Prompted by Laura Conway
On Medium: “Embracing the Society of the Spectacle as a Strategy to Combat It,” by Steven Frost, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable: The Lure of Spectacle in Politics and Art
The year is 1895. The Lumiere Brothers project ten films at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, an event that will later become known as the birth of cinema. Also that year, the Edison Company produces a series of moving images called The Serpentine Dance. In the film, Annabelle Moore, a 16-year-old actress from Chicago, dressed in a white veil, faces the audience. She looks at us directly and spreads the wings of her dress, then begins to spin, throwing the fabric of her dress as she moves. Although the film is black and white, the colors of the fabric are hand-tinted in shades of lush yellow, magenta, and cerulean. The Serpentine Dance is pure spectacle — there is no attempt at plot or narrative content. We are asked, as were the audiences of the 1890s, only to be entranced by the dancer’s movements and the magic of a new art form. We revel in pure looking.
A spectacle is an event, an image, a to-do, or a commotion that commands our attention and cuts through the media noise. The premier theorist of the spectacle is the French Situationist, Guy Debord, who wrote The Society of the Spectacle in 1967. In Debord’s critique, he warns that authentic social interaction has been replaced by an obsession with appearances and representation. As he puts it, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Society, and the way that people interact with one another, is no longer directly experienced but is instead lived through images. Debord argues (somewhat hysterically) that in the spectacular society, life itself becomes mere representation. In this environment, the potential for critical thought is seriously hindered.
Guy Debord’s prophetic notion of the society of the spectacle has never been more relevant than in our contemporary media landscape. Take Facebook, for example– certainly the most influential news-sharing platform today. Facebook is increasingly the sphere in which most people’s ideological and political views are fostered and echoed back to them. In our newsfeeds, we share articles — more accurately described as catchy headlines with corresponding images. The articles that are most frequently shared are the ones with the most alluring images and the most outrageous headlines– it is an economy of the clickable. Meanwhile, television news channels must compete not only with each other but also with Facebook and other online sources. The business strategy for news stations is to do everything they can to attract our attention and prevent consumers from surfing on to the next channel. Like Annabelle Moore, they do what they can to keep us watching, whirling from one story of fear or sabotage or terrorism to the next, just to keep our eyes on their station. There is simply no time for nuance.
What sphere of life is not affected by spectacle? Certainly, spectacle in politics has been taken to an unprecedented level, now that a reality TV star has become President of the United States. Indeed, we might say that it was Donald Trump’s very visibility that rocketed him to the White House. Many of us wondered last year whether the scornful articles on Trump that we shared online helped to reveal the ugly truth about the candidate, or were in fact just part of the roaring media noise that fueled our current President’s unexpected rise to power. It is possible that trolls such as Trump are propelled by scorn as much as by praise. Trump received far more media coverage than any other candidate in 2016. In a Washington Post study, researchers found that across eight media outlets, Trump commanded twice as many headlines as Hillary Clinton. Any press is good press, as the saying goes.
Neither is art immune from the lure of spectacle. Jerry Saltz, in his nostalgic 2015 article on Vulture.com about the evolution of museums, notes how museums that were once “bookish” and “not risk-averse, but careful” have shifted in recent decades to the feverish pursuit of the new. Museums are made for the public and are therefore subject to the society of the spectacle just as media outlets are. Museums today pull a number of stunts to enhance their visibility and hipness. Revered institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum now host flashy parties with DJs and champagne to attract celebrity visitors. An exhibit such as Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors functions both as an installation and as an event, an attraction. This is not to downplay Kusama’s work, which is truly something to behold. In her celebrated installation, the viewer is immersed in a colorful wonderland of red and white stripes and balls – reminiscent of an art-amusement park. Her exhibitions draw immense crowds, in part because of their “Instagrammability.” The hashtag #yayoikusama has half a million pictures associated with it, and most are selfies. Museums also devote exhibition space to shows by celebrity artists such as Tilda Swinton and Bjork. As cultural institutions, they are competing for the same clicks that news outlets so fervently pursue.
According to Saltz, the desperate search for crowds, newness, “and the ascendance of spectacle, may be the end of museums as we know them.” The lure of spectacle might be distorting the purpose of museums, as they evolve from temples for quiet contemplation to fairgrounds filled with dime-store attractions. On the other hand, perhaps it is not the hold of the spectacle that art critics truly resent, but the fact that museums are attracting a larger and more diverse (i.e. less elite) audience. Museums are now filled with tourists, Instagrammers, and, frankly, just normal people. Spectacular attractions make the museum a pedestrian place, one that many types of people might visit on a weekend afternoon. One person’s dumbing down may be another person’s democratization.
Which brings us back to politics and the 2016 election. When is the use of spectacle a democratizing force and when is it not? Is our scorn for spectacle simply rooted in classism and elitism? Or does the lure of spectacle allow bad actors to exploit opportunities inherent in social media to mislead and distort truth? If spectacle can be a dangerous weapon when put in the wrong hands, how can we rethink its hold on our society and move forward as media consumers, as artists, and—perhaps most importantly—as citizens?
—Laura Conway, roundtable prompter
Suggested Resources to Inform the Conversation:
Laura Conway is a filmmaker, DJ, and DIY organizer and advocate based in Denver, Colorado. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Film Making at the University of Colorado Boulder. Through parties, political action, and community planning Laura works at the intersection of geography, urban planning, and underground art. Laura is a co-partner in the film collective chitchat which organizes alternative film events. They have exhibited in Denver, Boulder, Houston, Austin, Berlin, Prague, and Trieste. Overwhelmed by the complexity of life in late capitalism, she responds with digitized absurdity. She plays clarinet, sings poorly, and embraces all things amateur. She is the CFO of the global analogue tape corporation BorpCorp©.
 Debord, Guy. n.d. “Society of the Spectacle.” Accessed January 2, 2018. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm.
 “The New New Museum: The Whitney May Have Just Won New York’s Museum Arms Race.” 2015. April 20, 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/04/jerry-saltz-on-new-whitney-museum.html.