And so they feel this global pressure even more intensely.
The problem is that we can’t really do anything anymore today without paying for it… With every step you take, you have to buy something. So what can we do? It’s clear that this merchandization has spread its tentacles everywhere. We no longer live in the same world as rousseau, when people spent their days dreaming away by the lake…
You’ve said that we now fight against downtime…
Because consumerism’s success lies in the fact that it completely fills our downtime. There can be no downtime under consumerism. It proves Pascal right: consuming is a lifetime occupation. Today, we’re racing to achieve eternal youth on the aesthetic level, but on an even more profound level, we no longer want any downtime. A day without pleasure is a wasted day! Pleasure has now become a universal right. consumerism provides small pleasures that makes us feel like we’re fighting against habits and routine. Studies have shown that shopping is when women give themselves pleasure. It’s a time of relaxation rather than alienation. At the same time, the two moments mix and coincide, though it’s not as clear-cut and mechanical as it may seem.
It’s a new era. We can no longer think about our world in the same regressive critical terms. There is a dual reality. You provide the kind of analysis we’ve needed for a long time. Previous readings of this phenomenon, like the Situationist analysis, remained stuck on questions of image, on things that were permanently opposed, on the irreducible question of alienation…
The new book avoids demonizing anything. If we had decided to focus on financial criteria, we may have ended up with this kind of reading. Our goal is not to say that this is the absolute truth of the world, etc. We simply presented one aspect of capitalism, and it’s mostly positive. The major failure of artistic capitalism is visible in urban planning.
We haven’t yet found the architecture or the environment for our world. A pair of architects who I think have a lot of important things to say on this question are Lacaton & Vassal. They take existing sites and simply improve them. Instead of constructing new buildings from scratch, I think we have to take what is already there and magnify it, amplify it, restore a sense of quality, and stop trying to produce new models without end, because it doesn’t work.
Other areas have no problem combining extremely different things. Take advertising: there is the best and the worst. There is also a lot more creativity in TV shows today than there was in the past. Film is an interesting example, because, in general, people only know a tiny fraction of what’s being made, only about ten or so blockbusters a year. France produces more than 200 movies a year, Hollywood about 800 and Bollywood makes about 1000 a year, as does the whole of Europe. But what do people actually see? A tiny minority of movies manages to capture 80% of the audience share. The problem of artistic capitalism is that it’s too creative! There is an overabundant offer that fights for a level of consumption that is actually in decline. To say that film is dying, as Jean-Luc Godard did, is stupid. There has never been so much creativity in the movie business, but we just don’t see it! It pops up from time to time at Cannes… In Egypt and Iran, for example, some extremely creative films are being made with very few resources, but these aren’t the kinds of films that get any major success. The problem with artistic capitalism is that it produces much more than it can possibly absorb: we’re stuck in a logic of best sellers and the star system. Success generates more success, and the rest gets nothing. For a time we thought the Internet might change things. But it didn’t. It’s the same thing in music. There are twenty million songs on YouTube, but people only actually hear a few thousand of them. The Internet will not change anything. A few studies have already observed this gap between a massive and diverse offer and a demand that’s concentrated on an extraordinarily small number of books, movies, songs and even museums… It’s a universal logic that’s invading every single field of culture.
In our stagnant economy, I saw that the only three sectors seeing major growth last year were luxury goods, movies and art. And the public’s interest in art is generally focused on a few blockbuster exhibitions and museums, as you might say…
Luxury goods are certainly seeing a lot of growth, but it’s mostly coming from emerging countries. As for big exhibitions, they’ve drawn in so many people they’ve had to extend their hours into the night, but by no means does this point to any democratization of culture. All our studies agree: museum and opera attendance rates have not changed. This doesn’t alter our arguments in the book; it just means that aesthetic forms persist because we have to master the codes. So there’s a real limit on our capacity for democratization: there is a democratization of aesthetic tastes, but not all tastes. People like to travel, they like nice things, nice hotels, they go to Ikea, listen to music, but these are different tastes. Our purpose is not to pass judgment on people’s tastes. Art is surviving, but that doesn’t mean we should go in for any naïve optimism: the artworks we think of as high art are still those that have what we call cultural capital. This simply shows the aestheticization of the world is not just an immense crowd of Bach lovers or something. My goal is to combat a certain aristocratic conception of culture. As Baudelaire said, makeup is already art. And that’s the right attitude. When we talk about artistic capitalism – this integration of art into the capitalist system – it’s supposed to give us a broader perspective on what art is, because art is more than just a masterpiece. Bad paintings are also art. Thinking that art can be reduced to creating masterpieces is an anthropologically false conception of artistic activity. Art involves manipulating forms in order to elicit an emotion, or an idea if you’re a Hegelian. If you think of art in this way, your definition automatically becomes much broader and more inclusive. Artistic capitalism invented a special kind of art that came into being for the first time. We can call this art, as I have in my previous books, the art of mass consumption. Unlike the religious, popular or avant-garde arts, which we could readily define, we can’t completely define the arts of mass consumption like movies and music. These arts are addressed to the entire planet and they require no specific cultural background for their appreciation. You don’t need to know anything about christianity or christian art to understand Titanic or Dallas! In some cases you may object that artistic capitalism produces merchandise and not art; but, in fact, it produces a kind of art that didn’t exist before! Whether we’re talking about movies or ads, we have a hybrid art that is both product and artwork; it’s a commercial art, but an art addressed to the entire world. And for that reason, it’s revolutionary. Until now, artists have only succeeded in revolutionizing forms and they were always confined to a tiny, exclusive milieu. With movies, we can change the entire world with a film that has no pretention of lasting forever.
