Spectacle of Visual Culture, The

Spectacle of Visual Culture, The

Garoian, Charles R

In this article we characterize the ideology of visual culture as “spectacle pedagogy” in that images teach us what and how to see and think and, in doing so, they mediate the ways in which we interact with one another as social beings. Given that we are always immersed in visual culture, an understanding of its impact on social relations enables art teachers and their students to distinguish between its corporate, institutionalized expressions of subjectivity, and their personal expressions of subjectivity through artmaking. While the critique of the former promotes a narcissistic fixation with the dominant order of visual culture the latter makes it possible for students to challenge its commodity fetishism through the plurality of their personal perspectives. To enable such plurality in the art classroom, we recommend the conceptual strategies of collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art as the means to expose, examine, and critique the spectacle of visual culture. It is through the indeterminate modes of address of these mediums that students’ creative and political agency is immanently possible as they learn to engage the spectacle politics of visual culture as critical citizens.

In a society dominated by the production and consumption of images, no part of life can remain immune from the invasion of spectacle.

-Christopher Lasch, 1991, p. 122

The spectacle is the acme of ideology, for in its full flower it exposes and manifests the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life.

-Guy Debord, 1967/1994, p. 151

Given the pervasive domination of society by visual culture through television, the movies, the Internet, advertising, and other forms of corporate production, the field of art education is currently in the process of defining curricular and pedagogical practices that will enable students to expose, examine, and critique the essentialized and immutable codes of mass mediated delivery systems. Is the critique of visual culture by art educators a legitimized form of voyeurism? Does the desire to covet its pleasures represent a form of cultural narcissism? What distinguishes between pleasure and criticism in the study of visual culture in art education?

While such distinctions have been well established by scholars in the field (Chapman, 2003; Freedman, 2003; Kindler, 2003; Tavin, 2003; Wilson, 2003), in this article we will extend these arguments by conceptualizing visual culture as spectacle pedagogy. Spectacle, according to cultural critic Guy Debord (1967/1994), “is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 12). Or, as critical theorist Douglas Crimp (Takemoto, 2003) explains it, “an image isn’t simple negative or positive but rather is the product of social relations and produces contradictory social effects” (p. 85). As visual pronouncements, images are ideological, they teach us what and how to see and think. They influence our choices and how we interact with one another. Considering this influence, we internalize the spectacle pedagogy of visual culture as naturalized dispositions in the body. In doing so, we constitute our identities as “one dimensional,” according to cultural critic Herbert Marcuse (1972). Bereft of criticality, one-dimensional thought is “populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations,” (Marcuse, 1972, pp. 24-25).

We characterize the spectacle pedagogy of visual culture in two opposing ways in this article: first, as a ubiquitous form of representation, which constitutes the pedagogical objectives of mass-mediated culture and corporate capitalism to manufacture our desires and determine our choices; and second, as a democratic form of practice that enables a critical examination of visual cultural codes and ideologies to resist social injustice. As the former, spectacle pedagogy functions as an insidious, ever-present form of propaganda in the service of cultural imperialism; the latter represents critical citizenship, which aspires toward cultural democracy. To resist the monocular regime of spectacle seduction, historian Martin Jay (1988) suggests a plurality of vision to “wean ourselves from the fiction of a ‘true’ [dominant cultural] vision and revel instead in the possibilities opened up by the scopic regimes we have already invented and the ones, now so hard to envision, that are doubtless to come” (p. 20).

A plurality of vision provides a framework for an inclusive democracy that has the possibility of yielding multiple perspectives, discourses, and understandings about cultural life. Short of such plurality, we argue that the undeniable lure of cultural spectacle becomes a form of narcissistic pathology. The current rise in private and public forms of surveillance through mass mediation supports this understanding of our desires to be consumed by and in images. As cultural critic bell hooks (1996, p. 2) suggests, there are those of us who consume visual culture to be entertained and there are those who seek it out to learn something. While visual culture in both these cases functions pedagogically, we argue that it is in our desire to learn something from it as we are constituted as critical spectators.

