Eye Candy

Wasn’t it Barnett Newman, who famously remarked that, ‘…aesthetics is for the artist, as ornithology is for the birds.’

Today it goes without saying that nothing in art goes without saying, much less without thinking. Everything about art has become problematical: its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist.

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London, Boston, Melbourne, and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 1.

Such was the nature of the post-modern mise en scène and its attendant alienation from any guiding traditions that the much vaunted loss of centre and the devaluation of dominant historical narratives and social paradigms, disguised the immanent recuperation of corporatism and commodity capitalism under the Regan/Thatcher monetarist axis. Thatcher’s famous remark  ‘…there’s no such things as society just a collection of individuals…’ marked the darkest moment in the de-politicisation of the democratic mass and the construction of a multiplicity of factional Diaspora.

By the back door whilst aesthetes and other intellectuals were fiddling for the rent, a new structure of unbridled capitalism was being erected. Post-Fordism, ostensibly a return to economic laissez-faire[1], turned out to be more like laissez-aller[2], particularly in the realm of commodity marketing. This structural shift in the nature of capitalism witnessed a parallel shift in the way companies produce profit; a shift away from manufacturing commodities for sale to the marketing of images of those commodities invoking distinct lifestyle values. This shift was innocuously termed branding by marketing theorists in the mid eighties and marked a seminal move away from the exchange of goods to the more cerebral context of the exchange of ideas.

 It is a commonplace, certainly amongst that group of fine artists of my acquaintance, that fine art ideas have become the primary target of a voracious plagiarism from the advertising industry. To add to this sour irony, it is clear that advertising, rather than fine art itself, dominates the visual panorama of popular culture and with it the political landscape of visual culture as a whole. The wilful marginalization of fine art, certainly at the extreme limits of its production, gives no support to its fading impact on popular consciousness, leaving it wide open to extraneous pilfering. Even Conceptualism, the most arcane of fine art practices and in many ways the most resistant to commercial recuperation has finally fallen victim. It was perhaps the last position from which a critical agenda could be struck. A position, which, by refusing the terms of commodity engagement, remained at least alternative and beyond the repressive cycle of production for sale. However, sometime in the mid-Eighties, even this apparently unassailable position was finally breached.

Branding is a kind of conceptual marketing, which shifts its emphasis from the production of goods for sale to the preparation of conditions of seductive persuasion; a shift, which had as its goal, a massive increase in profits from the sale of goods through conditions of brand empathy. Constructing brand values is now the primary goal of marketing consultants and their advertising confederates; a task, which not only resembles conceptual art practice but actively loots it for tactical advantage.

There is no art without the commodity and no commodity without, if not art, then some beguiling affect which once had alternative and more spiritual ends. The post-modern condition, such as it is, has been characterised primarily by revisionism and a dissimulation of the political struggle. Who cares if art is commodity and commodity is art? We can all remember, very well, the salacious impact of the Goldsmiths horny commercialism. But was it good for art, or did it, if fact, murder it in the back yard of the Saachi Gallery?

Who’s afraid of a little eye candy? Well the corollary of decoration for the Modernists was perhaps an ethical issue but for fine art, at this vertiginous moment in its aporia[3], its reappearance marks a disappearance; decoration obscures, indeed completely removes any critical politics.

 If there is anywhere to go now, then it must be after the commodity. A world of useless objects is in dire need of explanation and elaboration and, dare one say, criticism. Perhaps the logic of disaffection, which has made art into counter trade, will turn full circle?

 The collection of artists gathered for the exhibition ‘Candy. Who’s afraid of a little eye candy?’ is remarkable much less for their individual contributions to an understanding of the contemporary commodity than for the fact that they have been assembled in one place. One feels that this might be the start of something.

Nine artists from Europe! The show might be re-titled ‘The euro-nine go ape for products’.

Did you ever see the lounge of the space station in Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Odyssey (1968) and cut it with the interior of the orbital space ship in Tarkovsy’s[4] (1971) remake Solaris? Only three short years separated the making of these two seminal movies but the view of this structural aspect of the sci-fi genre altered dramatically. An assumed perfection of the commodity in time, the crux of western capitalism’s dream of a benevolent and provident future under the yolk of that mythical troika positivism, futurism and progressivism, suffered an ontological blow, albeit short lived. Kubrick killed techno futurism and its sheik surface gloss by making Hal malfunction. Tarkovski revealed the absent spiritual centre of a world hypercommodified having the extra-terrestrial love object indestructible whilst everything material was in decay.

 This is Merritt Oppenheim à Gogo[5], her muff[6]cup writ large. Every commodity has another story to trade, a secret life, a story concerning the reification of the fetishised object as commodity.


[1] laissez-faire /n.

the theory or practice of governmental abstention from interference in the workings of the market etc.

[French, = let act]

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, ninth edition.

 [2] laissez-aller / n.

unconstrained freedom; an absence of constraint.

[French, = let go]

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, ninth edition.

[3] aporia / n.

1 Rhet. an expression of doubt.

2 a doubtful matter; a perplexing difficulty.

[Late Latin from Greek, from aporos ‘impassable’ (as a-1 + poros ‘passage’)]

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, ninth edition.

[4] Tar·kov·sky, Andrey Arsenyevich \tär-‘kof-ske\. 1932-1986. Soviet film director and writer. Film director with Mosfilm Studios, Moscow (1960 ff.). Films included Ivan’ s Childhood (1962),  Andrei Rublev (1969), Solaris (1971),  The Stalker (1980),  The Sacrifice (1986).

Webster’s Biographical Dictionary 1966.

[5] a-go-go 1a-go-go \ä-‘go-(,)go, e-\ n [Whisky à Gogo, café and discotheque in Paris, France, from F à gogo galore, fr. MF] (1965) : a nightclub for dancing to pop music : DISCO 2a-go-go adj (1965)

1: GO-GO 1

2: being in a whirl of motion

3: being up-to-date _ often used postpositively

Webster’s English Dictionary, 1996.

 [6] The pubic hair, which indirectly inspires many ‘animal’ euphemisms for the female genitals, provides a synonym for the female genitals itself in muff (a 17th century coinage), whose starting point as a metaphor is a resemblance between female pubic hair and a fur muff (a muff-diver is someone who practices cunnilingus)

Euphemisms, John Ayto, published by Bloomsbury, London 1993; p.135

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