Debord and the Dream Hoarders

By Levi Sherman

SINCE THE ELECTION of Donald Trump as President of the United States, Guy Debord’s 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle has enjoyed renewed popularity. Professor Robert Zaretsky’s 2017 New York Times opinion piece, “Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’” epitomizes the book’s return from the academy to the mainstream (or at least the educated, liberal-leaning professional and creative class who will likely read this essay or the texts cited within). It is easy to denounce Trump as a spectacular figure, but much of this new criticism invokes the spectacle merely in the common sense of the word. Zaretsky eventually moves beyond obvious observations about Trump’s spectacular persona to a more nuanced discussion of facts and truth, and questions our responsibility for Trump’s ascendence. “Have we been complicit in the rise of Trump, if only by consuming the images generated by his person and politics? Do the critical counter-images that protesters create constitute true resistance, or are they instead collaborating with our fascination with spectacle?”

Faced with torch-wielding white supremacists and a White House cabinet full of billionaires, many artists and activists fail to ask such questions of themselves, instead focusing too narrowly on these apparent departures from ethical and political norms. Debord meant for us to challenge the very liberal institutions and values that Trump and his administration have set about dismantling. Trump is a manifestation of our values, not an aberration. His attacks on liberal institutions are not a Debordian project to fight the spectacle; they merely show the degree to which spectacle is inherently contradictory and destructive. Trump’s policies may weaken the safety nets and safety valves that keep people invested in the spectacle, but they do nothing to liberate those people from their alienated social relations. To understand the spectacle, we must move beyond the symptoms and dismantle the causes in which we are complicit. I believe we can achieve this if more artists are willing to accept the downward economic mobility that will accompany this divorce from complicity.

Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle can be thought of as an update of Marx’s Das Kapital, where representations take the place of commodities in mediating (and alienating) social relations. By building on Marx, Debord analyzes culture through an economic lens in a way that seems even more relevant today when social networks make massive profits off of user-generated media. Like Marx, Debord also emphasizes the contradictory nature of spectacle. He makes clear that what appears to be a powerful, unified system is actually a profusion of contradictory representations perpetuated by the very people it alienates and pacifies. Debord does not critique media or images themselves, but rather the detrimental impact of spectacle on human interactions. The text remains relevant today in part because it is flexible, designed to guide readers through their own analysis and critique of the spectacle. Today’s media landscape differs considerably from the late 1960s, yet The Society of the Spectacle seems even more accurate in Trump’s America.

In the case of Trump’s spectacular fame, many of Debord’s comments about the nature of celebrity seem prescient indeed. Debord understood that we do not look to celebrities to model respectable behavior. “The admirable people who personify the system are well known for not being what they seem; they attain greatness by stooping below the reality of the most insignificant individual life, and everyone knows it” (Debord, 61). (References to The Society of the Spectacle indicate the aphorism number, not a chapter or page number.) Likewise, his assessment of the “false choices offered by spectacular abundance” (Debord, 62) make for incisive criticism of the 2016 election and the deep divisions it revealed among Americans. “Fallacious archaic oppositions are revived—regionalisms and racisms which serve to endow mundane rankings in the hierarchies of consumption with a magical ontological superiority—and pseudoplayful enthusiasms are aroused by an endless succession of ludicrous competitions, from sports to elections” (Debord, 62).

The format of The Society of the Spectacle likely accounts for some of its recent popularity. As a collection of aphorisms, it is accessible, memorable, and quotable. This also makes it easy for today’s readers to cherry-pick excerpts and set aside arguments that require uncomfortable self-examination. Debord himself was aware of this potential, warning in aphorism 203 that “the critical concept of ‘the spectacle’ can also undoubtedly be turned into one more hollow formula of sociologico-political rhetoric used to explain and denounce everything in the abstract, thus serving to reinforce the spectacular system.”

La société du spectacle , First Edition, published 1967

La société du spectacle, First Edition, published 1967

Debord emphasized praxis to mitigate this risk, which explains the affinity between the Situationist interventions of 1968 and the Occupy Movement in 2011. By physically reclaiming (privately owned) public space through carnivalesque direct action, Occupy adopted the spirit and tactics of Situationist International in Paris, and embraced Debord’s exhortation that “to actually destroy the society of the spectacle, people must set a practical force into motion” (203). In this respect, the activists and artists involved in Occupy took to heart The Society of the Spectacle more than any readers since 1968. Through practical force, Occupy breathed new life into The Society of the Spectacle, but in the intervening years, artists and activists have failed to fully grasp its wholesale renunciation of values and relations mediated by capital. With the tents packed up, and many occupiers assimilated into the dominant culture, a shallow Debordian discourse was all that remained for the Trump era. The ramifications of this incomplete reading resonate in today’s references to the text, and in Occupy’s enduring legacy: the cultural meme of “the one percent.”

