Art as disharmony in the world of spectacle

Abstract: This essay deals with the issue of use and misuse of Art in the Society of Spectacle. If we accept the notion that we are living in a simulated world, engulfed in the “terror” of media representations, where social relations are defined by those representations, it is inevitable to question role of Art and its place in such a society. On the one hand, the ruling system uses the artistic creativity of an artist-techician, who through the use of editing, propaganda and various forms of design (industrial, graphic, web, etc.) promotes dominant values and further enhances hegemony. On the other hand, Art, as we see it, should be juxtaposed to the doxa and through critique, irony, subversion and paradox claim itself as a space for free expresion of citizens and the society as a whole.

Key words: art, spectacle, manipulation, propaganda, paradox, aura, paintings media.

Introduction or what is the Spectacle?

This essay deals with issues troubling Art in contemporary society: artistic practices, the (mis)use of Art, and possible goals and tactics in relation to the kind of mass aestheticization through comprehensive spectacularization that we can notice happening today. My thesis is that Art should be a space of freedom of expression for individuals and not the servant of the market or totalitarian ideologies. Not in any case it should be mimetic to the system or in sympathy with the dominant ideologies or doxa, but should act in dis-harmony to the monolithic central ideological and repressive systems of the state apparatus.
Sadly, has art often provided legitimacy for dominant ideological values through glorifying ideas of the regime (Nazi, Stalinist, Maoist…) or through promotion of the market and its interests via the role of the artist-technician (graphic, web, industrial and other designers) or ‘contemporary’ artists that base their works on technical capabilities, achievements and promotion thereof of software. To understand these phenomena of art, first we have to explain what is the Spectacle and in which ways it acts.
Creation of the mass utopia is the dream of the twentieth century and ideological motor of the society of spectacle in both its manifestations – ‘concentrated’ and ‘diffuse’. As the 20th century neared its end this dream started to wane and spectacle started to show itself for what it really was. That true face of the spectacle after its ‘integration’, happened after the fall of the Berlin wall (1989), because spectacle became the comprehensive method of communication and expression; with services and information markets becoming its framework. Integrated spectacle is led, controlled and conditioned by profit and power and in its wake is left more and more segregated society.

This is the road we took to the reality today that is in great measure spectacularized and characterized by the society of the ‘imperial’ spectacle, which is the manifestation of the global Superpower. Sheldon Wolin defined superpower as an “expansive power system that only accepts self-imposed limitations.” This system is the synthesis of political power, media, technology, science and corporative capital. It results in an ability to exercise power anywhere in the world through markets and information sources that have become the veins through which the lifeblood of the system circulates. Thus spectacle operates within the context of modernity through either capital or industrial power and in the post-modern context through corporative or imperial power, accumulated up to the point that it becomes an image. images but, as Debord has already noticed, a social relation among humans negotiated through images.

