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an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 20, Spring/Summer 2023, ISSN 1552-5112

 

 

Pop Goes Hyperreal!

 

 

Andrea Mecacci

 

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My paper aims to investigate the notion of “hyperreality”, introduced by Eco in the account of his journey across America in 1975 and taken up by Baudrillard a few years later as the guiding concept of the contemporary, an issue representing one of the key grammars for the historical understanding of the transition from pop (the art of consumption) to postmodern (the consumption of art) where the falsification of artistic content is shifted into the average criterion of aesthetic pleasure. So my talk will be divided into three parts: first, a look at the aesthetics of pop, then an analysis of the problem of the fake as transition strategy to hyperreality, which will be the final point.

In order to analyze what we call “pop aesthetics”, one immediately needs to sweep away a misunderstanding hard to die: Pop is not Pop Art. Pop Art is a high-level expression, with a broader meaningfulness relative to what most of interpreters in the Fifties called “mass culture” and that a group of British intellectuals, which met under the name of the Independent Group, began to call “pop art”. The first intuition of the Independent Group was to assign to consumption cultural products the same worth value of those of high culture. However, this operation involved a global reconsideration of what was meant by art. The use of the adjective pop became the key to the solution. An extensive radiography of mass art started leading to the first great synthesis: what distinguishes the mass art from the high one is its consumability, the expendability. This allowed understanding how what gradually came to be called pop was inevitably inscribed in the logic of industrial capitalism. The Americanization of the Western world in the Fifties found in the consumption not only an economic validation, but also an aesthetic one. And the infatuation with America (an idea that today seems so far away if not weird) means to do what millions of people do: to consume movies, songs, and cartoons, and to recognize themselves in the same culture.

It is the rising of an aesthetic reality integrated in the urban universe (differently from the folklore) and non-conflictual with the industrial ideology (differently from the avant-garde). The mimetic operation that arose was Pop Art: from the consumption to the representation of consumption. The expendability of cultural and industrial mass goods became the reference for this new mimesis as nature (external and internal) was for the past. It seemed no longer necessary to argue in a conflictual way the dialectics between the ego and the world. Suddenly the interiority became archeology: duplicating the world was the new formula and also the big misunderstanding. In this sense, Pop Art, as Arthur Danto remarked[1], concluded the parable of Platonism and the long history of mimesis. The art of pop culture, what today we call Pop Art as represented by this formula in textbooks of art history, built itself through precise aesthetic strategies: the abolition of the ego and consequently the definition of an anti-emotional culture, predominance of the artificial and obliteration of nature, tautology of images, with no hierarchical distinction between high and low.

Industrial aesthetics could not record anything but the absolute validation of artificial guidelines of the beautiful. Baudelaire’s insights, if we follow Baudrillard’s line of interpretation, find their fulfillment in Warhol: the natural beautiful does not exist. The natural threatens the idea of iconicity that pop seeks. The natural brings with itself a temporality that does not integrate with the pop expendability, because it has different laws from those of the market. The temporality of nature is not the temporality of consumption.

What is, then, a pop beauty? First, it is a beauty that may be constructible. In fact, the great aesthetic exercise of Warhol takes place on Marilyn Monroe, on the constant denial of the natural and the planned affirmation of artifice and its construction, the make-up. If make-up corrects the natural defects, it should be understood that this operation is an operation that mainly leads from the mimetic to the iconic. The make-up fixes an image that from that point on becomes repeatable, reproducible, an easy object of optical fetishism. Beautiful pop declines always in a fetishistic way because it is always mediated by a representative virtuality that coincides with the media universe. If nature expresses a beauty that satisfies physically, pop shapes the beautiful through strategies of erotic sublimation. The artifice of beauty pop flows, always and inevitably, in that huge industrial scene of shared taste that is fashion.

