Art and politics

The politics of the culture industry: art today

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the Platypus Affiliated Society public forum on “The Politics of the Culture Industry: Art Today” with panelists Stephen Eisenman (Northwestern University) and Claire Pentecost (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 27, 2010.

The German Marxist critical social theorist and practicing musician and composer Theodor W. Adorno, in his 1932 essay on “The Social Situation Music,” observed that the “contradictions and flaws which cut through present-day society” are traced in the “clearest possible lines” through art, and that, “at the same time,” art is “separated from this same society by the deepest of all flaws produced by this society itself” (Adorno, Essays on Music, 391). He pointed out that art finds itself in the same position as “social theory,” tasked with provoking recognition (393). Art, like theory, must “decide whether and how the entrance into social reality might be made” (393).

Susan Buck-Morss, in her response to the October art journal’s 1996 “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” wrote that “the role of artists is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; the role of critics is to recognize this.”  In saying so, Buck-Morss cut against almost 20 years at that point of “postmodernism,” which was concerned, as Hal Foster, one of the principal writers for October, who we recently interviewed in The Platypus Review, argued in the early 1980s, to get out from under the constraints of modernism by moving “beyond critique.”  Buck-Morss argued, to the contrary, that what was needed was precisely critique and not merely discourses whose role is to “legitimate culture.”  Without this, Buck-Morss argued, artists might “opt to go underground” and express the critical content of aesthetic experience only “esoterically,” as producers for the culture industry. This has indeed happened.

The topic of “culture industry” is notoriously difficult and so is easily misconstrued. One common way of misapprehending Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is to address it only in terms of concrete institutions. It is misunderstood that art outside Hollywood, museums, or the art market’s galleries is somehow outside, resistant to or otherwise opposed to the culture industry. But, for Adorno, the culture industry, a term he used as an alternative to the more misleading categories of mass or popular culture, was the cultural guise of capital. The culture industry was a concept meant by Adorno to grasp the overall social context for cultural production, and was inclusive of both the industrially distributed products of the emphatic “industry” and of the most hermetically produced and experienced works of art. The stakes of Adorno’s critique were the stakes of aesthetic experience in modern society, the forms of subjectivity that Adorno considered social in nature, and thus characteristic of the historical moment of capital. The politics of aesthetic experience was thus engaged by Adorno.

Walter Benjamin famously wrote, at the end of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that whereas fascism aestheticized politics, communism responded by politicizing art. Earlier, in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin wrote that not only poverty but the struggle against poverty could be turned into an object of aesthetic contemplation. Benjamin wrote that art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no one, and that only work of good aesthetic quality could be of good, emancipatory political tendency. Benjamin is usually interpreted on the “Left” in ways that deprecate the aesthetic in favor of the political. But a further and different interpretation than is usually offered on the “Left” of Benjamin’s point — and Adorno’s following him, regarding the culture industry — is that the problem with both art and politics is that the essential dialectic of art and politics, in which it becomes possible to have a political critique of aesthetic experience and an aesthetic critique of politics, has been forgotten and thus repressed.

This is an era of bad art because of bad politics, and bad politics due to bad art. Good art would involve not only the critique of bad art but of bad politics; good politics would involve not only the critique of bad politics but of bad art. For bad art is bad politics, and bad politics is bad art.

When Benjamin called for politicizing art, this did not mean for him suspending the aesthetic but rather inquiring into and critiquing the political stakes of aesthetic experience. What would it mean to critique and problematize, and thus politicize, the aesthetic experience of bad politics as bad art, and bad art as bad politics?  It means challenging established patterns of feeling and thinking that constitute our subjectivity, whether for the experience of art or participation in politics. For what Benjamin was concerned with, along with Adorno following him, was the transformation of the subject for both art and politics. By giving up on addressing questions and problems of aesthetic form, a deeper engagement with problematic forms of politics is abdicated. For both aesthetics and politics involve social forms, even and perhaps especially when such social forms seem to take place only within the hermetic realm of private aesthetic experience. The abjection of the aesthetic in postmodernism is a form of political repression — a repressive form of politics.

Fredric Jameson, in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, wrote that,

It is . . . necessary to add about the “media” that it . . . failed to come into being; it did not, finally, become identical with its own “concept,” as Hegel liked to say, and can thus be counted among innumerable “unfinished projects” of the modern and the postmodern. . . . What we have now, what we call “media” is not that, or not yet that, as might be demonstrated by one of its more revealing episodes. In modern North American history, of course, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a unique event, not least because it was a unique collective (and media, communicational) experience, which trained people to read such events in a new way. . . .

[T]he projection of a new collective experience of reception . . . this event was something like the coming of age of the whole media culture. . . . Suddenly, and for a brief moment (which, however, lasted several long days), television showed what it could really do and what it really meant — a prodigious new display of synchronicity and a communicational situation. . . . Yet this inaugural event . . . gave what we call a Utopian glimpse into some collective communicational “festival” whose ultimate logic and promise is incompatible with our mode of production. . . .

No wonder, then, that the small screen longs for yet another chance at rebirth by way of unexpected violence; no wonder also that its truncated afterlife is available for new semiotic combinations and prosthetic symbioses of all kinds, of which the marriage to the market has been the most elegant and socially successful.

Media populism, however, suggests a deeper social determinant, at one and the same time more abstract and more concrete, and a feature of whose essential materialism can be measured by its scandalousness for the mind, which avoids it or hides it away like plumbing. (355–356)

The event of “unexpected violence” that gave the media yet another chance at rebirth was, of course, the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack — also, as media art.

A subsequent, recent work of art that recalls the 9/11 attack is (the School of the Art Institute alumnus) Paul Chan’s 2005 video installation 1st Light.

[Watch Paul Chan, 1st Light.]

The morning of the 9/11 attack, I moved through my day in a disjointed, out-of-body way, floating in an unreal reality, a timeless time, under an absolutely clear blue sky without a plane anywhere to be seen, a dream-world impelled by a real nightmare. All the while I trembled like the nervously frenetic flickering or vibrating electrical lines in the sky of Chan’s video.

Chan has described his work as “light and the lack of light — light struck through” referring to its use of silhouette imagery.[1] Chan said he was “wary” of its “hypnotic” effect (225). His interviewer, Adam Phillips, observed the paradox that viewers “looked into it as though it had tremendous depths. Which of course it does” (225). Chan commented, in response to Phillips’s question about how the “relationship between . . . political activism and art . . . would no longer be of any interest,” that those asking such questions “don’t know that they’re uncomfortable talking about art . . . because there’s no quick and easy and right solution to it” (227). But Chan concluded that art is “a shared conflict in which [he] want[s] to invest as much time as possible, because [he] [doesn’t] know what other form provides the opportunity, the challenge, to reimagine the contradictions in such a way” (227).

Chan’s piece captures well what his interviewer called the “anti-redemptive” but “gentle” trauma — of the 9/11 attack (225). Chan’s work is a good representation of us, as we are. But (how) does it present potential possibilities for how we could and indeed should be?  How, if redemption is ruled out of court, along with any notion of freedom that goes beyond “mistakes,” or the “failure” to be “like everyone else,” in which, as Chan put it, “things [can] become light. They can move in a way in which they were not originally intended to move” (224), like so much debris of a terror attack?

The question is whether and how work such as Chan’s makes available, for critique, this feeling, or merely exemplifies it, in a readily readable way, for its viewers. What is the politics of endlessly contemplating ourselves in such a suspended manner, and how could practices of art challenge such politics? | §


1. Paul Chan interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Adam Phillips, in Utopias: Whitechapel Gallery Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Noble (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 224–227.

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