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The Civilization of the Spectacle
Claudio Pérez, a correspondent sent by El País to New York to cover the financial crisis, wrote in an article published on Friday, 19 September 2008: 'The New York tabloids are rushing around like madmen looking for a broker about to fling himself into the void from the top of one of those imposing skyscrapers which house the major investment banks, the fallen idols that the financial hurricane has been reducing to rubble.' Let's keep hold of this image for a moment: a pack of photographers, paparazzi, scouring the skyline, cameras at the ready, waiting to capture the first suicide that would be a graphic, dramatic and spectacular embodiment of the financial catastrophe that wiped out billions of dollars and ruined big businesses and countless ordinary people. There can be no better image, I think, that encapsulates our contemporary civilization.
It seems to me that this is the best way to define the civilization of our time, a civilization shared by Western countries, countries in Asia that have achieved high levels of development and many nations in the so-called Third World.
What do we mean by civilization of the spectacle? The civilization of a world in which pride of place, in terms of a scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion. To have this goal in life is perfectly legitimate, of course. Only a Puritan fanatic could reproach members of a society for wanting to find relaxation, fun and amusement in lives that are often circumscribed by depressing and sometimes soul-destroying routine. But converting this natural propensity for enjoying oneself into a supreme value has unexpected consequences: it leads to culture becoming banal, frivolity becoming widespread and, in the field of news coverage, it leads to the spread of irresponsible journalism based on gossip and scandal.
What has caused the West to slide towards this kind of civilization? The material well-being that followed the years of privation during the Second World War and the shortages of the post-war years. After this very tough period, there was a moment of extraordinary economic growth. In every democratic and liberal society in Europe and North America, the middle classes grew exponentially, there was increased social mobility and, at the same time, there was a notable extension of moral parameters, beginning with our sex lives, which had traditionally been held in check by churches and by the prudish secularism of political parties, from right and left. Well-being, a freer lifestyle and the increased time given to leisure in the developed world gave an important stimulus to leisure industries, promoted by advertising, the inspiration and magical guide for our times. So, systematically and imperceptibly, not being bored, avoiding anything that might be disturbing, worrying or distressing, became for increasing numbers both at the pinnacle and at the base of the social pyramid, a generational mandate, what Ortega y Gasset called 'the spirit of our time', a fun, spoiled and frivolous god to which, wittingly or unwittingly, we have been paying increasing allegiance for at least fifty years.
Another, no less important, factor in the shaping of this reality has been the democratization of culture. This is a phenomenon born of altruism: culture could no longer be the patrimony of an elite; liberal and democratic society had a moral obligation to make culture accessible to all, through education and through promoting and supporting the arts, literature and other cultural expression. This commendable philosophy has had the undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life, justifying superficial form and content in works on the grounds of fulfilling a civic duty to reach the greatest number. Quantity at the expense of quality. This criterion, the domain of the worst demagogues in the political arena, has caused unexpected reverberations in the cultural sphere, such as the disappearance of high culture, by its very nature a minority undertaking due to the complexity and on occasion hermetic nature of its codes, and the massification of the very concept of culture. Culture has now become exclusively accepted in its anthropological definition. That is, culture is all the manifestations of the life of a community: its language, beliefs, habits and customs, clothing, skills and, in short, everything that is exercised, avoided, respected or hated in that community. When the idea of culture becomes an amalgam of this kind, then it is inevitable that it might come to be understood merely as a pleasant way of spending time. Of course, culture can indeed be a pleasing pastime, but if it is just this, then the very concept becomes distorted and debased: everything included under the term becomes equal and uniform; a Verdi opera, the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones and a performance by the Cirque du Soleil have equal value.
It is not surprising therefore that the most representative literature of our times is 'light', easy literature, which, without any sense of shame, sets out to be - as its primary and almost exclusive objective - entertaining. But let's be clear: I am not in any way condemning the authors of this entertainment literature because, notwithstanding the levity of their texts, they include some really talented writers. If today it is rare to see literary adventures as daring as those of Joyce, Woolf, Rilke or Borges, it is not just down to the writers. For the culture in which we live does not favour, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers. Today's readers require easy books that entertain them and this demand creates a pressure that becomes a powerful incentive to writers.
It is also not accidental that criticism has all but disappeared from the news media and has taken refuge in those cloistered communities called humanities faculties, and in particular in literature departments, whose work is accessible only to specialists. It is true that the more serious newspapers and journals still publish reviews of books, exhibitions and concerts, but does anyone read these solitary paladins who try to map a scale of value onto the tangled jungle that contemporary culture has become? In the days of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, criticism played a central role in the world of culture because it helped guide citizens in the difficult task of judging what they heard, saw and read. Now critics are a dying breed, to whom nobody pays attention unless they also turn themselves into a form of entertainment and spectacle.
