Only for the masses
Published in the catalogue of the exhibition curated by PSJM “Only for the masses”. January 2005.
Industrialised society, the growth in population brought about by scientific progress, and particularly the field of medicine, and the concentration of human beings in certain privileged areas are all factors which lead to the rise of the masses, mass society. Although it has its roots in the 19th century, it was not until the 20th that the masses started to crystallise. Mass society flourished in the 20th century, and it does not look as though the 21st will be any different. It will probably even outdo the one before. These super-modern times in which we live, with its flood of information, of images, and an excess of individualism is still an ideal hotbed for mass production and control exercised through information technologies and the production of commodities.
Masses, the mass. The mass which only becomes visible in surveys, in numbers and viewing figures, that neutralising body, “the black hole into which social issues are pouring”. Jean Baudrillard speaks of masses which are nothingness: “That is what the mass is like, a meeting of individual particles in the vacuum, the debris of social issues and media-driven impulses”. And he continues to identify this body which welcomes the loss of consciousness, to be freed of its symbolic obligations: “A being without attributes, without a predicate, without quality, without reference. That is the definition, or the lack of it”.
At some time during the day we all feel haunted by that uncomfortable suspicion that we are part of the mass, an anonymous member of those “silent majorities”. And we all, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, consume the products of this mass culture. The culture industry en masse frenziedly produces and distributes the consumables which make up this standard, dominant culture. That undefined and neutralising mass consumes art, and plenty of it. The art of the masses. Noël Carroll defines mass works of art like this: “it is a typical work, a work of which there are multiple copies, produced and distributed using mass technology, intentionally conceived so that structurally (e.g. in the form of the narrative, the symbolism, the affections and even the content) it tends towards those options which promise access with the least possible effort, the least contact, to the greater number of uneducated (or relatively little-educated) people”. A work of art produced and distributed using mass technology and accessible to the greatest number of people possible. This aspect of accessibility, which sets Carroll at odds with David Novitz is considered to be a “structural and functional requisite of mass art”, which is what sets this kind of art apart from avant-garde art produced using mass technology. At the same time as the industrialised society and mass-produced art are born so, too, is avant-garde art, at the same time and almost as a negation of the former. “Avant-garde art, more than any other form of esoteric art, is intentionally designed to make easy consumption and understanding more problematical, and often to attack what is considered to be the aesthetic, intellectual and moral complacency of the general trend of humanity”. The philosopher maintains that “no work of avant-garde art can be mass-produced art”, based on his theory of accessibility, and defining mass-produced art as being the opposite of avant-garde art, like two opposite, yet complementary poles. In this sense, and even though this American does not make negative evaluations, he coincides with other critics and thinkers, both apologists and detractors of this kind of art, in its definition by opposition. Under the title “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, Clement Greenberg published his most belligerent article against mass-produced art and all those who defend it, a danger for the culture of modern times. The most important and influential theoriser from post-war America believed that kitsch (art for the masses) was “a new merchandise: surrogate culture, kitsch, aimed at people who, being insensitive to the values of genuine culture, are, however, anxious to experience the enjoyment that certain culture can provide”. Fun, entertainment, a passive and alienating attitude, which contrasts sharply with the emancipating power for the masses that Walter Benjamin found in new technologies. Apocalyptic and integrated, that is how Eco referred to the confrontation of postures in this dialogue, which appears to be eternal, between those who criticise and those who applaud the popular culture of industrialised societies. Eco recommends adopting a mixed posture of critical integration and advises intellectuals to take part in mass media in order to educate and take culture to a wider audience. With this illustrated spirit, this reader of social signs and communications theorist “managed to turn a great novel into a best-seller, without giving up certain levels of reading which are only accessible to a minority”.
To take culture to the public, to as wide a public as possible. Perhaps many people forget that without a public there is no art, that “the reader, spectator or public is actively involved in the construction of the work of art, and if it is not received/consumed, the cultural product is incomplete”. But which public? The different cultural levels seem to match different levels of art. Highbrow and lowbrow. Exclusive and mass-produced. For Pierre Bourdieu “the subjection to the need which, as we have seen, inclines the popular classes towards pragmatic and functional “aesthetics”, dismissing gratuitousness and the futility of formal exercises and any kind of art for art’s stake, is also at the basis of all choices in daily life and an art of living which imposes the exclusion of truly aesthetic instances as if it were some kind of “madness”. If the learned public, the holders of the code, consume art from a more aesthetic than practical predisposition, the popular classes demand pragmatic and accessible solutions.
The avant-garde art we are concerned with moves within that undefined space between reality and the code, a situation which Martí Perán describes as: “… on the one hand, the existence of mass-produced, commercial and popular art can be admitted because, in some way, it represents the place where artistic values have dissolved finally in favour of the immediate and the practical, and on the other, by describing contemporary culture as that which adds this feeling of “immediateness” of what is popular to its distinguished discursiveness, to its role as highbrow culture, then the end result can only be that kind of art which, (…) does not synthesise but supports the structural contradiction of operating simultaneously from the point of “dissolution” and “distinction”. An art which operates in the land of reality, which blends into it and which becomes distinctive through institutionalisation. Artists who criticise mass society and yet at the same time feel fascinated by its media, strategies and products.
 Marc Augé, “Sobremodernidad. Del mundo de hoy al mundo del mañana”, Mexico, Report no. 129, November 1999.
 Jean Beaudrillard, “A la sombra de las mayorías silenciosas” (1978) in “Cultura y Simulacro”, Barcelona, Cairos, 2001.
 “Today, the so-called mass culture, spread by our culture industry, is not directly linked to any one class or social group in particular, since it is basically an across-the-class culture, consumed by a mixed-bag of people” Vicenç Furió, “Sociología del arte”, Madrid, Cátedra, 2000.
 Noël Carroll, “Una filosofía del arte de masas”, Madrid, Antonio Machado books, 2002.
 Ibid, p. 211.
 A few things need to be pointed out here, such as the film director Quentin Tarantino, tireless corruptor of the language of film, who builds his works on flash-backs and long monologues and who, although a producer of art for the masses, does not seem to adapt to the condition that Carroll relieves is necessary for this kind of art. Or perhaps it might be a good idea to re-think the nature of advanced art and relocate the boundaries of such a classification.
 Clement Greenberg “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, originally Publisher in Partisan Review, Fall, 1939. (AA.VV, “La industria de la cultura”, Madrid, Comunicación 1989).
 A German word of uncertain origin which began to be used between 1860 and 1870 by painters and artmerchants in Munich to refer to cheap artistic material.
 Walter Benjamín “La obra de arte en la era de su reproductibilidad técnica” in “Discursos Interrupidos I”, Madrid, Taurus, 1982, particularly referring to films and photography.
 Umberto Eco, (1965) “Apocalípticos e integrados”, Barcelona, Lumen, 1985.
 Vicenç Furió. “sociología del arte”. Madrid, Cátedra, 2000, p. 170.
 Janet Wolf, “La producción social del arte”, Madrid, Istmo, 1997, p. 117. The author quotes Marx: “Consumption causes production (…) because a product can only ever be a product when we consume it. For example, a garment can only be a garment when we put it on; a house where no one lives is not really a house; so the product, as distinct from the natural object, shows itself to be, becomes, a product only through use. Only be decomposing the product does the product receive its final touch”.
 Pierre Bourdieu (1979) “La distinción. Criterios y bases sociales del gusto”, Madrid, Taurus, 1988.
 “The category of objets d’art would be defined by the fact that it clamours to be experienced with truly aesthetic intentions, i.e. in the form rather than the function”, Pierre Bourdieu commenting on Erwin Panofsky’s “intention”. Madrid, Lápiz, no. 166, October 2000.
 Martí Perán, “Space Invaders (o el arte entre la disolución y la distinción)” in “Tendencias del arte, arte de tendencias a principios del siglo XXI”. Juan Antonio Ramírez and Jesús Carrillo (publishers), Madrid, Cátedra, 2004.