The Manufacture of Spectacle

Cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer (1963/1995) conceptualized the spectacle of visual culture as “the mass ornament,” a metaphor that he used to typify the ornamental patterns of the Tiller Girls, a synchronized dancing group in the 1920s, and corresponded their synchronized legs with workers’ hands in a factory. By comparing the “capitalist production process” with that of “the mass ornament” he distinguished each of them as an “end in itself (Kracauer, pp. 76, 78). While ignorant of the obvious gender stereotypes embedded in his choice of metaphor, Kracauer’s comparison of the performers and spectators of the mass ornament to workers used like component parts in a mechanized division of labor in modern factories corresponded with the rational plan of Taylorism (p. 78). he states: “The ratio that gives rise to the ornament [spectacle] is strong enough to invoke the mass and to expunge all life from the figures constituting it … it is the rational and empty form of the cult, devoid of any explicit meaning, that appears in the mass ornament” (p. 84). Thus for Kracauer, as the insidious spectacle of visual culture constructs its constituent/component performers and spectators, it mutes their private, individual values, meanings, and desires for the good of the mass ornament.

While Kracauer and the cultural critics of the Frankfurt School, namely Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, wrote about the mechanized body of the mass ornament in the 1920s, later theorists such as economist Kenneth E. Boulding in the mid-1950s, and the historian Daniel J. Boorstin and media theorist Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s, described what they were experiencing as the growing social, political, and economic effects of mass mediated images. These scholars explained our propensity to conceptualize and represent the reality of cultural life in images as a disposition that is epistemologically grounded. For Boulding (1961), beginning with the invention of writing to contemporary forms of imaging, the dynamic of a society is predicated on the assumption that “the image [as a ‘dissociated transcript’] not only makes society, society continually remakes the image” (pp. 64-65).

Boorstin describes the same dynamic as “pseudo-events spawn [ing] other pseudo-events in geometric progression” (1987, p. 33). “Pseudoevent” is Boorstin’s designation for the spectacle of visual culture, which is the creation and dissemination of mass mediated images of cultural experience whose truths, realities, and meanings are complicated with ambiguity to arouse and captivate public interest (Boorstin, 1987, pp. 11, 35). Boorstin’s notion of the pseudo-event corresponds with Adorno’s earlier characterization of the “pseudo-personalization,” which denotes the commodity fetishism created by the spectacle “culture industry” of capitalism (Adorno, 1991, p. 173). For McLuhan (1964), electronic media served as an organic extension of the body’s nervous system, namely its instantaneous and simultaneous electric communications capability that manifests the body’s “passive” rather than “active” experience (McLuhan, 1964, p. 219; Boorstin, 1987, p. 188). Thus, by extension, systems of electronic delivery such as the television, the computer, and the Internet are organically linked to the body, as McLuhan suggests, hence enabling an experience of their digitized visual culture that is paradoxically vicarious yet impelling, as its ever-present images construct and determine our bodies’ choices and desires.

Given its mass appeal, the power of spectacle culture is in its pedagogical functioning. Its captivating visual stimulus overwhelms and arrests our bodies’ attention and in doing so inscribes it with the self-validating ideology of commodity culture, a form of “titillation” that journalist Lawrence Weschler refers to as “Pavlovian” (Bernhard, 1998). With its persistent indoctrination and commodification of our bodies, spectacle culture continues to establish itself as a driving force in determining both private and public desires, which media critics Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) refer to as the “manufacture of consent.” Significant about their characterization of the power of the media is its paradoxical pedagogy of “debate, criticism, and dissent,” which unlike that of radical democratic practice enables and perpetuates the commodity culture of corporate capitalism (p. 302).

This “politics as spectacle,” as cultural critic Christopher Lasch (1991) has labeled it, represents a form of propaganda that “createfs] in the public a chronic sense of crisis, which in turn justifies the expansion of executive power and the secrecy surrounding it” (p. 78). Political historian Timothy Mitchell (1998) claims that this dominant order of criticality represents the “world-as-exhibition” where citizens are “continually pressed into service as [complacent] spectators” (p. 298). As such the critique that yields the world-as-exhibition by Madison Avenue advertising and other forms of mass mediation manufactures our “narcissus fixation” with this cultural spectacle, which occludes our critical understanding of its content as commodity fetishism (McLuhan, 1964, p. 33; Marcuse, 1972, p. 25; Lasch, 1991, p. 47).

