Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Desecration of the World

(article by Gilles Hertzog in La Règle du Jeu)

We have had the Confederacy of Dunces, as old as the Earth itself, the enemies of sense and reason. Today, more daunting still, the Confederacy of desecrators of the world, the manufacturers of Objects that pollute and defile our environment, uncivilising millions of our contemporaries, who become in their turn desecrators themselves. Let us descend into the arena.

The latest targets of these shock-troops of desecration: the Doges' palace in Venice, surrounded this summer by giant billboards advertising Coca-Cola, and Versailles, squatted again, after Jeff Koons, by the infantile kitsch of a minstrel named Murakami.

The homage of vice to virtue? Or outright profanation? Sovereign Merchandise or celebratory kitsch, the same enterprise has been at work in Venice and Versailles. Under the guise of a homage to Beauty-in-Majesty in these consecrated domains, the idea is to negate these universal symbols of Art; to have done, almost, with the very idea of Beauty, of which these anachronistic incarnations are an insolent reminder. The last obstacles to be undermined before the ultimate triumph of the "free and fun" hodge-podge which the diktat of Merchandise spreads over the world; before the final submission to the empire of Objects, in a universe governed by money and appropriated by Technology, which conquers the old Apollonian ideal of harmony and the pact of beauty between ourselves and the world.

For all that, far from being a conspiracy hatched by modern Masters of Objects like Coca-Cola, Wallmart, Conforama, Carrefour, Bouygues, Shell, Renault, EDF and tutti quanti, the omnipotent directors of all we consume and the shapers of our visual environment, the contemporary desecration of the world is a 'neutral' enterprise, uncoordinated, without a conductor. For the very criterion of beauty is not even addressed by these designers and mass producers (they talk about industrial design, style, form. But Beauty? Don't know, not relevant to our business). The spread of the virus is even more insidious. It is, as Marx said of History, a process without a subject. In which we, as citizens and consumers at the end of the line, participate by default, without the capacity to resist, unless it be in the name of ecology or defence of cultural heritage. We rail in vain against the harsh colouring of the seats on TGV's, the fake-zinc counter in an old bistro, the gaudy track-suit of a passing jogger, the blandness of motorway services, pre-packed interiors, suburban sprawl, glass-built office-blocks, and the aesthetic disaster of vast malls dedicated to Consumption that disfigure the outskirts of our towns.

But the pollution of the world by ugliness, generated by the producers of Objects and the soulless designers of our living space, also passes through our contemporaries. Who, in ever growing numbers, in the living out of their everyday lives, wear, both in their apparel and on their bodies themselves, every imaginable mark of debasement, vulgarity and kitsch. On the one hand, concern for appearance seems to have become a rare thing, alien even, in the age of omnipresent jeans, shaven heads and drinking in public straight from the bottle. On the other side of the coin, the 'image' displays its 'look' paraphernalia and its more ostentatious counterparts. In short, here too, "hell is other people".

In Venice, in front of the Doges' palace, beneath the 'fun' profanation by Coca-Cola, paraded a crowd no less 'fun', in no way offended by the giant billboard that concealed the Bridge of Sighs, photographing away, attired in bermudas, t-shirts, beach hats, oversized sunglasses and other outfits which affronted this unparalleled monument. As if manifesting the same commonplace relation to places like the beach, the supermarket or the corner Spar. Mocked in the heart of one of the most beautiful cities in the world by sovereign Merchandise and its booming propaganda, but reflecting it in their copy-cat garb and sacrificing without a word to the new Doge of Venice, Coca-Cola, haven't these crowds got what they deserve? Birds of a feather flock together. Silence gives consent.

Go to the Louvre on a weekend. The same crowds gather, with little respect for this repository of the genius of Man. In fine weather, visitors in shorts and t-shirts are not uncommon; there are childrens' buggies, groups of teens mooching around, no more nor less than there would be in the Forum des Halles shopping centre. The same people who tart themselves up to go clubbing every weekend wouldn't dream of doing the same to go to a museum, an exhibition, or a West End theatre. Whether at the Comédie-Française or the Opera-Garnier, one can count the men in jackets on the fingers of one hand.

Still, democracy is an easy target. Compare the crowds of the Popular Front and the crowds of today. The proletarian dignity and elegance of seventy years ago, notwithstanding the harsh conditions for workers at the time. Working-class chic was not an empty word. Today, drabness and confusion of styles, giving an impression of sheeplike 'anything goes', of lack of self-concern, and simultaneously engendering in response a plethora of ethnic styles, 'identity' looks, 'alternative' or otherwise. Among teens from genteel neighbourhoods, as from the ghetto, the Nike attitude prevails. For schoolkids and students, casual clothing is de rigueur. And elsewhere 'chavism' wreaks havoc. Visual disaster is on a high. In short, 'everything's gone to the dogs' and, like everything else, 'folks ain't what they used to be'. Reactionary outlook, we exclaim. But if it is politically correct to defer to the sovereign People, we must contrast what the men of the Enlightenment, Condorcet in the van, proposed two and a half centuries ago for the emancipation of mankind. Far from sanctifying the people à la Rousseau (as if his social demotion had preserved him from the vices of society), they called on men, beginning with those the nobility dubbed 'of no quality', to liberate themselves from their subjection through the acquisition of civility, knowledge and taste, as well as through the acquisition of freedoms. One only becomes free from the top down.

