Tag Archives: mass culture


Recently at a gallery, a lauded music critic was asked about operating in her newly acquired position at a media conglomerate. The questioner was specifically curious if she felt an increased difficulty in covering “more authentic bands,” given her new environment.

“Ha!,” the music critic laughed. She continued, saying something like, “As if only bands are authentic. That leaves out so many other musicians. Many male music critics are only interested in the production qualities of music. Because of that, we don’t have any working in our office.” The room applauded.

The ground of the music critic’s denunciation of a search for authenticity also betrays concurrent devotion to the concept at a different register, namely that certain people appear more authentic than others. The horizon of the music critic’s judgement, shared by most, has been narrowed to a pinpoint. The death of any viable Left reduces politics to psychological struggle and moral posturing, neither of which could overcome the crisis of society. That identity politics today is neoliberal can be seen in the way that the music critic’s department now toes the party line as it covers the presidential election campaigns.

The music critic’s victory in a small fraction of a conglomerate’s hiring demographics may have anemic merit, but her acceptance of the job is a liquidation of any “punk” laurels that might have adhered to her. The cruel truth, however, is that the music critic was never an outsider to the all-consuming industry that accounts for even the hermetic hobbyist. Her participation is a symptom of the streamlined integration demanded by mass society.

Childish Imagination via MTV

Still of an episode of Viva La Bam, in which Bam Margera buys a new house

Still of an episode of Viva La Bam, in which Bam Margera buys a new house

The popular television show Viva La Bam aired on MTV for four seasons from 2003 through 2005. It starred Bam Margera, who, before this show, is best known for being a stuntman on Jackass. The premise is that Margera sets up elaborate pranks often involving dangerous stunts. Viva La Bam came out at the time that reality shows were rapidly becoming popular. For example,  the massive hit The Osbournes was still a new phenomenon.

Why had Viva La Bam been so successful? Obviously, it had a major broadcasting corporation marketing and distributing it internationally, but the show also has an additional appeal, which is that it presents the world as a playground, in which Bam is a somewhat ordinary citizen, who wakes up each day and decides on a new “adventure” for himself. Money is never an obstacle (given Margera’s own wealth, and the staggering budget of MTV), and—with only a few phone calls—Bam transforms his world into the realization of his dream. The strictures of social conduct don’t concern him, as is often the case with the air of celebrity. His roles as a stuntman and professional skateboarder make him seem invincible if only because his body withstands so much violence. As silly as his creations are, the audience takes delight in imagining themselves in that situation. Needless to say the show is childish, but that is part of its appeal, and even its most admiring fans knew this. But like children who are told to use their imagination while listening to a story, the audience is allowed to pretend to be free and play games. Perhaps the enjoyment of the show, and the desire to be in Margera’s shoes—if only for the productive capabilities he wields in the world of the show—is all the stronger because he is presented as a normal person with accidental fortune. The temptation is thus to believe that the freedom manifested in Margera is only a function of the accumulation of funds.

Isa Genzken Retrospective at MCA Chicago


For the next few days, MCA Chicago will be hosting a retrospective of the German artist Isa Genzken. I had no previous knowledge of Genzken, and went at the suggestion of my friend Emma Pavlik—an artist in Cleveland, Ohio. My experience of the exhibition initially was by looking at her most recent work first, then seeing the rest in reverse chronological order. I’m not sure which way would work better for the retrospective. It was interesting watching certain gestures or themes revert to smaller forms as time went backwards.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Kinder Filmen (2005)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Kinder Filmen (2005)

In Genzken’s installation Kinder Filmen (Children Filming) (2005), we look upon the imagined aftermath of a crime scene, where children watched their peers assaulting one another. The wildly bright materials, along with their references to youth, like a Coca-Cola beach umbrella, give the scene an inappropriate brightness. The work is described as using these objects to also indict the state of cheaply made products throughout the world: “Like other works from this period, it relies on mass-produced, found objects that challenge accepted notions of taste, perhaps as a commentary on the cheap, easy, and disposable flow of goods and information available in the present day.” I find it interesting that the write-up would juxtapose “taste” with “cheap goods”, but it does not seem like Genzken is merely having some fun by descending to trash. It seems to me, rather, that Genzken understands that this debris is the world we live in. There is no real distinction between a “high” and “low” taste to the degree museum-goers might imagine there to be. Instead of eschewing the creation of contemporary society as something to be rejected in its entirety, she acknowledges that there is a bit of freedom about these new materials and our ability to produce them. The concept of “taste” is itself specious in our time, especially in a museum because our aesthetic experience has become aligned with the expectations mediated by the commodity form. But, even in the bleak thoughts brought to mind by this medium of detritus and toys, there is still a turning point that can be reached by the viewers. In the 1930s, Theodor Adorno perceived this characteristic in the arising production of kitsch, which we still consider today: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life”.1 By seeing through kitsch as being made not really for us, but rather as things we wish to be for us, we might better understand what must be changed for our aesthetic experience, or life in general, to be as true as it could be.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Oil XI (2007)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Oil XI (2007)