Art educator Neil C. M. Brown (2003) raises similar concerns about the paradox of “advocating” and “elevating” popular culture, “under the banner of Cultural Studies, to a state of’seriousness’ commensurable with the high arts” (p. 286). Such advocacy for visual culture studies can very well replicate the authorized transgressions of corporate capitalism while ignoring the potential of visual culture to resist social injustice. The danger of focusing on the critical deconstruction of visual culture, as an end in itself is an immanent one that leads to an “ethical cynicism that provides no guarantees for social reconstruction in the practice of art education,” argues Brown (p. 288).

In effect, what appears as transgressive pedagogy may not always be the case claims cultural historian Elizabeth Wilson (quoted in hooks, 1996).

We transgress in order to insist that we are, that we exist, and to place a distance between ourselves and the dominant culture. But we have to go further-we have to have an idea of how things could be different, otherwise transgression is mere [narcissistic] posturing. In other words, transgression on its own leads eventually to entropy, unless we carry within us some idea of transformation. It is therefore not transgression that should be our watchword, but transformation, (p. 26)

Given that contemporary cultural life is always already immersed in spectacle, we affirm the necessity for a broad and inclusive understanding of visual cultural studies through a “plurality of scopic regimes,” which includes the transgressive and transformative power of artmaking. Indeed, for the purposes of art education curriculum and pedagogy, this inclusive understanding is imperative.

The Spectacle of Politics and the Politics of Spectacle

Well, you weren’t surprised were you? Did you expect anything less spectacular from Mr, Universe-tutned-Conan the Barbarian-turnedTerminator-tumea-Kindergarten Cop-turned-movie star-turned-business man-turned-multi-millionaire-turned Governor? Muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger has done it yet again, reinvented himself as he staged a last minute, all out campaign to recall and replace incumbent Governor Gray Davis in the circus-like climate of the California gubernatorial race in October 2003. With no previous experience in government, his only claim to the national political scene was having strategically married into the Kennedy clan. Only fate would have it that this union of the political right and left would yield a viable candidate in the future. In true Hollywood movie-making fashion, “Arnold” has always understood the visual hyperbole and power of the spectacle to turn people’s heads, to fix their gaze, to command attention, to use his own vanity to mirror the public’s narcissistic desires. As Boorstin (1987) suggests, as a human pseudo-event, a “celebrity [like Schwarzenegger] is a person who is known for his well-knownness” (p. 57).

Banking on Schwarzenegger’5 larger than life persona, the myth of his filmic characters, “his well-knownness,” his highly publicized campaign influenced not only a large voter turn out, but he also won at the polls by an unexpected, overwhelming margin. Whether referring to his constituents as “viewers” during his campaign or being referred to by them as having the makings of a “strong governor” because of his body’s behemoth bulk, he successfully marketed himself by using his star appeal to gain the support of the voters.

Backed by a team of wealthy, high-profile business, media, and political strategists, Schwarzenegger’s campaign was quickly, albeit carefully orchestrated with just the right amount of words, the right amount of interviews, the right amount of debates, the right amount of commercial time in the media, and the right amount of dollars, all of which ironically correspond with cultural critic Susan Sontag’s (1977, p. 180) polemical appeal for an “ecology of images”-not to mention an ecology of gubernatorial candidates given the field of 135 nominees-albeit with a capitalist twist. This campaign was a case where not knowing what to say, not wanting to say anything, not knowing how to debate ironically worked in the candidate’s favor.

Apropos Schwarzenegger’s awesome spectacle in the California political scene, literary critic Roland Barthes (1977) characterized the snare of the photographic image in the electoral myth-making process as follows. “Inasmuch as photography is an ellipse of language and a condensation of an ‘ineffable’ social whole, it constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘polities’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being’, a socio-moral status” (p. 91). Indeed, Barthes, Boorstin (1987, p. 61), and literary critic Louis Menand (2004, p. 84) argue that the mirror of photography, which can also be attributed to television and visual culture in general, enables a narcissistic complicity whereby political candidates and their voters find likenesses in each other. As the candidate is exalted through her/his photogenic qualities, “the voter is at once expressed and heroized, he/[she] is invited to elect himself/[herself], to weigh the mandate which he/[she] is about to give with a veritable physical transference” (Barthes, 1977, p. 92). Thus, similar to the objectifying gaze of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s mirror (1977, pp. 1-2), Schwarzenegger’s constituency bestows him and is in turn bestowed with mythic power. This relinquishment of reality to myth “depoliticizes speech,” argues Barthes, and in doing so, myth empties reality of its history and naturalizes its historical insignificance (1977, pp. 142-143). For philosopher Richard Rorty (1979), the philosophical idea of such a self-referential epistemology, which assumes that knowledge mirrors the world in the form of mythic representations, must be continually challenged with the critical pragmatism of cultutal history and politics.

