Is Spectacle a grand display of empty sentiment? A show exclusive of participation and intimacy? Or is it a form that changes according to the intent and values of the artist who uses it? It is my premise that a spectacle artwork -something presented as worthy of notice - need not be hollow or deceptive. That grand scale can be a means to an end, expressing political values and personal ethics, and that media technology, which goes hand and hand with the mechanisms of spectacle, can be artfully subverted.
There is a difference between art that describes and reproduces the culture of "Spectacle”? (2), and art that adopts the spectacle as a form. In the catalog introduction to The Art of Spectacle? (3), Jacki Apple makes the following assumptions: "We are witnesses, voyeurs, passive consumers, accomplices… (looking at) an extravaganza, the operatic gesture, the scale of the cinema, the exaggeration of the ordinary, the magnified drama, the intolerable made ordinary, the sensational, an exaltation, a romance, experience as event, a simulation. We are fascinated."
We are fascinated. We struggle to explain a complicated, overwhelming, manipulative environment dictated largely by commercial and corporate interests. But while theories of spectacle are useful in making sense of contemporary culture, their direct application to art may obscure a more thoughtful analysis of some fundamental issues in current art practice – audience, use of mass media,and the scale of public events.
- Audience or Spectator? -
Inherent in most of the writing about art and spectacle, passivity is the presumptive condition of the audience. The distinction between the definition of audience (those assembled to hear and see a concert, play, etc.) and spectator (one who looks on; one who sees or beholds an event without taking an active part) is one of passivity. If we confuse works of art with the cultural phenomenon labeled "Spectacle" (thereby replacing the audience with the spectator), we will assume that the creator does not produce meaning, and the observer cannot respond meaningfully. In the comprehensive sweep of such art theorizing, audience as a collection of individuals, perhaps organized within various communities, is subsumed by the anonymous mass audience, and a relationship of manipulation and deception seems all that is possible.
To the contrary, closer examination of some art works reveals that in actuality, involvement by audience, assistants, volunteers and collaborators is complex and varied; differences depend upon how relationships are structured within the process of creating the work. For example, Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, an impressively elaborate and large scale installation of ceramic plates and needlework whose theme, the reclamation of women's history, won her a broad and populous audience. Certainly the scale of the work and its relationship to contemporary mass media make it a candidate for art as spectacle (as distinct from art describing "The Spectacle"). Are we to assume her audience, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were passive voyeurs? Does the sheer size of the work make it impossible to have an intimate experience with it? Such evidence as reported audience reactions, letters to the artist, and active involvement of thousands who organized exhibitions of this artwork, seems to indicate that this spectacle inspired anything but passivity. In point of fact, there are several examples of contemporary artists (e.g. Christo, Judy Baca, Lynn Hershman, Mierle Ukeles, myself, among others) who assume attributes of spectacle while encouraging participation. Many of these works intend and seek out participation, and the dialogue thus created is part of their aesthetic language.
Many attributes we might associate with spectacle – dramatic, appealing to the senses, large scale, public – are in fact historically based in community processes.
Between 1885 and 1940, scores of large scale performances called pag-eants, spectacles, or community theater were produced by small towns, universities, labor unions, social and political clubs.(4) With hundreds in the cast and thousands in the audience, these performances took place, often outdoors (an annual event on May Day in Central Park featured hundreds of school girls in white), over extended times of up to several days. Extravagant in scale and profoundly participatory, even the "butcher, the bake, the candlestick maker", according to one account, were recruited to play figures in history, idealized representations of such concepts as "truth" or "justice", or even themselves. While a great many of these works were simplistic - such as the rather jovial re-enactment of the Salem witch trials - many were sophisticated and radical political strategies. For example, John Reed transplanted a silk-workers strike from Paterson, New Jersey into Madison Square Garden (1913) (5) in a successful attempt to evade a Manhattan-based news blackout. The Women's Peace Pageant (1913) featured a Greek-inspired extravaganza with chariots, horses, and hundreds of women and children in togas on the streets of Washington, D.C. protesting U.S. entry into World War 1 (6). Community theater artists seemed to believe (perhaps naively by current standards) that spectacle was but a form that could be used in the service of their values, in no way contradictory to ideals of participation.
- Media and Spectacle -
There has been a large and varied artistic response to media ubiquitous-ness, ranging from simple-minded replication to sly ironic criticism, from self-promotion to political strategizing.
Much of the best art that is about the "Society of the Spectacle" takes a position with irony, intelligence and distance. Barbara Krueger and Jennie Holzer along with performance and video artist Lynn Hershman, are among those artists whose work includes clever and complex analyses of the role media plays in individual and mass psychology.
Jennie Holzer's work began with anonymous posters, "truisms” authoritatively worded, that unnervingly turned the tables on viewer expectations. As she progressively intruded upon the public space through billboards, LED electronic signboards at banks and sports events, and on television, her messages explored the interface between language and media within popular culture and public imagination.
Holzer's attempt to question and reveal the spectacle of language in our media society is paralleled by the work of Barbara Krueger, who often adds imagery drawn from magazines and newspapers to her language system. In works that appear in art collections, popular magazines and on billboards, Krueger explores the shaping of identity by subverting conventional advertising forms, using the tools of the "Spectacle Society" to call attention to its effects.
