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Moving sideways from cultural hegemony?

This post is part of an intricate conversation centring on the question of whether there is a unified and narrowed message presented dominantly through corporate media, and whether or not it inherently socializes subservience from top-down towards an ever highly-media saturated group of entertainment consumers. Very quickly, we find that we cannot escape from certain conceptions of hegemonic ideology. The difficulty, first, then, is in how to define a hegemonic ideology, whether it exists and in what forms and contexts, such as if there are fissures in its structure.

© Corbis Images



To start, Antonio Gramsci gives a salient Marxist perspective by maintaining that the entrenchment of the capitalist system maintains what he calls a ‘cultural hegemony’. The important details for our purposes are in his emphasis that cultural hegemony is not distributed as monolithic, but as layered into the complexities of cultural society. In other words, capitalist cultural values has become the norm, crafting expectations, priorities, and sensitivities, making certain things in the cultural sphere gain an exchange value that is exponentially higher than its use value. Where the working class have to develop culture of their own in response to the ‘norm’, the bourgeoisie culture is closely tied to the political institutions, civil culture and engagement and legal constitutional structures. In this sense, the naturalization of social constructions and institutions have aided in the emergence of self-reproducing ideologies.

There is some validity here in thinking of artistic production as necessarily always interacting and responding to types and experiences of cultural hegemony in the Gramscian sense (capitalist values as not monolithic and unified but as multi-layered and labyrinthine). Artists will often push themselves to see their work as producing not just a cultural experience, but a cultural experience which has a certain exchange value. I use exchange value in this sense to distinguish from use value (the value of something based on its utility) but take it to mean that it is the value as comparative to everything else on the marketplace. According to Marx, the exchange value of a commodity implies the ability to command limited labour, which is implicitly confrontational in a materialist sense. However, the messy part of this is that artists ought to reasonably emerge from all parts of society, from all walks of life; So too, their audiences (who should be likewise invited to produce, in the form of responses and conversations). They necessarily articulate perceptions that are not articulated by bourgeoisie culture persay, which I have previously defined as the norm, the reified, the law. The very definition of art (and even entertainment) is to move away from previous subsistence of the mundane. However, the very articulation of the mundane is at least greatly framed by a cultural hegemony. Thus, exchange value, in this sense, is often outside of the control of the living labour of the artist, leading to what I would contend is a divisiveness between pleasure derived from succeeding at a creative endeavour (self-fulfilment), and pleasure because the external value based on the appraisal of the market system “approves” of the artwork (positive alienation).

Let’s link this back to the notion of ideology. Ideology works in a manner to reproduce certain social relations and to give broad, normalized justifications for a given ‘-ism’. Althusser, for example, contends that capitalism socially constructs the concept of the individual as a subject, that is, an agent responsible for his motivations, preferences, and values. All ideological practices as such constitute an individual as a subject in particular ways. This is not a natural occurrence, but something that conserves and reproduces subjects in the hegemon’s image. I think that this theory is somewhat complicated by the inherent competition and non-unitary disposition of the “bourgeoisie”/ “big media players”. Here on in I will move away from the Marxist divisional class structure and strive to work in theories that pertain more to contextual, time- and space-based sociopolitical phenomena. Nonetheless, the Marxist philosophers have emphasized that exchange value is always being conserved and added to in a relationship of oppositions. This is at a tension with art production and discourses about art, which both seek to question and perceive in new and context-compassionate ways. In other words, if we are not talking about derivative crafts, art as practice much more readily takes the form of sharing and communication, than it is about the individualization of choices, competition, and managerial organization. Art – the vagrant, non-linear, nomadic kind – must be contorted and warped to fit the transformation and socially constructed time normalized by capitalist managerial structures and cultures.

So what sort of structure can we define as relating to (nomadic) arts? Here, I am quick to point to postmodern thinkers, whose works I am greatly indebted to. For brevity, I will not discuss hypermodernists such as Baudrillaud and Marc Augé, although their framing of non-spaces and the hyperreal (the inability to distinguish between the virtual and the real) are instructive to aesthetics in general. Where Marxist philosophy engages in a discussion of broader socioeconomic materialist historicities, which binds the artist/audience through socialization/education from top-down ideological producers, the sections below will look at art and leisure of the streets, as lived experiences, and as chronic, addictive responses and forums.

Barbara Kruger (1981): Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face. Installation, and other agitpop objects. Click on the picture for more details (external link).

As Jean-Francois Lyotard declares, postmodernism is an “incredulity toward metanarratives”. To Lyotard, our current experience of history, memory, and events outside our immediacy is one where we find obsolescence in the traditional narrative functions of a great hero, a nearly impossible but ultimately assailable quest, and a direct line of motivation. Instead, we live at “intersections”, without preordained linguistic systems to stabilize or communicate prescriptively or descriptively without mis-appropriation. Indeed, an audience has become ever fluctuating, mobile, and virtual (the clearest case being that of a hyperreal audience in cyberspace), thereby creating unpredictability. Sometimes great movements and agency bursts through, whilst other times there are only near silences and social deficits.

Instead of an emphasis on ownership and the measurement of derivative and exchange value, the emphasis is on pastiche and context. By moving away from framing cultural goods as principally materialist, but instead focusing on its conditions of relations through time, spatiality, and affect, we gain a critical theorization of cultural objects as transformative and vernacular. Cultural objects, through the lens of postmodernity, are embedded and constantly being rewritten, overwritten, underwritten. Culture is performed in a manner that speaks through multiple modalities – it respects, transgresses, decries, suspects, laughs at, and so on (as postulated in de Certeau’s Walking in the City). And then the (nomadic) artist flourishes in these fragmentations, at the fringes where she feels most at home and can propel conversation from tidal waves of different identities, groups, and newfound civil spaces.

I do not believe that I am guilty of reification when I suggest that groups in support of the hegemonic ideal has sensed this threat of fragmentation. The exponential growth of overt sponsorship and product placement of Veblen goods is a great example of the capitalist response to nomadic artistry. A exchange-value laden product wholly subservient to the hegemonic ideal thus baptises itself in an isolated, spectacular vision, making hedonism seem like a naturalized Need-to-live. So far, it’s seen great successes, if one measures by the metric of its profitability. One can even say that it has gained crucial political support in the form of investment opportunities for formidable businesses. However, political and civil support may go in the other direction as well (depending on the particular place), in the form of art grants, post-secondary education, and the emergence of community governance and local autonomy. Even if counter-hegemonic praxis is jostled into the shape of capitalist packaging, it is constantly undergoing further renegotiation from below. This has happened in the form of public forums, street festivals, artists collective, localvores, buskers, farmers markets, culture jamming, protests against globalization and closed-door trade agreements, independent political campaigns, even more passive-aggressive trends such as democratic deficits and low voter turnout. As postmodern cultures become more prevalent, I believe that the artists and the artphile shall jostle back against the binds of necessitating interactions to mere currencies. In fact, I believe that they’re doing so already, slowly but surely.

My warmest thanks to Gordon Frederickson (@midmotion) and Jeff Resnik (@jeffresnik), friends and forward thinkers, who were willing to put so much great ideas and tangents into open conversation. And yes, all of the earlier part of this conversation all took place on Twitter. I am at @tonedarklights and I welcome you to join us!

References:

  • de Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
  • Jay, Martin (1986). Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. University of California Press.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). Introduction to The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Online Source: Uppsala University.

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