According to journalist Andrew Sullivan, Arnold represents a “new kind of politician.” “In our political wars, he’s a synthesis. In our culture wars, he’s a truce,” qualities that Sullivan attributes to Arnold’s blend of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism (Sullivan, 2003, p. 88). “[Arnold] was one of the first major movie stars who winked at the audience, understanding that they too were intelligent enough to see through the pyrotechnics and absurd dialogue to be amused by the pure entertainment of the spectacle”(p. 88). Indeed, the 1993 film Last Action Hero corroborates the irony of Schwarzeneggers wink. A depiction of “blockbuster mentality and movie fan obsession…[the film] clearly plays to an ironically intertextual mode of address as the film within a film simultaneously plays to and satirizes the high-octane Schwarzenegger star vehicle,” explains film critic Rebecca D. Feasey (n.d.). What Sullivan and Feasey have identified in Arnold is a shrewd man whose identity is constructed by and for the media.

Given his essentialized position within the culture, is Schwarzenegger’s mixture of right and left politics trustworthy? Considering his clever use of irony in his films, does the parody of his “wink” serve as a critical gesture to entertain and perpetuate institutionalized and corporate politics, or does it serve as a genuine disruption to resist social injustice? Art educator jan jagodzinski (2003) believes it is the former. he asserts that while Hollywood’s wink lets the audience “know that what they are watching is simply exaggerated artifice,” it nonetheless creates the ‘false consciousness’ [in the Marxian sense] of the “capitalist subject” that outwardly resists corporate capitalism while believing in its myth on the inside (pp. 108-109). Likewise, literary critic Linda Hucheon (1985) suggests that the parody of the Hollywood wink, while appearing subversive, in actuality is an “authorized transgression” (p. 26), “authorized by the very norm it seeks to subvert. Even in mocking, parody reinforces; in formal terms, it inscribes the mocked conventions onto itself, thereby guaranteeing their continued existence” (p. 75).

Insofar as the mass media demands viewers’ loyalty to the spectacle of visual culture, it constructs their identities as “fanatics,” or in the more innocuous and acceptable use of the word as “fans.” Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1990) explains that such objectification of everyday life

constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a ‘point of view’ on the action and who, putting into the object the principles of his relation to the object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and as if all the interactions within it were purely symbolic exchanges, (p. 52)

While poet, critic, and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817/ 1985) long ago suggested experiencing spectacular symbolic exchanges through “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith,” such willingness to surrender one’s critical faculties leaves one vulnerable to being consumed and co-opted by the commodity motives of visual culture claims Debord (1967/1994). Debord’s manifestolike aphorisms in The Society of the Spectacle (1967/1994) were written “with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society”(p. 10). They represent his vigilant positioning to expose, examine, and critique the acculturation of socially and historically constructed symbolic representations and dispositions of spectacle culture, the habitus against which Bourdieu suggests one has to “situate oneself within ‘real activity’ …the preoccupied, active presence in the world through which the world imposes its presence, with its urgencies” (1990, p. 52).

Bourdieu’s concept of the “real” is not that of “Reality TV” where fame seeking contestants are paid to perform bizarre, and often emotionally and physically dangerous feats on television shows like Survivor, Dog Eat Dog, Fear Factor, and The Bachelor to confront the reality of their individual fears. The trivialized notion of “challenge” on these shows represents an extreme example of commodity fetishism, an insatiable appetite for gazing at others, who, while serving as our surrogates, undertake ridiculous risks for our pleasure and our hope of attaining sublime levels of personal experience, albeit vicariously, while we sit complacently in the comfort and safety of our living rooms. For jagodzinski (2003) the desire for such vicarious thrills valorizes the “jouissance,” the “pleasure of resistance” and in doing so creates the fertile conditions of late capitalism, by constituting “subversive and destabilized [multiple and fluid] identities who seek new modes of enjoyment through forms of romanticized resistances” (pp. 107, 115). For Bourdieu (1990), such pleasured, internalized dispositions and idealisms of the social world impelled by visual culture, habitus, represents a social reality that is consistent with Barthes’s (1977) characterization of mythic power, which “depoliticizes critical speech.”

