Jean Baudrillard and Simulacra


Simulacra and Simulations (1988)

The Precession of the Simulacra” (1981)


As the Bible once stated,

The simulacrum is never that/Which conceals the truth—it is/The truth which conceals that/There is none./The Simulacrum is true.


Writing in the wake of May 1968 in Paris, the former Marxist Jean Baudrillard moved beyond Marxism and into a critique of Marxism and then, by the early eighties began a long engagement with the new economic system which appears in embryonic form in his early works. The System of Objects (1968) was essentially a book for its time–based on the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. If consumer goods are signs that are symptoms of desire, then logically Baudrillard would take the next step which is to make the case that nothing is “real” and that we are functioning in the hyperreal non-world of simulacra. As Baudrillard explained in his opening to his 1981 essay,

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

However, Baudrillard refused to be categorized as a Postmodernist and even suggested that the Postmodern was itself a simulacra. Due to his long roots in Modernism, one could call Baudrillard a late Modernist or an ultra-Modernist, living as did many writers of his generation at the tail end of modernity without every taking the step into a territory he considered fictitious. In fact the writer rejected Postmodernism in 1986, because all old ideas were swept away in 1968, leaving behind only a state of total exhaustion without leaving anything new or a viable alternative in its wake. Centuries of critical thought were ended. Political and sexual revolutions were finished. For the new generation there was nothing left, only “soft revivals” in the empty void of a postmodernism that functions by means of what Baudrillard termed a “lack of events,” or pseudo modernist “revolutions” or uprisings such as, “soft feminism,” “liberal Marxism,” “green politics,” and “enfeebled ideologies.” In many ways, like it or not, Baudrillard’s scorn for post 1968 efforts to change the world echoed the Postmodern refusal to accept “change,” something attached to Modernism. Of course, such refusals and scorn reinforce the dominant forces in play, the same forces that supported Modernism, a near entirely white and male phenomenon. Typical of Postmodernism which is essentially passive, it would seem that the only form of resistance that Baudrillard might allow would be no political action whatsoever.

Baudrillard’s main point is that the current system of hyper-spectacle supported by mass and all-powerful media which produces endless spectacles. For the writer, “mass media” was one entity, defined in his time by film, movies, print press and so on, which diverts meaning and any hope of critique into specular forms–the spectacle that a diverts and misleads the enchanted spectators in to hyper-conformism. Trapped in this spectacle, we are shaped and constructed by its un-real premises. Baudrillard attempted to explain this effect by using a metaphor for the unreal or an inversion of the basis of reality: the map preceds–comes before–the territory and engenders–creates–the territory. As Baudrillard argued,

The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models – and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.

Baudrillard stresses the significance of the resulting Simulacra based on the word “simulate.” “To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has,” he said. Simulation threatens the difference between the true and the false and the real and the imaginary and there are no longer any references points, only emptied signs. The simulacra or simulations have always been feared in some quarters, particularly institutions that wish to control imagery or information. Even today, the Muslim faith prohibits some imagery such as that of Mohammad. The Jewish faith long had prohibitions on “graven images.” Early Christianity, being largely Jewish in origin, also reacted against attempts to create religious icons with a deliberate campaign of iconoclasm or breaking images–destroying icons. Baudrillard found this example of the dangers of simulacra or simulated images of holy figures an interesting example of the threat to the real and to the imagination. Early Christian leaders feared that the credulous congregation would become attached, not to a religious concept or faith, but to a base image. To the early Christians, the image had a murderous capacity and the iconoclasts destroyed the images (of religious figures), lest the images take the place of the “original” or the “real.” Baudrillard said,

It can be seen that the iconoclasts, who are often accused of despising and denying images, were in fact the ones who accorded them their actual worth, unlike the iconolaters, who saw in them only reflections and were content to venerate God at one remove. But the converse can also be said, namely that the iconolaters possessed the most modern and adventurous minds, since, underneath the idea of the apparition of God in the mirror of images, they already enacted his death and his disappearance in the epiphany of his representations (which they perhaps knew no longer represented anything, and that they were purely a game, but that this was precisely the greatest game — knowing also that it is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them).

The simulacra then is opposed to representation which always assumes an equivalency between the sign and the thing (the real). The simulacra is the inverse of representation and is, in fact, the “death” of the sign. Baudrillard set up the stages the image progresses as “1. a reflection of basic reality, 2. a mask or perversion of basic reality, 3. masks and absence of reality, and finally 4. has no relation to any reality.” Baudrillard considered Disneyland to be the prefect model of all orders of simulation. Disneyland is a deep frozen infantile world where ideology blankets and covers over the third order simulation–a simulation of a simulation that has no origin and conceals the fact that the real is no longer real or perhaps the real never existed and is only nostalgia. What Baudrillard called “the Disneyland Imaginary” is neither true nor false, but America in miniature existing in isolation as one of the many “imaginary stations” that exist in Los Angeles as islands of deterrence. An idea of a imagined America, created by Disney “imagineers” envelopes the visitor in a safe place where time loses all meaning and has been folded into past, present and future. Here in Disneyland, as Baudrillard posited, everything has metamorphoized into its inverse to be perpetuated in its purged form–the pirates of the Caribbean are not criminals but entertainment.

