Guy Debord’s 1952 film Howls for Sade appeared three years before Ginsberg wrote his Howl. Its 24 minutes of silence and black screen scandalized audiences, and Debord said “I will make no concessions to the public in this film.” Today we can see what he couldn’t, that it’s a concession to posit viewers as a public, which demands that concessions be made before it will open its eyes. A declaration of war on the public was then still a quite acceptable, even French-traditional act for an artist. His later film Refutation depended on his previous film and a public interested in it. But if one does release work (perform, record, etc.) and it gets praised, there’s this denunciation, even if it would be senseless if the film was never liked or disliked: “Those who claim to like my film have liked too many other things to be capable of liking it…” and the same is true of those who dislike it.
Let’s take words to mean what they generally mean and not the meaning we want them to have. To say “for me, an artist is…” is the easy escape and changes nothing. Let’s imagine we can look reality in the face and take meaning as what words generally mean in practical terms, not drawn from the past but today. . (A shy friend, when asked how old he is, answered, “You mean today?”) Granted “artist” is often used to denote what goes unrecognized in the spectacle, but let’s stick to the effective artist, which is the dream or at least consolation of the vast majority of those who call themselves artists.
We will conclude that those who aspire to be an artist cannot become the artist known in the history books, if that’s what they’re thinking. That was a different world, now long past. Those who dream of being that, including any of the roles titled filmmaker, writer, and musician, etc., or even harboring the secret of being a “true artist,” must turn themselves into those fortunate never to have had that dream. “I wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember.” That’s a lie; he hasn’t gone back far enough, disavows his self for the sake of backing up a recognized social role.
To wipe the slate clean is a huge, sometimes daily work, precisely what the artist only undertakes at the peril of her identity. In our society (that it’s ours goes without saying, for none escape) an artist is somewhere in the hierarchy of celebrities or on the road to becoming one. As a pathetic final resort they will be an artist in posterity, for which they must get their documentation together asap. To be an achieved artist is the greatest honor, the one that confers total freedom, as that word is understood (the flip side is chaos, psychosis). Donald Trump is not a politician but an artist and great improviser (improvisation is all the rage in academia these days… “everyone an artist” now means “everyone is an improviser”). The Donald is free to do and say anything he feels like, and respected for that even by his political enemies. He fulfills the goal that appeared in the early postwar period of spontaneity, irrationality in the face of an over-ordered society. He presents an image of total pleasure, and the society of enjoyment (the psychological shorthand for the society of the spectacle) eats it up.
What if instead we say, we are not artists but people doing things of our own interest, sometimes where others can witness us. True artists are considered rare; this is not, for it extends far beyond the field of traditional artworks. The most radical project imaginable is to do something of one’s own interest. It’s not a matter of renunciation, for that is always shadowed by hope that the prisoner of self-discipline will one day find they’ve left the cell door unlocked. Renunciation implies a “them” to balance “us.” What do they think? That doing what you love must exceed doing what you love. Rather, one looks at a rotten apple and a fresh one on the table and makes the obvious choice. Clear, unclouded vision and knowing the difference in pleasure and nutrition is all that’s needed. The life of the artist is a hard life (at least initially) but to clean one’s window–the phrase is John Coltrane’s–is still harder. And there isn’t a clean window in the house, maybe just one tiny pinhole.
For those who choose to engage the work rather than be distracted by potential reward, work will be boring at times. That tempts them to think the boredom will be dispelled if only the other receives the work as interesting. To substitute the other for oneself is the entry ticket to the society of the spectacle; to go there is to sign the contract. The contract is printed with gold letters but the ink is indelible; few go back the way they came in. To clean the window is to read the fine print, usually too late. Even those destroyed by the dream will uphold it, as if maybe that loyalty oath will work for them. To think clearly about this, objectively without preference for the conclusion, is called cynicism, bitterness, the resentment of the failed artist. Yet one may fail as an artist without becoming a failed artist, who presumably didn’t want to fail. It’s possible to fail in advance of failure by creating work that consistently leaps outside as soon as market functionality is ready to pounce on it. Those who do so never get to know if they have actually done this or merely adopted the ego of the cursed artist (“I can’t help being what I am”–just another doomed essentialism)
To look up from the work and see the world rushing past it crushes the artist with humiliation. The escape it, and thinking “some day…,” is not to supply yet another work but to immerse oneself in the working. To have one’s work ignored then brings smiles rather than tears and gritty determination. The artist is one who not only knows but cares that attention paid to the work will give it value. Is there value “just for myself and my friends?” For society that cannot be the case, and we are society even in our alienation, a quality that applies to us all. Every ounce of value robs the maker and performer of their own honest valuation, until there is nothing left. Then one is the true artist, marked as significant, churning stuff out, and finally respected for doing so. Even one’s parents can be brought into the fold; reconciliation all around.What do people parade when they go to reunions? That they are artists who haven’t made it and never will?
