This issue began, like last, with a question: why has cultural production become so deafening, so overwhelming and so all consuming that we can barely keep up anymore? There were also other questions like: despite the seemingly endless amount of culture being created, why does it sometimes feel like we are surrounded by sameness? Where can we find truly new ideas? Does a collective avant-garde exist today? Do we still believe it can exist at all?
These, of course, are not new questions. As early as 1944, critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer declared in their essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness.” Adorno and Horkheimer go on to liken the cultural industry to just that—an industry—a powerful business with vetted interests in standardization and mass production. Within this system, difference is identified, absorbed and neatly classified away, while sameness, under the guise of ‘universality,’ does nothing more than reinforce the powerful structural and societal hierarchies already at play. When cultural production is taken up into the realm of business administration—that of identifying, cataloging and classifying—spontaneity, imagination and difference cannot survive under the crushing weight of the Culture Industry’s formulaic totality. Newness and novelty are continually discussed, but forever out of reach. Taking the place of difference, novelty and surprise is more: more products, more art, more literature, more music, more film, more media (that of newspapers, magazines, television, radio and advertising), all beating to the endless rhythm of reproduction and repetition.
In 1972, art critic John Berger looked to determine the impact of mechanical reproduction and technology on both ‘high’ (European oil painting) and ‘low’ (mass media) culture in Ways of Seeing, a four-part BBC documentary turned book of the same name. Informed by philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Berger theorized that because images could now freely move throughout the world, they had become akin to language, with the power to not only transmit information and messages, but also be transformed and given new life by the collective public.
Last month while reviewing Ways of Something, a web project conceived by Lorna Mills in which a series of artists use one-minute clips to respond to the first episode of Berger’s documentary Ways of Seeing, art critic Ben Davis asked of Berger’s text today, “where do we stand in relationship to his themes?”