Cultural critic Jean Baudrillard (1994) concurs as he explains that the unidirectional gaze of the Panopticon is no longer a fitting metaphor for television. Given that its simulations now precede reality, we “no longer watch TV, it is TV that watches [us] (live)” (p. 29). The paradoxical crisis of Reality TV, its enabling of “being there without being there,” abolishes participatory citizenship as it blurs the distinction between viewers’ passive and active involvement in society and, in doing so, purges society of its political dimension (pp. 22-30). To challenge such complacent dispositions, Barthes (1991, p. 119) calls for a response to images that probes beyond the conformity of the spectacle and into an “ecstatic,” embodied depth of being where the self cannot be tamed. It is within such an embodied depth, we argue, that we can find a space for transformation.

In his prescient essay “Cult of Distraction,” cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer (1963/1995) echoes Barthes’s imperative for confronting the “empirical habits” of photographic spectacle. Kracauer makes a case for the importance of exposing, examining, and critiquing “the mass ornament” to resist the regressive politics of historicism, the assumption that history is coherently constructed. Insofar as “distraction” exposes the complex and contradictory circumstances of contemporary cultural life it ruptures and makes possible a critical turn in the apparent flow of history. Thus, the disclosure of the spectacle of visual culture is morally and ethically significant, according to Kracauer, as it enables a critique of its mass-mediated codes and delivery systems (p. 326). If the potential for its critique is not realized the distraction of spectacle culture becomes transgressive unto itself as it takes on a cult status that results in the self indulgent, voyeuristic culture of narcissism (p. 326).

Visual Culture and its Encounter with Art1

It is no mere coincidence that the mediums of collage, montage, assemblage, installation and performance-arguably five of the most significant contributions of the 20th century to the history of artemerged during a century of mass mediated production. Visual artists beginning with the Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, and Constructivists at the beginning of the century through to the performance and installation artists of the 1980s and 1990s understood the power of visual culture and the need to contextualize the allure of its spectacle within art in order to problematize the authority of its capitalist ideology. Such exploration and improvisation of new images, ideas, and Utopian representations are critical for the survival of subjectivity in contemporary times. While the multicentric representations of artists who used these mediums suggested early signs of postmodernity during the first part of the 190Os, these artists nevertheless retained the political and aesthetic objectives of the Modernist patriarchy until the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the period of the Civil Rights Movement, The Feminist Movement, and the anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam War, these modes of representation were fully re-constituted as agonistic strategies in the service of postmodern identity politics.

Since then, contemporary artists like Rachel Rosenthal, Barbara Krueger, Cindy Sherman, David Wojnarowicz, Guillermo Gomez-Pefia, The Guerrilla Girls, and others have used these mediums’ liminal, contingent, and ephemeral strategies to challenge social and political injustice. Given the Feminist slogan, “the personal is political,” they focused on performances of subjectivity, through transgressive artistic acts constructed from private memory and cultural history that in the face of dominant politics of public, institutionalized culture represent social activism in the arts. Some of the most provocative of these performances are those that are “site-specific,” occurring within the very public places of dominant culture. Krzysztof Wodiczko, a Polish born contemporary artist who spent the first half of his life in the Soviet Union and now resides in Canada and the United States, is one such contemporary artist whose public, site-specific, multi-media performances in international politically charged hot spots are aimed at enabling a public discourse on cultural oppression. Wodiczko explains, “Public space is a site of enactment. It belongs to no one, yet we all are a part of it and can bring meaning to it” (Phillips, 2003, p. 35). Having lived in a closed, oppressive society, Wodiczko’s objective with public art is the attainment of cultural democracy through critical citizenship.