Speaking of criminals, Baudrillard moved on to Watergate, the scandal that ended the political career of the American president Richard Nixon. This event, pockmarked by many criminals and freighted by clusters of criminal activities was, from Baudrillard’s point of view, a simulacra. The system provided a “scandal” which allowed a shadow play of investigating aimed at purging the miscreants in order to protect the system itself, masking the (unseen) reality of the way in which citizens cannot see what actually happens and that the individual is now totally defeated and is subject to the object world. Watergate, like other political examples he brought forward, was about power. Baudrillard noted,

Everybody belongs to it more or less in fear of the collapse of the political. And in the end the game of power comes down to nothing more than the critical obsession with power: an obsession with its death; an obsession with its survival which becomes greater the more it disappears.

Elsewhere in the book on Simulations,Baudrillard wrote in the essay, “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media” that, the end result is implosion, as the system of simulacra collapses in upon itself. He wrote,

..the mass media, the pressure of information pursues an irresistible destructuration of the social. Thus information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social, in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to a surplus of innovation, but, on the contrary, to total entropy.* Thus the media are producers not of socialization, but of exactly the opposite, of the implosion of the social in the masses. And this is only the macroscopic extension of the implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of the sign. This implosion should be analyzed according to McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message, the consequences of which have yet to be exhausted.

Media makes events and then absorbs the events in a manner that is circulatory–a new postmodern system of false exchange in which nothing is exchanged but information is served up to an addicted and enchanted audience. The result is an implosion, an inward collapse. When meaning is neutralized and imploded, society too reaches its implosion point. This is who we are now. Today we live in a world that has vastly more media and more information than Baudrillard could have even imagined. Even in his own time, culture, after all, was dominated by the hyperreal in which there is no possibility of critique and all that is left is “intellectual dandyism.” or a display of information as style, also known as “talk radio” and cable television.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean Baudrillard and the System of Objects


The System of Objects (1968)



Jean Baudrillard, the versatile French philosopher was a prolific writer whose chief claims to fame are his postmodern refutation of traditional Marxism and his influential articulation of postmodernism as “simulacra”–that is, a copy of a copy without an original. Like most French intellectuals, Baudrillard was deeply disillusioned by the events of May 1968, and the failure of the social revolution predicted by Marx and the reinstallation of bourgeois authoritarian order, which demonstrated not only the middle class docility but also the opposition to real social reform. Capitalism had triumphed and the desire for commodities and social stability was more potent than the desire for reform and revolution. Like Frederic Jameson, Baudrillard looked for a more modern or postmodern critique that included not just the economy but also the culture it produced as well. While traditional Marxists had separated politics and culture from the “base, or mode of production, Baudrillard recognized the importance of culture in conveying the ideologies of capitalism and in maintaining these economic practices. The Marxists had maintained that the economy was more important or more “real” than the superstructures of culture, but this neglect of culture had been challenged by the Frankfurt School, particularly in the early works of Walter Benjamin and the later works of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

The emergence of a consumer society after the Second World War forced traditional Marxism to change in order to take into account mass media and its role in creating consumers and in creating desire for the objects put forth for possible consumption. Baudrillard, however, went beyond the approach of the Frankfurt School. Adorno and Benjamin continued the Modernist tradition of believing in some form of authenticity, that there was such an entity as “fine art” and that “Art” could be autonomous and free from popular culture. Baudrillard had no such illusions. For Baudrillard the entire society, the total culture was but a system of signs. In his books, such as Le système des objects (1968), and Le socièté de consommation (1970), the philosopher reconstructed the political economy of Marxisn on the basis of the semiological theories of the sign. As Jameson once said, “No society has ever been saturated with signs and messages like this one.” In making the role of the cultural sphere his main focus, Baudrillard examined the life of signs in society. To the extent there can be a subject (a dubious entity within Postmodernism), s/he is confronted by a controlling world of objects.

These objects are organized into systems of signification that are, in turn, broken down into 1. non-functional objects, 2. functional objects, and 3. metafunctionlal objects. Baudrillard examined these objects from the perspective of Ferdinand de Saussure (signs) and Sigmund Freud (psychology) in order to reveal the secret life of objects and their hidden meanings. Objects loose their singular nature and are subordinated into systems that are relative to each other, just as language is understood only within a network of relationships which constitute meaning. In order to explain the embeddedness of the object within the sign system, Baudrillard wrote in the beginning of “The System of Objects,”

If we consume the product as product, we consume its meaning through advertising. Let us imagine for a moment modern cities stripped of all their signs, with walls bare like a guiltless conscience. And then GARAP appears. This single expression, GARAP is inscribed on all the walls: pure signifier, without a signified, signifying itself..Signified despite itself, it is consumed as sign..Advertising, like GARAP, is mass society, which, with the aid of an arbitrary and systematic sign, induces receptivity, mobilizes consciousness, and reconstitutes itself in the very process as the collective. Through advertising mass society and consumer society continuously ratify themselves.

In other words, we consume the sign. We all live in a new world of leisure and mass media, which produce an alienation of conspicuous consumption and empty affluence (“affluenza”) in which, in America, according to Baudrillard, the consumers desire what others have. This fundamental alteration in the human species from using or utilizing what is considered necessary to desiring what is not necessary, except psychologically (desire), has resulted in a culture of affluent individuals surrounded by objects (signs), not people (who are also signs). Everyday life is now determined by manipulation of commodities and messages, all of which become an organization and display of domestic goods to be desired and consumed. Commodities are part of a “system of objects” that are correlated with a system of needs. Objects are offered within the context of other objects, and the collection of objects creates a total meaning. As Baudrillard wrote, “It is even the ultimate in morality, since the consumer is simultaneously reconciled with himself and with the group. The becomes the perfect social being.”