In the reified universe of late capitalism, it was almost a tautological operation to prefer the object to the subject. It was a landing already inscribed in the processes of commodity fetishism identified in the mid-nineteenth century by Marx and Baudelaire, then recorded more effectively by Benjamin and more problematically by critical theory, and finally promoted to the only structure of reality in the early works of Baudrillard. Artistically, the jump was simple: from the thoughtful gesture of Duchamp, from the transformation of the archetypal object to the possible object, one moved to the representation of the object filtered by the media and reproductive technology. However, pop, and Pop Art in particular, realized that the object has in itself always two dimensions. The mystery of the goods described by Marx before becoming a seductive form (Baudrillard), the nineteenth-century industrial object before becoming postmodern gadget, defined itself essentially as a persuading image. This formula, offered by Richard Hamilton between 1959 and 1960, changed the object in the representation of itself. In this sense, all objects that pop chooses are design objects. This double nature is what marginalizes the use value of the object emphasizing its aesthetic aspect. We can see a first idea of this characteristic in the list given once again by Hamilton in January 1957, when pop art had still the same meaning of pop culture: “Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience). Transient (short-term solution). Expendable (easily forgotten). Low cost. Mass produced. Young (aimed at youth). Witty. Sexy. Gimmicky. Glamourous. Big business.”[2]

The severe modernist ethic was replaced by the uncritical practice of consumption that became more and more symbolic. What was consumed was pictures more than the same objects as Antonioni showed in Blow Up, or Warhol himself in the series Campbell's Soup Cans, where what is visible of cans are only labels (brand, the exchange value) and not their contents (the soup, the use value). In the excess of media signs, the pop object unmasks the last frontier of capitalism: the object does not belong as much to the universe of production, but to that of communication. Nevertheless, the phenomenon, although it is more understandable and manageable at the object level, becomes significantly more alienating if not sinister for the subjects. The whole “Marilyn Monroe” mythology is an example of a strategy of an artifice that changes in uncritical dimension, shared consumption, and instant recognition. This mimesis brought to excess is what in the pop becomes myth or sign as Roland Barthes already showed. With Marilyn and Elvis, the anthropology becomes sign, sign among signs, and finds home not by chance in those pop and postmodern semiotic systems, which are Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Have these simulation mythologies changed into something else? Have they outlined a tradition? Alternatively, maybe the perspective is another: where in our lives today is the point that marks the difference between pop and everyday life? Where is it still visible? This question leads us to the problem of what is true and what is fake.

The problem of fake came out forcefully in Plato’s aesthetics. The complexity of the Platonic discussion of fake is known and depends on the interconnection of different aspects that cannot be isolated: the true, the good, and obviously, the mimetic.[3] The issue of fake is not only at the centre of Platonic mimesis, but is also the most visible and recognisable translation of that space of untruth involving the human being in all manifestations of logos. In the Sophist and the Republic Plato worked out subtle classifications to give an account of this illusory space that gives rise to an actual “technique of deception” (Soph. 264d6). At least three types of fake emerge. They are not always distinguishable from each other, but apparently produce three different experiences: the eikon (copy), the eidolon (image), and the phantasma (appearance). These experiences take shape in relation to their degree of difference with the truth and/or with the original model they reproduce.

The conflict between appearance and reality, triggered by the mimetic process, leads not only to the awareness that one can have a distorted reproduction of reality, beyond any reproduced likeness, but also to a scenario in which the fake is assumed to be a possible reading of reality as a whole. As Plato states in the allegory of the cave, it is a false idea of the world. What remains of Plato’s condemnation of fake is obviously a vision that considers the pseudos as a project of the global falsification of reality, a falsification that has to do not so much with the production of objects, as with the production of fluctuant and humoral opinions. Where there is falsehood, there is the possibility of an art of deception, the mimesis of fake.