It’s the final abolition of the distinction between High and low Art. What’s interesting is that Pop Art abolished this distinction, but only within the confines of the gallery. Now, it’s not just in galleries where High and low Art are combined, but on ipods and everywhere.
Capitalism doesn’t care about High or Low Art, it wants to sell. It takes elements from masterpieces and throws them into the commercial melting pot. It created a unique phenomenon: an aesthetic individual who is constantly on the hunt for new sensations. This attitude was once reserved only for the rich; now it belongs to all of us. One interesting example is the tourist. We can criticize tourism for a lot of reasons, but at the same time tourism is nothing but an aesthetic way of looking at things: tourists want to see and appreciate things. We shouldn’t be too condescending here. During their trips, tourists have purely aesthetic experiences! They are where they are for no reason at all; their presence has no utilitarian end! Talk about the lifestyles of the rich and idle! Every year, there are 900 million tourists traveling around the world. In twenty or thirty years, two billion more people will join the middle class. This means a potential three billion tourists. It’s the biggest industry in the world.
There is this kind of dual reality, but at the same time we’re not fooled by it. personally I prefer Warhol to Rihanna; but it’s great that Rihanna is there, because if there was only Warhol, things would get boring… And one doesn’t preclude the other. It’s a dual reality, an augmented reality where nobody confuses Warhol and Rihanna. And both coexist without any problem. In the cycle of humanity, in a kind of Hegelian way with his absolute mind, are we not arriving at the perfection of something with the progress of this artistic capitalism? Is your book not describing the foundation of an era marked by the complete victory of leisure and aesthetic experience? A victory that belongs less to an absolute mind than to an absolute aesthetics?
From a Hegelian point of view, that’s exactly right. But if we were already there, then it would be over, something else would be in development. Soon there will be nine billion people, so we have some margins to work with. But what is going to happen? We’re going to travel to space. We’ll have to spend twenty million dollars to find our purely aesthetic experience… Hotels lost in the desert, under the sea… The quest for experiences… We can trust the market to provide us with new experiences… There is certainly a kind of vanity at play here. It’s counterbalanced by the fact that a lot of people want to travel on their own terms, and not with organized tour groups. It’s what we call post-tourism. And I’m not sounding any alarm bells because what I see here is an extraordinary desire to do things. Otherwise it would all be too perplexing; we’d be nothing but consumers. I try to find a lesson in it all: we need a kind of aesthetic policy that can galvanize human passions alongside our moral passions. Starting in schools, we need to promote more openness in order to promote quality. This kind of education will have a tremendous impact because consumers are the people who drive the economy. People are not just stupid consumers. We need to encourage creativity in our schools through music, dance, photography, video – there are so many possibilities. Particularly in France, we’re suffering from this lack of artistic practice. We need to support and foster creativity, liberate the imagination of our teachers and professors so they can educate people to have tastes that aren’t so standardized. It would be all the better for our economy. If we manage to export into foreign markets, it will be because of our creativity. But we need to give people the tools they need to succeed in this grand project of making life a work of art – to use a bit of an overblown expression. That’s where we should build our “policy”; not a politician’s policy, but a policy that gives meaning to our future. Our future will require more than justice – though it’s true that we need to regulate capitalism – but we also have to change things in our educational system, especially because I think this is what people actually want. Artistic taste is a powerful thing: it gives pleasure. That’s what we need to support. Education is the primary tool that helps shape our tastes. As a humanist culture, we are under an obligation to give people an opportunity to experience the arts. It’s our collective project!