The brand name, which as Baudrillard stated is “the principal concept of advertising, (which) summarizes well the possibilities of a ‘language’ of consumption,” plays and essential role in imposing a coherent collective vision and this totalizing brand creates similitude, homogenizes and organizes everyday life into consumer items/signs/objects signifying “Jaguar,” the “granite counter top,” the Versace dress, and the Jimmy Choo shoes–all “brands” and objects of desire (not necessity). Consumer mentality is a kind of magical thought that generates consumption. Baudrillard noted, correctly, that this “code” constituted by brands is totalitarian and totalizing and that, for the first time in history is universal, a code that no one escapes. The code is a form of socialization but conversely, the code rules what is also a primitive mentality, which “believes in” the omnipotence of thoughts and in the omnipotence of signs. In contrast to traditional neo-Marxists, Baudrillard rejects the socio-cultural approach, insisting that there is no way to distinguish between “true” and “false” needs in a system that is governed by magical signs. In fact what is consumed is not the material goods themselves or actual objects–the point is that the actual objects are merely signs of needs and satisfaction of desire, a desire that will always return.

Consumption is a system that is a productive activity, requiring education and effort. One believes that s/he must insert be socialized into and become part of the consumer society. Consuming becomes a mode of social activity and becoming a walking sign (board) system of brands is now socially normative behavior. In other words, although consumption is a system that assumes the regulation of signs and the integration of the group, it should not be assumed that consumption brings either satisfaction or pleasure. Consumption is the production of coded values, a sign system which replaces moral values of days of yore. This consumer-based system of signs is organized by codes and rules of consumption, not guided by “natural” satisfaction but by and through a system of social indoctrination. The satisfaction involved is fleeting and momentary and is invested, not so much in the actual object itself but in the brand which is a signal of a certain kind to a certain group ordained to recognize and invested enough to care about the meaning of the sign.

The order of production of the signs manages the system of (cultural) “needs” by the order of signification that determines the social prestige of the purchaser and maintains the value of the system of goods to be consumed. The result of the belief system is fatal to classical Marxism: there are are no revolutionary forces; no theory of subject as an active agent of social change; there is only reification in which the objects dominate the “subject” and human begins become thing-like or, more precisely, sign-like. From the Baudrillardian perspective, we are now at a higher stage of reification and social domination by objects than described by the Frankfurt School. We (magically) believe in the social power of Jimmy Choo shoes and we believe in the stock market, until it collapses or implodes, weighted down by the false magic of the signs and wonders. According to Baudrillard, “In order to become object of consumption, the object must become sign.”

This book, The System of Objects, was one of his earliest works and was a frankly Marxist critique–via Freud–of the consumer society. As indicated by the date of publication, 1968, this form of analysis was paralleled with Guy Debord and the Situationists who were investigating the idea of spectacle. But in the wake of May 1968, taking a Marxist approach was difficult and his later books, such as The Mirror of Production (1973). His later works from 1970 on, including La société de consummation (1970), Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (1972) refute his prior position and constitute a critique of Marxism as too conservative and is dependent upon Capitalism and its system which it “mirrors.” Later works, such as his ideas on the simulacra, discussed in the next post, point out that historical materialism as conceived of by Marx cannot exist in the new exchange of simulacra.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Characteristics of Pop Art


Before it was anything else, Pop Art was American…and white…and urban….and male…and middle class…and straight. Pop Art was about affluence, about money and all the things that the middle class white male could afford to buy and everything the man of affluence wanted to look at. Mainstream art history has tended to present Pop Art as if it were ungendered and unclassed and uncolored, while at the same time, stressing the “American-ness” of a movement that eliminated color, exploited the images of women and ignored the plight of the poor. The exception that proved the rule of Pop’s machismo was the now-celebrated “queer” artist, Andy Warhol, who had to got to the Left Coast to get his first show of Pop Art, his now famous soup cans, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

Pop Art as Reification

The so-called “Classic Pop Movement” from 1961 to 1964 were precisely the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, the years of highest violence against African-Americans. The “Freedom Riders” began their dangerous, life-threatening bus trips into the Deep South in 1961. In 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And four little girls died in a Birmingham basement when their church was bombed in 1963. Except for Andy Warhol’s powerful Race Riot series, few Pop artists took notice. The important invention of the 20th century that changed the social construction, the political make-up and economic power of the Western world—the Pill—passed without notice on the part of a group of artmakers who were largely male.

Fifty years ago, it was possible to gaze innocently upon art and declare it “not political,” because it was “art.” Today, we look at Pop Art in a far more critical fashion. No one is naïve enough to claim that images are innocent; images mean more than the makers intended. If Pop Art was anything, it was a movement of excess and surplus and a plentitude of meaning, exceeding any attempt to control the signifiers. Therefore one of the major characteristics of Pop Art is the linkages between the New York artists and New York Advertising and the post-war consumer culture fueled by a government policy that shifted resources from one group, women, to another: white males. In its studiously muscular assertions of conventional masculinity, Pop Art managed to elide the increasing pressure on an oppressed population of homosexuals, both male and female.

While the female nudes of the San Francisco artist, Mel Ramos, were more modest than those of the New York artist, Tom Wesselman, both artists are typical in their equation of women with consumer goods. Women were presented as objects to be consumed. Always nude, always stripped of power or agency, always preening and presenting their open mouths, bared breasts, and pubic areas to the voyeuristic gaze of the avid male viewer, the women were pink and pornographic. Claes Oldenburg’s vision of Pop Art also displays a fixation on oral pleasure. Much of his early art recreates food, mostly American food, mostly junk food and mostly fast food—giant furry popsicles and looming hamburgers. Oldenburg’s art vacillated between the hard and erect, the phallic lipstick mounted on top of a tank pedestal, and the dysfunctionally flaccid toilet.