In this essay I hope to demonstrate that such a focus on the one percent is at best unproductive for artists and activists on the left. What began as a call for radical solidarity—a refusal of hierarchy or division—has hardened into a dogmatic binary that absolves ninety-nine percent of society of any responsibility for the ugly status quo. The election of Trump has shattered the illusion of a unified ninety-nine percent with shared values and equal voices, but the stubborn discourse of the one percent remains. For example, consider the favorable media buzz when the Guggenheim offered the White House a golden toilet by Maurizio Cattelan, even as they have done little to address serious human rights concerns raised by the Gulf Labor Coalition. Ironically, this disparaging of the super wealthy is the same tactic used by the museum’s own critics, like Global Ultra Luxury Faction and the Illuminator, who have projected “1%” onto the Guggenheim’s exterior in protest. There are, of course, artists who navigate the topic of inequality with greater nuance. Andrea Fraser sets a worthy example through her critical writing and visual art, which I will touch on in greater detail below. Without such nuance, the art world would consist of largely upper-middle-class artists taking aim at those with even greater wealth, thus perpetuating the spectacle precisely as Debord predicted. Instead of the top one percent, I will look at the top twenty percent, following the model of Richard Reeves in his recent book Dream Hoarders. Artists are uniquely positioned to enact Reeves’ provocative argument for intergenerational downward mobility, and lead the way to greater socioeconomic equality.

Dream Hoarders

Reeves’ essential claim is that the driver of income inequality in the United States is not an inability for the poor to get wealthy, the so-called sticky floor problem, but rather a stubborn refusal of the upper middle class to get less wealthy. He shows that the significant income gap is not above the ninety-nine percent, but above the eighty percent. The titular dream hoarding is the way that the top quintile, the upper middle class, has engineered a society where they are sure to retain their privilege and pass it on to their children. Reeves takes issue not with a glass ceiling, but with the glass floor that protects members of the upper middle class from descending into the increasingly harsh world where the other eighty percent live. Percentiles are relative, so these numbers have no necessary connection to actual material circumstances. However, they are deeply important to the cultural mythology of the American Dream, with its meritocracy and limitless social mobility. America’s rejection of hereditary titles and rigid class distinction was as much about status, which is positional or relative, as it was about wealth. In the art world, coverage of the Panama Papers and billionaire museum trustees shows a sustained interest in the super wealthy. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential run is already under way, with plenty of sound bites about billionaires.

In her 2016 essay, “L’1%, C’est Moi,” Andrea Fraser makes a similar argument to Reeves, but frames it in the art world explicitly. She claims that rising inequality “has effectively priced professionals and other traditionally art-supporting groups out of the market. More broadly, it produces a distortion in the perception of wealth, as members of the top 20, 10, and even 1 percent may no longer perceive themselves as affluent.” This parallels Reeves’ contention that the upper middle class, having engineered society to maintain their position, nevertheless point to the super wealthy to deny their own advantages.

My contention that artists should model Reeves’ intergenerational downward mobility accepts the generalization that a majority of artists are raised in upper middle-class households, with incomes in the top quintile and access to higher education. There are exceptions, but that is the trend. Ben Davis’ 2016 article for artnet News, “Do You Have to Be Rich to Make It as an Artist?” tests the theory by profiling numerous well-known artists. He finds that a common thread among artists with major museum shows seems to be at least one parent with a managerial or professional job. Davis also cites a survey conducted by Goldsmiths University and the non-profit arts organization Create, which found that labor conditions, education systems, and a lack of diversity have made the arts in the United Kingdom a “preserve of the rich,” according to The Guardian.

It is the top quintile that encompasses this largely white, educated creative class and accounts for heterogeneous economic circumstances of the art world. Glamorous soirées with wealthy collectors are something I have only read about. I spend my time writing grants and applying for fellowships, submitting to journals, and attending conferences. This existence, the life of the academic artist, which seems so humble compared to the art stars who dominate the cultural imagination, nevertheless has its own privileges. Education, as Reeves notes, is “the main mechanism for reproduction of upper middle-class status across generations” (ch. 1). Fraser also understands this cultural component of inequality, and even claims that the ultra wealthy have managed to accumulate so much wealth thanks, in part, to “a hugely successful culture war that has effectively identified class hierarchy and privilege with educational and cultural capital, rather than economic capital, for much of the US population outside of urban centers.”

