Notes toward an understanding of the festival-spectacle complex

1.0 In 1967 TJ Clark, latterly ensconced in brilliance and tenure at Berkeley, was a PhD student at the Courtauld and a part-time acolyte of Guy Debord. Together with Donald Nicholson-Smith, Charles Radcliffe, and Christopher Gray he wrote ‘The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution’ in which he avers, bracingly:

Most of the crap passed off as culture today is no more than dismembered fragments – reproduced mechanically without the slightest concern for their original significance – of the debris left by the collapse of every world culture. This rubbish can be marketed simply as historico-aesthetic bric-a-brac or, alternatively, various past styles and attitudes can be amalgamated, up-dated and plastered indiscriminately over an increasingly wide range of products as haphazard and auto-destructive fashions. But the importance of art in the spectacle today cannot be reduced to the mere fact that it offers a relatively unexploited accumulation of commodities.

1.1 In 1988, the same Guy Debord, reflective but unbowed, wrote, in Comments of the Society of the Spectacle:

Just as the logic of the commodity reigns over capitalists’ competing ambitions, and the logic of war always dominates the frequent modifications in weaponry, so the harsh logic of the spectacle controls the abundant diversity of media extravagances.

1.2 But I come not to praise Debord but to bury the corroded simulacrum of his ideas that slouches toward Australian cities every autumn, occupying every major site of cultural power and, glowering, roars a three-month long injunction: Enjoy!

2.0 The festival-spectacle complex is capital accumulated to the point where it can praise its own apparent sophistication, and then sell that onanism to a stupefied public.

2.1 The festival-spectacle complex is an ongoing process in which the latter term in the conjunction starves the former of that which would sustain it – spontaneity, violence, particularity, communium – in the name of an etiolated, meaningless ‘Globalism’.

2.2 The festival-spectacle complex is leisure for those too busy to play.

2.3 The festival-spectacle complex is a contrivance to ensure that all art, even the most aesthetically radical, can be can only be witnessed as commodity.

2.4 The festival-spectacle complex is the colonisation of every interstice of uncontrolled urbanism by the joint invasion parties of state and capital.

3.1 In recent months, in one city: The Sydney Writers Festival, The Sydney Film Festival, The Biennale of Sydney, Vivid Sydney, The Sydney Comedy Festival, Australian Fashion Week.

3.2 There are grades of degradation in this salmagundi. Fashion was always proleptically spectacular, and that honesty of hedonistic purpose somewhat mitigates the awfulness of what is now, in Australian Fashion Week, an embarrassment of the crassly unoriginal and the faux-soignée; while The Sydney Writers Festival, even as it generally avows the philistine aesthetic conservatism so rife in Australian literary culture, is saved by the occasional writer, often a cheaply employed native, and the earnest but deeply felt sense of Bildung that wafts through many panels. It is these remnants of genuine enthusiasm that the festival-spectacle complex aims to destroy completely.

3.3 Owing to its already limned aims, we should be able to predict the kind of event in which the festival-spectacle complex would be most terrifyingly effective. Such an event would operate in a variety of media, would enable the colonisation not only of state cultural space across a given city, but also private space, cultural or otherwise, public space generally regarded as held in ‘common’, and would be flexible enough to be able to designate any activity an urban dweller might do as part of its ‘program’. It should go without saying that I am speaking of that noisome beast, the ‘arts’ festival.

3.4 The role of the ‘arts’ festival is to rigorously ensure the separation of art from life, and to test techniques of repressive permissiveness.

3.5 The plural in ‘arts’ festival does not signify multiplicity of content, but emptiness. An ‘art’ festival would require art rather than its simulacrum.

4.0 A recent benighted example tells us poor colonials that a couple of ageing monarchs – now rulers in name only – will ‘bring downtown Manhattan to Sydney’. This would be laughable were it not so apposite.

4.1 ‘Downtown Manhattan’, as a physical space of activity rather than the tattered fantasy of culture-bureaucrats on both sides of the Pacific, has indeed produced innovative work in the past two decades, although none, of course, was on display at this particular festival. To find that innovation one would have to head a few blocks west from the festival’s epicentre (a wildly inappropriate noun) in Circular Quay to find the attenuated image of downtown Manhattan and its latest innovations in the glossy hand-me-downs of our major trading banks.

4.2 That all that remains of downtown Manhattan is a plague of fantasies, hedge fund managers and artisanal bakeries is, or should be, a fairly uncontroversial point. Who better to represent this than a master of the market like Lou Reed, whose GDP has declined steadily since the early 80s, but who has cannily deployed his rapidly diminishing capital in series of high-leverage positions, then confused his artificially inflated capital with real wealth? He is the cultural world’s Bernie Madoff, a once successful man who continued to believe his own myth long after it was all that remained, resting atop the Ponzi scheme we call ‘genius’.

5.0 When one cannot call for the death of the arts festival without participating in the arts festival’s game of winking disavowal.

5.1 The arts festival is merely a particularly disgusting symptom of a far more general disease, the pustules and lesions of a thoroughgoing leprosy.

5.2 To save ourselves, we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To kill the arts festival we need to kill the arts.

Penelope Aira

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