An artist who uses the strategies of collage, montage, assemblage, installation and performance art interchangeably, Wodiczko believes in intervening and challenging the oppressive cultural forces that determine our choices, desires, and uses of new and emerging technologies. His recent performance in the U.S., The Mouthpiece (2003), consisted of outfitting aliens, residents, non-residents, legal or illegal immigrants, with an electronic audio/video recording “instrument,” worn over the mouth ironically like a gag, to speak out in public spaces where they are ordinarily silenced and perceived invisible. The wearer of the instrument is able to pre-record a video image and audio voice of his or her mouth in the act of speaking and to replay and re-perform it in a time and space of their choosing. Such work echoes poet Audre Lorde’s (1984) call for the use of language to transform silence into action. Lorde recognizes that there are many reasons why we might stay silent, “fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, or annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live” (p. 42). What both Lorde and Wodiczko have realized is that without finding a means through which we can speak, transformation is impossible.

Considering the spectacles of racial profiling, “zero tolerance” at the U.S. borders, and the general hysteria over international terrorism, which have raised suspicions about and silenced the Other since the attacks of 9/1 1, this and other works by Wodiczko serve as poignant metaphors in speaking to, challenging, and resisting the mass media’s globalization of xenophobia. For Wodiczko, The Mouthpiece serves as “democratic artifice,” one that

points to the absurdity of any attempt at depriving speech rights in a democratic society. It responds to the actual political process and experience of such deprivation, while at the same time it helps to translate this disadvantage into a new advantage. In other words, it is an instrument whose function is to empower those who are deprived of power. (Wodiczko, n.d.)

Similar to his other public performances, Wodiczko situates the body in a “live, performance assemblage” composed of heterogeneous, independent remnants of visual, electronic culture. In the spirit of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987), the body in Wodiczko’s work serves as a “desiring machine” as it “deterritorializes” stereotypical representations of mass mediated culture as component parts and “reterritorializes” them within the context of art in order to create new knowledge and unforeseen visual and conceptual machinations (pp. 54-55). By considering the body as a component part in this way, Wodiczko “grafts” its materiality with that of other remnants, electronic devices in the case of The Mouthpiece, each serving as a “prosthetic” to enable the body to perform its subjectivity against the grain of dominant cultural politics. Thus the contingent space of assemblage and performance art represents a public agonistic site for Wodiczko, where the oppressed can participate in cultural politics in active rather than passive ways by “step [ping] out of their communities, to engage in independent speech. When they return [to their communities] it is with a form of agency and insight” (Phillips, 2003, p. 42).

The underlying principles of collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art are their disjunctive, segmented, and often-disparate representations of visual forms. As such, these mediums represent acts of perception as disjunctive associations between and among cultural experiences-dissociations, which enable spectators to participate in the creation of meaningful yet mutable conjunctions. The dissociations of these mediums assume that all human experience is disjunctive, a problematic epistemology that requires creative conjunctions to enable new and differentiated understandings. These mediums cite and site visual culture within the context of art and, in doing so, serve as powerful metaphors of how the phenomenon of visual culture is always already constituted as disjunctive within society.

The Undecidable Pedagogy of Artmaking

The potential of collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art in the enactment of critical pedagogy for visual culture in art education lies in their dissonant spaces, at the contested borders that exist between their dissociative remnants. Such “in-between” spaces for media and education critic Elizabeth Ellsworth (1997) are conceptually and emotionally charged. Their “volatility” is caused by the “imperfect fits” among the remnants of mass mediated culture found in these art forms (pp. 38-39). Citing cultural critic Shoshanna Felman’s (1987) writing about Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic pedagogy, Ellsworth argues that the slippage and indeterminacy of knowledge that occurs within these volatile spaces, creates an errant, “undecidable” condition where meaning is continually negotiated and teaching as a position of absolute authority is rendered “impossible.”

Using the medium of film as a pedagogical metaphor, Ellsworth (1997) claims visual culture is constituted by its “mode of address,” the means by which the mass media assumes to know who its audience is and what it desires. Based on these assumptions, the objectives of the mass media are to construct audience members’ subject positions as consumers of visual culture. Nevertheless, Ellsworth argues that the imperfect fits between the mode of address in visual culture and viewers’ responses make it “possible to see the address of a text [and/or image] as a powerful, yet paradoxical, event whose power comes from the difference [undecidability] between address and response” (p. 37). Concerning critical pedagogy, Ellsworth asks an important question about the undecidability that is enabled by the paradoxical mode of address of visual culture:

What might a teacher make of the eventful and volatile space of difference or ‘misfit’ between who a curriculum thinks its students are or should be [their subject positions] and how students should actually use a curriculum’s [mode] of address to constitute themselves and to act on and within history? (p. 37)

Thus, given the misfits between students’ and the teacher’s curriculum, Ellsworth argues that the pedagogical challenge is not one of transgression but transformation.