The focus on male performance only reflected American bellicose foreign policy which feminized its foes. The Soviet Union, as George Kennan expressed it, must be contained in its “flow” by the potency of the United States which courted this misguided empire with the superiority of democracy and capitalism. Pop Art was inherently conservative, reinforcing the dominant culture of the well-paid white male who had unexamined privileges withheld from women and people of color. For Roy Lichtenstein, couples are always heterosexual. Men disappoint women, not men; women die for the love of men, not women. His parodies of Romance comics for girls are the mirror image of his reification of war and violence found in post-war comics for boys. In popular literature, women seek romance and men seek combat, thus reinforcing gender roles—a particularly urgent task given the presence of women in the workplace, newly empowered by the Pill. Thus, in returning to representation, Pop Art was an unmediated revelation of the values of an affluent culture dedicated to the preservation of the power of the heterosexual white male.

Pop Art as a Changing of the Guard

Fifty years ago, typical accounts of Pop Art excluded the art produced in Europe and in Los Angeles. It took years to include the so-called “Pop artists” of the overlooked centers of popular culture. The reason for this neglect of important art is two fold: first, Pop Art in Los Angeles and Berlin or Paris differs from locale to locale. Pop Art was always an art of the local, the popular culture of a particular society. Post-war Los Angeles was a very different place from Berlin which was a very different place from Paris and so on. (These cities and their popular culture will be discussed in more detail in subsequent posts.) The second issue has to do with those who produce the discourse on Pop Art—art writers in New York. Because of their place in the art world, these writers constructed what were actually quite fractured accounts of Pop Art. Hidden beneath the master narrative of an art of popular culture was an Oedipal sub-text of a new generation beginning to challenge the old gatekeepers of art, headed by Clement Greenberg.

When one re-reads the early writers on Pop, it quickly becomes clear that the defining characteristics of Pop Art in New York were understood through a filter of the kind of art that Clement Greenberg had excluded in his definition of “Modernism.” Greenberg’s theory of the evolution of art towards a material and moral purity demanded that figuration and representation be eliminated from “fine art.” Beginning with Neo-Dada, there was a dramatic change in art: a return to the object through a new kind of literalism, an appropriation of the image of a common object without change or alteration. The cool, detached acceptance of the low and the ordinary by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg signaled a new depersonalization in art, a rebuke to the stress on the artist’s personality seen in Abstract Expressionism.

Like the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists borrowed, quoted, and appropriated already available subject matter that was timely, topical, concerned with ordinary life. Unlike the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists were less inclined towards found objects and were more deliberatively selective of what they purloined. The artists sacrificed individuality creativity in favor of consuming advertising, mostly invented in the offices and studios of New York ad agencies. Pop Art reveled in banal imagery of commodification and consumerism and celebrated post-War affluence in America. Therefore, in contrast to Ab Ex’s European-based influences, Pop was a return to American art subject matter in America. Pop was cosmopolitan, especially concerned with the sophisticated urban environment of a New York culture of persuasion, and uses quotations, translations, imitations, visual double-takes in a witty and youthful fashion.

In 1957, the British artist, Richard Hamilton, defined Pop Art as “1. popular: designed for mass audience, 2. Transient: short-term solution, 3. Expendable: easily forgotten, 4. Low Cost, 5. Mass Produced, 6. Young: aimed at youth, 7. Witty 8. Sexy 9. Gimmacky 10. Glamorous and 11. Big Business.” In other words, Pop Art does not take itself seriously. American Pop Art in New York was concerned with reacting against gestural Abstract Expressionist painting and against Modernist spiritualization of art. Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating a once-disparaged low culture.

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many observers were repelled by the vulgar sources favored by the artists. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers transformed Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. As early as 1939, Greenberg had campaigned against “kitsch,” the natural enemy of the avant-garde. Many subsequently linked Pop Art to kitsch, thinking popular culture, but kitsch, as Greenberg explained, is a debased form of high art: an Alexandre Cabanal reaction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. That said, Pop Art in its built-in marketability was a form of temptation for artists who refused to risk their income or “stardom” in favor of difficult experimental art and the sheer popularity of Pop Art would draw the ire of Greenberg.

Reprinted in Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, Greenberg’s 1971 lecture, “Night Eight,” summed up his problems with Pop.

…Pop Art appealed to a lower, obvious order of literary of literary taste–making fun of advertising, making fun of pinup girls, making fun of labels on cans. and so forth—which is so easy to make fun of and we are all in on it anyhow…I think some of Pop Art is respectful academic art. It will probably last the same way the small pictures of Gérome or Bouguereau—and probably not was well as some of the small pictures of Meissonier—have lasted…(Pop Art) is nice small art and it is respectable, but it is not good enough to keep high art going…

Earlier in his remarks, Greenberg claimed that Pop Art was “academic” because it was from “the art school Cubist grid,” clearly defining Pop Art as “kitsch.” However, it is possible that because of his age—Greenberg was born in 1909—he could not see the sheer joy the artists took in popular culture. He assumed that the painters were making fun of the imagery. The conceptual basis of Pop was that the art was not serious, not intellectual, not a critique. By its very nature, Pop Art was an art of the status quo. On the other hand, Greenberg would have understood Pop Art within the structure of the dialectic. Pop Art was the linear answer to the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art was the figurative antithesis to the abstract thesis of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art, as originally written, was a discursive repudiation of Clement Greenberg, the Father of American Art Criticism.

