Whatever its benefits for the prolongation of human life, material progress has exacted a high price from the earth and its inhabitants. Of the many crises that threaten us today—environmental devastation, geopolitical chaos, natural disaster, climate change—one tends to get short shrift in the litanies of the apocalypse: the replacement of culture by the ethos of the market. Granted, in a time of global crisis, any discussion of the importance of “mere” culture, let alone the place of the arts in society, will seem superfluous to many. Yet even a brief glance at the scintillating landscape of our age will reveal how vital a role the aesthetic plays in reshaping the world in the name of progress.
In so-called open societies, ideology is propagated using the techniques of art. That is to say that the aesthetic realm—the domain of feeling—is the locus where the potentialities of the social system are actualized or condemned. Freedom of thought finds its counterweight today in the systematic control of feeling. One of the primary functions of the mediasphere is to concoct moods, which then become determining factors as to what is deemed possible or impossible for society as a whole. As Slavoj Zizek has often pointed out, we are constantly told that our wildest dreams are about to come true, that modern science is poised to cure cancer, allow us to live to 150, and remake our bodies at the molecular level. However, the mere suggestion of global financial reform is met with scorn across the mainstream, even though the idea of such reforms is both sounder and simpler, from a strictly rational point of view, than the wild promises of transhumanists and TED talkers. In other words, the prevailing mood dictates that while everything is possible within the perimeters of the market, any alteration of the perimeters themselves is unconscionable.
Contrary to what TED would have us believe, ideas have no power in and of themselves; they become potent only when the ambient emotional climate charges them with enough punch to break through the consensus trance and become real possibilities. There is no effect without affect.
So in a very real sense, mass media is a spiritual machine for colonizing the psyche. It establishes an emotional climate favoring the replacement of living thought by the memes of the market. Achieving this has less to do with outright censorship than with aesthetic framing. It isn’t the content of what is presented that matters, but how that content is portrayed. The secret lies in the theatre that encodes an event, the smoke and mirrors that are used in framing it, the implicit judgments it can be made to serve and the poetics that narrate it. In the course of the last several decades, modern media has woven around us a tangled web of clamorous illusions and dancing lights whose function is to divert, confound, and bewitch an increasingly anxious populace while inuring it to the realities of life outside the “green zones” of Western privilege.
We have all experienced the dissociative power of modern media. The more our media interfaces act as intermediaries between ourselves and our world, the harder it gets to distinguish between what is important and unimportant in a situation. For example, when faced with an unpleasant news exposé on the corruption of municipal politics, there is nothing easier for a discouraged viewer than to switch the channel or URL to the latest reality TV series or kitten video. The result is an instantaneous mood change. The fact that both types of content—the unpleasantly urgent and the pleasantly irrelevant—exist on the same plane is the result of an ingenious feat of aesthetic design. Media levels everything down to the same neutral mass of stuff we call “information.” Each person is asked to navigate the seas of information according to the dictates of tastes and moods which are themselves influenced by the media machine. Thinkers such as Soren Kierkegaard and Walter Benjamin saw some of the implications of this “leveling process” long before they became as evident as they are now. But it was Gilles Deleuze, drawing on the work of William S. Burroughs, who perceived that in a true information society, the mode of domination shifts from the ideal of discipline to the ideal of control. In a society of control, the prime directive isn’t to punish those who transgress anymore, but to limit the possibilities of thought, feeling, and action in such way that real change feels absolutely impossible. And control is largely an aesthetic project.
The nineteenth century believed that modern communication technology would complete the Enlightenment project by banishing the ghosts and superstitions of the medieval past once and for all. Instead, it opened the floodgates of the underworld, filling the world with automated intelligences, flickering specters in magic mirrors, disembodied voices in the middle of the night. The novelist William Gibson is right to find the locus of our “spook country” in aesthetic design, since social life has literally become a form of spectacle. Politics has become indistinguishable from aesthetics. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, to give a now-blatant example, owed its success less to any genuine commitment to change than to the efforts of those who turned it into a “brand experience” designed to evoke the sense of change, the fantasy of revolution, while real interests remained as entrenched in the status quo as anything that came before.
This phantasmagoria of spectacle and illusion needs a continual investment of creative energy to keep going. The decades following the Second World War saw the deployment of artistic technique on a global scale to concoct and administer the powerful narcotic. Religion may have been the opium of the people, but entertainment is now its DMT, and aesthetic theory is the chemistry behind it. Interestingly, it is precisely at the moment when aesthetic production became central to the organization of power that public discourse began to dismiss art as a frivolous activity, useful as a source of amusement and perhaps a mode of communication, but ultimately dispensable. This is no coincidence. We sense that art has its own ethic, and that this ethic, if recognized, would pose a grave threat to the system that governs our lives.
