Art and Value

(Note the following post is a based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Hopefully you will find it interesting.)

On what basis do we ascribe value to art? What makes a Rembrandt inherently more valuable than a seven year-old’s crayon sketch? In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin argues that, “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (Benjamin 224). Since art’s original function was ritual, its primary value must be based on this concept of pointing to something greater, outside of us. To have ritual value, the piece of art’s context and authenticity must be considered. Benjamin uses the examples of the cults of magic, religion, and beauty to expound upon this idea of art for the purpose of ritual.

Benjamin then explains that art is accepted and valued on a scale, with exhibition value at one extreme and cult or ritual value at the other (Benjamin 224). The exhibition value of art becomes apparent when artists create cultural artifacts for the primary purpose of being seen by others. Cult objects, on the other hand, were created with their main function being “their existence, not their being in view” (Benjamin 224). Cultures create art like this without man as the primary audience. Whether it exists mainly for the gods, the spirits, or oneself, cult art is not meant to be displayed and be seen by others.

In the birth of the digital culture we see a shift in the basis of art and cultural artifacts. Benjamin contends that in the photographic image, “the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value” (Benjamin 226). This movement is based primarily in our newfound ability to technically reproduce art, which has inadvertently caused our culture to value exhibition and accessibility over the higher, cult value of art. In the past we devalued art by transporting it out of its original context, but now we are further able to diminish the value of art by completely belittling its authenticity. We begin to create art that not only can be reproduced, but with the intent of its reproduction. However, this shift in value comes at a cost. As we singularly emphasize the exhibition value of art, there begins a “qualitative transformation of its nature,” to the point where it exhibits “entirely new functions,” and the artistic functions becomes primarily incidental (Benjamin 225). The purpose of art becomes reaching the broadest possible audience to the point where we completely lose sight of the ritualistic element and authenticity of art. When we see replications of statues of divinities we quickly admire their aesthetic appeal but forget the original purpose of the original statue.

As we, as a culture, shift from a focus on cult value to exhibition value, one new value has become apparent: self-promotion. In selfies, Instagram, and social networking it is clear that members of our culture attempt to use digital images to sell themselves. Whether it be for the purpose of getting a job or just the desire to be well-liked, we love to use pictures and videos to try to make ourselves look as good as we can. Self-promotion is definitely deeply interwoven into our individualistic, American “fabric of tradition,” where we pride ourselves on working hard and bettering our lives (Benjamin 223). This is the land of opportunity where you can be what ever you want to be if you just put your mind to it. As a result of this belief, art has moved away from its original ritual purpose and become a means of enhancing our appeal in the eyes of others.

 

For further reading check out Benjamin’s book.

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Bauby and Existential Questioning

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. I sincerely hope that you will find it thought provoking.)

At some point or another we all ask “why me?” Inevitably, circumstances emerge, often in the form of physical ailments, which do not seem fair. We, as humans, tend to consider ourselves undeserving of the terrible conditions, which we frequently face. As illness looms and robs us of our good health, we can have the tendency to feel cheated and bitter as we compare our current state of sickness with our former state of wellbeing. Implicit but often unstated in this line of thinking is the fact that when we think or talk about health in terms of it being something that we deserve, we are implying that it is our right. This leads us to the question “is good health actually a right or should it be considered a gift? Jean-Dominique Bauby in his book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly wrestles intensely with this question as he remembers his past and is initially resentful and distressed about losing his health. As his life continues, however, he gradually comes to accept his condition, appreciate his past, and feel grateful about his current abilities.

It is understandable that, upon waking from a coma and realizing that he can move none of his muscles but his left eyelid, Bauby would be at least a little bit distressed. And as he comes to a fuller realization of his condition and its far-reaching implications, this frustration and despair becomes even more apparent. During an interaction with his son, these emotions seem to overwhelm Bauby, as he wordlessly proclaims, “Grief surges over me. His face not two feet from mine, my son Théophile sits patiently waiting—and I, his father, have lost the simple right to ruffle his bristly hair, clasp his downy neck, hug his small, lithe, warm body tight against me” (Bauby 71). Embedded in this statement is the assumption that things are not as they should be. Fathers should be able to show affection to their sons and his sense of happiness is obliterated by the fact that he once was able to physically interact with his son and is now unable. Bauby does not ask for a lot and the realization that this small but significant pleasure has been taken from him plunges his spirit into a state of anguish. Another gratification that eludes him is the ability to bathe. The embarrassment of having to be bathed, as an adult, is exponentially surpassed by the bitterness that comes from knowing the joy that he used to experience bathing himself. Bauby describes his thinking, “The delectable moment when I sink into the tub is quickly followed by nostalgia for the protracted immersions that were the joy of my previous life. […] Rarely do I feel my condition so cruelly as when I am recalling such pleasures” (Bauby 17). To Bauby inability is difficult but remembering life without these impairments makes life even more arduous.