Pop Art as Mass Culture

As a lived condition of real artists, Pop Art was a less Oedipal reaction, not to art, but to the real world as it was coming into being on the cusp of the early sixties. When one looks at the white plaster sculptures of George Segal, Pop Art seems an art of the ordinary, examining the colorless and uncelebrated lives of “real life.” But Segal is an outlier, lumped, perhaps inaccurately, within the Pop movement because of a coincidence of time and place. Segal, unlike many of the Pop artists, commented upon contemporary events—the Holocaust, Kent State, homosexual rights. From the perspective of hindsight, some artists, from Segal to Marisol, lie uneasily within the precincts of Pop. It is helpful to think of Pop Art, not as a revival of 19th century Realism but as a thoroughly modern movement, an art of mass media; and specifically an art of the kind of media that, for the first time in history, could be omnipotent in everyday life because of a technology that had never existed before. The Pop Art of mass media had two main themes: desire, the kind of desire that can never be fulfilled, the kind of desire that is endlessly displaced and projected onto another consumer object through advertising, the kind of advertising that is a fantasy swallowed whole, the kind of advertising that is capable of selling anything, as long as the jingles are jaunty and the colors are jumping, because the spectacle offers the second theme: fulfillment.

Unlike Realism of Courbet, Pop Art was noticeably passive: it observed and it seized and re-gifted the object of its desire without comment, like Manet. But unlike Manet, Pop Art did not attempt a new style to signify the salient characteristics of the new era—the transient nature of modernité, instead, it simply reified the nature of post-war life—the elevation of an artificial manufactured culture of desire into high art. To quote Jean Baudrillard on simulacra, Pop Art was an art of the simulated—it was a simulation of something that is simulated from something that never existed. As a simulacra of a simulacra—Warhol’s Evis paintings—Pop Art reiterated an image of an image, gleefully recapitulating to its glorified artificiality—Warhol’s Marilyn paintings.

James Rosenquist was a rarity among Pop artists, an artist who critiqued aspects of the American society that fed his art. Like Lichtenstein replicated the Ben-Day dots of four color printing, Rosenquist used the creamy sensuous appearance of mass advertising of the fifties as the starting point for his version of Pop Art. Working like an editor enamored of montage, the artist sliced and diced found images like a bricoleur on a rampage. President Elect, painted in 1961 with the smiling picture of Kennedy, a luscious piece of cake offered to the open mouth of the public and the yellow car, completely changed in its meaning after November of 1963. After that date, one could not see a car juxtaposed with Kennedy without shuddering. Such are the dangers of using contemporary images—they can go beyond fashionable banality and sink to irrelevancy or they can rise to the historical occasion and remain potent and powerful like Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. President Elect became tragic two years after it was painted, a morning wall for a grieving public.

F-111 was Rosenquist’s most eloquent statement against the official foreign policy of America, the doctrine called MAD and the Viet Nam War. Only Robert Heineken, his contemporary who was never included in Pop Art, was as fearless in his denunciation of a highly contentious war. A large multi-paneled installation, F-111 was painted in 1964, years before the nation rose up in anger against the latest manifestation of the Cold War. Although for decades art writers and curators would stoutly deny the political content of this painting, Rosenquist was very frank in his intentions. The mock billboard was, as the artist said, “…flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising.”

The painting was a consummate statement on mass culture, showing that mass advertising, mass popular art—advertising—can sell anything, even death through nuclear annihilation, even death in a remote rice paddy for purposes unknown. F-111 refers to a new and expensive fighter jet awaiting its Top Guns. Its tail and its tip are the beginning and end of the painting which is propelled along its four panels by tire tracks that roll past a little girl sheltered beneath the nose cone of a missile. Along the way, atomic blooms and an umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction are way stations on a deadly journey ending in a close up of gut-like spaghetti. With its sophisticated manipulation of propaganda, advertising, the raw material for Pop Art, was an art of all things urban, successfully wiping out folk art and sweeping humble craft to the margins. In its time, even when reinforcing an old and tired patriarchal system, Pop Art represented all things shiny and new.

Pop Art as Mass Media

Fifty years later, the dust of history has settled on Pop Art. Some of the artists are dead–Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, some are still alive and well and making art—Ruscha and Hockney, but the time of Pop Art has past. Some of the art has not worn well and exists only as a blue chip “example” of Pop Art, but the movement itself remains relevant. Pop Art in America presaged things to come: the fact that our social lives, our economic well-being, our very culture in the West would be based upon mass culture driven by mass advertising fueled by the technology of mass media that impels us to consume our way to happiness.

Many observers have linked Pop Art to the 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, “A Work of Art in an Age of Reproduction,” and indeed there is much merit in this correspondence. Pop Art replicated the style of mass reproduction as it existed in the sixties, slick and clean lines, strong and sharp colors, subliminal mash-ups to form connections among objects of abundance and signs of affluence and insatiable desire. Not only did Pop Art reject the painterly surfaces and the high seriousness of Abstract Expression, it also rejected the shared sacrifice of the Second World Two and its patriotic rationing. Pop Art is a art of cheerful greed, targeted like advertising, toward those whom society rewards and ignored those whom society punishes. Pop Art reproduced the reproducibility of advertising. It was an art to be looked at, an art to be seen, an art to be enjoyed. Like the consumer goods it advertised, Pop Art was consumed, first by avid viewers and be acquisitive collectors and then, at last, by history.

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“The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936, Part Two

Re-reading “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

by Walter Benjamin

Part Two

“What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time:

the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.

