[-empyre-] complicit post

Johanna Drucker drucker at gseis.ucla.edu
Sun Jan 3 01:59:52 EST 2010


This is meant as an independent start, not a response to John's post,  
which I shall take a look at later today. I just wanted to make an  
initial statement here before engaging in discussion.



I believe in art and I believe that aesthetic objects and expressions  
do something that other things do not. What is the work that aesthetic  
objects do and what are the grounds for critical apprehension of that  
activity? My answers to these basic questions does not fall far from  
the formulations of earlier aestheticians—refinement of discriminatory  
sensibility, appreciation of purposive purposelessness, shock effect  
that wakes us to experience, and the opening of the space for  
experience itself. Works of art and the work of art objects are  
remarkable, unique, and provocative because they give form to thought  
in material expressions that make it available to a shared perception.  
 From that, all kinds of cultural effects follow.

             When I titled Sweet Dreams, I was well aware that the  
term “complicity” was provocative, suggesting as it does that the  
critical stance of moral superiority to “common” or “mass” culture  
taken by many critics and artists was being called into question. But  
at the same time, I was not suggesting that the acknowledgment that we  
are – all of us – part of systems of consumption, careerism,  
professionalism, promotion etc. that are the inevitable apparatus of  
our conditions of work and existence–meant that we are necessarily  
aligned with values of oppression and exploitation. But I was trying  
to point out what feels like blindness (even bad faith at its extreme)  
in two worlds I know well – that of radical, innovative art practice  
and that of academic work focused on cultural production across the  
arts and media. I simply wanted to point out that we are all operating  
inside the same system that becomes reified as the object of critical  
study. None of us are outside its machinations, nor, if we are honest,  
outside the drives and desires it instills in us or to which we  

             I was originally motivated to write Sweet Dreams because  
of the enthusiasm I had for contemporary artists whose work had a  
playful relation to mass culture that did not begin with the  
assumption of negativity that was characteristic of some early 20th  
century avant-garde practices. If we revisit Italian Futurism, we find  
Marinetti, for instance, fully engaged in mass media as a thematic  
inspiration (‘wireless imagination’) and as instrument and means of  
realization (the language of publicity, typography of advertising, use  
of radio, pamphlets, newspapers as sites and instruments of the work).  
Dada and Cubist collage work is not antithetical to mass culture, but  
toying with its materials and their potential as elements of aesthetic  
expression. Surrealism has a long career of absorption into fashion,  
film, popular culture. While the useful critical tenets of Russian  
Formalism, particularly those of Viktor Shklovsky, stress  
defamiliarization as a way to recover aesthetic experience from the  
numbing mechanical effects of daily life, they are not more focused on  
mass culture as the enemy than on other routines and habits. Mass  
media becomes an object of critical disdain and denigration with the  
fearful recognition of the power of propaganda to create a “mass”  
whose hysterias are both destructive and self-destructive. Media  
studies arises from the terrors wrought by the first world war, and  
takes the form we know best through the writings of the Frankfurt  
School, particularly Theodor Adorno, in response to the rise of  
fascism and the contemporary free-market demon, the culture  
industries. But the legacy of Adorno’s aesthetics is problematic for  
us because it has become academic, and because it is premised on a  
description of the world and of art that have become formulaic.

             I was at an end of patience with watching my university  
colleagues self-promote their critical insights through cultural  
studies approaches that are intellectually bankrupt and morally  
suspect. These are highly educated, well-paid, privileged individuals  
with mortgages, retirement accounts, good cars, kids in private  
schools, who are brand-conscious style mavens who constantly produce  
the same jargon-ridden pablum that promotes the “critique of mass  
culture” while living entirely as a dependent upon it. The hypocrisy  
of cultural studies as currently practiced in the academy is repulsive— 
if you live a bourgeois lifestyle, at least have the decency to admit  
that it is a desirable and pleasant mode of existence, and that the  
goal of a sane society might be to guarantee the same level of  
stability and security for all human beings. This is not a platform to  
promote consumerism! But to pretend that “we” critically enlightened  
academics, by pointing out the ideological operations of mass culture,  
are outside it is patently ridiculous!

               Likewise, I was done with the postures and rhetorics of  
“political” artists – whose careerist strategies were all cloaked in a  
language of self-justification, martyrdom to their didactic sense of  
superiority to the world around them—as if they were not themselves  
keen to be promoted as the new celebrities of an art culture whose  
hierarchies of fame and rewards are modeled to conform to other  
celebrity industries. Didactic art is the bane of contemporary  
thought. It is always subsumed to its agenda, always illustrative,  
always circumscribed by its assumptions. Activist art is a different  
matter, though it walks a thin line between patronizing benevolence  
and community empowerment, it can be an agent of actual change,  
creating cultural capital and symbolic force. But whether they are  
involved in didactic, activist, escapist, purist, or any other work,  
artists can’t conceive of themselves or their work as outside of or  
superior to the conditions of their own production. That is all I  
meant by complicity. We are all part of the current system of  
corruption, destruction, exploitation with all that that means in  
local, environmental, global, social, economic terms. You can’t get  
outside that. We all work from within. 
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