Prefabricated Art: the Triumph of Materialist Civilization?


“Well, Art is Art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.”

— Groucho Marx

Until Marcel Duchamp put a definitive stop to what was considered to be Western art in 1917 with his urinary vessel signed R. Mutt, only significational representations of the outer world (i.e. what we could see and touch) were considered to be art (and not handicrafts). The rupture between the object and creator became paramount with his declaration that what he, Duchamp as an artist (whatever that may have meant or still means) declares to be ‘art’ is only the object that he chooses or finds (“objets trouves”). It assumes universality; therefore anything beyond paint, canvas, paper wood or stone could be art. It involves a special position of a human called the artist as well as it denies any standard of what was considered quality. Anyone pronounced by her/himself to be an artist could declare therefore whatever she/he chose to be an art object, whether it was still an object or a declaration of whatever creational idea she/he may have. It is the ideal concept of true anarchism in freedom of choice and appellation of what had been strictly circumscribed as an art object. Why then, one would be tempted to ask, even bother to call one’s ideas or creations: ‘art’?

Art is dead (like the concept of God). It is supposed to have fully receded into oblivion within the exigencies of contemporary life and the only corner in which it may breathe is hidden in the confines of elite dwellings. Present day creators of objects may decide to make these objects attractive for decorative purposes and /or for monetary compensation, because an idea is hard to sell or they may try to go against the stream of consumerism and make the work reach beyond the exchange market. In either case whether the idea or object is declared to be art, no transcendental status is intended, only a realist function as décor or as a statement remains. Like totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century who used art as propaganda despoiled of transcendental value, many contemporary artists are political propagandists. The meaning of art excludes references to old-fashioned thoughts of it being a promise of ephemeral happiness devoid of or chained to an exchange value, “promesse de bonheur” often translating into “promesse de malheur”.

‘Entartete Kunst’ triumphed over Hitler and with its victory has allowed in consequence its followers to abandon forever all pretenses to liberate the soul of the viewer from the harsh demands of contemporary civilization. On the contrary by its strict adherence to an intellectual message it binds the viewer far more to the false reality, namely that of our materialist society. The emotional cathexis between an art object and a viewer, who is now expected to react intellectually rather than to be lifted out of her/his social self- hypnosis, is forcibly shrunk to well nigh nothing. The distance between Western art and African masks for example is far beyond calculation, whereby the object, the mask lost its symbolic meaning as well as its real religious aspect and consequently means little beyond interesting lines and certain colors, leaving us a dry contemplation of only its previous function in the dance. This quite anti-intuitive aspect of what is now regarded as significant contemporary art deflates and disproves the neo-Luddite theory that art is primarily compensation for the ills of human cohabitation and for the enormous forces that arose from the division of labor and the beginning of early agriculture. In fact art emerges as a reified technical product, helped by engineering and science.

Ergo materialist civilization has completely triumphed in derailing whatever visual arts are now still taught and practiced. A sentimental attachment to previously manufactured art objects is expressed in the museum and in academia, under the proviso that everything is reduced to a clean surface, i.e. made to look as if coming straight from an impersonal creator’s hand, thereby not only often taking away whatever the artist may have applied, as say for a last change in an oil painting during a “vernissage”, but also killing all glow of age and traces of accumulated dust. In this age a distance is built up between the creator and the object itself as if the object arose from a prefabricated model produced by some robotic hand functioning as universal idea, giving it a totally fictional objective cultural exchange value.

Deracinated, the art object is neither fish nor fowl, because it cannot ever reach any ideational space for a standard of beauty and meaning, nor has it kept much of its impact as a comment on contemporary society. Its indifference is much like a descent into Dante’s hell, each level coming with its own fine torture of blindness exactly as exhibited in the ceramic sculptures of Koons and one wonders if one should be struck by the likeness of these copulation delights to the Laocoon group composition with its baroque twists of bodies and snake, or delighted by the liberating (f)rankness that is defying all traditional prurience of Western sculpture. Left out of the equation is what Koons seems to tell us that his sculptures are reflective of Indian religious images, but this pretense is denied by the total lack of spiritual content: pure sexuality as a display model.

When capitalism and its excesses have become like a religion with its high priests and priestesses determining cultural quality, little remains beyond an accountant’s taste and values. The dryness of present-day Western civilization is like a sadly shriveled flower, showing the outlines of former glory and present rot. Traditionally indeed the fine arts were considered to be the sole purlieu of the elites, to be used for their rather primitive propaganda purposes and elaborating on their wealth and power and to insist as far as the Roman Catholic Church was involved on its exculpatory finesse in dealing with our sins.

Never was the source for creating images lost for inspiration and never as conspicuously tendentious in its purposes for intruding into our consciousness. The portrait for instance was there to signify personal power, but not to sell the person as a potentate and totem image, who preaches to us temporal success. Nor despite the modern interpretation was the Madonna only a propagandist icon to which women were expected to conform. She is there to remind us of a natural motherly compassion and forgiveness for our trespasses: “Ave Maria gratia plena” fully submits to the power of humanly grace.

Why art is part of the human persona in whatever form it takes remains much of a riddle, from the ancient grotto paintings to the slight traces of depiction as smudged remainders of Post-Impressionism and subsequent numerous movements of the many “objets trouves” and the conceptual ideas that followed in quick succession. To return to the neo-Luddite theory that art compensates for societal ills, then the contemporary mass societies with their strict economic hierarchies have much to account for. The spiritual immiseration resulted in a cultural impoverishment which does not allow for a breath of fresh air and no escape from the depressing abstractness or political correctness of the modern image.

Prefabricated minds need familiar objects to help orient them within contemporary space, which transforms itself almost faster than electronic messages and images can travel. The invention of photography is un-avoidingly linked to industrial development because the machine presents humans every second with a new perspective, only reflectively shown in the possibility of instantly being able to preserve an enduring image. There is never an escape from the photographically produced and thus relentlessly present dry-eyed ikon of ‘what is out there’.

Materialist and technological culture is indicative of present-day capitalist society driven by make-believe images (otherwise the experience is not ‘real’) from the moving image to the edited visual horizon of the everyday signs that surround our hectic existence. It parallels the intricate sets of the make-believe beliefs by which people live. The fake (i.e. the simulacrum Derrida described) has replaced reality which is as always the same cruel and harsh fate of social hierarchy and authority. All of us live within these chimeras and even though almost everyone (except those who try their level best to adapt) knows it is pure hokum, we nevertheless still perform within its parameters like actors in a theatre of the absurd by Artaud. To replace the relics of the visual arts there is little beyond the sparse efforts towards a visual meaning which succeed only in reflecting like in a mirror (vide Warhol) the horrors of everyday life. The reproduced prison that like a panopticum observes us from every angle is attained by a prefabrication of our emotions and thoughts. Woe to her/him who would break out of the imaginary straitjacket and the only real hope remains that at some time humans will revive the enchantment of the world instead of destroying it, thus relieving themselves as slaves to technology. And forget Leonardo, he wept.

Gui Rochat is an art dealer and consultant, specializing in in seventeenth and eighteenth century French paintings and drawings. He lives in New York.