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The Deconstruction of Art as Fetish
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-12-19 09:40:07
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“Let me begin by describing a certain desirable experience common to the viewing and producing of art objects, which I will call the mystery of the object. This consists in having such objects appear to one as massive, charged, seemingly impenetrable presences, with their own inner workings and unique qualities. They sometimes seem to be almost anthropomorphic presences, alive and percipient like human beings. Viewing them is then a process of searching out and understanding their peculiar logic and structure, and discerning whatever it is that makes them unique…Marx’s conception of the fetishism of commodities was a critical one. He argued that it was a mistake to ascribe to objects their own logic and intelligence, supposed to be independent of human intervention, and to then suppose that the object was therefore subject to laws—the economic laws of the free market—that were beyond the ability of individual human beings to control, when in fact objects of human labor were merely catalysts for human interaction and existed within the context of human social and economic relations. We can apply the same criticism to this conception of art objects. That art objects have their mystery and their power to compel our attention is undeniable, and this is part of why they are important to us. They remind us of who we are and of the capacities for imagination and creativity that we have. But to infer from this that such objects are subject to laws and forces beyond human intervention or control is to make precisely the same mistake Marx rightly deplored. It is to abdicate responsibility for what happens to the object after it is made and for how it is to be understood, and to forget that we, after all, and not the object itself, control the object’s destiny. This then illegitimately licenses us to wring our hands over critical misinterpretations of the object, and unjust terms of exhibition and sale of the object, and—occasionally—even over the inflated pricing of art objects, all the while regarding the unfolding history of the object from the sidelines as though we were a passive theater audience, powerless to intervene in the course of the play.”

                                --Adrian Piper (“Performance and the Fetishism of Art Objects”)

We have seen that the philosopher Arthur Danto, while calling attention to the role of the artworld as conferring artistic status on objects, overall he was not critical of the process. Not so Adrian Piper (b. 1948). She goes further than Danto in her speculation on the artworld via an essay titled “Performance and the Fetishism of Art Objects” in which she critiques how we view art and then argues for a special status to be conferred to performance art. She is interested in a close examination of the mechanisms by which art is produced and viewed.

We have also seen that Walter Benjamin announced the destruction of the aura as a consequence of modern techniques of reproduction, but Piper’s view is somewhat different in as much as she does not share the view that the auratic character of art has been eroded and that indeed the contemporary artworld continues to value artworks exactly because of their uniqueness. It is the aura that Piper deconstructs, so to speak, to show that such a conception of art as auratic mystifies the real nature of the artistic process.

As Piper sees it, much of contemporary art involves the creation of objects which are intended to call attention to their own uniqueness. A urinal in a museum, or a crucifix up-side-down in a jar full of urine, or excrement on a canvas, is sure to attract attention whether or not the viewer is aware of the standard classical definition of art as the contemplation of Beauty. Often those “unique” works of art are utilized by bashers of religious traditions who rationalize it as art and invoke the freedom of art to express themselves as they see it, even when that freedom degenerates into slander and destruction of reputations. Which is to say, that according to Piper, much of contemporary art is self-consciously auratic; some would even suggest that it is narcissistic.

Heidegger, whom we have also previously examined, also points out in his Being and Time that all objects are unique although we often ignore this fact. They are submerged in the routines in which we employ them in order to realize our purposes and projects. So, Piper would suggest that one way to think about art, especially contemporary art, is to pluck their objects from their normal referential frames and ponder their specialness and uniqueness. This process, Piper argues is misguided. “The mystery of the object,” as she calls it, may indeed move us, but we ought to be aware of them not just in their singularity, for after all we do in fact compare works of art and group them and place them in historical social periods and treat them as instances of a kind in order to better understand them. According to Piper, not even a museum display can bring us face to face with the uniqueness of an object of art. To even think that such an immediated access to individuality is possible is to believe with the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars in “the myth of the given,” or the idea that we can gain access to a purely given content, without the interposition of any general conceptual element.

