Theory Papers..


Marx struggles with the two forms of what art represents, on one hand he thinks it represents “the paradigm of free creation” and on the other that art is a symptom of social structure. By paradigm of free creation Marx means that he sees art as an example of how labor can exist non alienated from itself. Marx general critique and view of capitalism is that capitalist control of production alienates workers from their work, so art can represent a true expression of self ownership of labor. On the other hand he views art “as part of the ideological superstructure of society and therefore as ultimately dependent on wider social relations of a given epoch”(341) By this interpretation art is merely representations of capitalist structures, whereby man is alienated from his labor.

Marx goes on to explain that all art is reflective of the social structures of its time. Greek mythology heavily influenced the art of the greek artists. Whether it be conscious or unconscious, culture influences artists view of the world and hence their art. Social structures have developed so much today due to technological advances that recreation of such art is impossible. Marx cites stories of the gods, and a social construct of undeveloped society, as the main influence of greek art. But how can such stories exist in todays world when feats of the gods are achieved by mere mortals on a daily basis. Marx points out that epochs like the Iliad and the Odyssey can not exist today with the creation of the printing press(343). While we can never recreate these arts we can still appreciate their significance.

The article also speaks about Marx’s interpretation of the Collective vs the Individual. The bourgeois (the wealthy class) are trying to say that the individual has always been around and that man is naturally a self interested being. Marx argues that the idea of the individual is “historical and contingent”(341) not “natural and necessary” (341) If we look back in our past humans have first formed families then formed clans and lastly formed societies. Capitalist try to rewrite history as a predestined pathway towards individualism, but in reality our current state of social structure is merely a result of the historical pathway we have found ourselves at today (ie:historical materialism) Thus leading us to the concepts of the base and superstructure. The base represents “the relations of production” which is the economic relations that underly society. From the base comes the superstructure encompassing “culture, institution, political structures and state” Marx feels that the superstructures will internally destroy the base superstructure relation and in its place a new base superstructure relation will develop. The new base will consist of labor becoming un-alienated from itself. An example of how capitalist vs marxist view the correct relations of production is as follows. To a capitalist a coat and a shoe are merely linen and the cost to make the shoe, the price of the shoe is expressed in how the shoe is valued in relation to other commodities. To Marx however the shoe is representative of an abstract value that can not be determined by capital, the shoes value lies In the creativeness and the mind of the labor that went into the production. If we extrapolate the capitalist argument, a field of red separated by lines of color would be equivalent to the cost of its labor and material, yet Barnett Newman’s paintings are much more then just paint on linen.

Walter Benjamen talks about the effects that mechanical reproduction has on the value of art. Technology has freed works of art from their “ritual” and in doing so there “aura”. The ritual is “the location of its original use value”. The aura is the sense of significance one feels while viewing a piece of art. Reproduction destroys the aura of art. However Benjamen does not view this as necessarily a bad thing. Art in its original form, and ritual, is restricted in its ability to reach a large audience. The first forms of reproduction such as photography “are able to put art in situations the original would not be able to” Painted works of art evolved first through being viewed by the individual and then to being viewed by the masses (ie: frescos on churches) other examples of art that were not able to be reproduced such as the “epic” poem, and therefore could not appeal to the masses, have ceased to exist while architecture which targets a greater audience has never been idol according to Benjamin. Mechanical reproduction has reached its most modern form in the production of film. Benjamin claims that film allows for the most thorough imitation of reality. Through different camera angles and the use of background a cameraman can express a much more thorough representation of reality then a painter ever could. Film is also a means to demonstrate the ideology of a time. Ideologies being the morals and values that an entire society shares. Through images the photographer can project ideological views through such things as propaganda. Film also is capable of being seen everywhere and in some cases used to control a population, through such things as mug shots and surveillance.

Now that art via movies has developed a new value of exhibition it has an ability to politicize art, that is that it has the ability to express to a large audience social ideas. However it also has the ability to aestheticize politics. That is that it can be used to beautify politics which ultimately leads to war. His reasoning being that aestheticizing politics is a tool of fascist governments. The only tool that fascist have to preserve property is war. By aestheticizing politics and thus war fascist give an illusory sense of collective rights to the people. Through politicizing art which is what Benjamin claims communist are attempting, people will realize that they have a right to change property relations. Communism needs to appeal to a collective in order to overturn property relations, therefor film and other mechanically reproduced art forms provide the necessary platform for a change in social structures.


