PRINT January 1990

The Public Eye

Seeing and Nothingness

Style is a unity of principle animating all the works of an epoch, the result of a state of mind which has its own special character.
—Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1927

There are no realities anymore, there is only apparatus. . . . Neither are there goods any more, . . . but only advertisement. . . . We call all this Americanism.
—Egon Friedell, A Cultural History of the Modern Age: The Crisis of the European Soul from the Black Death to the World War, 1931

THE NEW EVEREADY ENERGIZER–BATTERY mascot, a pink mechanical rabbit—in cool shades and bright blue flip-flops—pounds loudly on his big bass drum. Suddenly, he goes berserk and struts off the sound stage where an Eveready television commercial is in the midst of being filmed (fade to black). Energizer batteries—the ad conveys—will energize anything you power with them. Moments later, as we watch what appears to be another commercial—this one for coffee—the rabbit’s delirious presence intrudes upon what was a quiet morning kitchen-table conversation between two women. Now a third commercial comes on, this one an easily recognized animated diagram for nasal spray, only to be broken into, once again, by the ubiquitous Eveready rabbit. The world of highly produced commercial images collapses in upon itself, melting into a seamless totality, impersonating nothing but itself. Where commercials once attempted to situate products within simulations of our lives—or how we might like our lives to be—the Eveready bunny occupies a world in which advertisement alone is all that remains as a recognizable frame of reference. It is an increasingly familiar story.

At every juncture of experience, the appeal to the eye has become the favored instrument of merchandising. Packaging overwhelms content. Press agentry and visual puffery infect our sources of informotion. Image management has replaced the rules of rhetoric in the conduct of public life. More and more the Truth is defined as that which sells. Our horizons ore cluttered with commercial images; yet more and more there is a gnawing feeling that nothing any longer is there. It is this observation or sense that swamps the imagination of contemporary thought and creativity. Increasingly, it defines the ways people think about culture, politics, and society. It stands at the heart of an “information society” where disembodied information has become, in and of itself, the most prized commodity. It affects how we think about ourselves and other inhabitants of a territory where the image is the prime index of identity. It also affects how people are unable to consider the impending relevance of social, material, environmental issues.

What propels us toward this aura of insubstantiality? How do we make sense of this historical journey toward nothingness? We might begin by looking to the esthetic realm, for as an intrinsic outcome of the social and cultural milieu, an often idealized visual dialogue with the structures, resources, social relations, and sense of alternatives by which people live, this realm provides powerful examples of the way that “period art” tends to communicate (or estheticize) the ruling values of the period that nurtures it.

The history of modern commercial culture—architecture, graphic and industrial design, fashion, etc.—demonstrates dramatic parallels between its system of economic value and its esthetic predilections. Such parallels are the stuff of which a culture is made and communicated. As people’s lives are drawn more and more into the evanescent webs of a modern market, money, credit, and other kinds of abstract representation (stocks, futures, junk bonds, etc.) are established as the common idioms of aspiration and survival. Wealth is detached from the tangibility of land, separated from the substantiality of goods, and becomes exponentially more mobile and vaporous. The transportability of cash and plastic, and the ability now to move trillions via satellite at the push of a button has made society’s grip on the tangible more and more tenuous. This trend, which became entrenched in and accelerated from the mid 19th-century, has moved us from barter to cash, from cash to credit, and from credit to an increasingly indeterminate ether of financial speculation. As the rapidity and range of the market expands, expendable media of exchange become ever more volatile, ever more imponderable. An economy of pure, ephemeral representation merges with the facts of everyday existence. The results are toxic and calamitous. The ecology of life, a familiarity with essential needs, and the interdependence of the human community—once the essential axioms of survival—are increasingly masked by the dizzying flurry of negotiable currencies. The biosphere unravels. Millions of lives lie discarded in urban streets. A widely promoted ethic of privatization threatens to submerge all vestiges of social interdependence.

Meanwhile, capital investment and the ways in which investors define a “productive industry” deepen the crisis. “Smart” money flocks toward the “symbolic economy,” an economy comprising industries whose prime product is disembodied form: information and software, advertising and public relations, banking, financial services, junk bonds; and toward those industries that service the economy of symbols: semiconductors, telecommunications equipment, instrumentation, and computers. As this occurs, more materially grounded industries (agriculture, manufacturing, affordable housing, social infrastructure)—once understood as the bedrock of economic "health”—are permitted to decay, seen as wasteful, unprofitable, insignificant.