All of the above begs the question: Why does it seem so plausible that the meaning and value of art objects depend on their uniqueness? Piper’s answer is simply: because of their fetishistic character. Just as Marx used the concept of fetishism to explain the nature of the capitalist economy, Piper uses the same concept to argue against the fetishized artworld. Marx argues that the economy although constituted through human activity, something made by man, has the appearance of a realm in which things are in control and not man; things determine their own prices. Marx called this phenomenon the fetishization of the commodity, treating it as if had mystical powers of sort. Similarly, Piper argues, the fetishization of the artworld implies the treating of art objects as if they had a destiny beyond man’s control.

Thus, one of the essential aspects of art criticism, Piper argues, ought to be the exposing of this fetishistic character of art. The critic worth his/her salt ought to focus on the social structures determining the object’s production and exhibition. Which is to say, the criticism of art ought to be socially conscious and not treat art as if it belonged to a wholly autonomous realm of being. Once this transformed understanding of art is achieved, Piper goes on, then we ought to take a close look at performance art which differs from other art forms in virtue of the artist’s presence as integral constituent of the art object. Piper thinks that this gives performance art a unique immediacy for its audiences and a distinctive, socially engaged, critical power thus reducing its fetishism.

A few comments by way of critique.  If the above has echoes for the reader of Aristotle’s poetics and his concept of catharsis, the reader would not be wrong. In fact, I dare say that without a prior understanding of Aristotle’s poetics, the concept of art without fetishism can prove elusive and even undesirable, for nobody would relish a performance-art where animals and people were really tortured on stage or even murdered for real. There are indeed secret videos floating around in our brave new world where aesthetics has been divorced from ethics (secret because it remains a punishable crime to murder people on or off stage) wherein people are murdered for real for the “cathartic” aesthetic pleasure of sociopathic viewers. That is certainly not what Aristotle meant by catharsis. Indeed, when the boundary between reality and fiction is so misguidedly blurred, then one is bound to ask if the jury is still out on some aspects of modern art. Indeed, sometimes, it is good to know that the wheel has already been invented before attempting to reinvent it.

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Sand2008-12-19 10:12:52
Who and where is this mysterious jury that seems to be continuously absent? Why is it assumed that a future consortium of "experts" has any more validity that one current?

Sand2008-12-19 13:23:04
Aside from some significant misconceptions in the analysis if art objects the mention of Aristotle’s obsolete and incorrect view that dramatic violence performs a catharsis on the audience may have some validity with a few people but it has been reasonably solidly established that in general exposure to theatrical violence inures viewers to actual violence so that children playing violent video games are more, not less, likely to indulge in actual physical violence.

The other concept that horrible acts performed in the theater or films are effective because the audience is always aware that they are unreal is also totally wrong. The only way they can be effective is that the audience goes through what is commonly termed “suspension of disbelief” and this is a well accepted psychological fact. The poorer a performance is the more a lack of belief in the portrayed events comes about and the performance is a flop. To evoke genuine horror, delight, laughter and wonder successfully requires a huge suspension of disbelief in the unreality of the performance.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-19 17:07:21
Emperor Nero was one of those who did not like to have to go through “suspension of disbelief.” He liked raw reality in his plays and so he had actors killed for real on stage. I suppose he and his fellow ethical monsters got a greater catharsis that way. But then I kind of doubt that he ever read Aristotle’s Poetics or ever read a book from cover to cover.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-19 17:08:58
P.S. By the way, Nero considered himself a great artist; but in reality the emperor was naked. He too was a "funny man."

Sand2008-12-19 17:18:16
My comment is standard accepted psychology. You never lose an opportunity to demonstrate your foolishness, do you, Paparella?

