An Essay: 'Reclaiming Art From Our Cultural Mechanisms'

Just as the printing press brought a reliable method of reproduction for images and text via mechanical means, the role of the internet and digital technology allows the reproduction of almost all forms of art and culture via electronic means, a process ultimately mediated by market forces. Despite all attempts to democratize the internet, those with the financial means to promote and develop their art (both on and offline) succeed, and those that do so without are quickly pounced upon and exploited by those with the necessary capital to profit from this previously untapped creativity.

In the midst of this, art has become mere content to be consumed, spread, adored and then ignored in favour of the promise a new piece, while attempts to innovate are parodied, not through mockery but a polished, banal reflection of this unique flair. Against this backdrop of shareable culture and technology that falsifies a personal experience for every consumer; the individual is unaware that in this system they are nothing more than part of a statistic, a tiny cog amongst thousands of tiny identical cogs within a machine. Each fulfils an identical function of consumption, all the while dazzled, entranced the homogenised parody of true art that is delivered to them via the corporate markets.

Debord wrote that ‘when culture becomes nothing more than a commodity it must become the star commodity of the spectacular society,[1]’ and while the culture industry may not drive western capitalism, at all levels commodity aesthetics are used by the individual to express their own desires and beliefs, as well as the primary form of entertainment. To paraphrase Marx, perhaps the culture industry is now the opium of the people. In our society the market both caters to the demands of consumers, whilst simultaneously providing a homogenised, addictive experience familiar in its identity and conformity of views.

This is not a new phenomena, the capitalist apparatus is constant in catering to the simplistic whims of the individuals who feed from it, with Simone De Beauvoir’s 1947 travel diary revealing that American film directors were bored with the lack of creativity in their modern movie making, a critique often lampooned upon today’s Blockbusters. ‘In commodity aesthetics, there functions a most immediate feedback,[2] that of profit gained, capital raised, able to be turned into mere content to be consumed to pursue further profits.
We blindly consume and in our consumption we further advocate the production of more art to satisfy our basic desires, for which we are insatiable, willing to exchange our labours rewards for the same homogenized culture. Even in creating innovation, it becomes adapted to suit this purpose, creativity merely feeding this cycle and all the while we sit by idle, engrossed in these distractions we are fed. The intentions of the artist to liberate are converted into conformity, a mechanistic omniborus sustained by our willingness to purchase and consume ad infinitum without once questioning our actions.

The capitalist vision suggests that everything, physical or otherwise has an exchange value and thus a certain accumulation of capital can therefore be traded for participation in or ownership of an artistic experience. Our propensity to consume can be temporarily sated by an aesthetic distraction of some nature, under this model. Yet surely the laws of demand and supply, the endless mechanical and digital reproduction of an image, sound, text or film and the fluctuations in price resulting from this do not account for the entirety of the value of the aesthetic experience. The appreciation of technical and creative skill, the emotional, social and political response must lead to a deeper value.
Despite the constraints of our current system, there is a deeper meaning to art beyond the machinations of those solely concerned with the accumulation of wealth and power. Art has a power to resist societal pressure, to provide and stir ideas and emotions and to provide awe beyond monetary value. In an age of mass consumption, we must not forget the beauty, emotion and ideological power of our culture not just to resist and be overcome under a weight of convention, but to inspire true change, fundamental change in our respect for creativity, talent and aesthetic beauty. The world is governed by systems based on market forces, but as individuals we need not and should not be directed by these. I do not profess to know how to overhaul our society’s fundamental flaws, but we must look to art to help us in providing solutions. Content may pacify our simple wants and desires, but true art keeps alive the hope for a better future in a better world.

[1] Guy Debord, Society Of The Spectacle, (Detroit, Black & Red, 1993,) p. 193.
[2] Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Commodity Aesthetics, Ideology and Culture (New York, International General, 1987) p. 122

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