The principle of immateriality, of nothingness, of form divorced from matter, has become the dominant ethos of our economic life. Corroborating this economic direction—and conforming to its history with remarkable precision—the quest for insubstantiality has become a preeminent feature of the esthethic imagination as well. If one of Modernism’s main impulses was to develop a vision of beauty reflecting the glories of machine production, an accompanying design tendency—one barely touched upon by art historians, but now the dominant direction—was to delineate a sense of beauty that corresponded to the evanescence of an exchange economy. The tendency can be seen unfolding from the dawn of industrial capitalism. One of the earliest and most enchanting monuments to industrial life, and to the hegemony of monied wealth, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace at the London Exposition of 1851 was an iron-ribbed balloon frame encased in glass, which reduced the appearance of the structure to a wispy latticework of attenuated lines. In its “light, airy, and almost fairy-like proportions,” the building appeared to be held up by the force of an idea. It was as if Karl Marx’s oft-cited observation, that with the triumph of capitalism “all that is solid melts into air,” had been transformed into an architectural principle.

Peter Behrens—who in 1907 initiated the 20th-century profession of corporate image management as chief corporate designer for the AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, the huge German electric cartel)—was one of the first vocal advocates of immateriality as an esthetic. “The success of . . . design,” he advised architects, “lies in establishing the minimum amount of material for a given construction, and the beauty of iron and steel lies partly in their rigidity without volume.” In a certain way, he waxed, “they have a dematerializing character.” Le Corbusier expressed the same kind of affections, employing a visual language of mathematical abstraction to communicate ”the imponderable . . . the relationships which create the imponderable.“ Frank Lloyd Wright was drawn to a similar esthetic siren, heralding the dawn of a ”new reality that is space instead of matter.“ For Walter Gropius, Bauhaus founder, the most appealing feature of glass as a construction material was ”its sparkling insubstantiality."

Bauhaus designer László Moholy-Nagy carried the fascination with disembodied form to a new level, employing light as his primary medium of expression. In his set design for the film version of H.G. Wells’ Things to Come, 1936, Moholy-Nagy created a utopian city where fanciful technologies of the future “would . . . eliminate solid form.” His lifelong fascination with New York City provided him with an archetype. After viewing Manhattan from a distance at night, he wrote to his wife, Sibyl, ”A million lights perforated the huge masses—switching, flickering—a light modulation dissolving the solid form . . . I got drunk—from seeing."

Today this ethic has been normalized in product design and other visual arenas. Black televisions and stereo components disappear into the darkness of the living room cabinet. Following Moholy-Nagy’s principle, the cool play of their light displays only contributes to the apparent dissolution of solid form. The mat-black camera shell—which houses the quintessential arbiter of contemporary sight—is also, now, less and less visible. In a fitting marriage between esthetic and military strategies, billions have been spent to create a “stealth” airplane; its most outstanding characteristic—its imperceptibility; it can be there and not there at the same time. Internalized on a psychosomatic level, anorexic body ideals—particularly for women—follow suit. The esthetic of dematerialization here becomes a pathology, the despondency of people driven to disappear. Whatever body substance is still there, is too much.

Reinforcing such literal expressions of stylistic evanescence, almost all other styles follow in step. In the perpetual flutter of changing images that propels life in the consumer culture, almost every form of representation bears an ever more tenuous connection to matter, assuming—with increasing rapidity—the character of spendable currency. Conforming to the logic of a market fired by style obsolescence and premeditated waste, the most fundamental truth underlying any image is that it will soon cease to exist.

The relation between image and economic power is an ancient one, but today the two have become interchangeable. Insofar as wealth itself is defined as representation, there is an identity between the nature of wealth and the nature of culture as never before. As the symbolic economy increasingly disconnects from basic human priorities, the imagery of ephemeral immateriality silently, and persuasively, estheticizes the trend. Within the encounter between seeing and nothingness, a toxic economy is transformed into a persuasive conception of beauty before our eyes. The need for culture and imagination to loosen themselves from the grip of the market has never been greater.

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin observed that humankind’s “self-alienation” had “reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” As we examine the trajectory of contemporary culture, his words reverberate in our ears; his concern must be ours.

Stuart Ewen is professor of media studies at the City University of New York. His most recent book is Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, 1989.