Representational Art and the Spectacular Society – by Michael J. Pearce
In 1967 Guy Debord wrote his famous critique of liberal capitalism – naming it “The Society of the Spectacle.”
This spectacular society is a world in which technology is intimately connected with everything we do; an inescapable network of money, credit, power, art, literature, business, computers, telephones, etc. The new culture is a completely immersive, overwhelming and interconnected total theater. Our cities are increasingly spectacular, with centers that have become vortices of billboards and display. The boring, boxy high-rise buildings so beloved by the modernists have been replaced by brightly lit, decorative extravagances, acting as backdrops for animated projections. Lightshows beam onto them and into the sky. These displays blend together with the white headlights and red tail-lights of cars, fluorescent office strips, bright neon signs, and giant digital screens to create a tapestry of moving illuminations. Music blasts from cleverly designed storefronts. Clothing stores scent the air with fragrances competing with the delicious smell of mall food-courts. Urban life is a sensory spectacle. We participate in it not only by being present in it, but also by engaging with it on our computers, phones, and televisions.
As a devout Marxist, Guy Debord’s interpretation of the spectacle was deeply negative, believing that it was an appalling consequence of capitalism. Debord was unable to cope with his own dystopian analysis of postmodern life, and by 1994 he knew he was beaten and committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. His nihilistic worldview is not shared by enthusiastic participants in spectacular postmodern capitalist entertainment, who thoroughly enjoy the escapist fantasies and sensual thrills offered by this novel culture, in which astonishing, collective, and shareable experiences are easily accessed and thoroughly enjoyed by a very large audience, both directly and vicariously. Although some rebel against it, most accept that some degree of servitude to capitalism is an inescapable consequence of the culture that brings them these gratifying experiences and they delight in their participation in it, which they see as an existential extension of themselves. Technology allows emergent culture to flourish, producing new forms from the bottom up, rather than the top down.
One of the outcomes of living within this spectacular, digital, total theater is the extension of our immense capacity for wonder. We love to have extraordinary experiences. We don’t seem to be particularly interested in what material form art takes, but we are astonished by real things that are superlative for any reason. We love to record and share our moments of interaction with these things with our friends. Most of all, we are hungry for impressive sensory experiences. A small drawing that inspires deeply felt emotion is a shareable part of the spectacle. An incredibly detailed photorealist painting that inspires awe at the technical ability and skill of the artist is a shareable part of the spectacle. Historic paintings that have achieved or are on their way to achieving canonical status because of their dramatic and legendary stories are shareable parts of the spectacle.
This is the more tribe. The sensory overload the community desires includes being overwhelmed by more-ness. Its members want the world to be amazing. But we are not excited only by the big, the brash and the bright, we are equally pleased by skilled hands. We are awed by superb technique, and we don’t care what genre the art belongs to, being equally impressed by an exceptionally well-rendered ballpoint pen drawing as we are by a giant, shiny balloon dog. Scale is impressive, but it is only one of the many ways of activating our capacity for wonder. Superior quality or exceptional craftsmanship capture it just as well. Most importantly, we are thrilled by imagination, by things that stimulate us and lead us into new sensory experiences and novel ways of seeing the world. We are hungry for the imagination to be made manifest. This too is good news for representational artists whose exceptional training and highly developed imagination can combine to excite a new generation with iconic images that describe their experience.
Although our youth look as if they are physically disconnected from each other when they walk like electric monks with heads bowed and hands together, they are constantly in contact with each other; in fact, they are closely connected. They send selfies to each other, seeking to impress, to make their friends happy, to make their enemies sad. They establish discrete communities among themselves which are constantly in operation. Invisibly, couples send naked pictures to each other. They are intimately connected, and constantly share things which impress them.
Their community experiences the world in a new way. The drug of choice of the beginning of the new Century is the entactogen popularly known as ecstasy, or molly, which creates a feeling of love and community – quite unlike the stimulating choice of angry punks fueled with amphetamine or the hallucinogenic LSD of inner-self exploring hippies. This choice characterizes new-era gatherings, which are spectacles almost perfectly fulfilling the total theater described by Antonin Artaud, in which the spectator is fully immersed in performance, lighting, sculpture. At festival set-piece events like Defqon, Tomorrowland, or Burning Man the individually experienced internal hallucinations of the hippies are replaced by shared experiences within real psychedelic environments. They are giant installations, appearing like drug-enhanced Disneylands for adults. At Tomorrowland, even the campsite is designed, with cheerfully decorated theme tents and Astroturf. These festival experiences are characterized by layered sensory excess – loud, ecstatic electronic dance music is accompanied by fantastic displays of fireworks, which are set off while extravagant laser displays dance across the sky and immense rock and roll lighting rigs flash and swirl beneath the flashing, sparkling sky. Clouds of smoke are lit with shifting hues of bright colored light, billowing over huge carnival-style stage sets with hydraulically moved sections which house dancers and D.J.s. Acrobatic Cirque-du-Soleil style performers perform before them, accompanied by giant, animated, puppet-sculptures that move through the crowd. While all of this visual and aural stimulation is going on, orchestrated collective crowd participation is encouraged, with huge audiences of dancing people linking arms and stepping together, creating waves of uplifted arms that ripple through the multitude, with synchronized chants and clapping. The scents of skunk, of hip food-truck cooking smoke, of incense, fills the air and specially flavored drinks replace lost electrolytes.
The almost religious Burning Man event culminates in the burning of a specially built temple and a gigantic wooden effigy of a man with upraised arms, an ecstatic night-time sacrifice lit by neon tubes and surrounded by delighted singing and dancing devotees. Nudity and drug-taking are not uncommon. This is neither a world driven by the Apollonian instincts of the enlightenment, nor should it be mistaken as a full embrace of Dionysian excess, for although this search for more-ness is driven by a ravenous hunger, it is not the kind of deep dive into amoral debauchery that connoisseurs of decadence might recognize on Bourbon Street. It has an idealistic philosophy behind it, based on the Burning Man creed, which I have paraphrased here from the organization’s website.
