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Art of the Spectacle

by Haley Bice 2 years ago in art

France around the 1960s

1 Ben Vautier Ben's Window, ca 1993, mixed media, 125-1/2 x 178-1/2 x 108 inches overall installed, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1993.126.1-.136 (Copyright retained by the artist)

Ben Vautier is an artist not only associated with the artists of the Fluxus Movement in art history, but also those artists out of Nice, France in the 1960s. These artists out of Nice can be analyzed through the lens of The Society of the Spectacle (1967) --DeBord’s Marxist-based philosophy of economy. Ben Vautier’s Window in particular seems less resonant with the Fluxus ideals of many of his other works, especially when analyzed in the same terms as Arman’s accumulation pieces or Yves Klein’s blue monochrome paintings- and several other works of early 1960’s artists that will be mentioned throughout the essay. However, this analysis of Ben’s Window and ‘the spectacle’ changes when looking through the differences between his 1962 living sculpture in The Festival of Misfits exhibition and the 1993 exhibition of Ben’s Window at the Walker Art Center.

Despite the difference in name, the re-creation of the piece for the 1993 exhibition was and is-- the re-creation was on show at the Walker Art Center as part of their Art Expanded exhibition, 2015-- basically the same. A couple of the major differences being that, in the 1993 and contemporary exhibitions, Vautier is not physically living within the space and the door to this new “Gallery One” is closed. The original “Gallery One” in London was a group show and the door was open to interaction between Vautier- then living in the space- and the viewers. (Robinson 31) This change in exhibition style forced him to signify himself as if he were living in the space, rather than actually living in the space, in future shows and thus his focus on language, the signifier, and the dematerial separates the 1993 work slightly from the 1962 exhibition and art discussing ‘the spectacle’ in France in 1958-1962. This difference bridges into some of the ideas which conceptual artists of the mid-to-late 1960s were concerned with.

Before we even consider the 1962 or 1993 exhibitions and how they coincide with ‘the spectacle,’ however, it is important to understand the ideals and justifications of the artists working in Nice in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These artists were working before Guy DeBord penned his theories, but all of these artists and writers came to understand ‘the spectacle’ in this way due to the environment of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Specifically, the ideas of economic value from artists Yves Klein and Arman --Armand Fernandez— become important at this point in understanding how Guy DeBord came up with his theory of ‘the spectacle’.

To begin with, one must understand how the artists working with the spectacle came to understand DeBord’s idea of surplus value, use value, and exchange value. Klein and Arman use their art pieces to critique the ideas of the art market and consumer capitalism. An object --in this case an art object-- is seen to have “use value” i.e. its worth based on how it can be used, exchange value is the value a person can get for an object by selling it. Surplus value is the monetary ‘excess’ value that the artist, in this case, is paid over the labor put into the piece. The theory, then, is that the difference in value of the object outside of its use, and the labor put into it, is pure speculation on behalf of preconceptions that may or may not be real. For example, the idea that an art piece will be more expensive after an artist’s death due to its rarity is speculative in terms of price. Yves Klein in particular used his artwork to discuss this aspect of consumer capitalism by creating many of almost exactly the same painting, hung at different heights in a gallery setting, and pretending to value the paintings at different prices.

What comes out of this critique of consumer capitalism, however, is not a descent into communism as one, including several of the artists, might expect, but rather a critique of the capitalist institution on a larger scale than the art market alone. Fluxus, as a movement, was also concerned with the impact of the museum as an institution, which may be why Vautier aligned himself with those artists after his window piece. Armstrong explains this connection, “Given that Fluxus intentionally positioned itself outside mainstream art institutions, an endeavor in which it was extremely successful, it might seem even more ironic to present Fluxus in the museum” (16). The difference between the Fluxus critique of the institution and the idea of the institution that “the Spectacle” artists are concerned with is one of commodity. Fluxus art was positioned outside of the museum because it necessarily wanted to take place performatively, which was impossible in the ‘timeless institution’ museum context. The artists concerned with the spectacle also used performance in some instances, but the commentary was about art as commodity rather than art as object in an art museum. Fluxus ideology was that in order to take the art object out of the museum context, it needed to become part of a performance or idea of something to be performed. That is not to say the idea of an art object was not important to the spectacle artists; it was simply a different consideration. The focus for the artists concerned with the spectacle was not on removing the art object completely as commentary; rather it was about analyzing the value of the art object within the context of the museum and how the museum as an institution would like its viewers to believe that the art object is priceless.