Ellsworth’s theory of impossibility is good news for critical art educators given that it opens a dialogic space within which to critique the spectacle apparatus of visual culture. Her concept of “imperfect fits” corresponds with the disjunctive, paradoxical association between academic school curricula and students’ personal memories and cultural histories. Given that students are always already immersed in visual culture, their personal experiences and perspectives serve as “montage” remnants within the classroom, differing modes of address that provide opportunities for their critical intervention and transformation. As a pedagogical metaphor the undecidable conditions that are created by the imperfect mode of address of visual culture and students’ performances of subjectivity enables them to learn about and challenge the commodity fetishism of the spectacle of visual culture.

The slippage and undecidability of meaning that occurs in Ellsworth’s in-between spaces is consistent with cultural critic Michel Foucault’s (1972) “enunciative function,” a mutability that enables language to resist and transgress the boundaries of codified culture. According to Foucault, the enunciative function assures such slippage through the complexity and contradiction of language (p. 105). It is within the gaps that separate the specific, paradoxical, and multivocal conditions of the enunciative function that transgressive and transformative representations and interpretations are possible. As such, the infinite potential of the enunciative function of language represents for Foucault an “archaeology of knowledge,” whereby socially and historically codified representations are “excavated,” examined and critiqued (p. 206).

Using the strategies of collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art, contemporary artists’ create volatile spaces within their art works to evoke the enunciative function. In doing so, cultural critic Carol Becker (2002) claims artists’ works

assume the role of’immanent critique,’ in a dialectical sense, which is to say that instead of offering superficial solutions, they expose society’s inherent contradictions; and instead of pursuing absolute truths, they offer complexity, ambivalence, and, at times, aggressive confrontations with the status quo. (p. 17)

The critical strategies enabled through collage, montage, assemblage, installation and performance art suggest that these mediums represent a significant means through which art students can learn to create immanent critiques of the spectacle of visual culture through artmaking.

To avoid misunderstanding, we are not limiting the concept of immanent critique merely to students’ collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art projects in the classroom. Rather, we are suggesting that these modes of address have broader implications for challenging the dominant codes of contemporary cultural life given their volatile in-between spaces, which are constituted by the disparate, dissociative remnants of mass-mediated culture. Considering that the postmodern condition is pervasively mediated by visual culture, our awareness of its dominating assumptions, and our ability to expose, examine, and critique its spectacle make the critical pedagogy of collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art all the more imperative.

Hence, the specific use of these art mediums for student assignments notwithstanding, all creative activities be they in the art classroom, the school in general, or the culture at large, present the possibility for cultural resistance if understood as immanent critiques. Assuming that to be the case, these classroom artmaking activities immanently qualify as examples of Kracauer’s concept of critical “distraction,” Barthes’s “photographic ecstasy,” McLuhan’s and Lasch’s critique of “narcissus fixation,” and Ellsworth’s “pedagogy of volatile spaces” when students are presented with opportunities to understand the critical and paradoxical relationship between their artmaking activities and the academic dispositions, the habitus of institutionalized schooling, and between the images and ideas that they create through art and the sensationalized pedagogy of the spectacle of visual culture. Therein lies the potential of artmaking for transgressive and transformative experiences in visual culture.

1 In this section we shift our arguments regarding spectacle pedagogy from those supported by the writings of critical theorists to the “theories” posited by artists and movements in the historical and contemporary avant-garde that have critiqued the spectacle of visual culture through creative work. Our aim is to present artworks as theoretical explorations rather than merely illustrations of theory. In the final section of this article we return to a more conventional presentation of theoretical arguments.


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Charles R. Garoian

Penn State University

Yvonne M. Gaudelius

Penn State University

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Charles R. Garoian, School of Visual Arts, 210 Patterson Building, Perm State University, University Park, PA 16802, E-mail: crg2@psu.edu or to Yvonne M. Gaudelius, College of Arts and Architecture, 116 Arts Building, Perm State University, University Park, PA 16802. E-mail: ymg100@psu.edu

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