Language is a mode of representation giving significance to ideologies society tries to create, Althusser is a theorist who believes that everyones identity is dependent on these “ideological constructs”, Meaning we are created from the very society in which abuses us and therefore we have lost our ability to be autonomous individuals. The Situationist international was a group that sought to find ways to break away from this alienated modern society in which the autonomous individual was lost. Guy Debord a leading situationist felt that advertising was a way to give the audience a fake reality and mask the actual horrors of capitalistic society.

Advertisements were thought of as signs to the theorist Jean Baudrillard. These signs were creating an extinct reality and replacing it with a “hyperreality” where signs were not related to what they were trying to represent, instead were just a fake simulation of reality that the creator sought to implant in the viewer. “This hyperreality is a perfect imitation of reality, much as Disneyland aspires to be a totally enclosed universe of its own, created through the manipulation of signs.”1 The viewer when searching for knowledge was now only left with a delusion of reality that was created through the capitalist society. The aura of society was lost.The disappearance of reality has led to compensation through simulation. Simulation is achieved through such things as nostalgia and myth. Myth can be best observed or defined through the studies of Structuralist.

Structuralist believe that Language exists in order, dependent on its underlying structures. Two of the most influential structuralist included Pierce and Saussere, both whom sought to define the underlying codes that define our experiences. In order to define everyones experiences we must first understand the symbols in which underly them through the use of semiotics. Semiotics is simply the study of signs Every time we decipher the images around us we are using the code system or semiotics, such as understanding the significance of a smile(perspectives book). Peirce divided structuralism into three ideas that help to comprehend the sign systems; iconic signs, indexes and true symbols. These three ideas are based on the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the actual thing that signifies(such as words on a page) while the signified is the idea that the signifier refers to, in other words the meaning. Iconic signs are such things as pictures (restroom figures for male and female) where the signified is resembled by the signifier. Indexes are when the signifier is an indicator of the presence of the signified, such as fire and smoke. True symbols is when the signifier and signified relationship is arbitrary and accustomed, such as words having the same meaning but being spelt and said differently depending on the culture. “meaning changes according to context and to the rules of language”(Sturken,28) These ideas of the signifier and signified can be closely related to myths.

In the reading Death of the Author as well as myth today , Barthes draws on the Marxist idea that history makes the individual. Myths are determined by the way they are perceived rather then the aim of its message. Capitalist society defines the meaning of the sign, such as a suit having the meaning of elegance and being appropriate for certain occasions. However the term suit can just as easily be interchanged with pants, but since bourgeois society defined the suit as such it is accepted as truth. The context of signs also helps determine there significance such as with film images. We hold different significance to images we see in newspapers and on the news compared to those seen in movies or books. Films are also important aspects in the ideas of positivism. Postivisim is the idea that knowledge is achieved through data of experience. Much like history makes the individual, Writing or language makes the author. Without the already constructed words their would be no author. The author is a product of society, the book is just a collaboration of signs. It is the reader whom makes the book, the authors intentions are no longer important but more so the effect on the reader or the critique. With the rise of the reader and critique means the death of the author.

Through the use of signified and signifiers, capitalist society constructs the ideologies of its culture. Everything is constructed through signs, and as an active member of society we are left to decipher these signs through semiotics. Everyday we are made to observe the signified signifier relationships and the importance of signs, a prime example being in advertisements. Advertisements are the capitalist societies attempt to shape its viewers behaviors and identities through imagery.

“Avant-garde and Kitsch”

Clemente Greenburg sought to explain the two movements that spawned from modernism, Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Both of which are extraordinarily different yet whose oppositions define each other. Avant-Garde was a gearing away from Alexandrianism, Alexandrianism being a time when art was a mere imitation of the masters, in search of the traditional art and never crossing any controversial boundaries. Kitsch however was an attempt to appeal to the masses of the newly developed universal literacy in which people needed something to turn to, to fill their empty void.

