There is no beauty. No morality. No value to passions. To place for imagination. No worth to creativity. Yes, There is no beauty.
Each time I take a train from New York to Washington D.C I stare out at the wasteland that exists outside the train window. I have often wondered at the mindset and values of a society that can so mindlessly produce such hideousness, and be so indifferent to any sensibility of the aesthetic, and of the beautiful. It is a classic utilitarian landscape – barren, shredded, violated, exploited, harsh, dark, inhuman, dying – an industrial, utilitarian reality produced by a man who has reduced everything; humans, land, forests, earth, water, air, place, to a commodity whose worth is only measured in its money and sale value. Nothing else matters. The industrial parks are utilitarian, the housing estates are merely utilitarian, the lives are culled to the absolutely most efficient utility. A vision of man reduced to machine, in the service of machine.
The landscape always fills me with dread. It makes me think of what life would be life if I had no value other than that of the work I produced, or the service I provided to a corporation. It reminds me of what life would be like if everything that made me frail, fragile, uncertain, doubtful, cautious, curious, expressive, questioning, and creative, would be set aside. A life lived simply to survive. A life measured by quantities and measures defined by others. By this false god called ‘the market’ i.e what will someone else pay for what I am and what work I can do. A slave life. A reduced life. A utilitarian life. A life where one does not assume leisure, or pursue needs beyond that to feed, reproduce, work and die. A work of machines. And in a society that has culled itself of anything and everything beautiful, unable ever to imagine the need to create something simply from the need to create, or to see that humans are not individuals, nor products, but part of a society, a community, and an ethos for which they actually live and create. To see that the meaning of human society is to create something that is beautiful, and worth working for, and not the other way around i.e a society that is created simply for work.
A barren life. A torn apart life. A shallow life. A utilitarian life.
So much of what I do as a photographer has been to violate the demands of the market, and of the neoliberal determination to reduce me into a utility. I face people who measure me only for my rate-of-return on investment, but not for my ideas, my ideals, my passions or my aspirations. They see no value in what I create unless it meets a market, and serves a profit. They see nothing beautiful and my passionate renditions of experiences and stories leaves almost all blank faced. A useless task, a wasted work, an emptied soul.
And so as I read this frankly mind-boggling stupid piece in the New York Times – a piece that is an excellent explanation for why despite the horrors and failures of neoliberalism, we seem to have no other answer to our problems, I was reminded of how simplistic, banal, emptied our discussions about society have become. That instead of realising that art reflects the values of what a society is, and embodies the finest that is thought, created, and aspired towards, we have the newspaper of record revealing that 1) it not only cannot differentiate the beautiful and the corporate culture produced, 2) that if it does not sell, it does not matter, and 3) that cleansed of a soul, a society quickly reduces itself to Disney-esque parodies and a Las Vegas-ian infantilism. To be an empire and aim so low…this could actually be a first in human history.
We gloat that we are an Empire – some on the Right even arrogate the right to claim that America is the greatest Empire ever. And yet as I look around at the evidence of its brilliance and its creative genius, I see little. I see military bases, shopping malls, theme cities, faux-culture, disposal architecture, disposable people, dismissive culture, cannibalistic destruction of all societies it seems to come into contact with, a closure of the mind that refuses to accept the gifts others can give and much more that fills me with despair. Our legacy seems to be written in chewing gum…attractive but once consumed it leaves you with nothing but a bitter taste, and a residue that you never know how to best dispose.
How do we decide, as a capitalist society, what creative expression is worth?” That question, posed by Ester Bloom at The Billfold, gets more vexed every day. In a time when more and more art is available for free online, we as a society have to figure out how to value and support it.
If you start with the wrong question, you can only track down the wrong answer. And the analysis to boot. With each individual reduced to a commodity, it is inevitable that you would just look for monetary worth. With all conviction and investments in the public, in society, in the collective, erased behind the false discourse of ‘individualism’, and ‘rational man’ – both assumptions that have been discredited repeatedly and yet seem never to die, there is nothing left but to ask: what are you worth to me.
With a monetary measure, we will not produce to risk, or create, but merely to sell. To sell, we will not look to convince, but to simply conform. The lowest common denominator, the item that least offends, the one that is most apolitical, the one that is consumed without thought, the one that is discarded to make room for the sensationalism of the new. A consumable art for a consumable society. But perhaps most disturbing was the fact that an entire Adornian analysis of the culture industry has been ignored by the New York Times’s writer’s conflation of corporate mass media with art – the former a product of machines and markets, the latter, for some of us, still considered a produce of mind and conscience. It is as if our best thoughts, our most powerful intellectuals – from Adorno, Jameson, Mitchell, Tagieff, and others, speak into a void that has nothing to do with us. That we can gleefully defeat ourself with our own ignorance and indifference, and start to believe that Katie Perry – a product for sale, is in fact swappable with Paganini.
I suppose she is.
This is not an analysis. Of course it isn’t. For then it would be worth something. It is a useless piece of writing, on a useless blog that has no value and has no measurable worth. It is an hours worth of useless work done for nothing and for nobody. It is a refusal to accept this form of thought – that art can be measured, that we produce only individually, that all works have to fit into the value chain of a corporate, market driven system, that its only worth is what its sales number indicate. It is a dissent from the idea that there are no ideas, or imaginations, or provocations or aspirations that are completely against utility, but are absolutely for the beautiful, the informative, the inspiring, the human, the caring and the generous. It is a dissent against the idea that only money motivates man, that s/he can be bought at any price. It is a dissent against the idea that anything I produce has first to be ‘market vetted’ or ‘liked’ by thousands for it to be considered valuable or interesting.
I want to refuse this prize. I want to reject this exhilaration of the profit. I want to remain untainted by the worst instincts of technocrats who have no values, but place a value on everything. I want to reject a society that is simply utilitarian, that sees nothing valuable in culture or community, the public or the common. I want to hold onto the idea that it is art – useless, creative, individual, unmeasurable, troubling, discomforting, and elevating, that creates a society that is even worth working in and for. That what makes us human is the imaginations we give freedom to, and to all those non-utilitarian, wasteful, useless, inefficient, value-less items we leave behind.
I want to hold onto to the useless. And show the world that it is the most valuable thing it possesses.