Light literature, along with light cinema and light art, give the reader and the viewer the comfortable impression that they are cultured, revolutionary, modern and in the vanguard without having to make the slightest intellectual effort. Culture that purports to be avant-garde and iconoclastic instead offers conformity in its worst forms: smugness and self-satisfaction.
In the civilization of our times, it is normal, and almost obligatory, for cookery and fashion to take up most of the culture sections, for chefs and fashion designers now enjoy the prominence that before was given to scientists, composers and philosophers. Gas burners, stoves and catwalks meld, in the cultural coordinates of our time, with books, laboratories and operas, while TV stars and great footballers exert the sort of influence over habits, taste and fashion that was previously the domain of teachers and thinkers and (further back still) theologians. Half a century ago in the United States, it was probably Edmund Wilson, in his articles in The New Yorker or The New Republic, who decided the success or failure of a book, a poem, a novel or an essay. Now the Oprah Winfrey Showmakes these decisions.
The vacuum left by the disappearance of criticism has been filled, imperceptibly, by advertising, and advertising is now not just an integral part of cultural life, it is its main vector. Advertising plays a decisive role in forming taste, sensibility, imagination and customs. Anonymous 'creative' people in advertising agencies now fulfil the role previously played, in this sphere, by philosophical systems, religious beliefs, ideologies and doctrines and the mentors that in France were called the 'mandarins' of an age. It was perhaps inevitable that this would happen from the moment when artistic and literary works came to be considered as commercial products, whose very survival or extinction depended on the fluctuations of the market, that tragic period in which the price became confused with the value of a work of art. When a culture relegates critical thinking to the attic of items no longer in fashion and replaces ideas with images, then literary and artistic products are promoted, accepted or rejected through advertising techniques and the conditioned reflexes of a public that lacks the intellectual and discriminatory antennae to detect when it is being duped. By this route, the exaggerated fashions that John Galliano displayed on Parisian catwalks (before it was discovered that he was anti-Semitic), or experiments in nouvelle cuisine, achieve the status of honorary citizens of high culture.
This state of affairs has also led to the celebration of music, to such an extent that it has become a badge of identity for new generations the world over. Fashionable bands and singers attract huge crowds to their concerts, which, like the Dionysian pagan festivals that celebrated irrationality in ancient Greece, are collective ceremonies of excess and catharsis, worshipping instinct, passion and unreason. The same can be said, of course, of the packed electronic music parties, raves, where people dance in the darkness, listen to trance-inducing music and get high on ecstasy. It is not too far-fetched to compare these celebrations to the great religious popular festivals of old. For we find, in secular form, a religious spirit that, in keeping with the spirit of the age, has replaced the liturgy and catechisms of traditional religions with these displays of musical mysticism where, to the rhythm of raw voices and instruments, both amplified to an inaudible level, individuals are no longer individuals; they become a mass, and unwittingly return to the primitive times of magic and the tribe. This is the modern and, of course, much more amusing way of achieving the ecstasy that St Teresa or St John of the Cross found through asceticism, prayer and faith. In these crowded parties and concerts young people today commune, confess, achieve redemption and find fulfilment through this intense, elemental experience of becoming lost to themselves.
Massification, along with frivolity, is another feature of our time. Nowadays sport has acquired an importance matched only in ancient Greece. For Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and other regular visitors to the Academy, the cultivation of the body was coextensive with and complementary to the cultivation of the spirit, because they believed that both were mutually enriching. The difference with today is that, now, people usually play sports at the expense of, and instead of, intellectual pursuits. In the sporting field football stands out. It is a mass phenomenon that, like modern popular-music concerts, attracts large crowds and raises passions to a greater degree than any other public mobilization, be it political meetings, religious processions or civic assemblies. Of course for the fans - and I am one of them - a football game can be a magnificent spectacle of skill and harmony, with justifiably applauded flashes of individual brilliance. But today the major football games, like the Roman circuses, function mainly as a pretext for irrationality, the regression of individuals to the tribe, to being a part of a collective, where, in the anonymous warmth of the stands, spectators can give free rein to their aggressive instincts, to the symbolic (and at times real) conquest and annihilation of the opposition. The notorious Latin American barras bravas, the gangs of supporters attached to certain clubs who cause havoc with their homicidal brawls and the burning of stadiums with great loss of life, show how, in many cases, it is not watching sport that attracts so many fans - almost always men, though women are increasingly attending games - but rather the ritual that releases irrational instincts, allowing them to turn their backs on civility during the game and behave as part of the primitive horde.
Paradoxically this mass phenomenon is parallel to the increased use of drugs at all levels of the social pyramid. Of course, the use of drugs has a long tradition in the West but, until recently, it has been almost exclusively confined to elites and small, marginal sectors, such as bohemian, artistic and literary circles where, in the nineteenth century, these artificial flowers were cultivated by figures as respectable as Charles Baudelaire and Thomas de Quincey.
