Week #1 – The Commodification of Aesthetics: A High-Tech Capitalist Conspiracy or a Protest by the Other?

[Note:  “Hereticsnail” is an anagram of “Christina Lee.”]

The two authors we read this week-Fredric Jameson and Andreas Huyssen-both agree that aesthetics has undergone a process of commodification; however, each author cites different causes for why this has happened. 

Jameson believes that postmodernism is a widespread paradigm shift that grew out of late capitalism.  He says: “this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and super-structural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world” (23).  Therefore, according to Jameson, “every position on postmodernism in culture…is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (22). 

The commodification of aesthetics is, for Jameson, a terrible reflection of the postmodern condition.  Late capitalism has produced a culture marked by depthlessness and a death of the self.  Thus, postmodern art is dominated by pastiche: it’s all surface and no center. 

Huyssen, on the other hand, focuses on postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon rather than a paradigm shift.  He believes that postmodernism started a protest in the 1960s against the authority that modernists had placed in so-called “high art.”  Early postmodernists used “pop avante-garde” as their weapon of protest, attempting “to validate popular culture as a challenge to the canon of high art” (63). 

Huyssen believes that the recent insurgence of minority movements has contributed to postmodernism by “undermin[ing] the modernist belief that high and low culture have to be categorically kept apart” (64).  The result is “a new creative relationship between high art and certain forms of mass culture” (64).

Whereas Jameson believes that the commodified postmodern aesthetic is empty and damaged, a sign of how messed up our late capitalist culture has become, Huyssen argues that the new postmodern cultural aesthetic is more inclusive and less elitist, a result of positive social change.  Who’s right? 

Both authors seem to me to be writing about different kinds of art altogether.  Jameson might be talking about the darker forms of postmodern art that discuss the fragmentation of our lives.  His description of the lack of depth and waning affect remind me of the stories by Amy Hempel who weaves together bits of mundane conversations to form her haunting narratives.  

Huyssen seems to be talking about “Other” art, art produced by nontraditional artists who might not otherwise have gained any institutional prestige.  For example, black American artists are often not included in the canon of high literature, but my 20th century African American Norton literature anthology includes the lyrics to the song “Things Done Changed” by Biggie Smalls and “RESPECT” written by Otis Redding and sung by Aretha Franklin.  I’m not really sure how the two types of “postmodern art” discussed by Jameson and Huyssen can be compared.


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One thought on “Week #1 – The Commodification of Aesthetics: A High-Tech Capitalist Conspiracy or a Protest by the Other?”


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    Professor Sample says:

    You pick up on an important point, which is that how different critics conceive of postmodernism depends upon their evidence. Unfortunately, the term “postmodern” often collapses distinctions and can force us into seeing an artwork or novel in a way that overlooks what makes that cultural artifact different from other “postmodern” works.

    I run this risk too. Simply by putting certain texts on the syllabus for this semester, I automatically confer a mantle of “postmodernism” onto these texts, which may or may not in fact be what a consensus of scholars and readers define as postmodern.

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