Bauby does not remain in this condition of despair for long. Although it is unclear whether this transition is linear or cyclical, it is apparent that gradually Bauby moves on. At one point he quite starkly but unresentfully states the permanence of his condition and the reality that there is no hope for change, “I have indeed begun a new life, and that life is here, in this bed, that wheelchair, and those corridors. Nowhere else” (Bauby 129). The general tone of this statement and the fact that he talks about a new life expresses a state of acceptance. He is no longer bitter but rather desires to make the best out of his current condition. He expounds upon these thoughts, “I am savoring this last week of August with a heart that is almost light, because for the first time in a long while I don’t have that awful sense of countdown—the feeling triggered at the beginning of a vacation that inevitably spoils the good part of it” (Bauby 130). The removal of the pressure to get better and the acceptance of his condition allows Bauby to actually enjoy the life that he has.

This acceptance gives Bauby a different lens through which to see his past and current experiences. He now considers all of his abilities to be gifts which he should be grateful for. Rather than feel bitter or cheated when considering his past, Bauby thinks about how he used to live and marvels “I mechanically carried out all those simple acts that today seem miraculous to me: shaving, dressing, downing a hot chocolate” (Bauby 120). This change of mindset also impacts the way Bauby considers his current situation. Bauby writes, “This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing” (Bauby 97). This change in mindset allows Bauby to appreciate both the past and the present and to have a thankful, not bitter, frame of mind.

There are many lessons that can be gleaned from the way Bauby lived the final period of his life. He was forced to deal with the reality that illness does not discriminate based on virtue, and, regardless of the deservedness of sickness, we are responsible for how we react to the situations that we face. Bauby seems to realize that every second of life is a precious gift and as he overcomes the initial despair and resentment of his condition, he is able to enjoy the simple and few pleasures of his remaining time on earth.

 

For further reading, check out Bauby’s book.

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I hope you enjoyed this post and I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email with your perspective on these issues. Thanks for reading!

The History of Advertising in America

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I hope you will find it interesting and thought provoking.)

A study of the field of advertising can be quite revealing since advertisements attempt to sell products to consumers and consequently require an understanding of consumers to do so. Therefore, the nature of advertisements in a culture speaks to the nature of the people in that culture. The history of advertising in America is quite eye opening and can be seen as “a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment” (Postman 58).

Advertisements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had a fundamental difference from current ads. These older advertisements “assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical” (Postman 58). They correctly presupposed that buyers, in this time period, were concerned primarily with knowing the merits and potential defects of the product. Since these buyers were serious and analytical, advertisements, in this age, were crafted in a way to appeal to this brand of buyers. These older advertisements were written in “single-column space” (Postman 58) and had the primary purpose of “convey[ing] information and [making] claims in propositional form” (Postman 59). This typographical form of advertising had merit because it employed language as its foundation. Although “words cannot guarantee their truth content,” they do, however, “assemble a context in which the question, Is this true or false? is relevant” (Postman 60). In the 1890’s the foundation of advertising began to progress as slogans, jingles, and photographs began to appear in advertisements. Appealing to the desires of consumers, these advertisements became primarily focused on displaying an entertaining and pleasant experience. So, Postman explains, “by the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their potential customers” (Postman 60).