Avant-Garde was a stray away from this tradition into something that would better the future rather then haulting in the present, interested in form and color rather then formulas and ideals. Classical art relied on a sense of illusion, trying to manipulate the canvas and paint into something it wasn’t. Avant-garde however let the mediums and surface be themselves after artists exhausted the use of imitation. The idea of art for art sake emerged, this meant that the artist was only interested in creating the art through form and the medium itself rather then seeking to imitate the world around them. Avant-garde sought to remove any subject matter that would take the emphasis away from the material and form itself seeking to bring the truth of the medium above all else. Typical art was painted for the wealthy of the wealthy, this new idea of abstract however was removing the aristocratic portraits and vivid landscapes that artists were paid to create. Avant-Garde however posed a dilemma, it was born from the very society in which it was trying to detach itself. Avant-Garde art depended on the upper class in order to survive, without their wealth and culture their would be no art.

Abstract art became abstract art because that was the next step in history, history is always changing and with that art as well. Essentially Greenburg believes that each step in art is a fight of art against itself, trying to find the meaning in its form by looking to things outside of itself such as music and literature. According to Greenburg there is such thing as a dominant art form. A dominant art form is a form of art in which all other art follows closely while evacuating their own ideas in order to replicate the dominant art. Music was thought as the truest abstract expression and the dominant art form of the avant-garde mainly because of its “absolute nature, and remoteness from imitation”. Art imitated music in such things as impressionism where the artist used moods and rhythm to create the whole, but this was just one step to achieving pure abstraction in the avant garde. Once the art exhausted the ideas of everything outside itself then it can truly take on its own being.

Kitsche art was a product of the industrial revolution, when universal literacy was established. With universal literacy came about lower class peasants moving to cities due to their new efficiency and loosing touch with their folk culture. With the lose of folk culture the peasants desired something to fill its place, this is where kitsche came into play. Kitsche was meant to relate to the consumer and make money inherently through imitation and reuse of materials, while having some control over its viewer. For Greenburg kitsch was a dumbing down of a society in which its only motive was profit. The viewer lost its ability to be autonomous towards the art that was present in abstract avant-garde and now was only interested in a relief of their mundane life through Kitsche. Kitsche art made it hard to distinguish the values of art due to its lack of meaning and soul purpose being entertainment. Kitsch held its strength in its ability to familiarize itself with the viewer. In the world of Kitsche the meaning behind the abstract work is lost, due to an uneducated viewer. Avant-garde was now confined to a very small viewing audience, that audience being the cultured upper class .

Fried believes that minimalism does not belong in the category of modernist art because it didnt explore the medium of the art and left the viewer in its ordinary distinguishable world. Discussing the confusion of the “object” and the “art” in relation to the artists Donald Judd and Robert Morris. Both Donald Judd and Robert Morris are considered minimalist artists. Fried categorizes these two artists as “literalists” and felt that they went to far into the depths of theatrical art and into the realm of“ideologists” . Both Judd and Morris were more interested in the environment in which the work was displayed more so then the work itself, which could be related to anything in our day to day lives. The confusion of the object and art came into play with the way in which Robert Morris and Judd constructed their artwork. Both Judd and Morris tried to create a three dimensional artwork that would not confine the art, but in doing so created a work through various parts. With the varying parts that these two artists use the work becomes disconnected and each piece becomes its own entity, but these entities can be related to “objecthood” rather then “art”. All the pieces used to construct the finished product achieved nothing because in the end they are all just relatable objects. Modernism was meant to explore the medium and give the viewer a transcendent experience, in which Fried felt minimalism neglects to achieve due to its familiarity of everyday life. However it can be understood why theses artists created minimalist art, it was to create a viewer and object relationship. Fried however felt that the true artists were such artists whom belonged to the avant-garde whom battled with their artwork and its medium trying to distinguish itself away from literalism

“Post Modernism”

Post modernism, a term often questioned as to its meaning and place in time. Both post modernism and modernism are not necessarily “period-specific”, in fact they can both co exist during the same times. Post modernism is primarily a time that we haven’t actually fully lived yet, when society responds to modernity and loses site of the “real” by substituting it with simulation. The world we live in today is a battle of modernism and post modernism containing the thoughts of both. In a fully post modern world the real is substituted with simulation creating a“hyperreality” where signs are not related to what they were trying to represent.. The Post modern world is filled with disillusionment through media, primarily starting in the late stages of capitalism making the viewer question the validity of everything. In a post modern society the aura of society becomes lost because we loose site of the real. With the lose of the real the autonomous individual is non existent. Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum takes over the Post Modern world, the simulacrum being a deceiving image or object.

