8) SI, “All the King’s Men,” 155.
(9) SI, “Priority Communication,” in McDonough, Guy Debord, 132–33.
(10) Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 136.
(11) Ibid., 133.
(12) SI, “Priority Communication,” 133.
(13) SI, “Address to Revolutionaries of Algeria and of all Countries,” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), 149.
(14) SI, “Priority Communication,” 133; SI, “All the King’s Men,” 154.
(15) SI, “All the King’s Men,” 154.
(16) Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 14.
(17) Debord, “Theses on Cultural Revolution,” in McDonough, Guy Debord, 65.
(18) Karl Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: WW Norton & Co., 1978), 145.
(19) Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso Press, 1995), 31.
(20) Debord, “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy,” in Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, 160; Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 137.
(21) SI. “The Beginning of an Era,” in Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, 226.
(22) Malevich’s slogans appeared on the front page of the UNOVIS Leaflet, no. 1, Vitebsk, November 1, 1920. Quoted and translated in Eva Forgács, “Definitive Space: The Many Utopias of El Lissitzky’s Proun Room,” in Situating El Lissitzky, eds. Nancy Perloff and Brian Reed (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2003), 54.

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