Decades after the death of Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility was often mis-read and misunderstood, but in its own time, this essay had a profound impact upon the thinking of Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno. Benjamin essentially raised the issues of both the (re)definition of art in an age of mass media and of the impact of art once it could be dispersed over the vastness of time and space. While Benjamin lived, art teetered on the precipice of a precipitous fall into popular culture, where it would be engulfed: simply an image among other images. Benjamin apparently realized—quite keenly—that the traditional work of art existed as “art” by virtue of its uniqueness and specificity and its sense of place and history.

Almost a decade after the death of his colleague, Adorno, working with Max Horkheimer, examined “The Culture Industry” in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Adorno and Horkheimer were alerted by Benjamin of the unholy alliance between politics and art, but Benjamin’s larger project in his “Work of Art” essay was more subtle. Benjamin was interested in the new mode of perception ushered in by modern mechanical reproduction. In other words, his essay recalls the anxieties of the Ninth Century Iconoclasts that the image might replace the authenticity of the Divine with a simulacra and anticipates the predictions of Jean Baudrillard that the simulacra will be substituted for the real. The central question of the “Work of Art” essay is how do we see and how to we think now that we are exposed to reproductions which are inherently and definitionally not real but are simulacra?

Of singular importance to this question is the association between Benjamin and the Weimar film writer, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). Kracauer, like Benjamin, had a Neo-Kantian background and was one of the intellectual pioneers in formulating a theory for film, a new art form and a new form of mass media. The Benjamin essay, therefore, needs to be understood from a dual perspective. First, Benjamin examined the idea of the substitution of the object for its reproduction and second, he was concerned with the new mode of cognition wrought by this new “Age.” As Kantians, both film writers, Kracauer and Benjamin, would have been concerned about the impact of a mechanical apparatus mediating reality—a mass social experience that Kant could not have anticipated when he posited his “Copernican Revolution.” The means of delivery had the potential of superceding content, a phenomenon best stated by Marshall McLuhan as “the medium is the message.”

Almost a hundred years ago, at the dawn of mass media, Benjamin was concerned with the idea of “origin” or authenticity in relation to “the work of art.” If the origin of art can be located or known, then authenticity can be assured. Authenticity is deeply connected with Benjamin’s ephemeral but powerful notion of “aura.” “Aura” in turn can be traced back to the remote origins of art embedded in objects deemed sacred by the tribe. “Aura” refers to that “quality” which defined “art”—its inaccessibility, its remoteness, its distance from the observer/worshiper. Art—or that special object set aside from normal social life—was always a cult object, viewed but never approached, venerated but never touched. However, reproductive technology was in the process of dispelling “aura” by making a cult object visible and available through an endless reproduction. As Benjamin wrote, “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique experience.”

Instead of taking a pilgrimage to view a sacred relic, the “pilgrim” of Benjamin’s time had only to turn the page of an art magazine to view a work of art. The reproduction provided a substitute for the “real thing” and gave the audience a sense, however fleeting, of accessibility if not ownership. Benjamin thought that the masses wanted to get closer to the object in their “concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness.” The precise “thing” that gave art its “aura” must be assimilated into a mass experience. Benjamin understood that in the age of “mechanical reproduction” “art” needed to be understood from another point of view, one that did not depend upon the inaccessibility or cult status of the object. He also understood that the entire apparatus of mass media reproduction, especially film, had a profound impact upon how people would perceive the world—through the mediating actions of images. These images would be ubiquitous and would bear messages of all kinds. Unlike the work of art, these images would be partial, fragmented, un-whole, and conveyed via montage, which sliced through time and space, deploying incomplete impressions. Nevertheless, such images could be powerful and impactful.

For wholeness and authenticity and completeness and, ultimately, “aura,” “technological reproduction” of an image must suffice and substitute for the human’s mysterious need for images. These notions of origin and authenticity and the vanishing point of aura also refer to the bourgeois ego, also on the point of vanishing into the commodity spell of capitalism. Since the time of “high capitalism,” the ego or one’s sense of individuality or uniqueness or one’s “aura,” if you will had become more and more of an illusion. Individuality had to be processed or expressed through commodities which substituted for uniqueness. The moment of the writing of this essay—1936 in Paris—was a time of crisis for the work of art and for the intellectual freedom of the consumer, perpetually under the spell of an increasingly technological society fueled by commodities. Thanks to technological reproducibility, art could be dislodged from its site of origin and from its place in history and could be magically transported into the present where it could be possessed or repossessed, used or misused. Under such a system, aura would wither and decline.

“Aura” was an odd topic for this most Jewish of Jewish writers to take up, for traditional Judaism forbad “graven images.” Art and its aura was a manifestly Christian tradition, but Benjamin understood art as having its origins in the rituals of the (prehistoric) cult—an object of veneration upon which human feelings of awe was projected. He defined “aura” as that which is generated by and from the work of art when it functioned as a cult object within ritual due to the distance between the relic and the worshiper. The psychological and physical space between the spectator and the relic created an aura that could be completely dispelled when the distance vanished. Mechanical Reproduction had the capability to bring that worshiped object down to earth, as it were, and place in within visual reach of the viewer.

“Auratic perception” could be defined as an atmosphere enveloping the object. The subject’s position is one of contemplation or repose, a mental absorption in the object, an “intent attentiveness.” But with the possibilities of reproductive technology, art was displaced from its position of distance and and could be captured and owned through mechanical reproduction. The gaze becomes a quick and casual look. Satisfaction comes, not from deep immersion in the “aura,” but in the acquisition of another commodity. In other words, the antique “attentiveness” was, in modern times, disrupted by the effects of mass reproduction of images, requiring little more than a passing glance.