The Platonic dialectic of the original and the copy has defined, especially in the context of the reflection on artwork, a distinction between what is authentic and what is not. The negative fetish of the inauthentic is one of the most enduring legacies of Platonic aesthetics. It is a devaluation that was initially aesthetic and then became a moral condemnation: the inauthentic as a field of seduction and guilt as shown, just to give two examples, by the modernist attacks on kitsch or the vexed suspicion toward cosmetic surgery. Plato’s warnings against the pseudos (ontological, moral, and mimetic) pour into what remains one of the most obsessive attempts to work out a grammar of counterfeit art: the 1897 essay What is Art? by Tolstoy. The specificity of Tolstoy’s text, a sort of ante litteram x-ray inquiry of kitsch, is that what is analysed and considered as a product of counterfeit (poddelka) is not a series of minor works, immediately recognisable as artistic surrogates, but the great works of nineteenth-century modernity, the first being Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

Unlike in Plato’s work, the fake (counterfeit in Tolstoy’s lexicon) is not so much a perceptual error or an illusory appearance, as a strategy to create only an aesthetic pleasure, an act of enjoyment (and indeed Plato might agree on this point). To realise this purpose the poddelka shows itself through four features: borrowing, imitating, strikingness and engagingness[4]. The first two are related to the object, the second two to the subject. The borrowing (zaimstvovanie) is the use of clichés, the recycling of familiar images and content, whereas the imitating (podrazhatel'nost) is the tendency to fill in the work with details, descriptions, in this way trying to make a kind of cast of reality. In turn, the strikingness (porazitel'nost) represents the ways in which the subject’s senses are stressed in the fruition (violence and sex scenes), whereas the engagingness (zanimatel'nost) is both a mere intellectual dimension, for example analysing the plot complexity or the author’s technical competence, and at the same time a distracted fruition, a mere entertainment.

Plato and Tolstoy consider the fake and the relative grammars as a mimetic dimension that repudiates an ontological (Plato) and artistic (Tolstoy) authenticity and they arrive at an ethical characterisation of the aesthetics of pseudos. In modernity, this interweaving will be maintained only in the criticism of kitsch, while the issue of the fake will change into another inquiry.

The ontological impasse of the fake leads to new scenarios. The contemporary aestheticisation seems to modify the experience of fakery. In daily practice the discernment of authentic, the final outcome of the aesthetic taste, is replaced by artistic fetishism. It is a condition that leads directly to what Eco and Baudrillard define as hyperreality. So we see the uncontrolled phenomenon of fake aesthetics, where the ontological and mimetic problem has now changed into a dimension, so to speak, intended for tourists. Certainly the Parthenon in Athens is historically better than its 1897 replica in Nashville, a reproduction of the Parthenon in every detail, showing it to us as it should appear in its original appearance.[5] In this difference we still feel the dimension of the fake: “tourists who in Florence fetishistically admire outside Palazzo Vecchio the copy of Michelangelo’s David (without knowing that the original is preserved elsewhere)”[6], or the Getty Museum in Malibu where “original statues and paintings are inserted in very well reproduced ‘original’ environments, and many visitors are uninterested in knowing which are the originals and which the copies.”[7]

In the account of his journey into the American make-believe in the mid-1970s, Travels in the Hyperreality, Eco notices a decisive dialectic: the relationship between the real thing and the absolute fake. No longer platonically opposed in an ontological struggle, these poles now define a continuous exercise of the desire in a culture increasingly tied to the image. The desire for authenticity can only be expressed in the logic of the absolute fake. Everything is a duplication, particularly the past that undergoes a pervasive iconic cannibalisation: “the completely real becomes identified with the completely fake.[8] This involves a shift in the role played by the mimetic. Now Plato’s targets, activated by the mimesis (illusion, double, iconic seduction), become a cultural strategy: the fake moves away from the mimetic process, that process which considers itself still tied to an original model in a subordinate way, and becomes the sign of itself, and creates a new dimension of reality – the hyperreality. Even the aesthetic pleasure aroused by the hyperreal has its own inner logic. The fake is not so much the reaching of a technical perfection but the idea for which, in front of this absolute iconism, the real will always be inferior and therefore less pleasant and desirable: the falsification turns into a criterion of aesthetic pleasure. Even better than the real thing: the infamous Venus of Milo with arms described by Eco in 1975 as the mimetic prototype of this process. The same condition, e.g., we have with the replica of a Montezuma headdress in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, the second most crowded exhibit of the collection (the first is the Sun Stone), and the (maybe) real one in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna.