Who, these days, would dare tell our compatriots that too many of them defile themselves at will, owing to a hierarchy of taste where the dominant and the trend-setters, masters of the various instruments of media and ideology, have sought to confine the oppressed classes? Exit the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie; Bobos and Bling-bling have shown the way. Who would, like Colette ("it's as much trouble to make oneself look ugly as pretty"), tell those concerned that tattoos, piercings, gold chains, gaudy bracelets, diamond earrings, fake curved nails, platform shoes, botoxed lips, far from beautifying the subject, are paltry ornaments and paltry tricks, trapping them in their oppressed state? But to criticise these deficiencies in a dominant Good Taste, a universe from which whole masses of people are socially and culturally excluded, as if these deficiencies were innate to them, or to flatter by a well-known brand of populism the ignorance, vulgarity or shabby exhibitionism which, among other ills, the oppressed classes manifest, are equally contemptible. Side-effects of trash TV and other opiates of the masses, these effects are just as much the product of the Aesthetic Nightmare, sister and accomplice of the Economic Nightmare once denounced in a sensational book by Viviane Forrester. The Aesthetic Nightmare that too many workplaces - lugubrious business premises, suicide-provoking bureaucratic worlds - too many public buildings - Kafka-esque government departments, concrete-jungle campuses - too many points of consumption à minima - fast-food joints, vast supermarket hangars, discount warehouses in the middle of nowhere, neon service-stations - are the licenced outlets legitimising everyday consumerist ugliness, the great designators of anti-beauty and the un-teachers of taste, at the expense of their millions of customers. Unstructured neighbourhoods, bland or garish 'living spaces', not in the least architectural, not in the least civilising, these are the fruits, once again, of contempt for Man. In the United States, shopping towns, carefully constructed, are replacing malls and shopping centres; in France, factory complexes in Industrial Zones; brutalism remains de rigueur. Our palaces of consumption are anything but palaces. As for French universities compared to Anglo-Saxon campuses, visit Tolbiac or Villetaneuse, and your eyes will be opened.

It is not, be it understood, the Faubourg Saint-Germain and other enclaves for the 'Happy World' that matter here, but those city-destroying anti-places and no-go suburbs, outposts of urban dereliction and contempt of Man. The battle for Beauty, far from being a 'hobby-horse of the rich' defending their patch ("not in my backyard" as the Americans say), should prioritise these countless wastelands of inhumanity.

From top to bottom of the social scale, on any occasion in any way significant, men and women like to 'dress up'. Would it be a violence against people to expect, as required in any place of worship, respectable dress in museums and elsewhere? Who would imagine their freedom threatened by an incentive to care about their being-for-others? Living in a City also implies manifesting a convivial approach towards others, an appearance pleasing to the eye. Fragile, threatened, Beauty is a civic good, a collective allurement that everyone should uphold in themselves, or else break the compact of everyone with everyone. And the streets, public spaces and public transport are the permanent battlegrounds of visual pleasure or disenchantment.

Vast, utopian project, one might say, in the present state of things, the embellishment of Man and the world. And, all tastes being natural, beginning with bad taste, this enterprise, in a free society, where nobody can impose his views in an area which is the sole responsibility of the individual, is doomed from the start. The anathèma of elitism is enough: Beauty is a question of money above all; in short, yet another privilege of the rich. (Reply: don't confuse beauty and luxury).

Faced with this, it is only more incumbent upon those - education, the world of culture and the arts, the media, the entertainment and fashion industries - who, directly or indirectly, form the tastes of our peers, just like those, the producers and distributors of Objects, who actually shape our physical environment, to become militants in action for the demands of a world that rebels against both its aesthetic and ecological degradation. The abasement of Merchandise is not inevitable, as contrary examples demonstrate, from Ikea to Monoprix. As for those of our contemporaries at odds with aesthetic values, and those millions excluded from Beauty, only schooling in these values, dismissed for the last twenty years in the institutions of primary and secondary education, can correct the cultural inequalities that cause it.

Beauty and ecology go hand in hand. Here also, for all the Greens (and others), is a new frontier, which will not fail to be reflected in votes.

The issue - political - of Beauty and Ugliness must be carried into the public square.

(Translation: A Curran)

No comments:

Post a Comment