Sand2008-12-19 19:10:01
Incidentally the Spanish and Latin American cultures that gloried in the brutalities of bullfighting also seemed to find not much catharsis in the real cruelties exhibited nor, to get back to your main hobbyhorse, did the Holocaust wash away the appetite for cruelty in the Nazis. To get a bit closer to your home, the crowd pleasing activities of the KKK in torturing and butchering black people seemed not to decrease the appetite for more blood. So it seems, with your own account of Nero's love of cruelty, that Aristotle's theory that witnessing cruelty somehow decreases it in witnesses is thoroughly indicated as pure balderdash.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-19 22:09:47
Is that the voices told you about Aristotle's concept of catharsis? I warned you not to listen to them! They may look funny but in truth they are up to no good.

Alexander Mikhaylov2008-12-19 22:24:00
Fetishism certainly plays a part in creating work of art. The difference between good and bad work of art however, is that in good work of art an element of fetishism is transcended into higher plane where it ceases to be a fetishistic element for fetishism’s sake and becomes a sort of visual revelation, whereas in bad work of art, fetishistic element affects the main theme so much (or becomes the main theme itself) that the whole creation (viewed by others) starts to exist (as a work of art) mainly on subconscious level, where dark impulses play paramount role. Of course, the use of such terms as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ applied to art, is very vague conception indeed (I use it merely for the sake of argument).

Sand2008-12-20 02:22:21
Sorry, Paparella, merely saying "no" to an argument doesn't work. Your childish cliche´of speaking of "voices" merely indicates you have no answer to my indication that Aristotle simply didn't know what he was tslking about.

Sand2008-12-20 02:25:07
Slip of the finger. Should be:

Sorry, Paparella, merely saying "no" to an argument doesn't work. Your childish cliche´of speaking of "voices" merely indicates you have no answer to my indication that Aristotle simply didn't know what he was talking about.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-20 05:24:30

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-20 09:44:22
P.S. It’s a type that can be found in every class: the clever by half student who has not done his reading and attempts to turn the table around by putting words into the unread author’s mouth and then confronts the professor with them in a vain attempt to make both the author and the professor look like ignoramuses. “You mean to say that you don’t know that Aristotle did not know what he was talking about?” Thus he has insinuated that both Aristotle and the professor are charlatans and that Aristotle simply does not deserve to be studied any longer and universities who insist on teaching him are cheating their students, and perhaps all books by Aristotle ought to be burned once and for all. Usually the stratagem boomerangs on the poor fellow, for he ends up being intensely disliked by his peers and more often than not barely managing to earn a low grade.

Sand2008-12-20 11:00:54
It’s a type that can be found skulking in the halls of academe. A person playing the role of teacher who has read and memorized a few ideas, flaunting historical thinkers as if they were the saints of some arcane god but totally lacking any capability to understand, analyze, and discriminate amongst the myriad voices found in books to compare them to current understandings of psychology and other disciplines of knowledge that has advanced greatly by the discipline of taking hard looks at reality and severely testing them. This pompous character sets himself up as judge and jury to coerce young open minds into mindless adulation of mere authority and severely punishes bright questioners who would apply reason and modern understanding that might reveal huge gaps and cracks in ancient idle ponderings. Somewhere early in his career he managed to convince the academic establishment that he had enough qualifications for an advanced degree in some esoteric area and he uses this thin blanket to camouflage the obvious fact he has little powers of either reason or mental flexibility to move into some form of original or even cogent outlook. Since he has such a fragile base of operations any request by a curious mind that he re-examine any premise in the light of new discovery or thought is taken as a personal assault and his response is bluster and insult to ward off the assumed attack. His general psychological attitude is exceedingly similar to that of a theologian faced with someone who requests a clear look at a reality that dismisses much of the silly dogmatism that comprises the bulk of religious faith and his only recourse is to generate a profusion of totally obscure nonsense filled with insulting insinuations that the questioner is lacking in decency or any of the more acceptable human attitudes. That this barely human creature is tolerated is one of the great misfortunes of the academic class.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-20 14:44:08
I take notice that the voices came to visit again, made you invisible and transported you to my class, but alas, once again they took you to the wrong classroom and the wrong university and the wrong professor. I told you not to be so naïve and believe them so readily. Like uncle Scrooge, you should be a bit more firm with them and learn to say “hum bug.”

