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ballard: the aesthetic, boredom, and neo-fascism

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J.G. Ballard. from a slightly dated (June 2004) interview in the Guardian (again, via BLDGBLOG):

Today’s art scene? Very difficult to judge, since celebrity and the media presence of the artists are inextricably linked with their work. The great artists of the past century tended to become famous in the later stages of their careers, whereas today fame is built into the artists’ work from the start, as in the cases of Emin and Hirst.

There’s a logic today that places a greater value on celebrity the less it is accompanied by actual achievement. I don’t think it’s possible to touch people’s imagination today by aesthetic means. Emin’s bed, Hirst’s sheep, the Chapmans’ defaced Goyas are psychological provocations, mental tests where the aesthetic elements are no more than a framing device.

It’s interesting that this should be the case. I assume it is because our environment today, by and large a media landscape, is oversaturated by aestheticising elements (TV ads, packaging, design and presentation, styling and so on) but impoverished and numbed as far as its psychological depth is concerned.

Artists (though sadly not writers) tend to move to where the battle is joined most fiercely. Everything in today’s world is stylised and packaged, and Emin and Hirst are trying to say, this is a bed, this is death, this is a body. They are trying to redefine the basic elements of reality, to recapture them from the ad men who have hijacked our world.

This opposition between “psychological depth” and the “aesthetic” is truly intriguing. It’s certainly not the way that I usually think of it – that we suffer from deprivation of psychological depth and an overabundance of the aesthetic. And if what I’ve argued recently about Proust – and really I mean eventually to say about most literary modernism in general – could it be that there’s been a reversal in the poles on this front over the past century?

Can art be a vehicle for political change? Yes, I assume that a large part of Blair’s appeal (like Kennedy’s) is aesthetic, just as a large part of the Nazi appeal lay in its triumph of the will aesthetic. I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic. A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order. The ocean liner art deco of the 1930s, used to sell everything from beach holidays to vacuum cleaners, may have helped the 1945 British electorate to vote out the Tories.

Interesting, again, to think of Blair’s appeal as “aesthetic.” We’re familiar with fascism as the “aestheticization of politics,” per Benjamin and others, but neoliberal third way-ism? I sense that Ballard’s right about this too, but how would we describe the “aesthetic” that Blair personifies or plays upon? And this bit about art deco and the advent of the welfare state is wild:

I assume by “ocean liner art deco” he means the advertising posters, available for sale now at the “art store” in every mid-rent mall. What is it about these images, so aggressively futurial and devoid of human mess, that would point the way, in Ballard’s mind anyway, toward the nationalization of utilities and long-distance transportation?

My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould, that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke® and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself.

So… The distinction between the art deco liner, an announcement via capitalism’s marketing jabber of the possible subsumption of capitalism itself, and the jackboot and shiny leather belt, would seem to be essential. Between the commonplace object, like something out a children’s book, monumentalized and the banalization of the exotically vicious, the hideous adornment of the self in the sartorial correlative of the self’s worst impulses.

In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we’re entering a profoundly masochistic phase – everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood…

Starts to seem as though our task, if we have one, is to combat boredom, but in an (exacty, impossibly) right way….

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 28, 2006 at 11:17 pm

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