13 October 2006

Transgressive Spectacle

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 8:36 am


“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”

– Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967

In his paper on “Christ Collectives,” Andrew Perriman proposed a model of church as art collective. He cited various examples from the secular culture of art installations consciously intended to disrupt normal life and sensibilities. Andrew suggested that, by adopting an art collective model, the church could call attention to the obsessive individualism and self-obsession of contemporary culture. Instead of glorifying the individual artist, the Christ Collective manifests “the body of Christ” – a group consciousness that points away from itself and toward Christ.

Often ideologically motivated, secular art collectives seek to disrupt the corruptions of late-modern life through ironic overstatement. Commercialism often comes under attack, with events like fake ad campaigns and the corporate branding of world cities demonstrating the extent to which advertisement and marketing dominate the culture.

Traditionally a distinction is made between a work of art and its public display. For many collective art installations the display is the art. It’s an ironic gesture, calling attention to the extent to which contemporary art serves as an extension of marketing, designed to seduce the consumer. The Situationists started the transgressive art-as-spectacle movement in the sixties, serving as catalysts for the May ’68 French uprisings. Guy Debord laid out the rationale in a Dadaist-Marxist context:

“Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… 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 negation of life — a negation that has taken on a visible form.”

The medieval cathedrals were collective works of art-as-spectacle, but they were generated by the mainstream social order. Blockbuster films are collective art spectacles generated in our mainstream culture. What’s disturbing is the self-ironization built into these spectacles. Pirates of the Caribbean is a movie purportedly about a transgressive subculture (pirates), but its inspiration derives from a ride at a theme park. The movie probably made more money in one day than all the real pirates ever did throughout history. As Baudrillard observes, these simulacra of the real have become the reality of our times. Does transgressive ironic spectacle still mean anything when the mainstream culture has already co-opted the concept? Perhaps the appropriate work of artistic disruption would have been for some group of outlaws to rob the movie theater’s ticket window during the opening of the Pirates film.

Debord prefaced his book with a quote from Feuerbach:

“But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence … truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.”

Throughout medievalism the church was the realm of spectacle. Per Marx, capitalism co-opted religion by fetishizing consumer goods, imbuing them with an intangible plenitude that generates consumer desire. Now the church proposes to adopt a situationist paradigm for missional presence in the world. It would create transgressive, anti-commercial art installations and use them in public campaigns supporting evangelism — an activity often disdained by outsiders as a form of marketing. Does the church now create spectacles of itself in an ironic reversal of the original sacred illusion? Is it possible for the church to accomplish its ends as a Christ Collective without being derivative or unintentionally parodying itself?



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