Sand2008-12-20 15:03:42
Fascinating, Paparella, that the face you present continuously in this forum should be something you totally deny to exist in other phases of your life. Seems pretty unlikely to me.

Sand2008-12-20 16:09:41
Your whole approach to discussion is forcefully demagogic. Anytime I mention that some concept of one of your intellectual saints is invalid or lacking in some way your immediate reaction is to suggest to destroy the man's whole works - toss it on the fire in your words. This intolerance of blemishes is either a convenient rabble rousing technique of yours to deflect any reasonable discussion of the issues or the result of some strange twist in your mental methods. It certainly is not reasonable.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-20 16:30:38
Unlikely to you or the visiting voices? Is there a distinction in your mind? I can guarantee to the readers that you have never been to visit my classroom, not in flesh and blood in any case, but you insist on describing my teaching style as if you had been. That is why I suspect that you were there invisible transported by the visiting voices who unfortunately took you to the wrong place and the wrong person. What else ought the intelligent reader think, that you are simply scurrillously casting aspersion and giving vent to a bullying proclivity? Surely you will not admit that, not even to yourself, especially since you have from the very beginning of my contributions have appointed yourself the Grand Inquisitor and censor (even spell checker)in charge of political correctness in this forum. Indeed, it gets pretty confusing, all in the name of sweet reason and objective love of truth and scholarship. Scrooge has it more on target I am afraid: Hum bug.

Savd2008-12-20 17:00:05
I take note that you feel akin to Scrooge at his worst. That your behavior in your classroom is not deductible from your behavior at this site would make you a deep sufferer from multiple personality disorder and I doubt even you at your most cockeyed would cling to that to indicate your classroom behavior. It is quite clear that you suffer from a total absence of being able to endure alternate judgments about your revered authorities and that is a fatal flaw in a teacher.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-20 18:11:29
What other flaws have the visiting voices pointed out? Surely there are others. and of course you fully believed them to be objective assessments from sane minds. You ought to be a bit more skeptical, like Scrooge and don't take their word just because it conforms to your mind-set.

Sand2008-12-20 18:33:40
This adulation you have for Dickens' nasty character is certainly one of the oddest of your peculiarities and I wonder why you think I should be tempted by his mien. A full character analysis may be something you are eager to discover but I have already pointed you in he right direction and now it's up to you or whomever you consult in your Catholic hierarchy to fill out the full picture so you may properly repent. It took a rather harrowing experience for Scrooge to be set right. Pleasant dreams for the coming season.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-20 21:31:59
Before you also consign Dickens to the bonfire with other authors who understood the true meaning of Christmas beyong cooking cookies and chocolate cakes, consider this: "what Dickens defends, to be sure, is not what Christians celebrate at Christmas. But he does defend the way in which Christian society has historically celebrated it; and that in itself, Chesterton for one argues, is a worthy thing — a point that may seem increasingly relevant in these Scrooge-like times.
In fighting for Christmas, Chesterton for one writes, 'Dickens was fighting for the old European festival,' Christmas being 'one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making.'"

I know,all this goes against your mind-set but sleep on it and you may better confront those terrible night voices that come visiting to slander and cast aspersion... and stay tuned for more.

Sand2008-12-21 03:24:16
There you go again consigning literature to bonfires and blaming it on me. I have never, never, never indicated that burning books was a sensible or worthy activity yet you go on and on and on throwing books on fires and claiming it is my desire. I merely remarked that Scrooge was an odd character for you to clutch to your heart as an ideal. Have you been indulging in that Christmas cheer too liberally or munching on rum soaked plum pudding so that in your besotted confusion your world spins disconcertingly? Or are your sympathies for Torquemada and your fellow PhD Nazi plotters getting the better of you again?

