Project Base and superstructure

This project involved reading a paper by David Chandler of Aberystwyth University on Marxist Media Theory. The aim is to review the paper and then to answer several questions. The questions and my answers are listed below:

What did Marx mean by base and superstructure?

Marx believed that the economic base of society is seen as determining everything else in society which he calls the superstructure, which includes social, cultural, political and intellectual systems. The base is a combination of the forces of production—raw materials, industrial processes, factories, etc.—and the relations of production, or more simply the wage-based relationship between the working class and their employers.

In the case of a media organisation for example this would mean that the content it publishes and the messages it conveys would be primarily determined by its economic base, or more specifically who owns and controls the capital of the organisation. A commercially owned organisation will be driven by the need to keep advertisers happy through increasing circulation – inevitably this would mean that such organisations would tend to publish attentions grabbing content – sleaze, violence, and these days celebrity gossip. Media institutions which are owned and controlled by the state, e.g. the BBC, would publish material which would present views which support those of the prevailing consensus.

Which of the approaches outlined by Chandler makes the most sense to me?

The fundamental idea (Economism) expressed by the base and superstructure, which Althusser calls a metaphor, makes the most sense when looking at commercial organisations. The financial interests of capitalist organisations do drive their actions. This classical approach is however very rigid and simplistic.

Althusser rejected Economism in favour of an analysis which sees ideology as the key factor in shaping people’s consciousness. Althusser’s proposed the concept of idealogical state apparatuses (ISA’s), which appellate individuals to become ‘subjects’ who subscribe to the inherent structures of the ISA’s. I believe that structures with the characteristics of ISA’s exist in society. The Church, family relations, the political system all seem to conform to this idea. What I do not agree with is Althusser’s notion that individuals cannot resist the process of interpellation. If this were the case how then would it have been possible for example for Marx to challenge the prevailing ideologies? More recent thinkers  have allowed  for a contradictory, de-centred ‘subject’. This seems more plausible to me. The idea that messages can be moulded and adapted by audiences also makes sense to me. As does their idea that ‘The power of the media is thus portrayed as that of renewing, amplifying and extending the existing predispositions that constitute the dominant culture’.

Gramsci’s ideas that the ruling class are able to project their own way of seeing the world so that people see it as common sense and natural also seems on face value to make sense. However, this model assumes that the ruling classes are able to control the media. This is something which may well have been true in the past but perhaps is no longer the case.

The so-called Marxist cultural approach presented in the work of Stuart Hall, seeks to overcome the rigidity of Economism, and lack of recognition of opposing views in Althusser’s analysis. He also addresses theoretically how people decode texts. His analysis facilitates oppositional views and appears less rigid and intractable. It comments little however on the importance of ownership and control.

What this analysis has shown me is that there are many different Marxist Media theories, none of which fully makes sense to me.

Does my understanding of base and superstructure vary for society in general and the media/arts?

Economism proposes that the economic base determines all other aspects of society.

For commercial organisations it is relatively easy to accept this on face value. My comments in the introduction present the media as an example of how the ‘relations of productions’ or the ownership is likely to direct the actions of the organisation.

With regards to the art however it might be argued that it is not driven by the economic base of society and that it may even stand in opposition to it. A simplistic interpretation of Marx’s base and superstructure would argue that art merely reflects the messages of the dominant classes. There are however many instances in the history of art where artists have stood out in opposition to the dominant prevailing view within society. Of course there are also examples of where artists have produced work for commercial gain, clearly responding to the desires of the dominant classes, reflecting their views and promoting their interests.

Later interpretations of Marx’s base and superstructure acknowledge the need for a more flexible interpretation which accepts that the superstructure also influences the base. This would accommodate the role of art as a challenge to the prevailing culture within society.


Project Fetishing the object of your eye

This project involved reading sections from the course reader by Freud and Fenichel on the psychology and philosophy of looking. The next step was to answer a number of questions. My thoughts are set out below for each of the questions.

How does what you have read help your understanding of why and how we look at things in a ritualised way – for instance going to an art gallery?

From what I read there seems to be a number of factors at work.

In the first instance it is possible that some people who visit galleries and other venues where looking is ritualised, do so because they have fetishised the objects on display. A person gains satisfaction from looking at the art, photographs, museum pieces etc because these objects have come to stand for something missing in their lives. The element which is missing could in theory be anything. It could be that the objects on display represent experiences not attainable by the individual – for example expeditions to exotic places that the individual could never afford or summon up the courage to visit or the creation of photographs or art which the individual does not have the skills to complete themselves. So in this regard, the objects stand in for an unfulfilled or missing experience in the life of the viewer.

