The following is excerpted from Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action. Available February 10th from Evolver Editions.

Ours is a hyper-aesthetic age, a time of phantom images and blinking lights, manufactured memories, and synthetic dreams. The cloud of artifice distracts us from certain fundamental realities with which cultures that came before us, in spite of their shortcomings, were better attuned. What is more, the artifice that floods our private and public spaces seems to have a goal, namely the production of a completely artificial space in which emotions and desires respond solely to mercantile and political cues. Contemporary mass artifice seeks to replace the inborn imagination with a manmade interface by means of which the memes of the global marketplace can come to override the symbols that take shape spontaneously in the imaginal mind.

While the aesthetic has always had a part to play in the design and maintenance of human societies, the development of modern technology has allowed for aesthetic manipulation on a scale that the builders of the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman circus, or the Palace of Versailles could only dream of. As a result, the aesthetic has arguably become the most important instrument of power of our times. The reign of artifice constitutes the greatest danger that art has ever faced—even greater in the long run than the outright suppression of artistic freedom in totalitarian regimes. Why? Because the eclipsing of art in contemporary society threatens much more than those scattered communities that explicitly call themselves artistic. It threatens all forms of imaginality, all true creation, all that is most singular and different in human beings.

This new techno-aestheticism that has reconfigured the human experience may date back to the dawn of the electric age, when the birth of artificial light, interior climate control, and mass transportation made it possible to mask cycles that had been impossible to ignore until then: night and day, sleep and wakefulness, winter and summer. The process did not hit its stride, however, until three developments took place in the last century: Hollywood, totalitarianism, and the invention of the nuclear bomb. In light of the previous chapters, the first two of these are more or less self-explanatory.1 The third requires an explanation.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, the people of Hiroshima saw a white light in the sky, like the light of a thousand suns. No sooner had they blinked than it was gone. In its place now was an impenetrable darkness, a roiling abyss that consumed everything. Most baffling was the fact that both phenomena, the blast of light and the flood of darkness, had occurred in the total absence of sound. Not silence, since silence implies wind, cars, crickets, and birds, but a perfect muteness of space and time. As the dust settled, the people saw that the entire city had been pulverized in that dazzling flash. The dead lay everywhere. Among the survivors, tens of thousands were covered in burns, missing limbs, or dragging their skin behind them on the devastated streets. Others the light had whisked away like the elect in the Book of Revelation. These vanished people left their shadows on the walls as a sign of their passage on earth. It took days for anyone to figure out what had happened.

Meanwhile in the United States, President Truman announced to an unsuspecting public the existence of a new weapon developed in secrecy over the preceding years. “It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” he said in his speech. “The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never before been seen on this earth.”2 A few days later, a second bomb fell on the town of Nagasaki, the original target of Kokura having been spared due to weather conditions.

What was Hiroshima if not a pyrotechnical spectacle, a gigantic show that the enemy (and the entire globe) would never forget? From the outset, one of the arguments for building the bomb was that it would act as a deterrent to war. Because even its earliest proto-types were too destructive for use on the battlefield, the emphasis was seldom on tactical applications. The fact that the United States and the Soviet Union went on to build enough bombs to destroy civilization dozens of times over is a case in point. As Jean Baudrillard has argued, the nuclear bomb was not intended as a weapon but as a generator of fear: “This is no longer a finite bomb—nor a bomb that will even (we must hope!) achieve its end; it is simply there, in its orbit, and the terror it evokes—or at any rate, its power of dissuasion—is enough.”3 Even the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction saw the one concrete advantage of nuclear armament in its having no conceivable use other than as a sign of death, which is to say, in its being an aesthetic object rather than a bona fide weapon of war. In addition to being a turning point in military history, then, the bomb is an event in the history of art. It is the ultimate work of didactic artifice, the American promise of a Greatest Show on Earth perversely fulfilled.

It would be impossible to quantify the trauma that the birth of the bomb inflicted on the population of industrialized nations, but it incontrovertibly changed the collective psyche in important ways. Until 1945 the earth was the one unchanging factor in human life, the common heritage of past, present, and future. But at Hiroshima the earth betrayed its fragility, becoming no less transient to our minds than a puff of cloud in the sky. Even the pessimist who wrote in the Bible that despite the pointless birth and death of human generations, “the earth abides forever,” seems a cheery optimist in a context where nothing, not even the ground beneath our feet, can be said to be stable or permanent.

In the West, the pervasive anxiety resulting from this new state of affairs gave the political-economic apparatus the opportunity to deploy hitherto unimagined aesthetic forces across the industrialized world. These forces played a double role. First, they provided people with the distractions they needed to keep their minds off of the “new normal” of fear and uncertainty. Second, they formed an ideal channel for the transmission of political ideas without recourse to the more direct forms of thought control used by overtly authoritarian regimes.

It began in earnest with television’s systematic co-opting of the night world formerly reserved for conversation, storytelling, and dreaming (an invasion prefigured by the rise of radio decades before). Already by the 1960s, mass entertainment, ubiquitous marketing, and consumer culture formed a beguiling haze of light whose function was to mediate between human beings. Faced with this brave new world, the French thinker Guy Debord observed in 1967 that the West had become a “society of the spectacle.”4 Not only is this observation as relevant now as it ever was, but it seems we have gone further down the path Debord traced out. The replacement of what he called “authentic” social relations with mere “representation” has continued unabated; rampant consumerism, media saturation, and the substitution of simulation for experience have only increased since the Summer of Love. In fact, by the mid-1990s the haze of light referred to above had condensed into something much more imposing, namely the sea of digital image and sound in which we have been swimming ever since.

There was a time when all it took to escape the spectacle was to turn off the TV and go for a drive in the country. Today it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how one could free oneself from the entanglements of artifice. Social media, for instance, is an infrastructure designed for the express purpose of serving as the universal intercessor of all human relationships. As Jonathan Crary notes in his book 24/7, the products that have become indispensable to us “are hardly just devices or physical apparatuses, but various services and interconnections that quickly become the dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality.”5 Integrating these templates requires us to change the way we think and live, often—and paradoxically—under the pretense of self-realization. It is not the technology that adapts to our needs and desires but our needs and desires that must conform to the technology. In the digital age, spectacle morphs into something more invasive than a show to be attended in bovine passivity. Loyal to the emergent aesthetic ideals of “interactivity” and “immersion,” we have become active participants in our own entrancement. We have gone from the spectacular to the spectral.

 

Notes

 

  1. Paul Virilio argues compellingly for Hollywood’s role in shaping modern mass consciousness in War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (New York: Verso, 1989). The unholy alliance between totalitarianism and the aesthetic is an important theme in the work of Walter Benjamin.
  2. Harry S. Truman, “Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima,” August 6, 1945. http://trumanlibrary.org
  3. Jean Beaudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict (London: Verso, 1993), 30.
  4. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1977). The book can be read online at http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/pub_contents/4
  5. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013), 43.

 

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Excerpted from Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action (Manifesto) by JF Martel, published by EVOLVER EDITIONS, an imprint of North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2015 by J.F. Martel. Reprinted by permission of publisher. 

Image: T.V. Buddha by Nam June Paik, 1974.