April 27, 2006
Interpellation as Metonymy
As I half-seriously wrote to Tyler Green, in response to his over-zealous attempts at “defining” Dada on his "Modern Art Notes" (http://www.artsjournal.com/man/), “To say that Dada is art about World War I is like saying minimalism is art about cubes.” The tendency of retrospective critiques of art history is to construct “realities” or theories about the “style” or “movement” in question that are generally based on an over-abundance of individual viewpoint, conjecture, “academicism,” innuendo and half-recollected auto-biographical anecdote.
In our reading of Laura Kipnis’s "Repossessing Popular Culture" this week, she paraphrased Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he goes to great pains to split the origins of Modernism into two oppositional components. On one hand were the original aestheticists, who developed an art of “purity,” where form was the “supreme” content, an art that possessed “autonomy from the concerns of everyday life.” Rising up against this were the “original” avant-gardists, with their brilliant use of “shock” and contestatory manifestoes, seeking to return art to an engagement with the people, to “rebel against the enforced social impotence of art determined by institutional status.”
This break was precipitated by more than war. Marcel Duchamp first exhibited his bicycle wheel as a “readymade” in 1913, before the start of World War I. This simple act of “choice,” Duchamp’s answer to the dreaded “retinal” images of aestheticism, would gain strength through the 20th Century with its engagement of the intellectual realms of “context,” commodity and the institutionalization of art. The Dadaists had implored Duchamp to join them (he lived in Munich for awhile) but he steadfastly refused – always the iconoclast – preferring instead to carve his own niche in the tumultuous “history” of “modernist” art.
But it is the “avant garde” dance with “mass culture” that interests me here. By “taking” the imagery of advertisements and posters, to make a “collage” of existing newspaper and magazine texts, the Cubists and Dadaists created an art that “arrested” the attention of both prole and bourgeois. Raoul Vaneigem, who admits his Dada influences, extends Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation into a condemnation of this “address” of advertisements that provide individuals the “universal images” with which to “recognize themselves,” effectively becoming “actors” in the “spectacle.” It is this “address” that the original avant-gardists had anticipated and manipulated so well, imbuing their art with an absolute immediacy and recognition that did provide a “social” engagement.
I am proposing that it is this idea of an interpellative address that has become the defining metonymic factor in post-conceptualism. If the “part is made to stand for the whole,” then that element, or part, benefits from the “arresting” confrontation of advertisement. To enable “the subjects” to better “recognize themselves,” this appropriation of a commodified image or object allows the artist to engage the “whole” (avant-gardist “social” potency of politicization) with metonymy (Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” drawing, Carolee Schneemann’s World Trade Center “jumpers.”)