Today, the spread of the use of drugs bears no resemblance to these earlier times; drugs are not used to explore new sensations or visions for scientific or artistic purposes. They are not an expression of rebellion against the established norms by nonconformists looking to adopt alternative forms of existence. Today, the mass consumption of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, crack, heroin, etc., is a response to a social environment that pushes men and women towards quick and easy pleasure, that immunizes them against worries and responsibility, allowing them to turn their backs on any self-knowledge that might be gained through thought and introspection, two eminently intellectual activities that are now considered tedious in our fickle, ludic culture. This need for distraction, the driving force of the society in which we live, stems from a desire to flee from the void and anguish that we feel when we are free, and forced to make decisions such as what to do with our lives and our world, especially in challenging times. For millions of people drugs now have the role, previously played by religions and high culture, of assuaging doubts and questions about the human condition, life, death, the beyond, the sense or senselessness of existence. With their artificial highs or moments of tranquillity, drugs offer a momentary feeling of being safe, free and happy. This is a malign fiction because drugs isolate individuals, and only appear to free them of problems, responsibilities and anguish. Because, in the end, they are a form of imprisonment, demanding ever heavier doses of stupefaction and overexcitement that only go to deepen the spiritual void of their users.
In the civilization of the spectacle, secularism seems to have gained ground over religions. And among those still claiming to be believers there has been an increase in people who just pay lip service to religion, who treat it in a social, superficial way, but whose lives are barely touched by it. The positive effect of the secularization of life is that there is now greater freedom than when ecclesiastical dogma and censorship had an asphyxiating hold. But it would be wrong to say that, because today in the Western world there are smaller numbers of Catholics and Protestants than before, religion has increasingly disappeared in a secular world. That is just the stuff of statistics. In fact, at the same time as many of the faithful were abandoning traditional religions, there was a great increase in sects, cults, and all sorts of alternative ways of practising religion, from Eastern spiritualism in all its schools and divisions - Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Tantrism, yoga - to the Evangelical churches that now proliferate and divide and subdivide in poor neighbourhoods, and picturesque offshoots such as the Fourth Way, Rosicrucianism, the Unification Church - the Moonies - Scientology, so popular in Hollywood, and ever more exotic and superficial churches.1
The reason for this proliferation of churches and sects is that only very few people can do without religion entirely. For the vast majority, religion is a necessity because it is only the security that religious faith offers on such matters as transcendence and the soul that can assuage the sense of unease, fear and anxiety in the face of extinction. And it is the case that the only way that most people understand and adhere to ethics is through religion. Only small minorities have freed themselves from religion, filling the void left in their lives by culture: philosophy, science, literature and the arts. But the culture that can fulfil this role is high culture, which confronts problems rather than shying away from them, which tries to offer serious and not playful answers to the great enigmas, questions and conflicts of human existence. Superficial and glitzy culture, which is playful and an affectation, cannot replace the certainties, myths, mysteries and rituals of religions that have stood the test of centuries. In today's society narcotics and alcohol offer a momentary spiritual peace, and provide the certainties and respite that, in earlier times, men and women could find in prayer, confession, communion and sermons.
It is also not by chance that, whereas in the past politicians on the campaign trail wanted to be photographed and appear side by side with eminent scientists and playwrights, today they look for support and endorsement from rock singers, movie actors, and football and other sports stars. Such figures have replaced intellectuals as arbiters of the political consciousness of middle and popular sectors. They present manifestos and read them at the hustings, and they appear on television preaching what is good and evil in economic, political and social spheres. In the civilization of the spectacle, the comedian is king. Furthermore, the presence of actors and singers is not just important on the periphery of political life, in the area of public opinion. Some of them have stood for election and, like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have reached high office such as the presidency of the United States and the governorship of California. Of course, I am not discounting the possibility that film actors, rock and rap singers and footballers might make excellent contributions to the world of ideas, but I do reject the idea that their prominence in politics today has anything to do with their intelligence or their perspicacity. It is due entirely to their media presence and their acting abilities.