Whereas both Karl Marx and Charles Baudelaire discussed the loss of the halo worn by those who had once made “art,” Max Weber used the term Entzauberung or “demystification,” or the loss of enchantment, in the world to explain the loss of “aura.” As Baudelaire wrote in his famous Petits poèmes en prose (1869):

Just now, as I was crossing the boulevard, and hopping in the mud, in quite a hurry, through the shifting chaos where death comes galloping from all sides at once, my halo slipped off my head, in one abrupt movement, into the mire of the macadam. I didn’t have the guts to pick it up. I considered it less disagreeable to lose my insignia than to break my bones. And anyways, I said to myself, misfortune is good for something. Now I can walk about incognito, commit foul acts, and indulge in debauchery like ordinary mortals. So here I am, just like you, as you can see!

Acutely aware that Baudelaire had previously written of art’s “decay,” Benjamin examined the possible role of the art object in a secularized and modernized culture. As Rob Halpern wrote in Modernist Cultures in 2009,

Rather than protest or mourn his loss, however, Baudelaire’s angel accepts his fallen condition “into the mire of the macadam.” By resigning himself in this way, the poem registers an awareness that the traditional artwork or poem could no longer claim a unique value, and that aesthetic authenticity – in this case, the elevated status of lyric poetry – had become incompatible with modern experience, whose transformation, Benjamin argues, was inseparable from the domination of life by the commodity, and the disfiguration of social relations by the dynamics of capitalist production.

Clearly, there is a line of thinking from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno connecting capitalism and mass reproduction with the loss of the “halo” or “aura.” Some twenty years later, André Malraux would take up the idea of reproducing works of art in his book, Museum Without Walls. By then, art history books and reproduction of works of art was commonplace, but, in the Thirties, when this use of reproductive technology was in its infancy, and Benjamin was concerned about the fate of art. Indeed, it is possible to become sidetracked over the questions of reproduction and it is important to remember that Benjamin’s concerns were aesthetic—in a modern era, what is art?

Can art exist without “aura?” The question for Benjamin is where and when did the status of auratic art begin to decay? The atavistic, sacred, and mythic character of the cult object was transformed in the Renaissance, a period of secularization, as European societies increasing became less spiritual and more material. “Art” was displaced from ritual and replaced into a cult of beauty and thus became profaned by what was (the wrong kind of) a new kind of appreciation. In other words, the frescoes of Michelangelo might be admired for their sheer artistic beauty which could override the sacred message. In fact this clear threat could have been the cause for the aggressive censorship of The Last Judgment. The result for aesthetics was contradictory—on one hand, art was emancipated from its dependence upon ritual, but on the other hand, the work of art became a fetish with mystifying character due to its former role as a cult object. Benjamin asserted that, “mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” But to be clear, Benjamin was not referring to “art-for-art’s-sake” but to the severance of the connection between art and distance. This “decay,” as it were, was a new condition for sacred objects (art).

For Benjamin the reproduction of works of art, which are unique, part of ritual and sacred practices, destroys the authority of art. Loss of authenticity or aura destroys the very “rootedness” of art. This “aura” Benjamin discusses is the result of distance which is decayed by the desire of the masses to bring things closer both in human and in spatial terms. This loss of distance between the viewer and the work of art and the replacement of aura with familiarity lead to the universal equality of things, or what Benjamin called the “cult of similarity.” On this point, his friend in the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, will not only agree but will also appropriate some of his colleague’s insights. For Adorno, equality will lead to “identity thinking” and he will recommend the philosophical position of “negative dialectics” to counteract the deadly and totalitarian effects of demanding totalization of thinking.

Once the apparatus of mechanical reproduction is established, then art is produced for reproduction, fundamentally changing the character of art, which was once unique and original. Without uniqueness and originality and authenticity, art has no aura. Art is displaced from the cult and its cult value is replaced by its exhibitionary value. Once art is on film (reproduced) or is film (photography or movies) its aura “shrivels” and ”withers” to the extent that the distance is diminished. But Benjamin was concerned with the difference between the “first technology” or the desire to master nature and the “second technology,” or film, of which he said, ” The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.”

Benjamin, however, had hope for mechanical reproduction. Like his colleague, Bertold Brecht, he hoped that cinema, as a mass media, could, and would be an instrument to awaken the masses. Film inherently tended to dissipate “aura” but Benjamin balanced losses against gains and the possibility of positive results. There is the possibility of a catharsis, of a clean slate, which starts by admitting the modern poverty of experience in a disenchanted world. New technology, used properly, could change the world. The Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, had hoped that montage or editing would emancipate the thinking of his audience.

Benjamin understood that montage could work in another fashion: that editing and constructing a film role could build up an actor’s “aura,” an effect clearly seen in Triumph of Will—the “star power” of Hitler, who was framed in such a fashion to make him look like a god. Plainly, Benjamin understood the danger of the “close up” to produce another kind of aura—a more dangerous cult could arise. But he also had faith in the possibility that mass audiences could organize their own responses to film and thus, perhaps, emancipate themselves by using avenues of resistance and expression that “art” does not provide. He stated,

“Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve the magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its commodity character, but its counterpart the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses.”

For Benjamin, the loss of aura was deeply tied to a more profound crisis, and the loss of the aura of art was but a symptom of this crisis. Borrowing from Marx and combining these insights with those of Freud, Benjamin dated the crisis from the end of the Great War to the end of the Weimer Republic, culminating in the seizure of power by the Nazis. This crisis was the shattering of tradition, a tradition that had guaranteed coherence, communicability and the transmissibility of experience—the accumulation of unconscious data called “memory.”