This evolution of the basis of advertisements continued and escalated as the television became more prominent. Television commercials for products and politicians have become a normal part of life in America. These commercials do not assume rationality on the part of consumers, and do not try to make truths claims. Substituting “images for claims,” these commercials are basically dramas that appeal to the emotions and desires of consumers (Postman 128). Since no assertions are made, “one can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it” (Postman 128). It seems like commercials try to avoid concentrating too much on their products. Many commercials may be ambivalent towards the product or brand being used until the very end of the production. Because, after all, commercials are not about the product being displayed but, rather, they are about the “character of the consumers of [their] products” (Postman 128). Instead of focusing on the greatness of their products, commercials focus on the greatness of the experience of individuals who have bought into these products. Postman states that commercials “provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling images of themselves” (Postman 135). They say that if we buy a certain car, we will possess irresistible appeal to the other sex, rather than focusing on the attributes of the actual vehicle. They tell us that if we buy a certain brand of beer, we will have incredible parties all football season long, rather than concentrating too much on the actual flavor or merits of the drink. Having little basis in rationality, commercials must be brief. The commercial “disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument” (Postman 131). Therefore, they cater to the short attention spans and instant gratification mindsets of current consumers by providing immediate solutions to all our problems.

Online advertisements and commercials possess many similarities to television commercials. Employing the same brevity and emotional appeals, these forms of advertising may often be the exact same ones that we find on TV. However, online advertisements suffer from not being able to command our attention in the same way that television commercials do. Commercials can often be annoying so we, as media users, often count the cost of sitting through a certain amount of advertising. And while we often deem this process worthwhile for the sake of whatever television program we are engaged in, I believe online users have a smaller tolerance for commercials than television viewers do. Therefore, online advertisements have to go to extra efforts to remain relevant. One way that they accomplish this task is through using algorithms to determine what types of products consumers are interested in. Many of the ads that you see on Facebook and other Internet sites are assembled using research of your past Internet searches. In order to stay significant, these advertisements have to focus on the desires of the individual online user.

Advertisements are about selling a product, appealing to buyers, and ultimately making a profit. Older forms of advertising accommodated analytical consumers, television commercials cater to entertainment-seeking buyers, and online advertisements appeal to individual wants. So no matter the make up of the consumer base, you can be sure that marketing experts will continue to research the specific factors that appeal to consumers and try to play off of those factors.

 

For further reading, check out Postman’s book.

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The Evolution and Biases of Communication

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I think, based on the current cultural climate, it is quite relevant and I hope that you will come to the same conclusion.)

Each form of communication faces natural constraints to the types of content it is able to articulate. Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death uses this idea as part of the framework for his entire argument. Postman believes that the television has a place as a form of entertainment, but when it moves beyond amusement, it is ineffective. Talking about biases of form, Postman argues that “ventriloquism, dancing, and mime do not play well on radio, just as sustained, complex talk does not play well on television” (Postman 92).

As the means of discourse in our culture have evolved, each new technology exhibits biases of previous technologies. After all, no technology is created in a vacuum, but rather, new technology exists as an evolution of previous discoveries. Expanding on this idea of how technology evolves, Postman states, “each of the media that entered the electronic conversation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries followed the lead of the telegraph and the photograph, and amplified their biases” (Postman 77). Whether this amplification occurs based on the inherent nature of the new technology or the epistemological mindset of new users, it is clear that our current media environment is strongly grounded in the background created by the telegraph and photograph.

Although our current digital media atmosphere is more nuanced and complex than the environment of 1985, the Internet and our other forms of digital media still exhibit many of the same constraints as the television. Many of these constraints were introduced by the telegraph, which “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse” (Postman 65). The telegraph focused primarily on bridging distance and increasing the speed and accessibility of information. But in doing so it “made relevance irrelevant” (Postman 67), by providing consumers with more information than they needed or could possibly use. These types of conversations lacked context and “made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning” (Postman 65). Information in our current digital age is very similar to information communicated by the telegraph. We so value accessibility and speed of communication that we send and receive information with almost no context. Think about how easily and frequently we send texts or tweets without enough background information and have to go back and explain ourselves. Even the limitations imposed on our character usage by these mediums show that we care more about communicating quickly and briefly than thoroughly and thoughtfully. This prioritization of quick communication hurts serious discourse by trading speed for context. Inability for serious discourse is perpetuated by our heightened accessibility to information via the Internet, which allows us to know anything that we want, regardless of its importance and relevance. We may know a lot about trivial things from YouTube or Tumblr but these pieces of knowledge probably will not help us carry on serious conversations.

