The Spectacle of Art

It has often been said that the “society of the spectacle” is outmoded in a world dominated by interactive networks and the virtual, by reference points for authenticity and transparency. This diagnosis is manifestly wrong.
—Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy, L’esthétisation du monde (2013).

The spectacle that Guy Debord denounced in his book The Society of the Spectacle (1967) has pursued its insidious development over the last forty-five years. Let us recall that Debord made a critique, informed by Marxist thought, of the ways in which daily life and social relationships were dominated by the commodity. “The spectacle is capital  to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image;”1 this consumer society-created illusion deploys a separation of reality and representation. This perpetually reproduced division, which reminds us that the spectacle is “both the result and the project of the present mode of production,”2 delineates the alienation that is the central issue of his theory. Mass media lays out the territory, obviously using consumer goods: for Debord, the spectacle’s field of action is infinite.

If this treatise continues to carry considerable critical weight, our concern here is to envisage its contemporary pertinence to the visual arts scene. The premise of this collection of articles is that the arts and artists have become as much the weapons as the targets of the spectacle. In  their recent book Lipovetsky and Serroy illustrate the emergence of an “artistic” capitalism; this new paradigm of production and consumption, integrating aestheticism into the ensemble of the capitalist system’s activities, rests on the exacerbation of creativity and individual experience. In this context, they state that the role of art has changed radically since the avant-garde:

What characterizes contemporary art is no longer transgression, but its
entering into conformity with the rules of the globalized market and finan-
cial mechanisms. The productive system of capitalism integrates art, so this
becomes art business, an investment strategy, a support for speculation, a
financial product judged on its profit performance.3

The visual arts are now represented as an industry. The growing interest in the circuit of international art fairs, the media’s obsession with auction records, the creation of a Quebec visual arts gala by people in the art market, the valorisation of private collections, the new declensions of the ties between the art and business worlds… So many signs demonstrate an attempt to make the visual arts part of the rationale of the economic system.

How, from the point of view of social relations, do the dynamics of the spectacle influence the creation of works, their presentation, how they are experienced and, by extension, their content? The spectacle shapes and characterizes the ties between individuals, as art historian Claire Bishop affirms:

In short, spectacle today connotes a wide range of ideas – from size, scale, and
sexiness to corporate investment and populism. And yet, for Debord, “spec-
tacle” does not describe the characteristics of a work of art or architecture,
but is a definition of social relations under capitalism (but also under tota-
litarian regimes).4

Public, co-creator, research object, and participant: the social being is at the heart of the debates about contemporary creation. If it seems, in this context, that art can reinforce the viewer caught in the rhetoric of the spectacle; there remains room to insist its role should be to express a tension between art and life. The fragments that follow tend to problematize these questions: they succeed one another, in the manner of Debordian theses, in order to illustrate that the spectacle is too sly and too complex to be circumscribed.

How YouTube and Facebook Annihilated the Essence of Art

The creation of Michael Heizer’s Leviated Mass (2012) can be described in a quantitative way: it is a granite megalith weighing 340 tonnes that travelled 106 miles before being placed, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in a trench 46 feet long and 15 feet deep, and which required ten million dollars in private funding and a 43-year wait.5 As for the experience of it, it is the mediatized kind: over the course of the 11 nights that its transportation required, the aforementioned rock became an event. It attracted large crowds, but above all it was followed by mass media around the world, and in the photos, comments and videos published by members of social networks.6 The setting up of Leviated Mass was constructed as a media experience, one that exploited both the object and its audience, and served as a free advertising campaign. In fact, one no longer needs to move in order to see works taking place in the landscape, or which use it as a material. As Debord wrote, representation is substituted for the real thing:

When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become
real beings — dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a
hypnotic behaviour. Since the spectacle’s job is to use various specialized
mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly
grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special pre-eminence
once occupied by touch […]7

Consequently, the idea of a trip to New Mexico in order to experience Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1977) first-hand seems old-fashioned, especially since photographing the work is forbidden. (How would one show one’s Facebook friends one was there?)

Can a Spectacle Absorb the Spectacle?

Marie Claire Forté’s performance Spectacle continuel (2012) presented the tension existing between two icons of the Quartier des spectacles (QdS). On one side was the “2-22,” that flagship building for visual art in the QdS. (The performances took place in the meeting rooms of Artexte.) On the other is Café Cléopâtre, the incarnation of the “red light” district and the sex industry, where an in-the-know public can see “nonstop shows” (as the signage suggests); this business has become a symbol of resistance to the developers who are attempting to empty out the neighbourhood.

In this solo, the choreographer wears a one-piece fetish outfit of white vinyl, bearing strategically placed zippers: her body stands out sharply in the aseptic atmosphere of the space. The structure of the performance rests on a series of trivial-seeming actions (adjusting the level of the canvases, rolling the tables to the centre of the room, drinking a glass of water) and is inspired by Adrian Piper’s textual work entitled Piece for Larry Weiner.8

The show casts light on the female body, which for decades has animated the daily life of the neighbourhood. By walking behind canvases, Forté recalls the shadows promoting erotic shows that one once saw on the second floor of the building that ceded its space to the “2-22.” The performer then observes the action in front of the Cléopâtre, and appropriates the gestures of the Café employees who, at that moment, are enjoying a cigarette break. The bodies of other dancers are revealed through the performer’s body. The performance thus reproduces the mechanics of the spectacle and its critique. As Debord formulates it:

Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is an affirmation of appearances
and an identification of all human social life with appearances. But a critique
that grasps the spectacle’s essential character reveals it to be a visible nega
tion
of life — a negation that has taken on a visible form.9

Forté formulates a feminist critique of the neighbourhood’s development into an entertainment district, which is seeking to strip these women of the consumer’s gaze.