The essays also indicate a second factor. As a human being our first instinctive reaction when we look at the external world is to seek to imitate it. This process is called identification. We wish to share in the experience of that which we look at. This is why in many religions it is an impious act to look at God face to face. To look at God implies identification with God or likening oneself with God. In venues for ritualised looking, the exhibits are objects held in the highest esteem in whatever discipline is under display. Those looking at these treasured exhibits are most likely seeking to share in the experience (and genius) of those exhibiting.

These points illustrate why someone might go to a venue for ritualised looking and how they might look at the exhibits, but it does not answer the question of why such venues are created in the first place. I can only surmise that there are very many people who fetishise or seek to identify with the objects under display. So much so that the creation of venues to facilitate looking has been recognised as a need by society as a whole.

Do the articles suggest to you reasons for staring at someone being at best bad manners and at worst threatening?

The essays suggest a number of factors to support this view.

There is considerable evidence that looking has an unconscious significance of devouring.Very often sadistic impulses are involved in such looking.  So when we look at someone this could be an indication of our wish to devour them or even to destroy them. This is most definitely threatening and much worse than bad manners.

Looking also has associations with magic and hypnotism. In a magic glance one can render the subject incapable of movement or to turn them to stone. The hypnotist is able through looking to complel the subject to do his/her bidding. I suspect that this is what is behind the term ‘evil eye’. Psychologists suggest that such an eye is another symbol for the terrible devouring female genital. Both of these situations are detrimental to person being looked at.

Can you make any suggestions as to the reasons for some people’s need to avidly watch television?

I suspect that substitution of things missing in their lives with the experiences of others which they see on the television is at the heart of this. People have fetishised TV programmes. The experiences of TV personalities replace the ‘missing’ experiences in their own lives. Identification is another factor in play. Viewers wish to share in the experiences they witness on TV – violence, sex, celebrity etc etc are objects of desire.

What visual fetishes have you noted in everyday life – your own or others?

When I look at my own situation, I seem to have a particular predilection to buying photography books. I have in fact become a collector of such books. I had put this down to the fact that photography is a major preoccupation of mine. But why do I collect so many books? Could it be that they are a substitute for my own lack of photographic skills? Have I fetishised photography books. I also seem to buy lots of clothes. Often, these are really clothes to be worn by younger people. Am I using these clothes as a substitute for something else. If so what? Could it be that I want to be perceived as cool and as I am not I buy cool clothes as a substitute.

Why are people so keen to display wedding portraits or family portraits?

I wonder if this is because people fetishise such images which generally display happy and harmonious times because their real family and married lives are far from harmonious. The family portrait and snapshots are often fictions. The family fighting in the car all the way to the seaside pictured later on the beach all smiling…..what is reality? People want to feel that their family life is going well and perhaps they live this through the fiction of the family album.

Project Modernist art: the critic speaks

The first project in this course requires the reading of the essay by Clement Greenberg Modernist Painting. The essay is published in Art in Theory 1900-2000. The task is to read and re-read the essay and then to answer the following questions:

