[-empyre-] complicit post

Christiane Robbins cpr at mindspring.com
Sun Jan 3 05:21:08 EST 2010

Dear Johanna,

Many thanks for your post which astutely articulates and reflects a  
number of conversations with friends and colleagues that I’ve had  
during the past few months.  Specifically, I so appreciate your candor  
and courage and do hope that your post will open up a space for this  
productive conversation.... for Sweet Dreams are made of these ....  
( apologies for the pun which seems somehow appropriate gesture of  
nostalgia within the haze of New Years'!)
Kevin Hamilton initiated an earlier attempt in mid-late November.  The  
resonance of the last sentence in his post stayed with me – “Any  
thoughts? Maybe a public listserv isn't the safest place to have this  
conversation? Kevin Hamilton."  I felt a chill as I read his sentence  
as it fully evidenced the dynamics to which your email alludes.

  So … now ... thanks to the continuum of Empyre and Nicholas we have  
the introduction of this topic for January – one which is wholly  
welcome and necessary.

  I will respond more fully in the days to come –


On Jan 2, 2010, at 6:59 AM, Johanna Drucker wrote:

> All,
> 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.
> JD
> Complicity
> 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 subscribe.
>             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.
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

C h r i s t i a n e   R o b b i n s

- J E T Z T Z E I T   S T U D I O S -

... the space between zero and one  ...
Walter Benjamin


" The present age prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to  
the original, fancy to reality,
the appearance to the essence
for in these days
  illusion only is sacred, truth profane."
Ludwig Feuerbach, 1804-1872

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