The visual basis created by the photograph also contributes to constrain current digital media. Postman states, “the photograph presents the world as object; language, the world as idea” (Postman 72). Because of the photograph’s seeming objectivity, it leaves no room for imagination and hinders discussion. After all a photograph “offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (Postman 73). Although language must occur in sequence and in context to make sense, “there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one” (Postman 73). Every medium with a screen has a leaning towards communication via pictures. Although we incorporate words into our digital media use, pictures are the foremost purpose and tool of the digital medium. And pictures, which are often deceptive, can obstruct public discourse. Because pictures seem objective but only deal with particulars, we have a tendency to be fooled by images. When we see an Instagram post of a friend at a party or a picture on the news of a sinister looking person, we make all sorts of assumptions about these people and their lives. In reality these pictures are brief, possibly manipulated slices of reality, which cannot communicate the vast extent of truth that they promise to share.

Because of the evolution of technology, we live in a visually based world of media where accessibility and speed of communication have trumped context and relevance, and have impeded serious, logical discussion.

 

For further reading, check out Postman’s book.

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If this post piqued your interest or seems way out of line, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. As always, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading!

Clichés, Stereotypes, and Sameness

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I hope it will be of relevance and interest to you.)

In “Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Adorno and Horkheimer base their discussion of the culture industry on the fact that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness” (Adorno and Horkheimer 94). The need to classify what we consume has all but disappeared since all the media before us occurs “cyclically” and “the details [have] become interchangeable” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Since all media put out by the culture industry is fundamentally the same, “the appearance of competition and choice” is deception (Adorno and Horkheimer 97). As consumers, even this pretense of choice and classification is meaningless since the culture industry has thoroughly classified everything for us (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Whether sameness displays itself through patterns of form or through the transposable nature of the details, the products of the culture industry are fundamentally the same.

Clichés are an artifact of the culture industry that demonstrate this sameness. While clichés could probably be defined more broadly, I understand them to be interchangeable phrases that the majority of the public will understand and appreciate in a given situation because of their constant use. When Adorno and Horkheimer discuss clichés, they talk about them in the context of the film industry where these “ready-made clichés” can be “used here and there as desired and always [be] completely defined by the purpose they serve within the schema” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). These phrases perpetuate sameness because they have been clearly defined through repetition, and, regardless of the situation, these clichés always mean the same thing. When someone uses the phrase “in the nick of time,” you do not stop and say, “That’s an odd phrase I wonder what it means?” Rather, although the specific vocabulary is peculiar and does not really make sense, you understand it’s meaning, regardless of the context, because you have heard it so many times.

Stereotypes also prolong sameness but in a more multifaceted manner than mere phrases. Although this definition is far from exhaustive, I understand a stereotype to be a common understanding of what something is like or how it should operate without being critically analyzed. Adorno and Horkheimer make a somewhat startling claim when they say, “the bread on which the culture industry feeds humanity, remains the stone of stereotype” (Adorno and Horkheimer 119). When understood within the context of their argument about the culture industry’s goal of sameness, this statement is enlightening. The culture industry bases the achievement of their goals on the cyclical nature and immutability of these stereotypes. Memes would definitely fit this category of stereotypes because the picture dictates the way that we understand the words without much need for analysis. When we notice memes of Dwight Schrute or the Most Interesting Man in the World, we can immediately predict the tone of the meme and then merely insert the specific words into that context to understand them. Beyond memes, we also see these patterns and repetitions through stereotypical characters in movies and stereotypical melodies in popular music, which can be understood and appreciated without an analytical or questioning mindset. Adorno and Horkheimer state that “in a film, the outcome can invariably be predicted at the start” and “in light music the prepared ear can always guess the continuation after the first bars of a hit song and is gratified when it actually occurs” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98-99). The culture industry is able to get away this repetition of form and detail because we not only tolerate it, but we welcome it.

The culture industry is able to continue injecting production with sameness because sameness sells. Pop music melodies and chord progressions are recycled because they have been proven to generate revenue. For the culture industry it is dangerous and unprofitable to break these patterns. Where greatness and innovation push boundaries and distrust style, the culture industry has promoted a “withering of imagination and spontaneity” through the closely monitored creation and promotion of patterns of sameness (Adorno and Horkheimer 100). Although we may hope for innovation and originality, we help prolong these cycles by buying into them. We may complain about the predictability of movie plots, but we still see the movies and support the industry. Maybe deep down we enjoy the stability and sense of control that we achieve through predicting the outcomes of songs and movies that, in essence, we’ve seen or heard many times before?

 

For further reading, check out Adorno and Horkheimer’s book.

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Hopefully you found this post to be interesting. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. Please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. Thanks for reading!