Art in service of the Spectacle

When Fromm analyzed, in his Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, destructiveness in art, he first tackled Marinetti and the Futurist Manifesto. Marinetti had expressed a societal tendency at the beginning of the 20th century and with the sensibility of a true artist and visionary anticipated the direction in which society would develop. He articulated a new form in art which would predominantly be a combination of technology and destruction. This vision was affirmed by the time mankind had lived through two world wars and concentration camps. It was certain in his time that all technological inventions offered some sort of liberation from the rich cultural heritage that always occupied the forefront of stage. That is why Marinetti glorified
speed and industrial products. Also this was the time when aesthetics slowly abandoned art as its main vehicle, and as we already mentioned, moved into the field of industrial design and new media. A utilitarian drive, offered by technology and drunk on inventions, created an agreeable climate for the foundation of modernism as an act of enchantment of the world. It was the impulse and means not only for mass manipulation but also for destruction of unrecorded history that culminated in two world wars. Ideologies became obsessive, easily accessible, and
powers that be used technological inventions to promote their, often insane, intentions (fascism, Stalinism…). Mass propaganda came into being in order to manipulate the public opinion (truth be told, it was already present but technological and media innovations, provided a much wider reach for its manipulation).
This propaganda did not bypass the art that was already some elite mirror image of the society in which it was being created. The art we understand to be some sort of the reflection of society, ultimately verifies mass propaganda which has surpassed classical visual media in the service of some aesthetic models that
should be followed by propaganda via mass media.
For example, Nazi art adapted itself according to the new object and put itself into service of political power. It was not, in fact, realistic, because it did not reflect the epoch but was, in fact, idealistic because it represented an ideal and promoted eternal values of that ideology.It was, in fact, a combination of what ideology considered to be art, morals and societal values. Contrary to the soviet realism that depicted an idealized future of man and machine (through images of tractors, factories, combine-machines and similar), Nazi art concentrated more on the rural values and idyllic images of harmony between man and nature. These images were
put into service of the Nazi slogan ”blood and soil“, and evoked dubious ancestral lands and genetic purity of the German race. There are two ways these images could have been interpreted. Firstly, as a nostalgic allegory of time passed and, secondly, as a metaphor of the new Reich’s future.
In Stalin’s times, in the Soviet Union of 1934, socialist realism became the official state art and from there took hold over communist world, especially Mao’s China. What was similar in Nazi and Stalinist art was artistic objectivization, providing ideal workers and peasants and a cult of personality glorifying the leader. What is
different is the ideology that provides a framework for circulating motives. While Nazism glorifies a mythic past, soviet communism turns towards progress. All in all, concentrated spectacle, high art in balanced relation with mass art (that provided its legitimacy), was a solid foundation of the propaganda which spread and found
fertile ground for itself through painting, sculpture and music as well as literature, film, posters, etc. It was important to promote party membership, being a part of the nation, heroism, monolithic unity, a Utopian vision and eternal values. Art like this, in the service of the spectacle, created a parallel reality in which values, ideas and ideals, always remained some sort of chicanery for the masses and numbed them
from the cruel reality.
Art in the societies of the so called democratic societies of the diffuse spectacle did not escape the similar fate of promoting ideological values of the system it belonged to. Although it primarily used mass media (posters, film, industrial and graphic design), it was also apparent in so-called elite art of the modernism. In 1974, artist
and theoretician Eva Cockroft, called abstract expressionism ”A weapon of the Cold
War“. She noticed a connection between the leading museum of the modern art – MOMA and the CIA, both helped the promotion of the values of freedom and purity that were ascribed to abstract expressionism and also to minimal art. It was a sort of layered cultural propaganda that was used in order to showcase freedom of the democratic spirit as opposed to uniform not-freedom of soviet figurative art. With this comparison we can notice that the difference between art and the propaganda is not easily discernible and that the system readily involved many
production that (at first glance) appear to be revolutionary.

In the clash between two types of spectacle and following the development of commodity production, art descended into the world of the market; taking for its object mass produced goods. This happened in the form of the pop-art, that acted in a different register than abstract expressionism and minimal art but also used many of the ideological matrices of the diffuse spectacle. Its main, superficial reflection, is promotion and glorification of the American way of life as well as of mass produced goods and their commercial aesthetics. These are some ways in which the system dominates and controls art, taking some of its traits for popularization and promotion of its own values: values of mental and physical destruction of the subject.

Art opposed to Spectacle – Theory of Paradox

In art that is not in service of the spectacle, one should not seek the meaning of life (in the conditions of capital and power), but simply critique, analyze and question. Meaning, since it is settled in the public sphere through media, is the realm of capital. Meaning is endlessly created through mass media, industrial production,
sports, tourism and all kinds of brands, creating incessantly new illusions, producing meanings and needs.14 The approach to art that I am arguing for, except for being critical, should also be a negation of this kind of meaning. Meaning, in the global society is that doxa that blocks change. In this society anything that is represented as valuable in the world is only utilitarian and Gauguin-like, questions (following in the trail of Kantian enlightenment), like: who are we, where do we come from and where are we heading, are turned by dominant structures towards the procurement of profit of some kind. Eagleton claims: “Although symbolic sphere has separated
from the public sphere, on the other hand public sphere has penetrated into her territory. Sexuality has started to be packaged as a profitable market commodity and term “culture” usually referred to profit hungry mass media.“15 Art following this line must be subversive and ironic in relation to the values of global capitalism but also those of other ideological hegemonies, critical of dominant discourses of mass culture and politics; it should move from meaning towards paradox.

