PRINT November 2008


the politics of images

I CAN THINK OF NO BETTER definition of celebrity than a widely circulating image derived from but not identical to a person—in short, an avatar. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama was criticized as just such an image. A notorious television ad likened him to celebrity-without-a-cause Paris Hilton and everyone, it seems, called him a rock star. In spite of the Republicans’ own strategy of wrapping their candidates in the guise of sainted POW and avenging hockey mom, the 2008 election pitted illusory, image-based “celebrity” against the “real” policies attributed to John McCain (and let’s not forget that since 9/11 the ur-action of Republican policy has been military action). Such posturing among politicians, who pretend that their stock-in-trade is not the production of avatars, is an outrageous denial of the real power of images.

It seems to me that this faux-naïf denial in the realm of politics has an analogue in the naive quarantining of the power of art in the realm of contemplation. The affective power of artworks on individuals is enthusiastically celebrated and analyzed, while the economic effects of art, though given lip service, are largely marginalized as external to its meaning. Art is transforming entire neighborhoods in such diverse cities as New York, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing; it is a mechanism for justifying huge social inequalities, increasingly by means of new, or newly enlarged, privately funded museums popping up under the guise of “civic amenities.” Now is the time to renew the rallying cry of critic Harold Rosenberg: Images are actions! In contrast to Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, who advocated contemplative models of spectatorship, Rosenberg regarded painting as inextricably linked to an ethics of its making. Today, in an art world vastly expanded from that of the 1950s or even the ’60s, such an ethics must confront art’s responsibility for its effects beyond the white cube.

Images have always served as technologies of political power. Like leaders throughout history and in every culture, American presidents personify their nation, both domestically and internationally. As avatars, they incarnate the shared representation of what cultural historian Benedict Anderson has called a nation’s “imagined community.” The distinctive factor in modern politics lies in the necessity for a candidate to produce her- or himself as a media celebrity, a constant of our political scene at least since John F. Kennedy’s role in the televised debates with Richard Nixon in 1960. Let’s face it, presidential elections now resemble “reality” television contests such as the Bravo franchises Top Chef, Top Design, Shear Genius, and Project Runway. The primaries are like media tryouts in which ratings (polls) measure how well a candidate will play nationally. First we have Top Democrat and Top Republican, and then we have Top President. And as in media entertainment, where ratings are directly linked to advertising dollars, candidates can raise money directly in proportion to how well they perform at each stage of the contest. Candidates’ positions on issues are obviously not irrelevant, but equally if not more important is the honing of a celebrity image that can sustain a mandate to lead by establishing a constituency similar to that which a television character establishes among his or her audience. This requires a delicate balancing act, as on the one hand a political candidate must appear “authentic,” while on the other he or she must embody a sufficiently generalized ideal to appeal to a mass audience. Political avatars are successful only as long as they can maintain a virtual public, composed of constituents acting like fans, which functions as a screen behind which vested interests may proceed largely unexamined.

If we credit Republican attacks on Obama’s image, attaining celebrity is a superficial accomplishment. But in fact, producing and maintaining a powerful avatar seems easy only because vastly expanded media outlets ranging from blogs to cable television are hungry for content that must stream across television and computer screens twenty-four hours a day. But the real test of an avatar lies in how well it is governed—how it is modulated or even renewed without seeming to contradict its previous incarnations, thereby falling prey to a version of the deadly political “flip-flop.” Madonna represents a rare and brilliant example of such a capacity for transformation—she has been able to renew both her image and her audience over a span of nearly thirty years in the notoriously fickle market of pop stardom. George W. Bush, by contrast, proved unwilling or unable to amend his image as events in Iraq spun out of control. He won a stunning mandate after the attacks of 9/11 by keeping his chin set in the face of terrorism. With his image of fierce and unwavering resolve, he convinced a significant section of the electorate to accept the flimsy evidence presented in justification of an unprovoked attack on Iraq, and sustained American popular support for this adventure in the face of virtually worldwide opposition. This was an impressive accomplishment, even though the war quickly turned into a disaster. At this point, when events in Iraq undermined the legitimacy of his steely avatar, Bush proved unwilling or unable to alter its momentum. Had he been more skillful at governing his image, it is certainly possible that he could have redirected or at least adjusted his avatar to suit the new situation. His failure to do so illustrates one of the most important “laws” in the dynamics of images: Representations have enormous inertia that can carry one to triumph as long as events are flowing in a sympathetic direction, but can have equally disastrous consequences when history and an avatar diverge.

It is perhaps because of the inertia of images that the ideology of change has had such a paradoxically unchanging appeal for politicians out of power. Everyone, it seems, wants to attach their avatar to “change.” When it became clear to the Republican camp this past summer that Obama’s rhetoric of change was wildly successful, McCain and his running mate sought to neutralize this power by appropriating it: Real change would come not with Obama, they argued, but with McCain, represented as a lifelong maverick, or with Sarah Palin, painted as a fearless reformer who had cleaned up Alaska’s Wild West corruption. Here we have an image of change inflected by cowboy folksiness in opposition to Obama’s manifestation of transformation as evinced in his own extraordinary life story. All three avatars were fighting for possession of the same valuable message, but this fight had nothing to do with the model of rational policy debate, where one position might be proved logically superior to another in argument. Instead, spectacle fought spectacle in an illustration of a second law of image dynamics: Representations prevail quantitatively and through appropriation. Like white blood cells that fight illness by absorbing infection, a new image must trump the old, muffle and throttle it through massive proliferation, physically rather than logically overwhelm it.

I have been discussing politics, but the laws of image dynamics pertain equally to the realm of art. Indeed, I remain skeptical that there is much difference between how images circulate in politics and how they function in the art world. Reputations are made there just as they are in politics, and the question of governing images is even more important now that many young artists begin to exhibit early on and must often learn to manage celebrity (at least of the art-world kind) from the outset of their careers. Despite the fact that change is as prevalent an ideology in museums and art markets as it is in politics, the pressure from dealers—as everyone knows but few openly admit—is to stay with an identifiable device or style in order to establish a consistent “brand” that can appeal to emerging or established markets. Hence, as in every election, so too in the art world: Inertia masquerades as change. Moreover, the second law of image dynamics equally holds, not only with regard to New York neighborhoods such as SoHo, West Chelsea, or the Lower East Side, where art has appropriated real estate, preparing it for the development of shopping and high-end residences, but also in the most interesting techniques of contemporary art itself. In works such as Mike Kelley’s Day Is Done, 2005, in which found yearbook photographs of amateur theatricals and other performative occasions are the pretext for elaborate forms of photographic, video, and sculptural reenactment, images produce other images from and within themselves. Kelley is hardly alone in this fascination. Virtually every ambitious artist since Warhol has taken on the question of how images attract or repel others in competitive interfaces. Take, as another example, the sculpture of Rachel Harrison, where things drawn from different realms of use and things with radically different connotations are brought together in a frozen combat for the domination of meaning. Artists may be intelligent, but images aren’t: They fight by means of proliferation and accumulation, and their inhuman movements are difficult to govern.

David Joselit is the author of Feedback: Television Against Democracy (MIT Press, 2007).