Walter Benajamin talks about art because the character of art changed in the advent of mechanical reproduction. In his essay, he proposes that this new form of art could be used by the masses as a vehicle for empowerment. In terms of mass media, it seems, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Mass media has been at the forefront of the commodified disembowelment of the masses. The translation from Post-modern to English2 would be “at the forefront of the making common people less independent and more subject the interests of a particular group of people” (whoever these mysterious individuals might be)3. The most effective way to do this has been through the culture industry.
It is the culture industry that determines almost every aspect of our lives. It is interesting to note how in the past it was religion and ritual that determined these things, art was concerned mostly with this area of human life. Currently, art and the culture industry responds to itself and to the interests of those who control this. Why is any of this remotely relevant to my own life? Well, for example: How many characters in television, cinema and advertising are truly different and revolutionary. How many recent films portray characters with radical political views(communism, anarchism) as the hero of the movie? How much advertising (and graphic design) portray people with no possessions and no economic power as being ‘happy’? How much commercial music questions our basic institutions like family, matrimony, government?
Well there might be exceptions to the rule, the truth is that media that challenges the basic core values of our western, capitalistic, consumerist, and heterosexual society are a minimum. I am not arguing against any of these institutions per se. I am not criticizing these institutions. I am proposing that it is because of mass media that this questioning doesn’t happen on a serious level.
To understand how these structures work we must turn to the work of the french sociologist, Jean Baudrillard. He proposes that “there is no such thing as reality”4. What we formerly understood as reality is long gone. Mass Media has created a state in which reality is the conversation, the dialectic between what we formerly understood as reality and the creations of the cultures industry. If an ad is designed in which a man is driving a Mercedez-Benz and he has a smile in his face this contributes to our current hyperreality. This image( in the former mode of thinking) might have been thought of as “fake” or “false”, but it now acquires meaning and relevance. Even do everyone knows this image was created by an art director to sell a product, it still make its impact on its audience. It contributes the collective consciousness and makes people believe that what happens in the fake image is actually true ( even do they know it’s not).
I now arrive at the central thesis of what I wish to propose and this is. There is no escape from this. Everything is political. Nothing is neutral. The consumer/producer of the culture industry cannot escape this cycle. We cannot escape the maelstrom as McLuhan understood well. We are either contributing to it, or going against it. All content (including art) is now tied and related to the culture industry.
I also propose a second thesis about this. Art that does not contribute to the culture industry becomes completely irrelevant. This might not have been true in the past, but the current relationship between content and money turns gives absolutely everything a price. In the past it was possible to make art that did not participate in all this, but Sotheby’s and Christie’s made this impossible. If you are, for example, a painter who doesn’t want money, who doesn’t sell his paintings, who even rejects any donation. If your work is photographed and uploaded to any blog, your work just acquired monetary value. There are hits related to that content. The are ads that will probably be put next to your content and there will be an audience who will (through you or not) pay other people money to consume that content. This gives the artist relevance and importance. On the other hand, if the artist wishes for his work to be completely independent of the economic structure, his only alternative is to hide it away form anyone’s view.
1 – As made popular by the television hit show “The apprentice”, where the starting sequence makes it clear that the only motivation behind the characthers is money.
2 – Conveniently translated by http://translate.google.com/
3 – I am of the opinion that many proponents of the marxist traditions (and its later post-modern descendents) seldomly make the identities of these mysterious individuals clear.
4 – Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard.