Our avatars have gone from transcendent reality to mere surface
“A new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” is “the supreme formal feature of all the post-modernisms.”
By Herbert Rothschild
Both sculptures by Jeff Koons pictured here set records for works by a living artist sold at auction. “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold in 2013 for $58.4 million. Then, in 2019, “Rabbit” sold for $91.1 million. Koons has created smaller versions of the 10-foot “Balloon Dog”in assorted colors, as well as balloon swans, rabbits and monkeys. As I write, there is a magenta balloon dog 10.5 inches in diameter on sale at Artsy.com for $13,000. There are three identical versions of the 3-foot “Rabbit.”
Your first impulse may be to pass aesthetic judgment on these works and moral judgment on the collectors who paid such exorbitant sums for them. But as Fredric Jameson said in 1991 (he was thinking then of Warhol, not Koons), we’re not presented here with an artistic style that is one option among many, but with the paradigmatic expression of our cultural moment. As such, the work is indifferent to judgment, either good or bad, and the collectors may or may not be smart investors.
Jameson is among the keenest analysts of Postmodernism. In his study by that name, he asserts that “the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” is “the supreme formal feature of all the post-modernisms.” He notes “their assimilation to glossy advertising images” and their resistance to interpretation. They are simply things, eye-catching things, and there is no difference between the original and its reproductions.
Here is Koons trying to give meaning to his balloon sculptures: “We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.” Please, Jeff, you’re the top beneficiary of the commodification of art. Just bank your money and don’t talk about how you made it.
The subtitle of Jameson’s work is “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Jameson is a Marxist, the relevance of which in this connection is that he ascribes to the position that the base of every culture is the prevailing form of economic production which then calls into being its cultural superstructure. We get art like that of Warhol and Koons because late, or consumer, capitalism commodifies everything and retails it as glitzy images. We don’t desire — and if we have the money, buy — the thing itself but its simulacrum.
This substitution of surface for depth, image for substance, is universalized in the American idea of the “good life.” The good life is the life led by “the rich and famous,” which we know only through images of their bodies and their possessions and the spaces through which they pass. It’s beside the point that so many of the rich and famous, such as Bill Gates and Serena Williams, lead lives undefined by such images. They aren’t for us centers of consciousness striving for meaning and purpose. They are our avatars of success.
The word avatar, derived from Sanskrit, in Hinduism meant the incarnation on earth of a deity. In Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary, that’s its second definition. Its first is “an electronic image that represents and may be manipulated by a computer user.” It’s ironic that what originally embodied a transcendent reality has become mere surface. There are on-line sites where one can choose among thousands of free images to use as one’s avatar on social media. As long as one is content to exist for others as a simulacrum, not a self, one can have any identity one desires.
As I wrote last week, authentic connection with each other and the natural world is the best way — perhaps the only way — to resist the forces that are emptying contemporary life of meaning and purpose. In all cultures, sharing a meal has been a primary occasion for human connection. So, it’s disheartening how often one sees people sitting across from each other in restaurants looking at their cell phone screens. When their food is served, they take pictures of it and post them on social media. Neither their companions nor their food are present to them until they are changed into images. The same dynamic is at play in sex mediated by pornography.
If you and I were to immerse ourselves in the world utterly familiar to our grandchildren, we would have to get out of our depth. I’d rather not.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.