One of the major ideas one gets out of Klein is the idea that the framing of an art object within an institution can determine that object’s value. This is even further explored in Arman’s vitrines and his piece Le Plein (1960) and Oldenberg’s The Street (1960), where both artists find trash and elevate this trash into art by the way of display, thus creating/ gifting these pieces of trash with value the objects would not have otherwise. Buchloh describes this as a “fetishization and domination by consumption” (270) wherein anything can and is consumed and can be speculated on in a market- including trash. Fluxus artists analyzed this as well. In their attempt to bring art into life, the Fluxus artists are often seen as the artists who embody the idea that ‘anything can be art’. Vautier himself wrote that, “There are those who say that Fluxus is above all a story of attitude towards life and art rather than products.” (n.p.) in which case, the spectacle artists would be those concerned with art as product. It is difficult to disassociate Vautier from the spectacle artists, however, despite his intentions to be a Fluxus artist.

Fluxus artists conceived a mobile art piece that was outside of the museum as an institution- both physically and metaphorically. Conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner then create works outside of the institutional framework purely metaphorically by “eliminating the stretcher, canvas, and even the most reduced forms of organizational decisions.” (Alberro, 92) But how does this relate back to Ben Vautier? Despite Ben Vautier’s art usually being considered a part of the Fluxus movement, Ben’s Window is not a mobile art piece and was within a formal art institution- a gallery space. Fluxus art that wanted to “combat [the art institution] through commerce” does not seem to be relevant to Ben’s Window. However, the fact that Ben’s Window is a gallery window directly relates to the artists’ of ‘the spectacle’ idea of sale. The gallery window, as a convention, directly correlates with the idea of a street advertisement. In his 1962 exhibition of this window, he physically lived in this window and put himself on display- as if showcasing himself as for sale. With the idea of Vautier’s work being shown behind gallery glass, there is also the idea that Vautier is being shown behind gallery glass. The fact that the sculptural pieces that do exist behind the gallery window represent a bedroom is not an accident. It is referencing the idea that the artist lives in the gallery, both in the literal sense that there is a bedroom in a gallery, but also in the sense that the artist’s other artwork being shown in a gallery is representative of his ideas. Since the artist identifies with those objects as his own, then he lives on in those pieces.

In contrast, then, we might consider the 1993 and other contemporary exhibitions of Ben’s Window. Without Ben Vautier in the piece- how do we get this idea of sale? In contemporary exhibitions, rather than living within the space, Ben Vautier signs his name and circles where he would have been living had he been in the space- thus introducing a new element to his piece: the signifier. The signifier, in linguistic terms, is any thing—art, words, symbols, etc—that references something else. That something else is the signified. (Saussere 6) Vautier’s Window is filled with objects referencing other artists’ art pieces, written words referencing both what the artist is thinking and doing, as well as symbols referencing historical art movements. The piece itself, in this way, was already filled with language and dialogue, but without the artist to physically give that dialogue, a method of representing his ideas needed to be contrived. In his contemporary installations, the language physically becomes an object- an icon of what Ben would have said had he been living in the space. This is in direct opposition with the physical material in the gallery space- and this opposition correlates with ‘the spectacle’ artists as well.

Arman, for example, also has objects behind glass (although a smaller pane of glass than a gallery window- a vitrine) and frames his pieces within the context of an institution in the same way. The physical objects of Arman’s work are usually discarded fragments of mass culture repeated. In the same way that objects are repeated in Arman’s work, words are repeated in Vautier’s work. As a rather important side note, the focus on repetition and mass culture is a major focus in most of Arman’s work and this specific Vautier piece. Buchloh describes Arman’s work as “scientifically organized mass culture,” (270) which opposes in some sense the randomness of Vautier’s work. Arman’s pieces are organized in a grid-like format, or placed one on top of another, to point to the mass. Vautier’s window necessarily has objects that move and do not stay in an organized fashion, because he lives within the window and uses the objects. At first this seems to point to the uniqueness of each object, but Vautier’s piece is just as much about the mass as Arman’s if looked at in the same way as the display model.