The idea of simulation of reality can be seen everywhere. One example being Beijing’s World Park, this world park doesn’t actually contain the eiffel tower and pyramids of egypt but instead replicates them to create a fake reality for its viewers. The use of simulacra makes the viewer think that they are actually seeing the “real”. The world we live in is a constant back and forth between the real and the Simulation. Baudrillard believes that we are heading In a direction that dismisses the real altogether in replace for images. The idea of the loss of the real fully though is hard to fathom, due to the humans ability to feel pain, therefore their will always be an existence of both the real and the simulation. This simulation in such things as second world and sims online use technology to generate a world within a world, creating a society that becomes abandoned from what is “real”. Along with the changing technology to stimulate society, capitalism uses these stimulations to implant ideological constructs on its society through media.

Consumerism is one of the main ideas implanted into a post modern society. With such shows as double dare from the 90’s where advertisements were shown every two minutes to persuade the viewer to buy a product. In a post modern world as well as a modern world the idea of consumer fetishism is very prevalent, society feels the need to buy because they are trained to do so. Technology is another changing component of society that feeds into this destructive post modern world,technology is a means to an end. With such things as the cold war, the idea of this new technology of nuclear arms terrified the world, this is a Post modernist view that technology and the future will be destructive when modernism is over. This view of the death of modernism and rise of post modernism is brought out through movies and literature such as the ghost in the machine, 1984 and Brave New world where through technology there is genetic manipulation and an oppressive government. Media never shows the post modern world and advancement of technology with a positive outcome, except possibly Star Trek. Consumerism dumbs you down and technology is destructive in a post modern world.

Post modernism can be described as a time of mobility and a questioning of meta narratives. (meta narratives are ideas that are used to explain society such as religion and science). As society progresses we are always searching for new art forms as well as new ideas in science,math etc. Truth is always being questioned because we begin to realize that there are many answers that can lead to the truth. This search for truth creates for a search for new forms of these meta narratives. As Barthes describes with the death of the author, everything is a copy of what came before there is no more “original”. In the case of the author and book, the book is just a reworking of already established words, the importance is now in the reflexivity of the reader. Imitation and collaboration of many already constructed ideas is seen in post modernism due to a lack of originality. Pastiche or mixing together of various styles from all throughout history is an attempt to find new ideas while blurring progress. Modernism was interested in progression of ideas, drawing upon previous ones to better future ideas. Post Modernism however takes ideas from everywhere not actually being historically contingent and thus losing its definite progress.

Artists like Rauschenberg were thought by Steinberg as depicting a “different order of experience”. In Rauschenberg’s case he tilted the picture plane, which took the painting away from the idea of an illusionistic surface. Rauschenberg’s use of photographs along with paint in his work is an example of post modernism and an exploration of different ways of thinking derived from a collaboration of already existing ideas. Art is switched “from nature to culture”. Art no longer reflects on previous artwork to progress but more so an appropriation of society. Crimp argues that the appropriations of post modern photography create a reflexive viewer in which the viewer Is able to relate the photograph to society or institutions. Such artists as Cindy Sherman demonstrate this idea well, where the viewer can relate to the photograph and understand the meaning behind it.

Relating back to Benjamin from earlier this semester, reproduction creates a lose of aura, in post modernism this aura is completely lost because everything has become a commodity and imitation of something that was there before. With imitation however we are forced to look beyond the surface and become a reflexive viewer relating what we see to our own lives and deciphering truth. Despite being a reflexive viewer however Post Modernism is regarded as the fall of modernism and the rise of consumerism which dumbs you down and the rise of technology, which is destructive. A perfect example of a post modern world is the movie Wall-e where technology got to the point that it created a sickeningly lazy and destructive society feeding on consumerism and advancement of technology as its demise.


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