In parallel with Eco, Baudrillard has analysed these processes of derealisation by interpreting contemporaneity as an evident agony of the real and rational that is the modern, and as an input into an age of simulation: the age of production is followed by the age of simulation, the logic of fascination (or seduction) follows the logic of sense. The simulation is the dimension that exceeds or denies the ideology of representation, namely the ideology of a still hierarchical relationship between reality and image that expresses, as its goal, the attestation of the truth. It is around this belief that the whole philosophy of Simulacra and Simulation focuses, the 1981 book by which Baudrillard gives definitively his theory of the hyperreal fake: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplications, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double.”[9]

Baudrillard has repeatedly insisted on the articulation of the fake indicating three phases.[10] The first one, the counterfeit, dominates the classic period of modernity, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. It is the impulse toward artifice, the negation of the natural. The first modernity engages in a huge enterprise of imitation of nature before moving to its own production. This is the second stage, one that coincides with the Industrial Revolution: the imitation of nature is followed by the technological production. The simulacrum of the natural is overcome by the introduction of the replicable model, the mass production. The fake turns into industrial code and the centrality of the authentic and unique falls. The third stage is the simulation: medium after medium, the real accomplishes itself. The industrial code turns to the communication code. The art itself takes this principle of simulation that removes every other competitive principle, be it reality or pleasure. So modernity has produced in its course three types of simulacra: 1) the natural or mimetic simulacrum based on image and counterfeiting, that is the simulacrum condemned by Plato; 2) the industrial simulacrum that is the expression of the technologisation of reality simulacrum, finding in Benjamin and McLuhan its decisive interpreters; and 3) the simulacrum of simulation that defines the contemporary hyperreality. Where there was reality there is now simulation; where there were objects constituting reality, now there are simulacra.

The paradigmatic expression of this historical condition is Disneyland which Baudrillard, like Eco, does not hesitate to define as the exemplary model of all simulacra, at least in the Seventies and in the Eighties. Disneyland shows the final dimension where the aesthetics of the fake overturn every Platonic principle in a spectacular way (and so it reveals itself as deeply Platonic). Disneyland shows hyperreality to its most primordial degree; it is the step that will activate – just to give two movie examples – the sinister dystopias of a reality simulated by machines and their dictatorship (Matrix), and a further variant of the myth of the cave, the world as a reality show (The Truman Show).

Disneyland is, however, at the same time, the end and the beginning of a path: it marks a border between reality and hyperreality. It records the historical moment when the fake, as suggested by Eco, becomes an absolute fake and in this process its confrontation with the authentic loses all its meaning. Thus we do not have to consider Disneyland (nobody lives in Disneyland), but rather those cities where the fake is still in conflict with the idea of an original model. If Los Angeles is the city that still belongs to a clear pop culture[11] and Disneyland to a third phase of early hyperreality, Las Vegas shows that central moment when the hyperreal did not yet emancipate itself from the logic of falsification: it has not yet reached the absolute.        

The Austrian architect Hans Hollein proposed a first analysis of architectural fiction, where the image (the simulated simulacrum) is more central than the reality that may be experienced (the building). “A building can become entirely information – its message might be experienced through informational media (press, TV, etc.). in fact it is almost no importance whether, for example, the Acropolis or the Pyramids exist in physical reality, as most people are aware of them through other media anyway and not through an experience of their own. Indeed, their importance – the role they play – is based on this effect of information. Thus a building might be simulated only.”[12] Recovering Benjamin’s theories discussed in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Hollein focuses on the aesthetic experience of the role of the image in the media universe, no longer a substitute for the original, but the only usable dimension: the exhibition value is the new real.                                   

It is in the way this exhibition’s value, following Benjamin’s concept, is expressed that illustrates how postmodernity sharpens its mimetic strategies. The processes of falsification are poured out in a cultural hermeneutics which is translated into a “replication of a permanent past,”[13] like the Parthenon in Nashville has shown. However, that replication logic still admits a relationship with the past model: another example, in which the postmodern already appears as hyperreal, is the case of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. Here you can see in action the operative fake in the overlapping of signified and signifier when a dimension of the past, ancient Egypt, is replicated. The signifier (the word Luxor) does not indicate the reproduction of the Luxor Temple but has another meaning, the Sphinx and the Khafre pyramid at Giza, although the size of the hotel refers not to the Khafre pyramid, the second largest after that of Cheops, but to the pyramid of Menkaure, the third and smallest of Giza site. A real pastiche of references as you can see.    