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 04:33:37
Living books unread is almost the same as burning them. Indeed, there are philistines and barbarians who burn books physically despite their formal education and there are philistines and barbarians who believe that everything in the past is alwayss inferior to everything now. The latter are by far the worst philistines. For the intersted reader not interested in argumenti ad hominem parading as rational arguments, see the comment under the article on prostitutes.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 04:35:40
Errata: the first word above should be "leaving" and it was not a "slip of the finger" but a typo.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 04:39:19
"Now the critical spirit of every age previous to our own has been characterized by its inability to appreciate sympathetically the spirit of past and bygone times. In the seventeenth century criticism made idols of its ancient models; it acknowledged no serious imperfections in them; it set them up as exemplars for the present and all future times to copy. Let the genial Epicurean henceforth write like Horace, let the epic narrator imitate the supreme elegance of Virgil, -- that was the conspicuous idea, the conspicuous error, of seventeenth-century criticism. It overlooked the differences between one age and another. Conversely, when it brought Roman patricians and Greek oligarchs on to the stage, it made them behave like French courtiers or Castilian grandees or English peers. When it had to deal with ancient heroes, it clothed them in the garb and imputed to them the sentiments of knights-errant. Then came the revolutionary criticism of the eighteenth century, which assumed that everything old was wrong, while everything new was right. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 04:40:30


Emanuel Paparella 2008-12-20 23:56:50
It recognized crudely the differences between one age and another, but it had a way of looking down upon all ages except the present. This intolerance shown toward the past was indeed a measure of the crudeness with which it was comprehended. Because Mohammed, if he had done what he did, in France and in the eighteenth century, would have been called an impostor, Voltaire, the great mouthpiece and representative of this style of criticism, portrays him as an impostor. Recognition of the fact that different ages are different, together with inability to perceive that they ought to be different, that their differences lie in the nature of progress, -- this was the prominent characteristic of eighteenth-century criticism. Of all the great men of that century, Lessing was perhaps the only one who outgrew this narrow critical habit."
--Longfellow (Dante translator and scholar)

Sand2008-12-21 07:46:22
Of course deeming everything old as wrong is as idiotic as judging everything old as right. Each age must carefully examine the past and have the good sense to erect its standards on the basis of its understanding of new and vital knowledge against which all knowledge, old and new, must be measured. To fall into the gross error of total admiration of anything ancient is as disastrous as eager adulation of something novel because it is new. But to continually declare that any criticism of historical literature is equivalent to casting the whole into a bonfire is to be blindly bound to anything that was previously admired but has proven to be markedly inadequate in the light of new discovery and perceptive insight. Nothing in literature from theological tracts to obvious distortions of history should be immune to an intelligent analysis in the light of new insights and new understandings of human psychology resulting from valid scientific investigation.

Sand2008-12-21 07:51:03
To characterize a typo as not a slip of the finger indicates it was the result of a slippery mind, something a bit more serious.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 08:12:44
To characterize one's typo as a "slip of the finger" while that of others as "inablility to spell" reveals a mind-set unable to be objective and consider both sides of an issue.

The Longfellow insightful and devastating comment on Voltaire's criticism stands on its own and as it was to be expected it was conveniently side-stepped, for indeed to deal with that issue honestly would mean to have to admit to bias. Again the intelligent reader should consult C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures" on this.