Authoritarian societies recognize the power of art, which is why they so brutally censor their best artists. Free market societies, on the other hand, adopt a strategy of suppression by appropriation. We tolerate artists so far as they make themselves useful as purveyors of distraction or producers of luxury commodities to be hawked in staid galleries and concert halls. Artworks that criticize the tenets of the system are accepted precisely because by their very powerlessness, they implicitly condone the practices they outwardly condemn. The fight is fixed: you can say anything because whatever you say won’t make a difference. Nonetheless, the lure of success is like the lodestone on the pyramid, and we fall for the pipedream of reaching the top. Those who don’t succeed in the highly competitive cultural sector are welcome to join the legions of designers, advertisers, jingle writers, and creative entrepreneurs who put the techniques of art to work for the gods of the market. Among the minority of artists who refuse to join the ranks of the entertainment, media, or marketing industries, many flee to the dim halls of academia or activist circles. There, cloistered in impenetrable theoretical language, these bookkeepers of art, in their infinite resentment, reject beauty as the dead idol of the dying bourgeoisie. They see in art only communication, only the transmission of a political idea, an opinion, a “concept.”
We as a society have lost sight of art. We have forgotten what it can do, what it can reveal. No sooner do we dare think of its transformative potential than we chide ourselves for our naiveté. Perhaps we are too tired for art, we tell ourselves. Perhaps it is too late. Even so, every now and then, out of the fog of signs and specters, there emerges a film, a novel, or a piece of music that astounds us, that wakes us up from the trance induced by the bland media that surrounds them. In those moments we remember, however fleetingly, that art holds a secret power.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn once took up Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prediction, from the novel The Idiot, that “beauty will save the world.” Though they lived a century apart, both of these writers uttered this phrase after having endured tremendous suffering as political prisoners in Siberian labor camps. One might expect men who have suffered so much to put little stock in such a flimsy thing as beauty. The fact that they both found their experience to be the source of their belief therefore gives us something to ponder.
Art is neither a system for transmitting information nor a mode of self-expression. It does these things no better than any number of activities. Art is the seizure of a vision that exceeds language. It captures a slice of the Real and preserves it in an artifact. The work of art is fractal and open—an inexhaustible well of meaning and image overflowing the limits of the communicable. It is a way to the wilderness of the unconscious, the land of spirits and the dead. If great works of art are prophetic, it is because they disclose the forces that seethe behind the easy façade of ordinary time. I am not just thinking of the plays of Shakespeare and Sophocles here, but also of the poems of Emily Dickinson, the songs of Bob Dylan, the choreographies of Pina Bausch, the films of David Lynch. All of them are oracles.
The shaman enters the priestly society of the ancient world and is called a prophet. She enters modern industrial society and is called an artist. From the shape-shifting sorcerer painted on the cavern wall to Mr. Tambourine Man jangling in the junk-sick morning, a single tradition flows—backwards, like an undertow beneath the tidal thrust of history. This tradition tears us out of the system of codified language and returns us to the dreaming depths where language first rose as the idiot stammerings of poetry. The shaman, the prophet, the artist: each knows the way lies not in the dry processes of logic but in the snaking courses of the heart. If art makes use of ideas, concepts, and opinions, it is only to subsume them in the realm of the senses, to push them to the knife-edge of lunacy where the primal chaos shows through the skin of objects, where all judgments are silenced and beauty, naked and terrible, is revealed.
Art doesn’t begin when you realize that you have something to say. It begins at the hour when there is nothing left to say, when everything has been said, when what must be said is unspeakable. Deleuze described the artist as a shapeshifter and a seer. He or she “has seen something in life that is too great, too unbearable also, and the mutual embrace of life with what threatens it.”* Art, in other words, is a way to the sacred. It places the aesthetic in the service of something that transcends instrumental reason. This is true of all great works, regardless of whether they deal with explicitly spiritual topics. There is infinitely more shamanism in Moby Dick, for instance, than in Avatar. The sacred doesn’t originate in the subject matter of a work so much as in the play of forces that its entire composition reveals: the whale and its whiteness, the visionary madness of Ahab, the oceanic nature of space and time. Whether we’re talking about a poem, a painting, or a song, the sacred comes through the configuration of tone, style, character, color, and intensity as well as content. It is the result of an encounter between a particular consciousness and a particular creation that breaks down the subject-object divide.
The ancients knew the dangerous revolutionary power of the sacred. It is the sudden revelation of the chaosmic forces steering the Real, the dissolution of all manmade categories, the opening of the divine eye that destroys as it creates. The disclosure of the sacred is the secret power of all great art, and what distinguishes art from other forms of aesthetic production. Only by reclaiming this power, as makers and receivers of art, can we stop the forces that are now devastating the surface of the earth from doing the same in the depths of the soul.
J.F. Martel’s book, RECLAIMING ART IN THE AGE OF ARTIFICE: A TREATISE, CRITIQUE, AND CALL TO ACTION, will be released in February of 2015 by Evolver Editions, an imprint of North Atlantic Books. It is part of Evolver Manifestos, a series of polemics on current topics.
* Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 171.
Image by HSLO, courtesy of Creative Commons license.