 

The operative fake is still an exercise of accumulation of cultural referents, a conscious exercise of quotations, and it is the last stage before the hyperreal. If today Piazza d’Italia (1976–1979) by Charles Moore in New Orleans has become a symbol of postmodern architecture, at the same time it is also an implicit model (more or less conscious) of every Italian outlet store. The revival of the old as a solution to contemporary needs can also take the form of the ironic provocation that the fake often brings on purpose with itself, as the postmodern Bible, Learning from Las Vegas, proves.

The history of Las Vegas, in the decades that separate it from the year of the first publication of Learning from Las Vegas (1972), shows the passage from a city modulated according to an iconographic logic (the signs on the Strip) to a city identified with its own scene-design strength (as documented by the Luxor Hotel). A dramatization of urban space, its hyperreal Disneylandisation, leads to the extreme logic that postmodernism had developed in its relationship with modernist aesthetics – a game of mirrors that seemed to repeat what had established Platonic mimesis, the struggle between true and false. Heinrich Klotz, the German historian of architecture, at the conclusion of his The History of Postmodern Architecture[14] has identified ten oppositions between the modern and the postmodern and one might add that it is just in the space opening from this dialectic that the fake finds its operativity. The ten features proposed by Klotz revolve around a basic bipolarity: the postmodern has placed at its centre a fictional representation marginalising the totem of modernist planning, the function. In other words, it replaced the function of truth, the realisation itself of techne, with the tale of illusion, the extemporaneous work of the imagination. It dismissed the primacy of technological utopianism and replaced it with a multiplicity of meanings. This grammar resumes wholly the vocabulary of the fake (fiction, illusion, allusion) and transforms the fiction (the fake) into the new function (the truth), a perfect exchange of values that leads directly to Disneyland and beyond.               

In conclusion, all that remains is to rely on two suggestions. First, it is possible to accept the fake as a viable and unproblematic aesthetics, and indeed it is so. But it is not possible to ignore the sinister presage of a humanity that resolves in a replication of itself, has its own image in its specular simulacrum, the “more human than human, the motto of Tyrell Corporation, the company that produces replicants in Blade Runner. And then the other possibility. The city of Tianducheng in China builds the replica of an entire city: the fake as a living space, the achievement of hyperreality as the only and true reality. More Parisian than Paris. However, can we spot the real one, right?

 

 

   

an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 20, Spring/Summer 2023, ISSN 1552-5112

 

Notes



[1] See Danto, Arthur, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, Columbia University Press (1986).

[2] Hamilton, Richard, Collected Words, Thames and Hudson (1982), p. 28.

[3] See Halliwell, Stephen, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, Princeton University Press (2002).

[4] Tolstoy, Lev, What is Art?, Funk & Wagnalss (1904), p. 106.

[5] Eco, Umberto, The Limits of Interpretation, Indiana University Press (1994), pp. 184-185 and 201.

[6] Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, p. 183.

[7] Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, p. 185.

[8] Eco, Umberto, Travels in Hyperreality, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1986), p. 7.

[9] Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press (1994) p. 2.

[10] Baudrillard, Jean, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage (1993), p. 50.

[11] See Banham, Reyner, Los Angeles. The Architecture Of Four Ecologies., Harper and Row (1971)

[12] Hollein, Hans, Everything is Architecture, in Architecture Culture 1943-1968, ed. by J. Ockman, Rizzoli (1993), p. 462.

[13] McHale, John, The Plastic Parthenon, in Kitsch. An Anthology of Bad Taste, ed. by G. Dorfles, Studio Vista (1973), p. 104.

[14] Klotz, Heinrich, The History of Postmodern Architecture, MIT Press (1988), p. 421.