Often - mostly unconsciously - I'll model my identity of myself on some image that I've been pitched to by an advertisement. When I'm trying on clothes in a store, I will bring forth that image that I've seen in an ad and mentally insert myself and my image into it. It's all fantasy. I would say that an enormous part of my identity has been adopted from advertising. I very much live in this culture; how could I possibly ignore such powerful forces? Is it ideal? Probably not. Would I like not to be so swayed by the forces of advertising and consumerism? Of course, but I would be kidding myself if I didn't admit that this was a huge part of who I am as a member of this culture.
The paragraph above, and the picture that goes with it, together constitute a recent Facebook update by Kenneth Goldsmith. Like much of what he does, it is interesting and a little troubling (at least to me). He’s right, of course, about advertising influencing who we wish to be: that is, after all, the goal of the whole industry. But we knew that. What makes it interesting is the deliberate acquiescence, the acceptance, with a bit of a shrug and perhaps a bit of an eye-roll, of the power advertising has over our values and, indeed, our identities. It’s unusual for a poet or artist to simply embrace these values: in fact, advertising-based mass culture and the modern idea of high culture come into being at the same time, in the late nineteenth century, and there’s a powerful sense in which the latter doesn’t make sense except in relation to the former. The aesthetes and decadents turned their back on commercial culture, hoping to carve out a little space for something not linked to getting and spending. The modernists, even when at their most apolitical, asserted values other than those of advertising—from James Joyce’s hyper-crafted and hopelessly uncommercial Ulysses to Robert Smithson’s virtually uncommodifiable Spiral Jetty, we see the realm of the aesthetic set up against the values of the marketplace. So when Goldsmith describes his interpolation into the world of commercial values, he’s going against a whole established tradition in the arts (and, like a true Conceptualist, taking the history of the arts as his medium).
Of course the closing of the distance between the fine or high or non-commercial arts and the world of popular culture is old hat: it’s one of the main moves of Ye Olde Postmodernism, with its embrace of everything from Donald Duck to the Campbell’s soup can. But in much of Postmodernism there’s a kind of distancing from the world of commerce, even a kind of parody of it: Andy Warhol’s Factory as a site of cultural production was, even in its name, a kind of parody of commercial culture, and the star system he willed into being for his friends was a kind of echoing of the commercial culture, with all of the uncanniness we expect from an echo. Is there, one wonders, any real critical or parodic take in Goldsmith’s approach to the values of advertising? If not, is there a value—honesty, maybe—to his acceptance of those values even while he while regrets that acceptance?
One also wonders where Goldsmith finds his minimal resistance, his wish that he wasn’t so swayed by the values of consumerism? In the past, resistance to commercial culture has come from many sources, not all of them healthy. Folkloric culture gave Yeats a point from which to be critical of commercial culture, for example, but it shaded off into aristocratic snobbery. T.S. Eliot found in his version of Christianity an antidote to modern commerce, but we all know the ugly side of that equation.
The broader question, perhaps, is what remains possible as a source of ballast or resistance to he values perpetuated by advertising. I don’t know, but I sense that the problem may be particularly acute in America—in fact, I’m reminded of something Martin Amis once said in a little bookstore in Chicago, something about how corrosive modern advertising was, and how he tried to imagine what it would do to people who, unlike him, hadn’t spent four years in a medieval university reading Milton. “Imagine,” he’d said, perhaps forgetting where he was, “what it does to Americans!”