Erfahfung”, that assimilation of sensations, information, and events into an integrated experience had given way to “Erlebnis” or (modern) experience reduced to a series of atomized and unarticulated moments merely lived through. Baudelaire understood modern experience, and Benjamin who wrote extensively on Baudelaire, while he was in exile in Paris, oscillated between celebrating this new culture and mourning the loss of traditional culture. He was horrified by the new political barbarism he saw and was pained by the new poverty of experience, mediated by mass culture.

Indeed, in the early years of the Frankfurt School, the scholars did empirical studies which revealed that the masses were inherently passive and uninterested in rising up politically to help themselves through political revolution. Benjamin watched while the forces of fascism took hold of the passivity of the masses and mobilized them to the cause of keeping property relations unchanged. In other words, fascism gave the proletarian mobs the illusion of participating in shaping their own destiny while they remained powerless.

The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction is often reprinted in a truncated form and was, in effect, intellectually and anachronistically “rewritten” for the purposes of re-contextualizing the work of Benjamin in the contemporary context of the art world. Art historians who rediscovered Benjamin in the 1980s depoliticized his thinking. However, this essay was very much concerned with politics, particular the rise of fascism, which manipulates the masses through art forms. Benjamin begins this essay by stating that under the “present conditions of production” (mechanical), “outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” can be used by Fascism, or they can be used for “the formulation of revolutionary demands of the politics of art.”

Benjamin understood that Fascism, like the Roman Empire before it, would attempt to provide bread and circuses to distract the masses. He also saw the danger that aesthetics and politics could be linked to war:

Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, which Fascism, with its Fuehrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus, which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war…Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.

The “self-alienation” of society, Benjamin continues, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics, which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”


Thus ends one of the most significant essays for the Postmodern Condition. However, the historical context of this essay was lost, as, when the work was finally translated, it was released in America during the high verses low culture debate. Certainly, Benjamin understood that once art was displaced from its auratic function, art could float from high to low, but his interest was more in what would later be termed “appropriation” or in what Clement Greenberg clearly saw was “kitsch” or the appearance or semblance of “art,” watered down for mass consumption. After the emergence of Pop Art in the 1960s, the work of Benjamin was recontextualized and distorted to fit into Pop’s use of ready-made imagery.

In part one of this section on the “Work of Art” essay, the question was asked if this meditation on that which has been lost by Walter Benjamin has any value today, one hundred years later. In the twenty-first century, we enjoy the fruits of mechanical reproduction and “technological reproducibility.” We are inundated with images, bombarded by media, from twenty-four hour cable to radio stations that never go off the air to the faux intimacy of the Internet. All “information” gets the same weight and accountability to the “facts” is often absent. Media has become a commodity which needs to be bought and sold, meaning that intellectuals and ideas, as Marx foretold, are part of capitalist transactions.

Most people know “art” only from mechanical reproductions, augmented by occasional visits to a museum or gallery. Television flattens the intellectual landscape by giving equal value to reality shows and Masterpiece Theater. The movie industry produces entertainment for the lowest common denominator (the teenage boy) and news “papers” are becoming extinct and morphing into apps. One wonders what Benjamin would have thought. It is possible he would have delighted in the openness of the World Wide Web and would have been thrilled at the emergence of the “Arab Spring” via cell phone and blogging, but he would have grieved at television being appropriated by corporate interests, which use the concept of “news” to manipulate and dominate the masses.

When his essays were translated into English in the 1980s and made available for a wider readership, the cultural context of his essay made it clear that the writer was struggling between what he could clearly see as a misuse of “culture” and the great liberating possibilities of bringing images and people together. Here is this benign field of entertainment the dominant ideology can be challenged and perhaps changed. Years later, greatly indebted to Benjamin’s ideas, Theodor Adorno would write of a dominate “culture industry” that served to support the prevailing belief system. Benjamin would not live to see how this culture industry came to dominate and shape “reality” or how the internet allowed the people to lay their hands on “the media.” If he were alive today, Benjamin would probably be on the internet, blogging away.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Podcast 47: Postmodern Painting—The Return of the Repressed


Postmodern painting can be characterized as a reaction against the “rule” of Modernist painting. Using the art of David Salle, Julian Schanbel, Carol Maria Mariani, MarkTansey and Eric Fischl, this podcast discusses the deliberate lack of originality in Postmodern art. Whether the artists were addressing the “language of painting,” (Salle) or nostalgically revisiting Expressionism (Schanbel) or refitting the past through “dead languages,” (Mariani and Tansey) or indulging in the “forbiddens” of personal biography and buried secrets, (Fischl) the resurgence of Postmodern painting was indeed the Return of the Repressed.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 44 Painting 10: Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol and “Decorative Art”

Andy Warhol played many roles in the art world of the sixties. Although he produced more films than paintings and sculptures, he re-defined “painting” and “sculpture,” bringing these traditional practices into the modern age. Using serigraphy as a metaphor for commercialism and consumerism, Warhol brought his advertising sensibilities to fine arts. Wooden boxes with purloined logos suggested that the art world was a market place for the high-end consumer. Casting aside hierarchy and judgment, the artist consumed the ubiquitous imagery of his time and put together an encyclopedia for his decade. Acting like a bricoleur, he gathered the pictures of mass media and re-produced and re-presented the already known and the already seen and forced the viewers to examine the overlooked and the banal of the culture.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline