For seventy years after its revolution, since French writers viewed America with hope and English ones with disgruntlement, some of the best observations on America were made by the French and most of the worst by the English. Eighteenth-century French visitors to America saw a self-emancipated people united in the world’s first sizable republic: the forerunner of their own revolution. They noted the humiliation of Albion perfide, their own ancient enemy. What America was, in the eyes of Condorcet, Crèvecoeur, and Volney, France might become: the natural home of democracy, if not of Hesiodic simplicity. France embraced Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington as ideals of Republican Man long before the demolition of the Bastille, and with Chateaubriand’s Voyage en Amérique (1827) the passion for seeking the meanings of democracy on the stage of the New World, within its epic spaces, moved into high rhetorical gear. The climax of French scrutiny was provoked after 1830 by the prospect of another French republic, and became by far the most perceptive book a foreigner ever wrote on American society and politics: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835).
Englishmen, by contrast, either averted their eyes from America or looked at it only to complain about the barbarity of their former colony, its people’s lack of manners and art, their materialism. The ur-work of malice was Captain Basil Hall’s compilation of Tory rant, Travels in North America, 1827–1828. It was followed by Frances Trollope’s bitchy Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832. Ten years later Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation was also a best seller, being cut from the same cloth of condescension and snobbery. Both the latter, at least, were full of sharp vignettes, but neither showed much grasp of how America actually worked. They served to persuade the reader that America, though lost, had not really been worth keeping.
A century and a half later, what does one find? The reverse: that the French have contributed little to the popular literature of American observation since Tocqueville, and even less since the end of World War II. The Americans themselves, together with some English writers, have done it all. Thus nothing in French about America in the Twenties or Thirties approaches D.H. Lawrence on New Mexico, and there is no French equivalent to the acute, modest-toned, undeceived reportage of Alistair Cooke. No recent French writer has made an effort to get out into the American landscape, deliver its look and feel, meet people, discover how they talk and what they think about, evoke their histories: that is left to English writers like Jonathan Raban taking his skiff down the Mississippi in Old Glory or to V.S. Naipaul among the Good Ol’ Boys in A Turn in the South.
In the Fifties, French intellectuals, taking their cues from Sartre, simply lost interest in getting America right. Their imagination was seized by an altogether more lurid and “interesting” America than the real one: the pow-zap-splat America of the bandes dessinées, the alienated and sinister America of film noir, the vengeful and paranoid America that let McCarthy ride and killed the Rosenbergs, the booming paradisical America of tailfins and rock ‘n’ roll, the megadeath America of the White Sands proving ground.
The stereotypes of this America had global reach; they could be sampled and theorized about without leaving France. Their sheer power canceled any obligation to experience the place itself, in all its size, complexity, and impurity, before writing about it. The real America was less fascinating, which may be why the American notes of the few stars of the postwar French intellectual firmament who bothered to go there—Simone de Beauvoir, for instance—seem so flat and incurious.
As the Fifties wore on it became increasingly apparent that America was merely a stage set for French left-wing bigotry about L’Amerique. America was no longer an intriguing idea. It had withdrawn its original offer of revolutionary transformation. Russia now gave that; and then, when the horrors of the Soviet utopia became too evident for even Stalinists to ignore, Cuba was supposed to be the model. A dozen years later the reluctance to look had become general. America, as all good soixantehuitards knew, was a bellicose caricature, an imperialist Hulk, a crass société de consommation nourishing itself on the flesh of the third world. Its physical image had dwindled to two vertical features (the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the buttes of Monument Valley) and a horizontal one (the grid of super-highways). It was populated by oppressed blacks, the ghosts of slaughtered Indians, rednecks in pickup trucks, hippies, and Pentagon generals. Its culture was directed by mass media, and the only worthwhile things that came out of it were new rock and old movies.
Once the revolutionary illusions of 1968 had gone down the pipe, French radicals—as Diana Pinto pointed out in Le Debat in 1982—continued to comfort themselves with imagery drawn from the American counterculture, so that “in each case, the ‘interesting’ America remained the one defined by its opposition to the Establishment.” Even after intellectual fashions changed with Solzhenitsyn’s visit to Paris in 1974 and the rise of the nouveaux philosophes, the image of America in French eyes did not become much more concrete. It remained a continent of abstractions whose main reality, eminently suited to France’s own burgeoning consumer society, was the lightning-fast reassembly of American styles of promotion, marketing, and TV entertainment techniques in Paris. No verification, no empirical reporting, was needed.
It is only against this background that Jean Baudrillard’s new book, America, can be savored in all its remarkable silliness. Baudrillard, who taught sociology at Nanterre from 1966 to 1987, is regarded, as the jacket copy puts it, as “France’s leading philosopher of post-modernism.” As such, he has the badge of a distinctive jargon. Jargon, native or imported, is always with us; and in America, both academe and the art world prefer the French kind, an impenetrable prophylactic against understanding. We are now surfeited with mini-Lacans and mock-Foucaults. To write straightforward prose, lucid and open to comprehension, using common language, is to lose face. You do not make your mark unless you add something to the lake of jargon whose waters (bottled for export to the States) well up between Nanterre and the Sorbonne and to whose marshy verge the bleating flocks of poststructuralists go each night to drink. Language does not clarify; it intimidates. It subjects the reader to a rite of passage, and extorts assent as the price of entry. For the savant’s thought is so radically original that ordinary words will not do. Its newness requires neologism; it seeks rupture, overgeneralization, oracular pronouncements, and a pervasive tone of apocalyptic hype. The result is to clear writing what the flowery blandishments of the valets to Gorgibus’s daughters in Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules were to the sincere expression of feeling: a parodical mask, a compound of snobbery and extravagant rhetoric.
And Jean Baudrillard is not only the most précieux of all current ridicules, but also the one who is quoted the most solemnly in Paris and New York, particularly among art dealers, collectors, and critics. He has come up with a set of vogue-words that are taken to evoke the state of Western culture in our fin de siècle: “simulacrum,” “hyperrealism,” “closure,” “facsimile,” “transgression,” “circulation,” and the rest, along with “alienation,” which may be defined as the state of metaconsciousness entered by the incautious reader who sets out to wade through Baudrillard’s reflections. America makes much of this lingo, since it is mostly a rehash of ideas from his earlier essays, such as “The Precession of Simulacra,” published in 1983.
Their argument, in essence, runs as follows. Thanks to the proliferation of mass communications we now have more signs than referents—more images than meanings that can be attached to them. The machinery of “communication” communicates little except itself. Baudrillard is something of a McLuhanite; not only is the medium the message, but the sheer amount of traffic has usurped meaning. “Culture”—he is fond of those snooty quotation marks—is consigned to the endless production of imagery that has no reference to the real world. There is no real world. Whether we go to Disneyland, or watch the Watergate hearings on television, or follow highway signs while driving in the desert, or walk through Harlem, we are enclosed in a world of signs. The signs just refer to one another, combining in “simulacra”—Baudrillard’s word for images—of reality to produce a permanent tension, an insatiable wanting, in the audience. This overload of desire in a disembodied, media-invented world is like pornography, abstract. Baudrillard calls it “obscenity.”
Capitalism, the villain of the situation, must multiply desire by multiplying signs ad infinitum. This, Baudrillard thinks, has led to “the disappearance of power” and “the collapse of the political,” while everyone scurries about creating nostalgic effigies of power and politics. “Power is no longer present except to conceal that there is none.” In time, he imagines, this will somehow undo capitalism itself: “Undoubtedly this will even end up in socialism…. It is through the death of the social that socialism will emerge—as it is through the death of God that religions emerge.” But which religions? Which death of which god? “The death of the social”—what do such phrases mean? What would these vaporings about the “disappearance” of power add up to in the White House, the Kremlin, or the Elysée Palace? You can hardly read a page of Baudrillard without getting queasy from his pseudo paradoxes, rhetorical exaggerations, and begged questions.
Typical of these are his ideas about simulation versus reality. Like the famous map imagined by Luis Borges, so large and detailed that it would neatly cover the real territory it purports to describe, the grid of signs has become a complete “simulacrum” made up of smaller simulacra, all “media-determined.” The simulacrum is all we have and there is nothing below it. “Simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.” Baudrillard is no friend of Ockham’s razor: he wants to multiply simulacra forever in order to push reality out of sight. It is like a sci-fi fantasy: we have been taken over. You may look, walk, and talk like Captain Kirk, but I, unlike everyone else on the ship, know that you are an alien, a simulacrum. Baudrillard’s American fans revel in this, perhaps because his apocalyptic view of mass media excites a deep vein of snobbery in them while his oracular tone stirs memories of heroes of the Sixties, like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.
This replacement of real things and actual relationships by their simulacra is what Baudrillard calls “hyperrealization.” It lets him take a wonderfully lofty view of the relations between fact and illusion, for it denies the possibility of experiencing anything except illusion. In doing so it drifts away from sense, reminding one that Baudrillard’s scheme is only a hypothesis and, despite the sweeping confidence with which he unfurls it, not a very convincing one at that. For instance, nobody would deny that Americans are immensely influenced by television. But it is by no means clear just how this influence works, whether it acts on everyone to the same degree or in the same way, whether the Box “substitutes” for reality when it is on, how far it meditates consciousness: in short, how passive the public is. Baudrillard seems to imagine it is completely so—no ifs, ands, or buts.
On the other hand it may be, pace Baudrillard, that millions of people are fairly sophisticated about the relations between reality and what they see on the Box; they are quite capable of sifting its truncated and overvivid exhortations, of blanking the commercials and sorting through the trash. But since this would impede the march of his apocalyptic generalizations about the dictatorship of signs, Baudrillard will have none of it. Here we all are in America, 260 million of us, passively caught in the webs of electronic maya, as incapable of discrimination as of skepticism. No one is smart or willing enough to see past the image haze of media. It’s hard to say which is worse: Baudrillard’s absolutism, his sophomoric nihilism, or his disdain for empirical sense. It is, like the argument of a Flat-Earther, circular and shamelessly ready to say anything, no matter how contrary to common experience, to save its system.
Thus for Baudrillard in “The Precession of Simulacra,” Disneyland—that Delphi or Shangri-La of the French intellectual in search of America—is more than tourists think: it is not simply an amusing, cartoony panegyric on certain popular American icons like Family, Innocence, and the Future. In his view it’s not that Disneyland is a metaphor of America, but that America is a metaphor of Disneyland:
Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland…. Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it is no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of the false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle. The Disneyland imaginary [sic] is neither true nor false; it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real.
Only two people in the world, it seems, have been privy to this electrifying fact about America—Uncle Walt and Jean Baudrillard; and it may be that Disney, le grand simulateur, didn’t quite grasp what he was doing when he “set up” his “deterrence machine” full of ducks, pirates, and Coca-Cola. The rest of us have been stumbling around America, bumping into these rejuvenated fictions from sea to simulated sea, mistaking them for the real thing. Silly us, we thought that political events might have substance, but Baudrillard puts us straight: they, too, are simulacra. Watergate was merely an “imaginary…scandal-effect,” the “same scenario as Disneyland,” for
there is no difference between the facts and their denunciation (identical methods are employed by the CIA and the Washington Post journalists)…. Watergate is not a scandal: this is what must be said at all cost, for this is what everyone is concerned to conceal, this dissimulation masking a strengthening of morality, a moral panic as we approach the primal (mise-en-)scene of capital: its instantaneous cruelty, its incomprehensible ferocity, its fundamental immorality—this is what is scandalous.
“Hyperrealization” not only dissolves the content of events; it consigns the citizen to a state of dithering paranoia in which anything or its opposite can be true:
Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or of extreme right-wing provocation, or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist regime into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power, or, again, is it a police-inspired scenario in order to appeal to public security? All this is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the fact does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts.
What Baudrillard calls “a vertigo of interpretation” is not vertigo at all, but complacency. He is saying, in effect, that since political events are mere bubbles on the surface of simulation and so not only inscrutable but, on some basic level, not worth knowing about, the fastidious mind should not stoop to enquire about their nature and causes. He is mounting a none-too-surreptitious argument for indifference and moral anesthesia. The idea that four possible different reasons for a terrorist bombing can be “equally true” is not a “logic of simulation,” but simply an abandonment of logic. It is as though, in Baudrillard’s terms, thought’s purchase on the world of human action is negligible, something to be impatiently brushed aside. Indeed, in America he gets rather peevish about a bad habit of homo Americanus: “Quite often he will confirm your analysis by facts, statistics or lived experience, thereby divesting it of all conceptual value.”
Though punctuated with odd flashes of insight, his book on America is a slim sottisier in which facts have a nominal role. Reporting, it is not. There are indications that Baudrillard has decided to leaven the clogged mass of his jargon with bits of literary Americana; one detects, in the background, the hum of Henry’s Miller’s Air-conditioned Nightmare, Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid list making, and Norman Mailer’s sermons against plastic and cancer, as well as echoes from the more chiliastic passages of J.G. Ballard’s science-fiction writing.
The star of his own road movie, Baudrillard spends a great deal of time driving, for it is on the freeways—“circulation” again—that so much of the truth of America is to be found, or at any rate sought: “the speed of the screenplay, in the indifferent reflex of television,…the marvellously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts on the road.” Highway signs are, to him, epiphanies:
“Right lane must exit.” This “must exit” has always struck me as a sign of destiny. I have got to go, to expel myself from this paradise, leave this providential highway which leads nowhere, but keeps me in touch with everyone. This is the only real society or warmth here
—and so on. No wonder he seldom gets out of the car.
Baudrillard appears to meet nobody and hear nothing; the only voice in America is his own, a heated and self-mythologizing flow of apostrophes and aphorisms. The only Americans mentioned by name in some 120 pages are Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney. He even disdains the academics he meets in Santa Barbara for their “monomaniacal passions for things French or Marxist,” which seems a teeny bit ungrateful, since without those passions he might not have been invited there. Nowhere in his text is there the smallest evidence of a grasp of human realities in America: its world of work; its differences in race, ethos, ambition, and cultural background; the flow of its past into its present; the friction of generations; the numberless tensions between greed and altruism, “progress” and conservatism; its extraordinary variety of intellectual and moral climates. But no matter: Baudrillard is looking not for Americans, but for something he calls “astral America,” l’Amerique siderale—“The lyrical nature of pure circulation. As against the melancholy of European analyses.”
He has come to the States in 1986 on a lecture tour. “Aeronautic missionary of the silent majorities, I jump with cat-like tread from one airport to another.” He pussyfoots to New England, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and then to Minneapolis, where he stares from his hotel window, high up. “But where are the ten thousand lakes, the utopian dream of a hellenistic city on the edge of the Rockies? Minneapolis, Minneapolis!” Alas, someone forgot to tell him that the “edge of the Rockies” is a thousand miles west of Minneapolis. But now the philosophe is off to New York, where he will look at clouds (which remind him of brains—and no wonder), at the sky (higher than in Paris), at people eating alone (who seem “dead”), at blacks and Puerto Ricans (whose skin colors, a “natural makeup,” strike him as “sublime and animal”), at skyscrapers—all the sights. He also watches the New York Marathon on TV, 17,000 runners in “an end-of-the-world show,” “all seeking death,” “bringing the message of a catastrophe for the human race,…a form of demonstrative suicide, suicide as advertising.” One gathers that this is not a sportif philosopher. But he is off to Salt Lake City and points west.
Yet he has his theme. On the way he was struck by a thought not uncommon in the ruminations of earlier visitors from France. America represents the future of Europe. It is modernism in its pure, extended state. It is an achieved utopia. “Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. There is no other.” (If Baudrillard can write with apparent conviction that “America has no identity problem,” that “New York is no longer a political city,” that “there are no cops in New York,” and that “ethnic groups express themselves through festivals,” it figures that he should think America is utopia too.) Having peeked through the gates of the American Eden he finds, like some anthropologist stumbling on a virgin tribe, “the only remaining primitive society,…the primitive society of the future.” Naturally, its members cannot know this. “Americans have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth”; with these, they chew things but cannot chew them over:
America…is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved…. It may be that the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulacrum…. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model…. No more and no less in fact than were primitive societies in their day.
These simulated savages in their jardin exotique move Baudrillard to equally simulated transports of blissed-out tolerance. “For me there is no truth of America,” he cries. “I ask of the Americans only that they be Americans. I do not ask them to be intelligent, sensible, original. I ask them only to populate a space incommensurate with my own, to be for me the highest astral point, the finest orbital space.” Since Americans are primitives, Baudrillard thinks they lack one of the principal burdens of European consciousness. “They make no claim to what we call intelligence and they do not feel threatened by other people’s.” Consequently, “There is no culture [in America], no cultural discourse. No ministries, no commissions, no subsidies, no promotion,…none of the sickly cultural pathos which the whole of France indulges in, that fetishism of the cultural heritage.” Americans do not consume culture in a “sacramental mental space” or give it “special columns in the newspapers.”
How he latched onto this bizarre inversion of the truth is anyone’s guess, but he won’t let it go. “The cinema and TV are America’s reality!” he exclaims a few pages later. “The freeways, the Safeways, the skylines, speed, and deserts—these are America, not the galleries, churches, and culture.” The thought that America might be both high and popular culture does not occur to him. Then one realizes that he won’t relinquish this patter about cinematic America because he brought it with him: it’s the old comic-book version of America from the France of the Sixties. The most mystifying part of all is Baudrillard’s unshakable belief that Americans are ahistoric beings. America, he writes, “ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present.” And again: “The mystery of American reality [is that of] a society which seeks to give itself neither meaning nor an identity, which indulges neither in transcendence nor in aesthetics.”
It would be difficult to find utterances about American relations to history less true than these, falser in the whole or falser in their parts. They are sumptuous poppycock in the French manner, de haut en bas. The likeliest explanation must be that Baudrillard knows nothing of American history and so assumes that Americans are equally unaware of it; and that he has read little or no American literature, which, from the Puritan divines in the seventeenth century, through the Transcendentalists and Melville and Whitman and Henry James, has shown itself to be unremittingly obsessed with origins, “founding truths,” transcendence, and the past.
But none of this matters when you’re behind the wheel in Astral America. L’Amerique siderale is all desert, freeways, lasers, and circulating crowds of white, black, and brown abstractions. Especially it is desert, since for Baudrillard the desert is the fundamental metaphor of American culture, the place where culture is not. Americans turn away from it “as the Greeks turned their backs on the sea” (?) but “I get to know more about the concrete, social life of America from the desert than I ever would from official or intellectual gatherings.” Way out there, “Caresses have no meaning, except from a woman who is herself of the desert, who has that instantaneous, superficial animality in which the fleshly is combined with dryness and disincarnation.” Ouch. On he goes, scaring the armadillos, musing on the buttes from his car window. How they “designate human institutions as a metaphor of that emptiness and the work of man as the continuity of the desert, culture as a mirage and as the perpetuity of the simulacrum”! On to Santa Barbara!
Santa Barbara won’t do. Like the rest of domestic America, it is unreal. “Between the gardenias and the eucalyptus trees, among the profusion of plant genuses and the monotony of the human species, lies the tragedy of a utopian dream made reality.” Everything speaks of death, the grave, “fake serenity.” “This soft, resort-style civilization irresistibly evokes the end of the world.” And so on, for pages: a rerun of the Sixties song about the little boxes made of ticky tacky, inorganic America full of nowhere men (and women and children too). Does Baudrillard sense what a conventional version of America, what a bundle of stereotypes, he is seeing? To read this stuff refracted back from Paris is to be reminded of the tenacity of cliché.
Yet it may also help to explain why Baudrillard has an American following. In art circles, especially, he is doted on. This may seem odd, since he has written very little about the visual arts; he is only interested in art to the extent that it joins the rest of the signals that inundate us, and since its signals are weak and fairly exclusive compared to the inclusiveness of the big media, especially TV, it has little part in his line of argument. His use to the art world is that of a talisman. He is a reassuring presence for artists who cannot imagine transcending the banal discourse of mass media. In the last ten years, the old irreverence and Dionysian charm of Pop art have drained away; in its place there is an academic version, trivial and yet legitimized from birth by a runaway market, which plays its riffs on the sense of overload in mass culture—the feeling, caricatured by Baudrillard’s taste for absolute prescriptions, that admass imagery has floated free of its already tenuous grounding in reality.
When one looks at David Salle’s paintings, for instance, with their crudely drawn, emotionally congealed layering of unconnected images and their sour denial of the possibility of meaning, it helps (though not enough, perhaps) to have Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra in mind. And it is rare to leaf through an article on Cindy Sherman or the blandly commodified Young Turks of Neo-Geo (such as Jeff Koons, the starry-eyed opportunist par excellence, with his chrome rabbits, porcelain teddy bears, and effigies of Michael Jackson) without getting splots of Baudrillardian jargon in your eye. Neo-Geo described itself as a “simulationist” movement, and with reason: it was in every way an artificial business, a pseudo cooling of the pseudo heat of early Eighties neoexpressionism. Its postures about the “death of reality” are the obverse of other Eighties postures about the unendurable, hysterical pressure of the real. The essays of Peter Halley, whose curiously intense yet visually inert paintings of square “cells” connected by linear “conduits” are literal illustrations of “circulation,” take Baudrillard’s ideas about simulation and hyperrealization so much on faith that he scarcely questions the dubious axiom that the model, in our perception of the world, has completely supplanted the real. “This is the end of art ‘as we know it,’ ” Halley announces in his Collected Essays, 1981–87:
It is the end of urban art with its dialectical struggles. Today this simulated art takes place in cities that are also doubles of themselves, cities that only exist as nostalgic references to the idea of city and to the ideas of communication and social intercourse. These simulated cities are placed around the globe more or less exactly where the old cities were, but they no longer fulfill the function of the old cities. They are no longer centers; they only serve to simulate the phenomenon of the center. And within these simulated centers, usually exactly at their very heart, is where this simulated art activity takes place, an activity itself nostalgic for the reality of activity in art.
Read with some attention to experience, of course, this is unconvincing: Who actually feels such detachment on stepping onto the streets of New York, Barcelona, Sydney, London, or Moscow? It is a prosaic late spinoff of modernism’s long-conventionalized image of the alienating metropolis (Eliot’s “Unreal city,” Baudelaire’s “Ant-swarming city, city full of dreams”). Life goes on despite theory, and so does art. Through Baudrillard, Halley gets on to one fact—that a great deal of painting, sculpture, and architecture in today’s mannerist visual culture seems like a weakly motivated or merely cynical rerun of older prototypes—and inflates it into a blanket of denial of all authenticity. Finita la commoedia: all that is left is death, cloning, freezing, the zero degree of culture. This has a nice eschatological ring, but eschatology is a cultural construct too and this kind blandly skirts the possibility that art, when not in the hands of the juvenile leads of America’s decayed and overstuffed art world, may have enough affirmative power to transcend such levels of sophomoric despair.
Baudrillard’s other job in the art world has been to lend “radical” credentials to its inflated market. When he appeared at the Whitney Museum to lecture in March 1987, collectors, dealers, and artists turned out in droves, as for the Messiah, and were not a bit deterred when Baudrillard declared that “relying on art has always seemed to me too easy, an undercommitment…. We should not be able to practice art, to enjoy the play of form and appearances, until all problems have been resolved.” In other words, because utopia has not been reached, there never has been and never could be a moment when art could legitimately be made! “Art,” he added, “presupposes that all problems have been resolved,” which might have been news to Goya (and Breughel, and Daumier, and Picasso, and all too many others) but exemplifies Baudrillard’s peculiar turn of overstatement. He was interested not in the history, but in the “destiny” of art, which was to vanish. To show its dwindling he would refer to “very few” sources: Baudelaire, Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan and his “electronic pragmatism,” and “in his transcendental anti-esthetics of the euthanasia of art by itself,” Andy Warhol.
What attracts me is the fact that the logic of production of values…converges with an inverse logic, that of the disappearance of art. The more aesthetic values come into the market place, the less possibility there is for aesthetic judgment of our pleasure.
Since it is fairly clear that, whatever else art might be up to, it is not disappearing—indeed, that it was growing, in hype, public prominence, institutional garnish, and raw mass as the Eighties wore on—one wonders what Baudrillard has in mind. But he came up with an ingenious cure for old-fashioned worries about the dominance of the art market. Extrapolating (so he claimed) from Baudelaire, he declared that the art object now had a way to defend itself against its corruption as merchandise, by becoming absurdly expensive. “It must go further into alienation…through reinforcing the formal and fetishized abstraction of merchandise, becoming more mercantile than merchandise itself…it becomes more object than the object; this gives it a fatal quality,” and so forth. Ludicrously high art prices, apparently, became subversive by showing the unreality of capitalism in “an ecstatic state of exchange.”
One can see why Baudrillard’s efforts to reconcile the fetishism of high price with the phantom of radicalism have made him so popular—the art dealer’s intellectual, as it were. His effort to collapse all cultural meaning into mere simulacra lends credibility to the underlying assumption of the market, that art no longer has any purpose beyond its own promotion. If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is “truer” or “deeper” than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity—an ideal proposition for dealers with a lot of recent product to shift and a clientele easily snowed by jargon. Hence Baudrillard has become the patron saint of those who wish to turn affectlessness into a commodity. He may be a patchy thinker and a poor travel writer, but he has his cultural uses.
June 1, 1989