I Alienate You (Me, Neither)

According to Nicolas Bourriaud, we have moved from the society of the spectacle to a society of extras: “[…] the individual has moved from a passive status, purely receptive, to minimal activities dictated by mercantile imperatives.”10 If the author cites video games in connection with this, nothing is more false in This Is No Game (2008 – …) by Projet EVA collective, made up of Étienne Grenier and Simon Laroche. The audience who participate in this game hold a controller in their hands, which allows them to command the artists. The latter have their sight blocked, but the cameras on their helmets transmit their actions. The players, who give themselves over to this simulacrum, can end up flouting the real nature of the environment in which the artists move: a stick found during the performance can be used to strike a passer-by who is unaware of the game context. In blocking contact with reality even as they intervene in it, This Is No Game becomes a struggle against the alienation that Debord described:

The alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects
that result from his own unconscious activity, works like this: The more he
contemplates, the less he lives… The spectacle’s estrangement from the
acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no
longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them
to him.11

Moreover, are artists and professionals aware of their role in this system of the spectacle? In Pourquoi je suis comme je suis (2012), Nicolas Mavrikakis shows us his mother. But who understood that the art critic was giving life to a metaphor about the art world? By making an appointment, the public (largely people from the art world) could come to meet the matriarch and take part in a constructed situation of which I was part. My role, like that of a cultural agent or mediator, consisted of ensuring that the work operated properly, of welcoming visitors and of making conversation. For her part, the dealer Joyce Yahouda served tea and biscuits; she “nourished” the work and made herself available to visitors. As foreseen, the attention was directed to Denise, “the mother of…;” in so doing, the complexity of the setting we incarnated was diminished in favour of appearances. In the end, social illusions: a play with seeming?12

The Spectacular Spectre

The texts in this collection of essays point to manifestations of art as spectacle, or towards critical and artistic methods for diverting it. Josianne Poirier questions the meaning of Rafael Lozana-Hemmer’s work presented as part of the 2011 Triennale québécoise at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal, considering its presentation space and its mechanics. In regard to Cynthia Dinan-Mitchell’s installations, Julie Boivin offers an argument, aiming to rehabilitate consumer products, which are not, she reminds us, the cause of alienation. An interview with art dealer René Blouin by Catherine Lalonde explores the issue of spectacle production in the art world and in culture generally. Capping off this reflection, André-Louis Paré provides considerations of two recent works about Guy Debord and the situationists in our publication reviews section.

Translated by Peter Dubé

 

Laurent Vernet is a doctoral candidate in urban studies at the Centre Urbanisation Culture Société of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique. His research concerns the social issues of art works in Montreal’s public spaces. Since 2009, he has been a cultural development agent at the Bureau d’art public of the City of Montreal.

 


  1. Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red, 1977, thesis no. 34.
  2. Ibid., thesis no. 6.
  3. Gilles Lipovetsky et Jean Serroy, L’esthétisation du monde. Vivre à l’âge du capitalisme artiste, Paris, Gallimard, 2013, p. 60. (Translation mine.)
  4. Claire Bishop, “Participation and spectacle: where are we now?” in Living as Form. Socially engaged art from 1991-2001, Nato Thompson ed., Cambridge, The MIT Press, p. 36.
  5. See: Observatoire du land art, “Le rocher en chiffres”, web: http://obsart.blogspot.ca/2012/11/levitated-mass-2012-rock-list.html (retrieved May 27, 2013).
  6. Claudine Mulard, “Au Lacma de Los Angeles, un mégalithe en ‘lévitation’ délie les langues du public”, Le Monde, July 5, 2012, web: http://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2012/07/05/a-los-angeles-un-megalithe-en-levitation-delie-les-langues-dupublic_ 1729662_3246.html (retrieved May 27, 2013).
  7. Debord, op. cit., thesis 18.
  8. Piper wrote this work (recorded by Forté) when she was at the reception for the conceptual art exhibition January 5 – 31, curated by Seth Siegelaub in 1969 and which featured only men. One should know that the performance by Forté was part of the exhibition 2 rooms equal size, 1 empty, with secretary imagined by Sophie Bélair Clement on the basis of a photo showing Piper seated at the entry to the exhibition. Bélair Clement was invited by Artexte to take part in a project about transmission and delegation, for which she wanted to investigate the role of exhibition spaces in the context of a documentation centre. Bélair Clément invited artists to reply to the photo in question, among them Raphaël Huppé Alvarez who reproduced the furniture seen in it. The construction of these furnishings, which is difficult to photograph and document, directly inspired Forté’s costume.
  9. Debord, op. cit., thesis 10.
  10. Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationnelle, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 2001, p. 117. (Translation, mine.)
  11. Debord, op. cit., thesis 30.
  12. Ibid., thesis 17.