If an art object in a gallery window needs to be immediately recognizable by a mass audience-- such as in pop art-- then the idea of sign and signified becomes important. To expand on this, the immediate recognition of an art object as trash or as something worth prestige could make or break the art, whether or not there was a deeper meaning behind the artwork. That is, until it is framed within the context of the institution and value is added onto it. A piece of trash becomes more valuable if it can be recognized as important within the context of a museum or gallery and displayed as art rather than as trash.

This further brings up the idea of audience participation. From Arman’s vitrines, he moves to an architectural framework. Specifically in Arman’s work, Le Plein, he places the audience not in front of a work but within the space of a work. “The museological conventions of exhibiting sculpture would be increasingly displaced by the display conventions of the department store” (Buchloh, 276) Back to Vautier’s Window, however, he had made this move to architectural space and audience participation earlier. The window is not a museum window, but a gallery window- a window for selling, in other words: the same as a department store window. (Robinson, 23) This participation within and reliance on architectural space is not seen in Fluxus works- specifically because they generally rejected the physical space altogether.

The reason it is important to consider Ben Vautier’s Window alongside ‘the spectacle’ rather than the Fluxus is the discussion about ‘the artist as sellable’ that comes out of the piece that would not if the piece were considered Fluxus. The importance of language that is held within Ben’s Window is not due to the Fluxus concern with language being a way of making art outside the institutional framework, rather Ben’s Window wants to demarcate that language as sellable, like any other art within a gallery. This differentiates his window from Arman’s vitrines and Oldenberg’s The Street, however, because while Arman and Oldenberg were interested in the idea of value and sale, they were not as concerned with what was being sold. In focusing on the mass, Arman and Oldenberg used trash as a metaphor for this idea of waste from a consumer culture. Vautier did not have this same concern with consumer culture- he was interested in a mass culture, but was more interested in what those consumers were buying as an icon than how it impacted the environment or the world as a whole.

In terms of mass, Arman and Oldenberg seem to be concerned with the ways in which anthropologic or natural history museums categorize all art objects in an encyclopedic way. They also seem to be concerned with the artificiality of categories and the arbitrary thinking of ‘which art piece goes where?’ format that museums as a whole use to display. Vautier’s piece, then, continues this discussion by analyzing how the gallery window and the sale of art objects figures into this aspect of display.

One piece that perhaps connects Vautier and Arman (and to some extent Oldenberg as well) is the idea of the memory of an object. Buchloh notes that Arman’s work whether intentionally or not, references the collection of objects from German Nazi concentration camps. He refers to them as, “images of the first historical instances of industrialized death” (274). The idea of a consumer culture, then, is lost behind an idea of industrialization and the mass as not a collective of consumers, but a collective of the mindless.

However, Buchloh mentions that if Arman’s objects hold a memory of this mass death, they could also reference the idea of consumption in the hands of only a few with power (i.e. a few leading the mass towards death),

The fact that [Arman’s] work is dominated by the image and object-structure of ‘trash’- as the term’s American metaphorical usage explicitly suggests- ultimately corresponds to a condition of collectively failed subjecthood that demarcated post World War II reconstruction culture at large, since all traditional forms of the articulation of the bourgeois subject had lost credibility (274).

This subjecthood that is lost could also be reflective in Vautier’s work as well. If a subject is impossible without this ‘object-memory,’ then perhaps a way of working with this memory is through the signifier. If an object signifies a memory, then the linguistic signifier could possibly represent that object without some of the heaviness of memory brought along with the physical art object. This is the idea of the dematerial that is present moreso in the 1993 exhibition of Vautier’s work than the 1962 version without the emphasis on the signifier. Lippard notes this about dematerialization:

…an ultra-conceptual art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively. As more and more work is designed in the studio but executed elsewhere by professional craftsmen, as the object becomes merely the end product, a number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art… Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialization of art, especially of art as an object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object’s becoming wholly obsolete (255).

In other words, Ben Vautier’s focus in the 1993 and future exhibitions of Ben’s Window, on symbolizing the image of himself as a word and then his spoken words as written language, were the beginnings of a movement towards the ideas that the conceptual artists of the mid-to-late 1960s were concerned with, but that was not his intention in the 1962 exhibition.

