The Society of Spectacle and what ‘appearance’ signifies for writers

Ruth HartleyArt Process, Creativity, Film, Identity, Politics, Promotion, Reading, Visual ArtsLeave a Comment

Marketing books and the writer as commodity

The crowd screaming in derision in The Year of the SexOlympics

I didn’t know yesterday what I would post today until a television programme last night that was supposed to be amusing made me angry. There was noisy laughter, mockery and four-letter words. Frankie Boyle, the presenter joked that Guy Debord had shot himself in his heart – or  – maybe his head – but what struck me was his mention of Guy Debord’s theories. I saw those as explaining the dilemma that present day creative artists face. We are offering stories or visual images for people to see or read but what we are forced to include is a commercial version of ourselves as part of the ‘deal’ when our ‘falsified’ appearance may have little to do with what we have actually made.


Guy Debord and his book, The Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord

As I first heard of Debord only last night I can’t pretend to be ‘au fait’ with what The Society of the Spectacle but from what I understand, he is expressing much that I feel is true. Debord says “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” He argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.” I wonder what he would have made of the World Wide Web and social media if he had not committed suicide in 1994? Nowadays police tell young women that the images they ‘photoshop’ and place on Facebook are so unlike their actual self that they can’t be used to trace them should they go missing. Its sad to see young faces smoothed into identical clones of each other. Why do we focus only on our surface appearance?

Celebrity, status, and fantasy

Clips of actors from the Sex Olympics

At about the same time that Debord developed his theories the film, The Year of the Sex Olympics, was screened. No doubt the screenwriter, Nigel Kneale, knew of Debord’s theories. It was a film that greatly affected me and was a prevision of today’s reality TV. Its theme was that in an overpopulated world of food shortages, people were herded into stadia and were only allowed to watch film of a few other people eating and having sex. When given the chance to watch real humans struggling to survive the ‘audience’ screamed in mockery and derision. Life was as thin as a cinema screen, not real and not experienced. In a world where appearance is all that counts we let celebrities play out our lives for us while we watch and never act ourselves. Recently two Love Island celebrities failed to ‘live’ up to their ‘appearances’ and committed suicide.





My book, my art, is not me. It is separate from me. It stands alone

Ruth Hartley’s new book published next month

The personality cult around writers and artists has to be dealt with if creative thought is to survive. When I worked with artists in Zambia I found that some art buyers thought they had bought the artist too, enough even to give them control over her or him. There were artists who enjoyed this attention but for many it is an intrusion into the private space in which the artist chooses to work. The process of creativity is one of doubt and insecurity. Every creative act is one of revolutionary change for the creator whether or not they are Marxist. It cannot be mediated by an outsider or owned by the media. Today we have to make ourselves into a ‘spectacle’ to sell what we make. We, rather  than our work, have to become a consumer item, an add-on value which is sold along with our books and paintings. Capitalism then divides us into a very few great (dead) geniuses and a huge number of good, but unknown and poverty-stricken struggling creatives. To guarantee huge financial returns it invests in a small number of exclusive individual works of art that can’t be replicated and devalues and disregards the whole of the rest of our creative humankind. That drives us to fake ourselves as celebrities whose ‘appearance’ is supposed to count for something but doesn’t really.


We need a revolution for creative people

Nina Blanco Flamenco dancer – culture is created in the present in the body of the artist.

Trying to market my books and find readers has left me feeling ‘debordée’ (French for too busy and rather harassed) so reading about Guy Debord seemed apposite. I know, however, that many writers and artists are in the same boat as me, and like me, they also want a new way to manage their work and the media. Maybe we do have to step away from market media pressure to make ourselves into the ‘acceptable spectacle’ and use the new digital technology in a revolutionary way that is really creative. Ideas please! Tell me what you think and suggest!





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