A notable feature of contemporary society is the waning in importance of intellectuals who, for centuries, up until very recently, had played a significant role in the life of nations. It is often argued that the term 'intellectual' came to prominence in the nineteenth century, with the Dreyfus Affair in France and the polemics caused by Emile Zola's famous 'J'accuse', written in defence of the Jewish officer falsely accused of treason by a group of high-ranking anti-Semitic French army officers. But though the term 'intellectual' might have gained more widespread circulation from that time, the participation of thinkers and writers in public life, in debates about politics, religion and ideas, goes back to the very dawn of the West. They played a part in Plato's Greece and Cicero's Rome, in the Renaissance of Montaigne and Machiavelli, in the Enlightenment period of Voltaire and Diderot, in the Romantic era of Lamartine and Victor Hugo, and in all the historical periods leading up to modernity. Alongside their academic or creative research, many important writers and thinkers influenced political and social events through their writings, declarations and the stance they took on different issues. When I was young, this was the case with Bertrand Russell in England, Sartre and Camus in France, Moravia and Vittorini in Italy, Günter Grass and Hans Magnus Enzensberger in Germany. Such participation could be found in most countries in democratic Europe. In Spain, there are the examples of José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, who played significant roles in public affairs. Today, intellectuals have disappeared from public debates, at least the debates that matter. It is true that some still sign manifestos, send letters to newspapers and become involved in polemics, but none of this has any serious repercussion in the running of society where economic, institutional and even cultural matters are decided by the political and administrative classes, and by the so-called powers that be, where intellectuals are conspicuous by their absence. Aware that they are snubbed by the society they live in, most have opted for discretion in, or absence from, public debate. Confined to their discipline or their particular concerns, they turn their back on what fifty years ago was called the civic or moral 'commitment' of writers and thinkers to society. There are exceptions but, among these exceptions, those that count - because they have media exposure - tend to be more interested in self-promotion and exhibitionism than in the defence of principles and values. Because in the civilization of the spectacle, intellectuals are of interest only if they play the fashion game and become clowns.
Why have intellectuals become so diminished and unpredictable in this day and age? One answer worth considering is the discredit that several generations of intellectuals fell into due to their sympathies with Nazi, Soviet or Maoist totalitarianism and their silence and blindness towards horrors such as the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag and the slaughter of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Indeed it is disconcerting and overwhelming to consider that those people who appeared to be the finest minds of their time made common cause with regimes responsible for genocide, horrendous assaults against human rights, and the abolition of every form of freedom. But the truth is that the real reason for the total loss of interest in intellectuals by society as a whole is a direct consequence of the negligible influence of ideas in the civilization of the spectacle.
A further characteristic of this civilization is the impoverishment of ideas as a driving force of cultural life. Today images have primacy over ideas. For that reason, cinema, television and now the Internet have left books to one side, and, if the pessimistic predictions of the likes of George Steiner are correct, then books will soon be relegated to the catacombs. (For the lovers of anachronistic book culture, like me, this should not be cause for lament for, if it occurs, then this marginalization might perhaps have a cleansing effect and might remove from circulation bestseller literature, justifiably called trashy literature due not only to its superficial storylines and puerile use of form, but also to its ephemeral nature, the fact that it is intended to be consumed today and then disappear, like soap or fizzy drinks.)
Cinema, of course, was always an entertainment art, geared to a mass audience. But equally, sometimes on the margins, and sometimes in the mainstream, great talents would emerge, which, despite the difficult conditions in which directors always had to work because of budget constraints and dependence on producers, were capable of making films of great richness, depth and originality, with a distinctive personal style. Today's society, by contrast, yielding to the inflexible pressure of the dominant culture, which privileges wit over intelligence, images over ideas, humour over gravity, banality over depth and frivolity over seriousness, no longer produces creators such as Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti or Luis Buñuel. Who is today's cinema icon? Woody Allen, who is to David Lean or Orson Welles what Andy Warhol is to Gaugin or Van Gogh in painting or Dario Fo is to Chekhov or Ibsen in theatre.
It is also not surprising that in the era of the spectacle, special effects in film now play the leading part, relegating themes, directors, scripts and even actors to secondary roles. One might say that this is due, to a great degree, to the prodigious technological evolution of recent years, which allows for the creation of miraculous work in the field of visual simulation and fantasy. This is partly true. But it is also the case that this stems from a culture that favours minimal intellectual effort, at the expense of commitment, concern and, in the final instance, even of thought itself. This culture has given itself over, in a passive manner, to what a critic now relegated to obscurity, Marshall McLuhan - who was a wise prophet of the cultural signs of our times - called the 'image bath', a form of docile submission to emotions and sensations triggered by an unusual and at times very brilliant bombardment of images that capture our attention, though they dull our sensibilities and intelligence due to their primary and transitory nature.
