S A R I S H A K U R U P
In my Postwar Europe class this week we were assigned an excerpt of Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, a criticism of the emerging affluent, consumer society in Europe in the 1960s. In some sense, reading about that affluent society is oddly disconcerting, because it's like reading a history of the society we live in now. When I imagine how they will chronicle the social history of our time, I imagine they will write about it this way: deadening excess, passivity, a lack of purpose. The analysis of trends, of marketing, of a society entirely controlled by products rings eerily true for the world we live in today.
Marcuse argues that real freedom is not the freedom to choose between types of cars or clothing or ice cream, but having a choice in your country's foreign policy or domestic legislation. Certainly, I think, these are not entirely mutually exclusive, but there is real power in the argument that people become so "stupefied" as Marcuse puts it, by all these superfluous choices that they are not engaged in making the choices that actually matter. Furthermore, they are less likely to engage in the pursuit of long term, deep happiness and self-discovery because they are constantly in pursuit of the instant gratification of making purchases and accumulating things.
To an extent, I always knew this to be true. I grew up with a parents who lectured that Consumerism Is Bad. But my understanding of why was always hazy. Perhaps it was studying consumerism in context that helped. Learning in detail about a pre-consumerist world and the emergence of affluence makes apparent the real anxiety and purposelessness that is fostered by a consumerism. The new, affluent generation of the 1960s lacked the purpose of a World War and a need to rebuild a post-war world and instead found themselves passive consumers of empty products that had no real meaning. As war grows more and more distant to Americans today, increasingly fought by machines in places far, far away, we are presented by this same problem. The recent election of Trump has helped to deliver some kind of meaning for a new, young generation, but even this is nearly neutralized by the rush of products and goods that are more immediate.
But what I was particularly enthralled by was Marcuse's discussion of happiness, that is--true, long-term, deep happiness and fulfillment. It seems that since the emergence of consumerist culture this has been harder and harder to identify and achieve, because it is so easy to receive immediate, short-term gratification from simply purchasing things. We do not consider what will make us truly happy, but latch on to the idea that a new pair of jeans will satisfy us. Unfortunately, very rarely does that satisfaction last. Personally, I have often found that the only way I can drive my focus away from the instant gratification of buying things and instead on long-term happiness is through art. Art, in my case writing and painting, allows us to sift through what is important and what is superfluous in our lives, to explore and discover in detail what really matters to us.
Marcuse wrote about art in The Aesthetic Dimension, but he writes about it specifically in its relation to politics, not as an industry. Perhaps this is a question with no answer, but I am curious as to what Marcuse would have thought about art as an industry, since it does not nullify art as a means of self-discovery, but it does present it as a commodity to be purchased. Trends throughout art history have shown that every time the middle class rises in Europe, they emerge as buyers of art. It is constantly a sign of status, as the automobile was in the 1960s. As an industry, it presents patrons with a variety of choices, which can be seen as a form of instant gratification that Marcusa criticizes. But the production of art is also a sign of an intelligent, thoughtful, meditative society. Art often grapples with questions of true happiness and criticism of culture. Marcuse himself argues in The Aesthetic Dimension that art has an important role to play in the cultural revolution that can fight societal repression. Thus I wonder, in Marcuse's eyes, is art produced for sale superfluous, commodified in a consumer society, or is it still an important antidote to this very sort of society?
These are questions that stand out to me more and more often as I decide whether or not I want to work in the art world after graduation. Because the art world seems to have two sides, one which genuinely wants to promote and facilitate important, meaningful works, and the other which is preoccupied with money and selling art to the upper classes that see them not as works of meaning but as status symbols. I would love to work in the former, to be able to feel like there is something important and noble in the work that I am doing. Furthermore, in a larger sense, reading Marcuse was an important reminder to me of the excess consumerism that I have grown up drowning in. At least it is gratifying to know that acknowledging the problem is the first step in combating it.