An important part of Arman’s work that leads us to this analysis of the dematerial in Vautier’s work is the idea of the edition or multiple. Repeated objects are not enough to get across this idea of memory (of objects and language); not even repeated objects within one display case are enough. Arman made multiple vitrines, Oldenberg made multiple sculptures out of trash, and that is significant. Fluxus artists were also concerned with the multiple and the edition, especially in terms of language and prints. However, Arman and Oldenberg related this to mass culture and consumption, whereas Fluxus artists used editions as a mode of cheaply creating works (the cheaper the work, the more access a person had to it, the less it related to the one work within an institution concept). On the surface these are both related to consumption, but artists like Arman and Oldenberg are more concerned with the sale, Fluxus artists tend to be more concerned with the product. Going back even earlier, many would compare this act of repeating found objects a Duchampian readymade idea-- and to the Fluxus artists it was. For Arman and Oldenberg, however, it was the “iterative act of finding,” (Buchloh 270) in other words ‘collecting’, as opposed to the singularity of Duchamp’s readymades-- even the copies of them in fluxboxes-- that made the significant difference. Again, Vautier’s Window seems to be more in line with that of Arman and Oldenberg than that of the Fluxus artists. The objects behind the glass in Vautier’s window are not as arbitrary- trash- as Oldenberg or Arman, however they also do not contain the same sense of multiplication that Fluxus art has.

Whereas Arman’s art is seemingly endless, defined by the borders of the vitrine and the grid of objects within, the Duchamp pedestal and one-object formula (despite there being many editions of the same objects) makes Duchamp’s readymades very singular, and sculptural in that sense, at least in appearance. Buchloh notes that, over time, Duchamp’s work and the Flux boxes using his work lose their impact as functional objects and become sculptures in a museum. (Buchloh, 271) This is different than Arman, because the vitrines Arman makes create an “emphasis on repetitive/ mechanic forms of daily consumption” (Buchloh et al, 499) and thus they immediately reference that idea of use.

Not only does this language and object as a holder of memory idea oppose Duchamp’s readymade, it also brings back that idea of the encyclopedic that was present in Arman’s work. If each object within an encyclopedic exhibition, despite being supposedly the same object, holds an individual symbolic memory, then what about the idea of subjectivity? Can there be only ‘one subject’ of Vautier’s Window? If each of the ‘subjects’ within an encyclopedic exhibition contains within them their own memory, then they are each individual but hold comparisons with one another. The same is true for Ben’s Window. There are many references to different art objects behind the gallery one window, and these physical elements are all a part of the art market and are all sellable, along with Vautier himself and the artist’s ideas- as written word surrounding his location, or so his piece seems to suggest.

A good example of further exploration to this claim would be Broodthaer’s department of eagles from 1968. Each of his symbolic eagles in the installation has a memory of symbolizing something else, but overall the exhibition is about the display of these eagles within the museum display context. This further extends into Arman and Oldenberg’s original idea of bringing up trash into valuable art by collecting eagles from various people and collections and valuing them as the same as every other “eagle” within the museum space- some, then, being worth more and some being worth less. (Snauwaert, 1) The importance of the individual piece with an eagle in it then becomes less important, and the fact that it has an eagle- whether that eagle is imperative to the work on its’ own or not- becomes more. This selectivity of what remains important is a direct reference to how museum curators, and the institution of the museum decides what is important and what is not within the context of a museum.

Overall, artists of this time of the 1960s were interested in how the museum or gallery functioned as a way of distributing artwork and the problems of these institutional conventions. Another artist that referenced this idea was Lawrence Weiner. “…of concern in Weiner’s shift from producing actual objects to textual definitions was a reconfiguration of iconicity (in the form of linguistic structures) and an understanding that, in order to transcend the privileged parameters of an elite, institutional bourgeois culture, a work of art had to radically alter its mode of distribution” (Alberro, 93). This change in the mode of distribution is not only a precursor to institutional critique, but also that of the framing conventions needed to reach a mass rather than a select few. Museums as an institution have, since their beginnings in Royal Art collections, had the unfortunate disadvantage of not reaching a mass audience. Mid-to-late 1960s conceptual artists’ focus on the television is not coincidental; it comes out of this idea- or coincides with this idea of a wide audience.

Vautier’s piece, as it is displayed from 1993 onward, contains a slide projector with which to change what would have been Vautier’s greeting had you come up to the gallery one door if he were actually there. This one-on-one interaction between piece and viewer seems at odds with the artists of ‘the spectacle’ and their concept of the mass. I would argue, however, that these phrases coincide with the same way a television host might welcome an audience to a show- in fact the way of changing slides of greetings is exactly the same way one would change the channel on a television with a remote (granted, the remote for the slide projector is attached and not ‘remote’ in the sense of televisions today).