Art preceded all other expressions of cultural life in laying the foundations for the culture of the spectacle, by establishing that art could be fun and games and nothing else. Ever since Marcel Duchamp, who was clearly a genius, revolutionized the artistic values of the West by demonstrating that a urinal was also a work of art if that is what the artist decided, then everything was possible in the realm of painting and sculpture, even for a tycoon to spend over £10 million for a shark preserved in formaldehyde in a glass container, and for the author of this joke, Damien Hirst, to be revered not as an extraordinary purveyor of con tricks, which he is, but rather as a great artist of our time. Perhaps he is, but that is not to speak well of him but rather to speak very badly about our time - a time in which insolence and boastfulness and empty provocative gestures are sometimes enough, with the collusion of the mafias that control the art market and with complicit or half-witted critics who confer false prestige, giving the status of artist to illusionists who hide their poverty and emptiness behind counterfeit insolence. I say 'counterfeit' because Duchamp's urinal at least had the virtue of being provocative. In our times, artists are not expected to show talent or skill but rather affectation and scandal, and their daring statements are nothing more than the masks of a new conformity. What was once revolutionary has become fashionable, a pastime, a game, a subtle acid that erodes art, turning it into a Grand Guignol show. In art this frivolity has reached alarming extremes. The disappearance of any minimal consensus about aesthetic value means that in this field confusion reigns and will continue to reign for a long time, since it is now not possible to discern with any degree of objectivity what it is to have talent or to lack talent, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what work represents something new and durable and what is just a will-o'-the-wisp. This confusion has turned the art world into a carnival where genuine creators, sharp operators and conmen all intermingle and it is often difficult to tell them apart. This is an unsettling preview of the depths to which a culture in the grip of cheap hedonism might sink as it sacrifices everything to amusement. In a perceptive essay on the frighteningly extreme tendencies in some contemporary art, Carlos Granés Maya writes that 'one of the most abject performances in Colombian memory' was performed by the artist Fernando Pertuz, who defecated publicly in an art gallery and then, 'with total solemnity', proceeded to ingest his faeces.2
In the area of music, the equivalent to Marcel Duchamp's urinal is, without doubt, the composition of the great guru of modernity in US music, John Cage, entitled 4?33? (1952), in which a pianist sits in front of a piano but does not touch a note for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, since the work is comprised of the random noises produced in the hall by amused or exasperated listeners. The intention of the composer and theoretician was to abolish prejudices about making value distinctions between sound and noise. There is no doubt that he succeeded.
In the civilization of the spectacle, politics has arguably become as banal as literature, film and art, which means that advertising slogans, clichés, trivia, and the latest fashion or whims now take up almost the entire space that was previously occupied by causes, programmes, ideas and doctrines. If they want to maintain their popularity, today's politicians are obliged to pay very close attention to gestures and form, which are much more important than their values, convictions and principles.
Keeping close check on wrinkles, baldness, grey hairs, the size of their nose or the whiteness of their teeth, as well as their clothes, is as important, maybe more important, to politicians than explaining their policies when elected. The arrival of the model Carla Bruni in the Elysée Palace as Madame Sarkozy, with the attendant media fireworks, shows that not even France, a country that prided itself on maintaining the old tradition of politics as an intellectual activity, a play of doctrines and ideas, has managed to hold out and has succumbed to this universally prevailing frivolity.
(As a parenthesis, I should perhaps define what I mean by frivolity. The dictionary defines frivolous as something light-hearted, capricious and insubstantial, but our age has given this form of behaviour a more complex connotation. Frivolity consists of having an inverted or unbalanced scale of values in which form is more important than content, appearance more important than essence, and in which expression and self-assurance - representation - replace feelings and ideas. In a medieval novel I admire, Tirant lo Blanc, the wife of Guillem de Vàroic slaps her son, a newborn baby, so that he will cry when his father sets off for Jerusalem. As readers we laugh, amused at this silliness, that the tears shed as a result of the poor creature being slapped could be confused with feelings of sadness. But neither the woman nor the characters who witness her actions laugh because for them crying - the pure form - is sadness. There is no other way of being sad than by crying - 'shedding living tears', the novel says - because in that world it is the form that counts, the content of actions are all at the service of the form. This is frivolity, a way of understanding the world, and life, where everything is appearance, theatre, play and entertainment.)
Commenting on Subcomandante Marcos's fleeting Zapatista revolution in Chiapas - which Carlos Fuentes called the first 'postmodern revolution', an acceptable definition only inasmuch as it defines the movement as mere representation, without any content or significance, staged by an expert in advertising techniques - Octavio Paz defined very precisely the ephemeral, short-term nature of the actions (or rather the simulacra) of contemporary politicians:
But the civilization of the spectacle is cruel. Spectators have no memory: for that reason they also lack remorse, or any true conscience. They embrace novelty, any novelty as long as it is new. They soon forget and move without blinking from scenes of death and destruction in the Gulf War to the curves, contortions and quiverings of Madonna and Michael Jackson. Commanders and bishops are summoned to suffer the same fate: for what awaits them also is the anonymous and universal Great Yawn, which is the Apocalypse and Judgement Day of the society of the spectacle.3
Our era has witnessed significant transformations in the area of sex, thanks to a progressive liberalization of old prejudices and religious taboos that kept sexual activity hemmed in by prohibitions. In this arena there has been indisputable progress in the Western world, with the freedom to choose relationships, the reduction in macho discrimination against women, gays, and other sexual minorities who have gradually become incorporated into a society that, sometimes reluctantly, is beginning to recognize the right to sexual freedom among adults. But sexual emancipation has also made the sexual act become banal: for many, above all among the younger generations, it has become a sport or a pastime, a shared activity that is no more important, perhaps less important, than going to the gym, or dancing or football. Perhaps this frivolous approach to sex is healthy in terms of psychological and emotional balance, although we should also consider that in our day and age, with its sexual freedoms, there has been no fall in sex crimes, even in the most advanced societies. If anything, they have increased. 'Light' sex is sex without love and without imagination, purely instinctive and animal sex. It meets a biological need, but it does not enrich the life of the senses and emotions and it does not bring couples closer together, beyond the sexual coupling. Instead of men or women being freed from solitude, once the peremptory and fleeting act of physical love has passed, they return to solitude with a feeling of failure and frustration.