However, once outside the gallery, when these art images become part of the larger media environment, what separates them from mass produced commercials? Do they also assume implicit voyeurism, passive spectatorship? These works confound the expected consumer response by providing "advertisements" that direct us nowhere thereby provoking a useful self-consciousness. But it remains to be seen whether the increasingly broader audiences addressed by these works will result in helpful confrontations, a more active engagement with their audience. Lynn Hershman delivered a lecture on her work from a studio of a local TV station? (7). Her audience, expecting her live appearance, was surprised to be greeted by Hershman on multiple monitors, live broadcast from a nearby studio. They were invited to talk back, their image supplanting hers on the monitors. This situation provoked anxiety, outrage, and humor. And an intense engagement with questions of mediation and authenticity. In another manner, my "media campaigns", connected with large scale works, are strategies calculated to involve participation and enhance the visibility of specific social issues.
Such mass media work is part of an aesthetic as well as political strategy and is integral to the structure of the art. In a three year work in Minnesota that resulted in The Crystal Quilt performance, media was integral to community organizing, and performers were trained for grass roots media appearances in small rural communities. Media was the venue for the political theme, arrived at with community representatives: Older women, frequently invisible in popular culture, are potential leadership resources. A sub-theme of this was, of course, the exploration of the role of art in setting the public agenda.
We used the interest generated in the developing spectacle of The Crystal Quilt as a means to attract media, but the press team maneuvered articulate older women rather than the "artist" into the limelight at every opportunity. To this end, each approach to the media, including television and radio talk shows, public service announcements, feature articles, hard news reports and live coverage of the performance was carefully crafted.Absence of older women in the media was thus changed to visibility through the artwork.
Work that involves media is not without problems. How can one evoke audience engagement using a medium that encourages passivity? We might look to issues of values and meaning to begin to make distinctions and clarify artistic approaches. A disturbing example is the recent exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum (through December 1989), a "mid-career" retrospective of Robert Longo. In a media blitz from the city that produced Hollywood, Long has been hailed as one of the greatest living American artists; according to an advertisement for his "stage spectacle" entitled "Dream Jumbo: Working the Absolutes", his name "is perhaps THE adjective of the future". What is perhaps clearer to those in the artworld than to uninitiated audiences is that this calculated promotion in the service of its sponsor AT&T, and with the blessing of the artist, magnifies the importance of cultural forms at the expense of content. The flagrant coupling of Longo's self promotion, his dealer's marketing efforts, and the commercial interests of AT&T is perhaps the most urgent explication of our need to develop a critique that explores the relationship of media and spectacle:
Far greater than the sum of its parts, Louder than sound More vibrant than color More explosive than inspiration Longo has made it his business to redefine communications, and so do we.
- Scale in Art-
Consulting the dictionary again; spectacle is "extraordinary or worthy of notice, a pageant; a public show on a grand scale" In refining our understanding of the relationship of spectacle art to the "Spectacle Society", size is a most important consideration, including the size of audience and presentation itself, as well as the scope of subject matter. Newton and Helen Harrison, creating master plans using science, poetry, art and planning to address urban and social problems; Judy Chicago, working on an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and its relationship to contemporary society; Mierle Ladermann-Ukeles, designing a waste disposal plant as a work of public art; Judy Baca, organizing hundreds of ghetto youth to create a mural over a mile long on the history of Third World California - all of these artists work with inclusive concepts of history, a comprehensive range of issues, and often they employ mass communication forms in their work strategy. They draw a large circle around the methods and processes they will include as part of their practice, and they tackle daunting social problems with an aggression akin to that of political activists. In a word, these artists think big.
They think in big enough terms that their pieces could conceivably produce community, and here is perhaps the crux of this matter of scale. Large scale artwork in the form of spectacle, situated within and broadcast by the media of a community, has more in common with politically engaged actions such as those by Greenpeace than it does with theories about the "Spectacle Society". Artwork that intends audience participation may be called into being by the very comprehensiveness of the issues inherent in the work, and the strategy of spectacle is then appropriate to the cultural environment in which such themes are played out.
Within the grand sweep of our culture, how else is an alternative to be voice heard?
1) A title drawn from Judy Baca's billboard project for Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles.
2) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red Publishing, Detroit, 1983.
For the record, the concern with the relationship of mass media to culture and values did not come solely from French theory, though that is often cited as the major source. Media theorists began critiquing television as early as 1950 and during the late sixties and early seventies social scientists such as George Gerbner and Irving Goffman were direct sources for feminists who developed an analysis of the iconography of female representation in media environment.
3) "The Art of Spectacle" interdisciplinary performance festival was presented by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, (LACE), Some Serious Business, Inc., and UCLA Center for the Arts. Participating artists were Glenn Branca, Remy Charlip, Ping Chong, Lin Hixson, Robert Longo, Rachel Rosenthal, and Carl Stone.
4) It is interesting that during the early 1900s, this movement coincided with even larger mass audience performance events in Russia, heralding the victory of the revolution.
5) Linda Nochlin, "The Patterson Strike Pageant of 1913*, Art in America, May/June 1974 p64.
6) Women in American Theater, Ed. Helen Crichchinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins. Crown Publishing, 1981.
7) CitySites was a series of site-specific lectures on the socio-political dimensions of public art sponsored by the California College of Arts & Crafts and the Oakland Arts Council. Participating artists include Newton & Helen Harrison, Allan Kaprow, Marie Johnson Calloway, Judy Baca, Adrian Piper, John Malpede, Suzanne Lacy, Mierle Ladermann-Ukeles, and Lynn Hershman.