One of my favorite pieces of the exhibition was the installation, Oil XI (2007), which is described as follows:

Oil XI is the centerpiece of a sixteen-part installation that Genzken first exhibited at the German Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. […] The installation and its title evoke the spirit of a world in the grips of the War on Terror, which some would argue was not only aimed at curbing global terrorism but also a militarized effort to maintain control of this natural resource. ¶ […] The installation, with its accumulation of roller-board suitcases, calls to mind a transit station that has suddenly been abandoned, perhaps due to an unseen threat. Three astronauts, identified as NASA employees by the insignia on their uniforms, float overhead as if exploring the ruins of a devastated culture.

The inclusion of several plastic molds of owls implies the scrutiny of ever-watchful security in a place like an airport or other transit stations.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Oil XI (2007)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Oil XI (2007)

The hovering astronauts, as employees (or soldiers, even), of the U.S. government, add another level of the scope of surveillance techniques in the world, such as the capabilities of satellite imagery. Given the breadth of security measures which includes the might of the U.S. military, one is tempted to jump to the conclusion that perhaps all is lost, that the end of the world is the only way out. Today’s spokesman of cosmology, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has spoken about the unfortunate history of NASA. But just as the exploration of space and the scientific advances made from the development of space-flight came about through military endeavors, there is still a tiny progressive element in the world reflected here. One need only listen to Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) to feel the channelled reverberations of hope for airports—sent out decades before Eno—washing ashore now, even if the waves are admittedly humble. There is still something to be said for the ability to fly around the world. There is potential in globalization. Only a fool would turn one’s back on that fact.

I plan on writing more about this retrospective soon, since there was so much to digest.

1 Theodor Adorno, “Commodity Music Analyzed” (1934-40), in Quasi Una Fantasia (London: Verso, 1998), 50.

More on Camping and Freedom

Speaking of the wish to escape to nature, I just found a passage I recently read in Adorno’s essay “Free Time” (1969) that points to the ways in which our desire for freedom is manipulated in our non-working time. In fact, Adorno refers specifically to camping:

Camping—an activity so popular amongst the old youth movements—was a protest against the tedium and convention of bourgeois life. People had to ‘get out’, in both senses of the phrase. Sleeping out beneath the stars meant that one had escaped from the house and from the family. After the youth movements had died out this need was then harnessed and institutionalized by the camping industry. The industry alone could not have forced people to purchase its tents and dormobiles, plus huge quantities of extra equipment, if there had not already been some longing in people themselves; but their own need for freedom gets functionalized, extended and reproduced by business; what they want is forced upon them once again. Hence the ease with which the free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them (190-91).

Advertising “Off-Road” Vehicles

The “off-road” vehicle is advertised as a gateway to the life you wanted, however ambiguous that might be. In fact, the more ambiguous your dream-life is, the better the situation for the marketing. As a potential buyer you are meant to think, “if only I could buy this SUV and get that kayak …” The advertisement plays on the romanticized notion of nature, in which one “gets away from it all.” There’s something humorous and sad about advertisements that sell the idea of escape. People have such dreams because they feel an inadequacy in their lives, but it’s far too opaque for them to understand it. Their dreams for improvement are mediated by the same commodity form that dictates their daily lives. The phenomenon of American off-road nostalgia is merely the appearance of discontent in society. Social relations seem to have lost their essence, and all is thrown away in a regressive eschewal. If only those who run to the woods could see past the fetish that is presented to us by every commodity. Adorno saw this potential: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life.”

Premature Promises

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942)

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942)

Piet Mondrian’s painting, like the genre he alludes to, makes a promise of happiness grown out of his forms that it can’t keep—at least not yet. Gestures dancing around form give only a glimpse of what might be possible beyond the borders of the work, even though they themselves don’t know that the boundary they walk is still subsumed under an unfree world.

Even our reactions to the art are false, and we know it. Who hasn’t felt like a fool standing before a painting, or shaking on a crowded dance floor? My question is not meant to embarrass the viewer, listener, or dancer. In the social situation of art in different forms, one finds a peculiar distance between how one feels and how one wants to feel. The viewer is alienated from his own thoughts—from himself.

Taking Pop Music Seriously

What should we think about the popularity of Ke$ha’s song “Die Young,” which gives the hortatory suggestion, “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young”—a thought emphasized by the repetition in the chorus, “We’re gonna die young”?

The song describes a utopian moment, but one based on impending death. We sympathize with the song, given our situation, and are happy for a moment’s peace of mind, even if it is due to an acceptance of an unfree life. The cause of this malaise is the natural state of things, we are informed. We simply are going to die. There is no window not opaque through which we might understand the social situation, and we take comfort in the act of renouncing attempts at comprehension.