Why paradox? The etymology of the word “paradox“ (paradoxos) is “against the expectation“. It refers to some opinion or other form of creative action that is in opposition to widely held views; it surprises and as such, in my opinion, contains the main precondition for art. If we agree that meaning in this pan-capitalist world is constructed for manipulation and creation of power and profit, than the real paradox is to confront meaning with nonsense. But the dominant doxa of today tries to encompass and bring to its senses para-doxa, in order to bring in it inside the framework. That is why the subject of art must unceasingly relocate act in this manner. If something that was an alternative is inaugurated as art by the system than it has to relocate, because now that it is recognized and valued it is drawn into market logic and loses its position that puts in conflict general opinion. Art becomes institutional and gains its status as a part of society. Of course, all of the doxa mechanisms are trying, through different bureaucratic and ideological means explain the new situation. The task of true theoreticians is to uncover these institutional mechanisms and to defend and protect from the market-charge
subversives the value of said artworks.18 As the system becomes more democratic, the position of the creative artist becomes more suspect. Many artists do not withstand institutional forces and they become producers and the rule of the market becomes their law. As a result of these processes – claims Moravski – in the field of art appears a much more drastic and dramatic formation, than that used by the bohemians and representatives of l’art pour l’art movement in 1830s. There is a talk that the artist is unnecessary. On the other hand, the artist who is not present on “the market, who is enclosed in a world of his own, and thus, according to the logic of the capital and its view of “meaning and purpose”, is useless. This artist really appears to be useless when measured according to the profit and communicability. Art always loses that race with mass media and industry. Some branches of art (film, music) can use the mass media and subvert the form in the market itself, while others, like painting, that are lacking power, today play an important role in safe-keeping the “meaning” that is opposed to the logic of spectacle. In the nightmare of reproduced images and information painting is able, by combining, selection, editing and handcraft to regain an aura and to refer to a humans as a species capable of thinking about the multitude of information that surrounds them, creating a work, that has critical goals, through the return to the use of the unique and the not-repeatable and by denying virtual and the serial production. The reasons for such work to become permanent with fixed identities of their own, are concerned with the critique and subversion (we can even call it destruction) of comprehensive spectacularization; such work is far away from the spectacular matrices and aesthetic information that devours each other and creates a world of impermanence and simulation. Permanence is an important method of subversion and destruction in the society that needs to spend and produce in a manic fashion. Artwork of this type is important because it is long-lived and provides a testimony about an epoch while, on the other hand, information, because of its multiplicity, entanglement and lack of any stable context, negates its quality to refer to the future. That is why the art which compresses information and provides a critical view on the spectacle, remains the only source of freedom and critical opinion that overcomes the system which has been created on the virtual and false.

Painting based on the above mentioned principles features is a hybrid of technology and human but not the kind of cyborg that disappears inside technology, rather a call for a return to (or maybe creation of) a new common sense (meaning) that was shaken by the meaning produced by the system. In other words, it is a journey from the loss of aura, according to Benjamin in this context, to reauratization – not built on any stable reference point but still in full and critical strength of free thought and action.
Another layer of the art as a paradox is its realization in relation to the established national and global cultural heritage. Cultural identity is usually built on established values. Artworks housed within this tradition have passed the test of history, and as such, can positively influence identity building. And lo and behold, there is meaning! Everything is moving in a straight line, on a well trodden paths of the system. We are allowed to artistically enjoy ourselves with great music as well as established contemporary art pieces since this enjoyment is, beside aesthetical, also didactic. It is similar with painting but also with some other arts.23 That is wider perspective, more distanced, that builds a more flexible (and I would say more idealized) identity, while a more strictly real identity is being built through values that are not as much used by historical capitalism but by contemporary, faster, systems of virtual capitalism.

While classical music and visual arts are reference points for the first aspect of the global culture today, traditional art has been pushed away from the global market’s epicenter because it is not anesthetizing enough and is not providing the expected profits. Art such as this is materialized through tradition and is not working in favour of the virtual spectacle. That is why one of the possible positions for critical action is to return to some prior traditional methods and practices but in a critically engaged manner in relation to the time in which they are created. On the other hand it is possible to use the newest technological innovations if in them there is critical strength. This strategy is propaganda against propaganda.