Sand2008-12-21 08:38:01
To characterize my comment on the worth of valid criticism of all thought and literature in the light of modern thought as being biased is, to put it mildly, totally psychologically twisted.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 09:19:55
For Voltaire to call Dante’s poetry “bizarre” leads one at the very least four conclusions: 1) he had a poor appreciation of Dante’s form and poetics, 2) that lack of appreciation for at the very least the form of the poetry, whose author has been called the called the greatest poet that ever lived by various scholars, leads one to wonder if extreme rationalism devoid of the poetic leads ineluctably to that kind of cultural philistinism vis a vis great poetry, 3) Voltaire most probably had a bias against Dante the man for being fair and objective in his content, for after all three Popes are placed in hell together with all kind of scoundrels from many walks of life: the higher their cleverness, the deeper the part of hell in which they are placed, 4) Voltaire completely missed the boat on the content too since the very first line of the Divine Comedy announced to the reader that life is a journey and the roads one chooses on that journey determines to a large extent one short term and long term destiny; in other words that men are free and freely choose heaven or hell even here on earth; it is not Dante or God who places them there, but themselves who choose on or the other. DANTE AND VOLTAIRE WERE TWO FUNNY MEN. THE MEDIEVAL ERA AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT ERA WERE TWO FUNNY ERAS; ONE WONDERS WHICH WAS FUNNIER.

Sand2008-12-21 10:59:35
So here we go on another irrelevant excursion into evaluating Voltaire who, it’s quite evident, is one of Paparella’s prime demons for not being properly respectful of many of the fatuous dogmas of the Catholic Church. His sarcastic remark that Voltaire was funny is an attempt at irony to insinuate that Voltaire was not funny but anybody with a normal sense of humor who has read Candide would have a very tough time agreeing with that. I am particularly taken aback that Paparella with his minuscule mental apparatus should set himself against the mind of Voltaire who, most intelligent people must admit, had a pretty good grip on how to use a good mind.

Strangely, there is brought into this comment, the religious proposal that we all have free will, a viewpoint that is in direct contradiction to the religious acceptance that God never makes mistakes and sees everywhere into the past and the future, a concept that fails to relate to the many Biblical adventures such as the expulsion from Eden, the great flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and other historic occurrences that clearly indicated that God quite simply and radically fucked up. But that discussion has gone on forever and is in no way amenable to easy solution.

I cannot comment on Voltaire’s taste in poetry and the anonymous horde of experts who declare Dante the greatest poet of all time nevertheless leave me in much doubt. I cannot read Italian and poetry is notoriously untranslatable in its total impact so, until I master the language I will withhold judgment on the matter.

The Middle Ages which so enthralls Paparella makes me wish I could send him back there to enjoy the general filth, plagues, illiteracy, ignorance, superstition, enslavement of peasants, incessant bloody battles between minor provinces led by sadistic rulers, anti-Semitism, and all the other goodies characteristic of the era.

Examination of most of Paparella’s comments is, to a large degree. Similar to a forensic inspection of the sludge at the bottom of a septic tank where all sorts of the recent contents of several diverse digestive systems are mixed in a way difficult to discern what came from where and what they might signify. Add to that that the examiner is almost totally incompetent and you have the correct perspective.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 16:16:21
Both Yale and Harvard University have endowed chairs of Dante scholarship. I have a proposal, why don't we write to their Presidents and Deans and ask them to refrain from teaching Dante till Mr. S. has had an opportunity to learn the language and assess the worth of such poetry being taught to impressionable minds. The assessment of the Grand Inquisitor of politival correctness is positive, all is well that ends well. If it is negative (and there are hints of it in the above message...) then tehy may consign all books by Dante and on Dante to a big philistine bonfire and be done with peddling second rate poetry to impressionable minds; they could replace all that fantasy stuff with hard-nosed science which yelds reality and everything the Naked Ape can hold in his paw.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-21 16:19:07
Errata: the second sentence should begin with an "If".

Sand2008-12-21 17:11:40
Why Paparella! I didn't render any verdict on Dante and I explicitly said so. Why do you think I should burden your revered authorities with a suspended opinion? Or are you eager to throw Dante into your bonfire and my non-opinion frustrates your eagerness?

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-22 08:49:35
Dante's bonfire, or the flame that never dies, belongs to nobody except those people who by their actions have both created it and placed themselves there. One can only blame oneself for it.

Sand2008-12-22 09:04:17
Feeling guilty, Mr.P.?

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