Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Imagine What It Does to Americans!": Kenneth Goldsmith and Advertising

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!”

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:54 PM

    This is a most revealing and articulate profile on Kenny G's (an artist I have admired as he has progressed) adopted position concerning his own profile in the mass media. I am in agreement with much of the observations of the author (assuming there is such a thing as "author"). KG is truly extraordinarily acute in his understanding of the philosophical/esthetic niche we currently inhabit with regard to critical theory and its use as an underpinning for the recognized products of contemporary (albeit employ "excuse" ephemeral for those who play that game). But this piece really nails down the misuse of ambiguity that artists can, with some clever "postmodern" citations use to have it BOTH ways. In the end this is nothing more than a linguistic dodge to pave the way to a personal lucrative success while feigning to take a position that can be defended against actually "taking a position." In the end, you are either an artist who has an integrity which is definitive - at least roughly - or you are with those who game the system with smoke-and-mirrors evasion - like the politicians who serve Themselves ( and their knowing, paying supporters) rather than their over-whelmed, deluded "fan base" who are too easily fooled by the latest in media swell, Orwellian "double-speak". For the record, I have confidence that Kenny G. is an extraordinary artist who has been temporarily blinded by the attention payed. I wish him the kind of revelation that directs his attention to the MASS of people who need illumination rather than those small percentage who comprise the ILLUMINATI.

    Sincerely, Anon.