The most important artists that used this tactic, propaganda against propaganda, are Jeny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Barbara Kruger used language of the mass media that strongly influences social events – like press, television, movies – in her work in order to create images that turn against stereotypes that are produced by the mass media. Jeny Holzer is projecting her subversive messages onto noticeable public spaces like airports, walls of shopping malls, etc, but also on t-shirts, shopping bags, and artistic galleries. These messages are aimed at today’s world of consumerism and advertising. She is writing messages that are distributed via the same media advertising channels that are used to promote values of the spectacle (electronic billboards, television tickers, airports and business buildings…). By writing messages on issues like freedom, values, feminism, media manipulation Jeny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, are good examples of ways in which art can be created and have purpose by using the form of the spectacle but still operating with subversive content.


In this essay art has been clearly separated into one aspect that is in service of the comprehensive aestheticization of spectacle and one that represents a space of freedom of expression and critique of the doxa. Paradoxically, destruction in art can be constructive unlike destruction in media, politics and the global market. You could say that destruction of suspect values of the system is an important emanation of creativity of art. One of the most important actions of art in the contemporary world is through destruction, critique and subversion as opposed to representation of and servitude to the dominant system. In that balance of power, art that enables and creates aesthetic ideals of society turns into its own negation and becomes solipsistic.

If art does not have the aforementioned subversive traits, in other words, if it does not have critical-destructive character but strives for aesthetic aspect of the spectacle ideology, then we cannot claim that it is superior to society, but rather it is dependent on society One could claim that through this mass art, media and its derivatives (art as a function of the market) dominant profit-oriented aesthetic categories are formed.

What is important for our view on art’s subversive practice through the theory of paradox, is the way in which art itself reacts to the dominant ideological trends of the society of which it is part. During the era of the concentrated and diffuse spectacle, art mostly had less clear ideological consequences and trailed dominant ideological divisions. While in the diffuse spectacle societies art was until the 1960s elitist. Carried away by abstract expressionism, with development of commodity production and mass culture, art descended into the market itself; working on artifacts that the technological changed world of the West was so proud of. On the other hand within the concentrated spectacle, art has kept its principles of the open idealization of the projected order, by using figurative painting and mass manifestations that promoted it. After integration of these two spectacles art loses its need to legitimize elitism (this fact is hidden) and becomes a territory over which market ideology holds sway. Total domination of the spectacle provides circumstances for a moment in which art and life are no longer separated but are on the same side, defending the bare existence and meaning that is threatened by the market. In these circumstances of glorification and 20th century conflict the only possible direction for art was to critique and destroy dominant values. Dominant system always try to interpret art in such a way that it is not in opposition, overcoming art and sublimating its destructive potential in favour of the glorification of the system. What is artistic is destruction of norms, rules and ideologies , what is supported by the system and that which it uses and values for the promotion of the system, that which is often presented promoter of the comprehensive spectacularization.


1.Günther Anders, World as Phantom and Matrix, translated Bojan Kaćura, Prometej, Novi Sad, 1996.
2.Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Essays, Nolit, Belgrade 1974,
3. Clark Toby, Art and Propaganda, The Everyman Art Library, London, 1997
4. Guy Debord, The Society of Spectacle, (Translation, layout and additional writing: Aleksa Golijanin), anarhija/blok 45, second edition, work in progress, 2004
5. Eagleton Terry, Meaning of Life, translation Martina Čičin-Šain, Naklada Jasenski i Turk, Zagreb, 2008
6. Erik Fromm, Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, translation Gvozden Flego andVesna Marčec, Naprijed , Zagreb, 1975. godine.
7. Moravski Stefan, Twilight of Aesthetics, translation Biserka Rajčić, Noni glas, Banjaluka, 1990
8. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire, translation Miroslav Popadić, IGAM, Beograd, 2005.
9. Miško Šuvaković, Discursive analysis, Univerzitet umetnosti u Beogradu, 2006.
10. Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision, translation Slobodan Damnjanović, Filip

Višnjić, Službeni glasnik, Belgrade, 2007,

Note on author: Phd Vladislav Scepanovic


Institution: University of Arts in Belgrade, Faculty of Applied Arts, Belgrade