  • What is Greenberg talking about in general?
  • What are his main arguments?
  • Who does he mention?
  • What is his opinion of them?
  • Does he quote others?
  • Does he make reference to other’s work?
What is Greenberg talking about in general?
In general terms Greenberg is talking about the underlying logic of how art, and more specifically painting,  has developed and retained its integrity as a unique and valued discipline under Modernism. He attributes its development to the inherent self critical tendency within painting itself, which has increasingly emphasised the irreducible flatness of the support.
What are his main arguments?
His main thesis is based upon  comparison with Kant’s critical approach to the field of logic. Kant used logic itself to establish the limits of logic. In other words he used the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself. In the case of logic, Kant’s analysis reduced the scope of the field but secured its postiion as a separate discipline of value. In Greenberg’s view it is immanent criticism similar to that applied by Kant to logic which has been the driving force for development of art under Modernism. Greenberg argues that the self criticism of Modernism differs from the criticism of the Enlightenment in that it is criticism from within rather than from the outside. He contends that disciplines which have not been able to avail themselves that of immanent criticism have been assimilated into broader disciplines. He cites the example of religion being assimilated into therapy. In effect he argues that art has avoided being assimilated into entertainment, by demonstrating that the kind of experience it provides is valuable in its own right and could not be obtained from elsewhere. His view is that each art had to effect this demonstration on its own account. In the case of painting he takes the view that  stressing the irreducible flatness of the support has been the most fundamental process by which painting has defined itself under Modernism. He illustrates the case of the development of  Modernist painting specifically by reference to particular artists. He also draws parallels with the development of modern science which he believes shows that the two disciplines have been subject to a common cultural tendency under Modernism. Finally he makes that point that the self criticism has been spontaneous and subliminal. It has been entirely driven by practice rather than in response to critical theory which he perceives has lagged throughout the process.
Who does he mention?
His intitial point of reference as mentioned above is Kant. When developing his argument for painting he cites several Modernist painters. He cites Manet’s paintings as the first Modernist paintings because of the frank way they declared the surface on which they were painted. He refers to the way the Impressionists eliminated underpainting and glazing to leave the viewer in no doubt that the colours used came from real paint. He references the way that Cezanne sacrificed spacial accuracy to fit his designs more explicitly into the rectangular shape of the canvas. He suggests that the move to abstraction arose because of the desire to eliminate representation of recognisable entities which would call up associations with three dimensional space.  He makes the point that this view contrasts with that of Kandinsky and Mondrian who believed that the move to abstraction was in itself  a key moment in the self criticism of pictorial art. He illustrates how development has taken place through a process by which successive artists have reacted to their predecessors. He cites David reacting to the colourist Fragonard, Cezanne and the cubists reacting to the Impressionists and so on.
What is his opinion of them?
Whilst mentioning many artists and thinkers, Greenberg does not express specific judgements about them other than to place them in the context of his argument that Modernist painting has developed through a process of immanent criticism.
Does he quote others?
Curiously he does not quote others. He makes reference to Kant but does not specifically quote him.
Does he make reference to others work?
Again curiously he does not. His work is standalone and he does not seek to place it within the context of broader critical opinion.
My Feelings on the Essay
I had previously considered that two of the main tenets of Modernism were ‘art for arts sake’ and emphasising the medium. This view came from my photography studies. Greenberg’s essay confirmed these elements but added flesh to the bone. By using painting as a case study Greenberg illustrated through reference to the works of successive painters how Modernist painters emphasised the medium and sought to differentiate painting as an valid independent discipline. So I was convinced that this has been a driving force for development during the Modernist era.
As to whether this development process has been successful in avoiding painting being assimilated into entertainment, I am less sure. I have the impression that Greenberg seized on Kant’s work in logic as a convenient reference point. He does not justify why something which seems to have worked in one discipline might of necessity be successful in a completely different discipline.
My own view is that the continued success of painting as a discrete independent discipline has had more to do with the fact that many different and influential groups have an interest in ensuring its continued success. Artists, investors, museums, curators, critics, art historians and art lovers are all implicated. Such interests are largely financial but also relate to the maintaining the ‘snob’ value of high art as opposed to popular culture. Many of the tenets of high art came under attack during Post Modernism. In practice, however, works of art from the Post Modern era have come to be regarded as ‘masterpieces’ with all that this entails – high prices paid for them at Auction, icon status for the artists, enduring status on gallery walls.

Quo Vadis Documentary Photography

Some time ago I read Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ . Since then I have thought a lot about her premise which is that documentary photography of human suffering is exploitative. The book has certainly influenced my choice of photographic subject….I no longer home in on odd-looking people, people in trouble or  ‘Bowery Bum’ types in my street photography… Beyond that I had retained an open mind…that is until I unearthed this photograph which shows photographers crowding around the dead body of a girl in Haiti who had been shot by the police for looting…..I am ashamed to call myself a photographer…

15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, who was shot and killed by police in Haiti after looting two plastic chairs and three framed pictures ( photograph by Nathan Weber)

What particularly brought this issue to the foreground was the fact that a photograph of the dead Cherisma was awarded the Best International News image at the Swedish Picture of the Year Awards!!!

Opening Post

This blog is Keith Greenough’s learning blog for the Open College of the Arts course – Understanding Visual Culture. I have created a separate blog from my main photographic blog My idea is to keep the coursework for this new course clearly identified but also to be able to cross reference to the main blog…..I plan to enrol tomorrow….

My hope is that this course will provide me with a stronger critical understanding which will inform my future photographic work. I do not need the course to collect more points for my degree in photography…this  one is just for interest. I plan to progress this course in parallel to my future level 3 photography work. At this stage I have the photography studies on hold whilst I validate my thinking and also spend some time upgrading my technical skills with large format cameras. I hope that the UVC course will help me to validate my ideas for the level 3 Advanced work.