Eroticism has disappeared along with criticism and high culture. Why? Because eroticism, which turns the act of sex into a work of art, into a ritual that literature, art, music and refined sensibility have embellished with images of great aesthetic virtuosity, is the very opposite of this easy, expeditious, promiscuous sex that, paradoxically, is the result of the freedom won by the new generations. Eroticism exists as a counterpoint to or a defiance of the norm; it is a challenge to established customs and it thus implies secrecy and privacy. Out in the public glare, made commonplace, it becomes degraded and disappears, incapable of playing its former transforming role of turning sexual activity into something spiritual and artistic. It becomes pornography, that cheap, debased, obscene form of eroticism, which, in the past, had inspired a very rich tradition of literary and artistic works. These works took their inspiration in the fantasies of sexual desire and produced memorable artistic creations that challenged the political and moral status quo, fought for the rights to pleasure and gave dignity to an animal instinct, transforming it into a work of art.
In what ways has journalism influenced, and been influenced by, the civilization of the spectacle?
The border line that traditionally separated serious journalism from muckraking yellow journalism has become blurred, full of holes, and has in many cases disappeared, to the extent that it is now difficult to draw that distinction in different information media. Because one of the consequences of turning entertainment and fun into the supreme value of an era is that, in the field of information, it causes, imperceptibly, a profound upheaval in priorities: news becomes either important or of secondary interest not because of its economic, political, cultural and social significance but, above all, and sometimes exclusively, because it is new, surprising, unusual, scandalous and spectacular. Without any set intention, journalism today, following the dominant cultural mandate, seeks to offer information in an entertaining or amusing fashion, with the inevitable result that, through this subtle deformation of its traditional objectives, the press today has become light, pleasant, superficial and entertaining. And, in extreme cases, if there is not enough information of this sort around, then it can be manufactured.
For that reason it should not be surprising that the publications that reach a mass readership are not serious newspapers or journals dedicated to truth, rigour and objectivity in their news reporting but rather the so-called 'lifestyle magazines' that, with their circulations in millions, are the only example that gives the lie to the axiom that print journalism is shrinking and giving way to audio-visual and digital competition. This axiom is valid only for the press that, rowing against the tide, still seeks to be responsible and inform rather than amuse or entertain the reader. But what should we say of a phenomenon such as ¡Hola! This magazine, which is now published not just in Spanish, but in eleven languages, is avidly read - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say flicked through - by millions of readers across the globe - even in the most cultured countries of the planet such as Canada and Great Britain - who, it is clearly demonstrated, enjoy reading news about how the rich, the famous and the winners in this vale of tears get married, get divorced, remarry, dress, undress, fight, become friends, spend their millions, listing their likes, their dislikes, their taste and lack of taste. I lived in London in 1989, when the English version of ¡Hola!, Hello! magazine, appeared and I have seen with my own eyes the dizzying speed with which this creature of Spanish journalism conquered the land of Shakespeare. It would be no exaggeration to say that ¡Hola! and other magazines of the same ilk are the most genuine journalistic products of the society of the spectacle.
By turning information into a form of entertainment, one gradually legitimates what had previously found refuge in marginal and almost clandestine publications: scandal, breaches of confidence, gossip, violation of privacy and - in the worst cases - libel, defamation and lies.
There is no more effective way of entertaining and amusing common mortals than by feeding their base passions. The best way to do this is by revealing the private lives of others, especially if they are well-known, prestigious public figures. This is a sport that today's journalism plays without any scruples, protected by the right to freedom of information. Although there are laws surrounding this and sometimes - very rarely - there are trials and sentences that penalize excesses, such revelations have become an increasingly widespread activity to the extent that privacy has disappeared in our day and age, and no corner of life of anyone in the public arena is immune from being investigated, revealed and exploited, to sate the voracious hunger for entertainment and amusement that newspapers, magazines and information programmes have to take into account if they want to survive and not disappear from the marketplace. While they are acting in this way to meet the demands of their public, the organs of the press are unwittingly contributing more than anyone else to consolidating this 'light' civilization that has given frivolity the supremacy previously accorded to ideas and artistic creation.
