Fetishism

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Whilst it may cite such radical forebears as Dada and the S.I., Playing the City seems to stay safely within the rules of the game. Through its use of jargon, its connoisseurship, its specialist interest in art-as-phenomena, it fetishizes ‘art’; instead of being a means to realise change – a vehicle, a mode of travel – it becomes a resting point. In the end, ‘art’ becomes the goal, not ‘change’. In being an exhibition about art – a showcase of its potentialities – Playing the City wears the outfit of the radical whilst assuring us that its intentions are anything but. It is a child, dressing as the bandit to amuse its parents, wielding its plastic weaponry and shouting clichéd slogans. As Gene Ray says, “one may question the bourgeois paradigm, only not in any way that is effective or has results; one may play with the symbols of radical politics, but one must not act on them; anyone can say the emperor has no clothes or even scream it within the closed walls of a gallery, but no one may cut off his head.”55

Regardless of the individual intentions of those involved in Playing the City, they are contained within a structure (an ‘exhibition’) that, at bottom, works to neutralize radical intent. The art-game is being played, and, voluntarily or not, they are pawns within it.

In his essay On Commitment theorist Theodor Adorno points to an example of art-fetishism in the work of playwright Bertold Brecht; “ It is true that Brecht never spoke as sceptically as Sartre about the social effects of art. But, as an astute and experienced man of the world, he can scarcely have been wholly convinced of them. He once calmly wrote that when he was not deceiving himself, the theatre was more important to him than any changes in the world it might promote.” He goes on to say, “The only ground on which Brecht’s technique of reduction would be legitimate is that of “art for art’s sake” […]” Whether Adorno’s critique rings true or not, he raises a pertinent point; that art, despite any claims to the contrary, can often be as much about art as it is about anything else; so whilst, in Brecht’s case, ‘change in the world’ may have been the ostensive goal, his unconscious enterprise may simply have been about remaining within the world of ‘art’.

The attraction of the fetish is often its use as a resting place – it delays transcendence (the goal) and keeps us in imminence (always about to transcend). In this way, the fetish retains momentum, keeps us playing the game, going around - motion that also serves the interests of the State. In keeping people busy, keeping them moving, it can prevent them from stopping and thinking, from looking inward and asking questions.

With their emphasis on the circular movement of imminence, game playing and fetishism allow us the comfort of familiarity; we can stay in the same spot, doing the same things, without the threat of change and its promise of the unknown. The sanctity of the status quo is maintained. Like any other world (of science, of music, of sport) the art world can provide a resting place, a safe place to live. And like these worlds it provides its inhabitant with an identity: roles to play, a language to speak, thoughts to think. It prescribes. And herein the art-world anchors itself in opposition to the sea.

We’ve been talking of the artist as radical, and it is worth considering that radicalism can also act as a fetish. As we mentioned earlier, Terry Eagleton offers us a picture in which the radical would rather not be the way he is; “They regard themselves as holding awkward, mildly freakish opinions forced upon them by the current condition of the species, and yearn secretly to be normal. Or rather, they look forward to a future in which they would no longer be saddled with such inconvenient beliefs, since they would have been realized in practice. They would then be free to join the rest of the human race.”56

Yet, joining the rest of the human race may well be the kind of future the radical-as-fetishist fears, because it would mean surrendering the distinction afforded by ‘freakish opinions.’ Contrast Eagleton’s description with a soundbite from artist Momus; “Living here, I’d feel there were no more battles to fight, no more doors to kick open. History would stop, there’d be nothing to do but create future generations to hand one’s good-taste, enlightened, healthy-living values down to.” His words don’t seem to reflect an outcast who just wants to fit in, rather the opposite: his difference defines his identity. Momus offers us an interesting view on his brand of rebellion; “It’s important to remember that rebellion -- in other words, the part of our value system that is determined by position, by dialectics, by reaction -- is a kind of collaboration with the things rebelled against. For instance, right now I’m wearing a t-shirt turned inside out, because I’ve decided t-shirts with slogans or images on them are naff. I’m listening to a very abstract piece of music by David Toop, partly to erase or complicate the courtyard ambience of Michael Jackson hits and make the soundscape in my flat a bit “classier”. In both cases, my stance is a collaboration with the “naff” things I’m deliberately snubbing. They become the ground to my figure, the thing that makes it connote. I really have to thank the people I’m rebelling against for “collaborating” with me in this way! Without them, I couldn’t be me.”57

Momus is honest about his fetishism; through dialectics he collaborates with those he rebels against, pole supporting counterpole, in an endless circular dance. His radicalism, as he openly admits, is an identity, a place to live within, not to escape. Momus’ rebellion-games reinforce his position58, as the outsider, the person who ‘kicks doors open’ and rebels against things; and he understands that his counterpole is vital in confirming this position. The art game is equally as important for those that play it, allowing its participants the comfort of stability, through reinforcing their positions. It allows individuals to be ‘artists’ and to go on being ‘artists’.

We’ve also seen how, in much the same way, it can provide a home to the ‘radical’, allowing a parade of radicalism within the safety of make-believe. In this way, a safe-detonation site is created within society, where explosive acts can be tested and observed; an officially sanctioned site-of-rebellion where the radical can do his thing under a watchful eye. By keeping his actions above-ground, in safe forms, this sanctioned playground allows the radical to exist – gives him a place to play, toys to play with - whilst performing a secret act of sterilization, robbing him of his potential to disrupt the status quo. The game-playing radical fears change as much as the system that he rebels against, and his game becomes a pact; ‘allow me to exist, to imagine change, and to fantasize about it, but do not allow it to happen, because I fear it as much as you do.’

In seeing the art-game for what it is, the true radical – committed to change over all else – would refuse to play entirely, becoming the game-breaker (or what Berne refers to as the ‘antithesis’). This would be the uncomfortable radical described by Eagleton, eager to shrug off his guise as soon as possible. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu offers us another description; “[…] by an accident of social genetics, into the well-policed world of intellectual games there comes one of those people (one thinks of Rousseau or Chernyshevsky) who bring inappropriate stakes and interests into the games of culture; who get so involved in the game that they abandon the margin of neutralizing distance that the illusio (belief in the game) demands; who treat intellectual struggles, the object of so many pathetic manifestos, as a simple question of right and wrong, life and death. This is why the logic of the game has already assigned them rôles - eccentric or boor - which they will play despite themselves in the eyes of those who know how to stay within the bounds of the intellectual illusion and who cannot see them any other way.”59


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Related posts:-
Rebel Stance
Art from a distance

2 comments:

  1. A spiritual tradition is based on profound, living experience, not on any customs, and always emphasizes the danger that exists in being more attached to the form than the underlying basis.

    There's a Tibetan proverb that says, 'Remember where you're climbing to, and don't just stick to the ladder.'

    [Matthieu Ricard]
    The Monk and the Philosopher, p.305

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  2. The form is a place to rest, to stay within. A place where we can remain the same, not change, not grow.

    A sanctuary from change, from maturity.

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