Art is dead. The masterful strokes of the painter, the sublime harmonies of the composer, and the captivating verses of the poet…dead. Art is dead, and we killed it.
Since our country was founded a mere 16 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution around 1760, it is no surprise, then, that art has never truly been an integral part of our society. Yes, we have had our share of celebrated figures. We boast of our rights to Eliot, Twain, and Dickinson. Students read Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, and Poe, but what artistic genius can we claim today? Or rather, what can we claim to be doing today to produce, or to become the new Twains, Eliots or Poes?
The progress of the Industrial Revolution is so ingrained in our society that many of us fail to realize that we have lost anything at all. Because manufactured goods are so readily available, we feel less of a need to create, and consequently men and women today are reduced to the role of the consumer. Consumerism may seem like a cliché term these days, but it takes on new meaning when considered in regards to art, and by extension, to culture.
Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher who lived from the turn of the century to 1973, came to America and immersed himself in its culture so that he could experience it firsthand. In a work he co-authored with Theodor Adorno, he speaks of our country as being held captive by the “The Culture Industry”.
The culture we live and experience today is heavily mediated by the monopolies of industry. These great economic powers, which are all interwoven, collaborate to maximize their profit and interests. As the system becomes stronger, it is able to more summarily identify consumers’ needs, control them, discipline them, and even withdraw them so as to exert pressures and maintain proper leverage.
In simpler terms, Horkheimer posits that culture and art have become synonymous with entertainment. The ingenuity of art has all but vanished, and its objective has been switched from beauty and truth to mass production. Entertainment has become the consumer’s primary need and it is being satisfied religiously.
When I asked earlier what we are doing today, I wondered if any of us were actually producing art. Our consumerist culture has lead us to believe that we are refined, developed individuals because we read The Great Gatsby in high school, and learn about the American Dream. Sadly enough, we are no longer makers of art—we are simply fed the fruits of another’s labor.
This phenomenon is most prevalent in film. In movies, reality is blurred, and the viewer is given everything without having to put in any kind of effort. We viewers have been reduced to passive receptacles of another’s effort and imagination. These technological advancements have swept us away with their sensationalist qualities, yet they are ephemeral in nature.
What has been stolen from us as a result of the Industrial Revolution is innovation and creativity. In fact, our very individuality is under attack. We are presented with a myriad of choices which are equivalent to false diamonds. For example, cars come in every shape and size, yet in their essence they remain the same. We are told by the culture of industry that a Mercedes defines you differently than a Honda, yet they serve the same purpose.
Our very desires are dictated to us by the economic powers which seek to perpetuate their era of power. We operate now in a juvenile sphere, a realm where we are constantly consuming those things which we are told are good for us. Intellectual stimulation has been pilfered from our grasp in a gradual movement away from humanity, and directed towards a digital utopia where societal convention is god. We are fooled into achieving self-expression because we do so within the sphere of this very convention. We are told we possess intellectual freedom, and we believe it because we are no longer required to think for ourselves.
Our society has embraced the transitory. The culture of consumption is inescapable, for everywhere we are presented with dazzling displays of choices which ultimately restrict our freedom and clutter our minds.
By looking at our celebrities, we see this cyclical pattern where they rise and fall at viral rates, yet they all share a common mold. They are disposable pieces whose sole function is to perpetuate the existence and power of the industrial machine. Personality and imperfection, formerly inspiring assets within art and production, have become the enemy of the public, and demonized to the point of stigma. We must all lay upon the Procrustean bed.
Our entertainment has amused us with one hand and kept us in submission with the other. Every genuinely human action or poignant imperfection is reduced to a motive or an addendum to the greater arch of material success and fulfillment (which is really an endless void). Whether it be the protagonist getting the girl of his dreams or defeating his nemesis in a climactic finale, each of these is not presented as worthy or honorable in itself, but simply accessories which make someone successful. We no longer produce poetry which profoundly contemplates love for its own sake. No, we see love as yet another checkmark on society’s list of conventional success.
Again, I say, art is dead. Industry has destroyed leisure, which philosopher Josef Peiper argued is the basis of culture. “Our inability to recover the original meaning of ‘leisure’ will strike us all the more when we realize how the opposing idea of ‘work’ has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human action and of human existence as a whole.”
Leisure is now entertainment, and entertainment is simply consumerism. In an age of production, we have produced nothing of worth, and our individual ability to contribute to society is essentially lost in the wake of the culture of industry. Let us evaluate our passions, examine our leisure, and see if we can raise art from the dead.