In one of his last articles, 'There is no compassion for Ingrid or Clara',4 Tomás Eloy Martínez was incensed at the way that Ingrid Betancourt and Clara Rojas were hounded by the gutter press after their release from captivity in the Colombian jungle, six years after having been kidnapped by the FARC, with such stupid and cruel questions as whether they had been raped, or if they had seen other captives being raped or - this one addressed to Clara Rojas - if she had tried to drown in a river the son that she had with a guerrilla. 'This journalism', Tomás Eloy Martínez wrote, 'keeps insisting on turning the victims into parts of a spectacle which is presented as necessary information, but whose only function is to sate the perverse curiosity of the consumers of scandal.' His protest was fully justified, of course. But he was wrong in thinking that the 'perverse curiosity of the consumers of scandal' was a minority affair. This is not the case: this curiosity gnaws away at huge numbers of people to whom we refer when we speak of 'public opinion'. This desire for scandal, lurid details and frivolity is what gives our age its cultural tone and creates the urgent demand that the entire press, to different degrees and with different levels of subtlety, is obliged to meet, from the most serious to the most shamelessly scandalous publications.
Another topic that makes people's lives more amusing is catastrophe in its different forms. All sorts of catastrophic events are included, from earthquakes and tsunamis to serial crimes, in particular if they contain elements of sadism and sexual perversion. For that reason, today not even the most responsible press can avoid having its pages stained by blood, corpses and paedophiles. For this is the gruesome fuel that is needed to sate the appetite for amazement that the reading, listening and viewing public unconsciously demands of its media.
Of course all generalizations are fallacious and we cannot tar everything with the same brush. Of course there are differences and some media outlets try to resist the pressure under which they operate without abandoning the old principles of seriousness, objectivity, rigour and faithfulness to the truth, even if this might be boring and elicit from its readers and listeners that Great Yawn that Octavio Paz spoke about. I am pointing to a trend within contemporary journalism, though I'm fully aware that there are differences in professionalism, conscience and ethical behaviour among different press organizations. But the sad truth is that no newspaper, magazine or news programme today can survive - retain a loyal following - if it completely disregards the distinctive features of the dominant culture of the society and the time in which it operates. Of course the big press corporations are not mere weathervanes that decide their editorial stance, their moral behaviour and their news priorities simply on the basis of opinion polls on public taste. Their function is also to offer direction, assess, educate and clarify what is true and false, just and unjust, good and execrable in the dizzying vortex of today's world that their public is caught up in. But to perform this function, they must have an audience. And the newspaper or programme that does not commune on the altar of the spectacle today runs the risk of losing this audience and of addressing only ghosts.
It is not in the power of journalism by itself to change the civilization of the spectacle that it has helped to create. This reality is deeply rooted in our time. It is the birth certificate of the new generations, a way of being and living and perhaps of dying in this world of ours; we who are the fortunate citizens of countries in which the democracy, liberty, ideas, values, books, art and literature of the West have afforded us both the privilege of turning fleeting entertainment into the supreme aspiration of human existence as well as the right to view with cynicism and disdain everything that is boring or worrying, and remind us that life is not just entertainment but also drama, pain, mystery and frustration.
El País, Madrid, 21 September 1997
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
In England, believe it or not, art scandals are still possible. The very respectable Royal Academy of Arts, a private institution founded in 1768 that often presents, in its Mayfair gallery, retrospectives of great classic artists or of modern artists anointed by the critics, is these days at the centre of one that is delighting the press and the philistines who don't waste their time at exhibitions. But they'll turn out in force for this one, thanks to the scandal, thus permitting - every cloud has a silver lining - the poor Royal Academy to weather its chronic economic crises a little longer.
Was it with this end in mind that the Academy organized its Sensation show of works by young British painters and sculptors from the collection of the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi? If so, it was a great success. Though they may hold their noses, the masses will certainly come to have a look at the works of young Chris Ofili - twenty-nine years old, student of the Royal College of Art, and star of his generation, according to one critic - who mounts his works on bases of hardened elephant dung. It isn't for this peculiarity, however, that Ofili has made tabloid headlines, but for his blasphemous piece The Holy Virgin Mary, in which the mother of Jesus appears surrounded by pornographic photographs.
But it isn't this painting that has provoked most comment. That prize goes to the portrait of a famous child murderer, Myra Hindley, composed of children's handprints by the shrewd artist, Marcus Harvey. Another of the show's innovative works is a collaboration by Jake and Dinos Chapman; it is called Zygotic Acceleration, and - as its title implies? - it unfurls a fan of androgynous children whose faces are really erect phalluses. It goes without saying that accusations of paedophilia have been raised against the inspired authors. If the exhibition is truly representative of what inspires and concerns young artists in Great Britain, one has to conclude that genital obsession is at the top of the list. For example, Mat Collishaw has produced a work showing, gigantic in the foreground, the impact of a bullet on the human brain; but what the spectator really sees is a vagina and a vulva. And what to say about the daring creator who has crammed his glass boxes with human bones and, apparently, the remains of a foetus?