The Burning Man community welcomes anyone who wants to be part of it, regardless of the usual divisions of race, creed, and class; it nurtures a gift-giving economy that as much as possible attempts to do without money and commercialism; encourages a focus on self-exploration and self-expression arising from the unique gifts of each individual; believes in the value of creative cooperation and collaboration; attends to public welfare and carefully adhering to the laws of civil society; is committed to environmental stewardship; adheres to an idealistic belief that active participation in the festival will “make the world real through actions that open the heart” and most importantly it believes in pursuing the immediate experience of overcoming “the barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers.”
Similar ideals have been mixed in various formulations and attempted many times in the past, by hippy communes, by wandervogelers, by proto-communists, by theosophists and heretics. Their ideas never work when attempted on a societal scale, but Burning Man makes no pretense to be anything but a temporary escape from the capitalist world around it and is fully embedded in the capitalist spectacle as one of its more extravagant playa-dusted manifestations. At Burning Man these pretty and romantic ideals have a great deal more in common with the neo-pagan revival than Greek neo-classicism, originating from the domains of fertile Freyja and mad Loki rather than Dionysos or Apollo.
The philosophical principles are those of holiday anarchists, of ritual performers consciously participating in a temporary utopian escape from the pressures of capitalist labor, taking a dusty and fantastic communal vacation within the streamed spectacle of their lives. This is a Mad Max art celebration, not a revolution. And the festival is expensive – participating in this gift-giving economy costs a great deal of money. Alongside middle-class bohemians and students with deep enough pockets to afford it, it is attended by Silicon Valley multi-millionaires in luxurious recreational vehicles who enjoy the radically participatory nature of the festival with as much enthusiasm as everyone else. Their encircled encampments have been vandalized on occasion by jealous egalitarian Burners who don’t see the rich as true participants, but the organization defends their attendance on their principle of radical inclusivity.
The negative objectivity of avant-gardist philosophy is distinctly not in evidence in the sculptures at this rather remarkable festival, which assembles as a huge temporary R.V. and campsite city on the vast, open, desert plain at Black Rock, Nevada. As the event opens, large crowds of people goggled against the dust-storms wander through the windswept city visiting art camps with carefully planned themes. People on foot and riding bicycles are joined by a large and imaginative assembly of art-cars, frequently resembling Mad Max style mutant vehicles: golf carts are transformed into lighted seahorses; a school bus transformed into a square-rigger drifts surreally across the desert; a pickup turned into a driving Jacuzzi. In some of the temporary temples, there is an emphasis on extravagant decorative pattern, on fractals and divine geometry. There is an abundance of figurative sculptures expressing ecstatic spirituality and communion with the environment. There is a tendency toward gigantic scale. Enormous half buried hands and feet and heads of massive figures are cleverly placed to create the illusion of giants emerging from the desert floor.
The bottom half of a gigantic pot-bellied figure sits with legs spread, with tubes emerging from its tummy, and stems rising from each opening to support a globe of wires formed like a neural network. Giant gorillas covered in white playa dust blend into the ground. A huge steel-framed man squats and reaches forward to delicately touch the earth. Lighting is incorporated into many of the sculptures, which only reach their full form after nightfall. Enormous sculptures of ecstatic female forms reaching toward the heavens, theatrically glowing in color in the darkness. A pair of cage-like frameworks forming a male and a female figure seated back to back hugging their knees are lit up and transformed by the glowing figures of two children trapped inside them, reaching out to touch each other’s hands through the cage. The repeated themes of the art are those of human interconnectedness, of love, of experiencing our relationship with nature, of celebration. It is universally kitsch. There are good reasons to get excited about the artworks brought to Burning Man. Avant-garde critics would decry it as the antithesis of true art, but the decrepit theories of the Frankfurt School and Greenberg’s derivative keening have no authority or relevance here.
Although this is not strictly speaking public art, being made specifically for the people who come to the event and funded by their tickets, it’s made for consumption by a very large audience, and there are large sums of money changing hands for its production. Much of the art at Burning Man is set alight among the celebratory conflagrations that conclude the event, but those pieces that survive often become true public art shared in the communities of the artists who made them. The Burning Man organization is one of the greatest patrons of large-scale American sculpture, and the work it endorses, which is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of members of the Burner tribe and its observers, is a significant contribution to 21st-century art.
Devotees of the Apollonian atelier who are dedicated to making and consuming paintings and sculptures based on realist observation may find much to dislike in this imaginative, Freyjan, computer-aided postmodern work, yet this is an extraordinary new world of Western art. It is skilled work, cleverly engineered and designed. It has philosophical and spiritual foundations. Among its audience, there is a deep appreciation for the skill and dedication to craft that goes into creating it and thoroughly sensual enjoyment of it. Thanks to the technological world it is embedded within, it has utterly defeated the avant-garde, which is passing from the present into the misty twilight of 20th Century history.
With the slow death of the avant-garde, many traditionalist atelier artists and their followers would be happy to see all its foundational writings by Marx, Nietzsche, Kant, and the postmodernist philosophers obliterated from the cultural record, and the art made by their unholy avant-garde children utterly annihilated, but mere threats of iconoclasm will neither lead the way to a sweeping revival of the enlightenment nor a renewal of the Renaissance, because the unique set of historical circumstances that led to those particular periods will never repeat themselves. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a golden dawn of either. But now that the avant-garde has been superseded by emergent art like that at Burning Man, there is a huge and welcoming space for representational art to grow and flourish.