Debord released things in order to offend the pubic. That’s still fulfills “artist,” for it isn’t indifference. All anti-art is art, in fact has become the epitome of art, enshrined because it’s no longer possible. Why do anything “in public” at all, when there is no more public (as Debord experienced it) and one can only create a substitute for oneself? Since the common aim of artists is towards what is anachronistically called the public, this should be a serious question. Coltrane resolved it for himself, said his recordings were not equal to what went unrecorded, but he valued live performance as the proper locus for his explorations, which were themselves often recorded. He did not glad-hand the audience but used his playing to close himself off from those who came to hear him.People walked out, stopped buying his albums, so what? His interviews during the period show he was not concerned.
Have the Coltrane clones been wrapped up in their search all these years? Is that even possible today? When the spectacle has become a totalitarian embrace, the model of what’s called “soft” censorship, what loophole is there, what possibility to find listeners so unsophisticated they will not compare this with that, that is, will not make a judgment? Where to find those who say, “I don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it”? To ask that is neither a thumbs up or down. To answer it as an interview question is a non-communication. The player turns into an interpreter who wants to be helpful and can only hope to be accepted. It’s answered rather by more playing—“Let’s try this–now do you know?” That is direct communication. And only if the other can say yes without adding a single word can the player think they truly know. If they still don’t say yes you play more.
The only possibility for artists today is to be perceived as to some extent avant-garde, which means that a consumer will say, “I almost didn’t get it.” What is outrageous and adventurous is a bounded field, and known as art. To make a name the initial work cannot show precisely what consumers (of course curators) think they want but must make them hesitate ever so slightly. That is “the difference” essential to the market. It is the play (the looseness between the bolt and the hole) between what is and what could be that makes one’s work visible. To leave “what is” behind and replace it with the full range of what could be, which I’ve called “free playing,” is beyond visibility.
To do nothing is to be invisible; to go beyond visibility is different. When one is invisible there is always the option to behave, talk, and make things that will make one visible. Once one that happens the option is off the table. That’s why the initial work is so important. After achieving a recognized (visible) name back from the spectacle it doesn’t matter too much whatever else one does. The aim of making art is to become a tenured artist. Like all those tenured, they seek rest from their labors, and the spectacle promises that, but puts them to work being the somebody they have become, so the achieved rest is from trying to be artists. The curse of the spotlight is that there is always a bigger one, and that whatever size you are awarded it never leaves you, there is no hiding from it. It is hungry for your life and sucks up every drop of it. To try to turn a little light on yourself, the job of every start-up entrepreneur, then is the real act of renunciation, for you have renounced the option of anonymity, otherwise known as “a joyless future.”
The historical avant-garde we have supposedly inherited was marked by an expectation that the future would be “freer and more truthful,” as Debord said.It could not represent the negative without this. It is this which is lacking in the avant-garde today, when the imaginary is only a bleak future. Debord claimed to be one of the “lost children,” meaning those who were sent on a mission and not expected to return. But he imagined being found, or rather was motivated to contribute to that utopian future. He did not die alone; that was merely the image he apparently had. There was a future and he inhabits it, but it isn’t one “freer and more truthful.”
That future was wiped off the hard drive by a world conceived as divided between worthlessness and individual triumph, the fulfillment of ambition. The society of the spectacle became the last utopia, finally arrived. It is the eternal future because the present has become eternal. The future previously implied the presence of hope, against which the present stands condemned. Some few—but enough, including artists—thought this validated the struggle to achieve it. This is not possible when the future is seen to be growing worse all the time, as if what the spectacle of daily events offers is reality. That denies any point to struggle, transforming those fighting into either noble fools or poseurs. That’s no criticism, for the spectacle needs them desperately.