What is notable about the affair isn't that products of this sort slip into top galleries but that people are still surprised by it. As far as I'm concerned, I noticed that something was rotten in the art world exactly thirty-seven years ago, in Paris, when a good friend, a Cuban sculptor fed up with the galleries' refusal to show the splendid wood carvings that I watched him labour over from morning to night in his chambre de bonne, decided that the surest route to success in art was to do something attention-catching. Immediately he produced some 'sculptures' that consisted of pieces of rotten meat in glass boxes, with live flies flying around inside. A few speakers made the buzz of the flies echo throughout the place, like a terrific threat. Sure enough, he triumphed; even Jean-Marie Drot, star of French television and radio, devoted a programme to him.
The most unexpected and disturbing consequence of the evolution of modern art and the myriad experiments feeding it is that there are no longer any objective criteria that make it possible to qualify or disqualify something as a work of art or situate it within a hierarchy. The possibility began to disappear with the cubist revolution and disappeared entirely with abstract art. Today, 'anything' can be art and 'nothing' is, depending on the sovereign whim of the spectator, who has been elevated, since the demise of all aesthetic guidelines, to the level of arbiter and judge, a position once held solely by certain critics. The only more or less generalized gauge for works of art today has nothing to do with art; it is imposed by a market controlled and manipulated by gallery cartels and dealers. Rather than reflecting tastes and aesthetic sensibilities, it revolves around publicity and public-relations campaigns and, in many cases, simple scams.
About a month ago, I attended the Venice Biennale for the fourth time in my life. (It will be the last.) I was there for a few hours, I think, and as I left I realized I would not welcome into my house a single one of all the paintings, sculptures and objects I had seen in the twenty or so pavilions I had visited. The spectacle was as boring, farcical and bleak as the show at the Royal Academy but one hundred times bigger, with dozens of countries represented in the pathetic display. Under the guise of modernity, the experiment - the search for 'new means of expression' - in reality documented the terrible dearth of ideas, artistic culture, dexterous craftsmanship and authenticity and integrity that marks a good portion of the artistic work of our times. There are exceptions, of course. But it is extremely difficult to locate them, because, contrary to the way things happen in the field of literature - where the aesthetic codes that permit the identification of originality, novelty, talent and mastery, or crudity and fraud, have not yet collapsed completely and where publishing houses still exist (for how much longer?) that maintain coherent and exacting standards - in the case of painting the system is rotten to the core. Often the most talented artists have no way of reaching an audience, whether because they refuse to be corrupted or because they are simply no good at doing battle in the dishonest jungle where artistic successes and failures are decided.
A few blocks from the Royal Academy, at Trafalgar Square, in the modern wing of the National Gallery, there is a small exhibition that should be obligatory viewing for every young person today who aspires to paint, sculpt, compose, write or make films. It is called Seurat and the Bathers, and it is devoted to the painting Bathers at Asnières, one of the artist's two most famous pieces (the other is Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte), painted between 1883 and 1884. Although he worked on this extraordinary canvas for two years, over the course of which (as one realizes at the show) he made innumerable sketches and studies of the details and entirety of the painting, the exhibition reveals that the whole of Seurat's life was a slow, stubborn, tireless and fanatic preparation to reach the formal perfection he achieved in his two masterworks.
In Bathers at Asnières, that perfection astonishes and, in a way, overwhelms us: the repose of the figures sunning themselves, bathing in the river, or contemplating the scenery, beneath a midday sun that seems to dissolve the distant bridge, the locomotive crossing it, and the chimneys of Passy into the dazzle of a mirage. This tranquillity, this balance and this secret harmony between man and water, cloud and sailboat, costume and oars, are certainly manifestations of a total command of the medium, the sureness of line, and the use of colour, all achieved by dint of effort; but they also represent an elevated and noble conception of the art of painting as a means of spiritual fulfilment and a source of pleasure in and of itself, in which painting is understood as its own best reward, a métier in the practice of which one finds meaning and joy. When he finished this painting, Seurat was barely twenty-four, the average age, in other words, of those strident young Sensation artists at the Royal Academy; he lived only six more years. His tiny oeuvre is one of the artistic beacons of the nineteenth century. The admiration it arouses in us derives from more than technical skill and meticulous craftsmanship. Beyond all that, and somehow supporting and fostering it, is an attitude, an ethic, a manner of surrendering oneself to the service of an ideal, which a creator must embrace in order to transcend and extend the limits of a tradition, as Seurat did. This way of 'choosing to be an artist' seems lost for ever to today's impatient and cynical youth, who dream of seizing glory any way they can, even if to reach it they must climb a mountain of pachydermatous shit.
Copyright © 2012 by Mario Vargas Llosa
Translation copyright © 2015 by John King