Interestingly enough, the same word we would use for a television remote, the word ‘programming’ is the same word a curator would use today when beginning a new art exhibition. Again, we can bring up Broodthaer’s eagles here, because when the artist- like Vautier- functions as a curator (rather than the museum curator who functions as a representative of the institution) the results are much less reflective of an institutional ideal and much more reflective of an artist’s intent and message. (Levine, 225) Also, the institution is driven by the imagined value of the art being displayed whereas the artist as curator is more concerned with the dialogue being portrayed. The difference between museum and artist curation is exactly the same difference I mentioned previously between the artists concerned with the spectacle and those in Fluxus.

In a sense, Ben Vautier as an artist rides this line between an art about objects and an art about performance. Ben’s Window seems to resonate with the discussion about commodity and art objects, whereas a piece like Vautier’s Total Art Matchbox (1965) is more in line with the Fluxus consideration with performance outside of the museum. In the discussion of Ben’s Window, it is just as important to analyze this piece in the terms of Fluxus ideology, as it is to analyze it with artists concerned with “the spectacle.” Without the analysis of “the spectacle”, Vautier’s window would fall short of the comparison between a display and a gallery-- as seen in Arman or Oldenburg. Without analyzing the artist’s involvement with Fluxus, we would lose the discussion about the performance of living within the gallery window and the separation between art and the museum providing the continuation of art into life. Both Fluxus ideals and the ideas of “the spectacle” are prevalent in Ben’s Window, so ignoring one ideology in favor of another does not do this piece justice. It also changes the meaning of the work in that the window loses some of its’ layers of importance.

Works Consulted

Armstrong, Elizabeth, Joan Rothfuss, Simon Anderson, Andreas Huyssen, Bruce Jenkins, Douglas Kahn, Owen F. Smith, and Kristine Stiles. In the Spirit of Fluxus: Published on the Occasion of the Exhibition ... Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993. Print.

Alberro, Alexander. Conceptual Art And The Politics Of Publicity. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

-- and Blake Stimson, eds. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999. Print.

Butterfield-Rosen, Emmelyn. "La Vitrine/ L'éponge: The École De Nice and the ‘Hygiene of Vision’” New Realisms: 1957-1962- Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle. Cambridge, MA: MIT. 65-75. Print.

Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. Neo-avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975. Cambridge: MIT, 2000. Print.

-- and Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, David Joselit. Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York City: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Print.

Debord, Guy, and Ken Knabb. Society of the Spectacle. Rebel Press, 1983. Print.

Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley: U of California, 1993. Print.

Hochdörfer, Achim, and Barbara Schröder, eds. Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties. Munich: Delmonico, 2012. Print.

Kotz, Liz. Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Print.

Levine, David. "You Had to Be There (Sorta)." Parkett 2014.95 (2014): 225-34. Print.

Lippard, Lucy R. Changing: Essays in Art Criticism. New York: E. P. Dutton &, 1971. Print.

Robinson, Julia. "Before Attitudes Became Form- New Realisms: 1957-1962." New Realisms: 1957-1962- Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle. Cambridge, MA: MIT. 23-39. Print.

Saussure, Ferdinand De, and Simon Bouquet. Ecrits De Linguistique Générale. Paris: Gallimard, 2002. Print.

Shannon, Joshua. The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

Snauwaert, Dirk. "Section Des Figures." The Artist as Curator 5: 1-16. Print.

Stremmel, Kerstin, and Uta Grosenick. Realism. Cologne: Taschen, 2004. Print.

Van Der Marck, Jan. Arman. New York City: Abbeville, 1984. Print.

Vautier, Ben. Ben, Pour Ou Contre: Une Rétrospective : 14 Juillet-1er October 1995, MAC, Galeries Contemporaines Des Musées De Marseille. Marseille: Musées De Marseille; 1995. Print. (Non-professional English translation by Alison Berstein)


Haley Bice

Haley received her MA in Business Design and Arts Leadership from SCAD eLearning in 2018. She also has a BA in Art History with a Fine Art minor from SCSU and an ASc in Graphic Design from RCTC, both located in Minnesota.

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