Art and the Spectacle

The MFA is a good example of how those cultural and educational aspects manifest in the art world. It is probably no coincidence that the MFA specifically has been hyped throughout the recession and recovery. I disagree with the notion that the MFA is (or should be) the new MBA, as promulgated by Daniel Pink and regurgitated in countless think pieces from the Harvard Business Review to Americans for the Arts. Furthermore, I abhor the precariousness behind neoliberal business buzzwords like flexibility. But it is undeniable that a graduate degree provides some safety to its recipient. “Postsecondary education in particular has become an ‘inequality machine,’ writes Reeves. “As more ordinary people have earned college degrees, upper middle-class families have simply upped the ante. Postgraduate qualifications are now the key to maintaining upper middle-class status” (Reeves, ch. 1).

Beyond the relative security provided by a postgraduate degree, the content of an MFA can help steer downward mobility towards economic justice. Graduate school lets art students work on long term, research-based projects that respond to community needs rather than market pressure. To be sure, some programs are a young artist’s entrée into the blue chip gallery world, but for many others it is a time to create urgent, critical work.

Critical art, like satire, should be wielded against those with greater power. It is understandable why, following that rule, many upper middle-class artists use their platform to attack the super wealthy. However, there is a fine line between punching up and scapegoating. The entire discourse of the one percent creates a conveniently unsympathetic out-group on which to blame any and all socioeconomic problems. Arguing against this impulse, Reeves reminds us, “the size and strength of the upper middle class means that it can reshape cities, dominate the education system, and transform the labor market. The upper middle class also has a huge influence on public discourse, counting among its members most journalists, think-tank scholars, TV editors, professors, and pundits in the land” (ch. 1). This list of professions maps neatly onto Debord’s theorizing of the spectacle. Artists returning to Debord in this spectacular era need to take seriously his conception of a diffuse, self-regulating power that needs no top-down authority. He argued that, unlike the “concentrated spectacle” of regimes like Stalin’s, societies like the US have a “diffuse” form of spectacle, spurred by the irreconcilable promises of overabundant, competing commodities, resulting in citizens who are “disappointed because the actual consumer can directly access only a succession of fragments of this commodity heaven, fragments which invariably lack the quality attributed to the whole” (Debord, 65). The apparent choices offered by competing brands show how diffuse spectacle operates. A consumer may feel empowered by the choice between Coke and Pepsi, but commodity logic never resolves the contradiction or presents a unified experience—it simply offers more and more fragments for consumers to choose among. If spectacle perpetuates, and is perpetuated by, dissatisfaction and unfulfilled desires, contemporary art must manage more than finger-pointing at the handful of Americans who are even wealthier.

The Meliorative Mode

There are certainly many artists who ignore the one percent, but have nevertheless been motivated by Trump’s ascendance. These artists can be broadly described as working in a meliorative rather than critical mode. Though social practice and various related post-studio movements were certainly popular before 2016, there seems to be a renewed energy behind projects that blur the boundaries between art and community organizing or social service. Examples range from the education and lobbying mission of the Museum of Drug Policy–a “pop-up arts and cultural hub featuring live programming and art from around the world that highlights how drug policies impact and shape our communities” (The Museum of Drug Policy)–to the more direct interventions of Chicago-based Red Line Service, which organizes cultural outings, with meals included, for people experiencing homelessness (Red Line Service). Institutional interest in such work is evident in programs like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Civic Practice Partnership, a “collaborative residency program for New York artists committed to social change.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). If critical political art can be seen as punching at those above, then these projects extend a helping hand to those below.

Debate over whether and how these art practices mend (or even replace) the social safety net, ravaged by neoliberalism, has been central to much contemporary criticism and pedagogy. To the degree that art performs this social function, it intersects with what Reeves would call “institutions and policies that favor the less fortunate” (ch. 4). He might argue that this meliorative impulse results from the relative precariousness that artists feel. I imagine most artists would cite less self-interested motivation, but their pursuit of a more equitable society is nevertheless part of the virtuous cycle Reeves hopes to catalyze through increased downward mobility. He believes “upper middle-class adults would be more supportive of redistributive policies and institutions if they were less certain where their own children...were going to end up.” (Reeves, ch. 4). Under rubrics like socially engaged art, social practice or other post-studio isms, artists like those behind the Museum of Drug Policy and Red Line Service demonstrate the power of educated, motivated, creative people working together to soften the landing.

Admittedly, Debord would be critical of the artist-as-ameliorator. He worries that those of us who aim to reform our spectacular society “can only appeal to ethical standards, common sense, moderation, and other measures that are equally inadequate for dealing with the problems in question. He might ask whether Red Line Service, by bringing people experiencing homelessness to the Field Museum, is appealing to values like education, conservation and diversity while failing to consider that the institution simultaneously embodies colonial, capitalist and spectacular values that contribute to homelessness. This is a valid concern, which haunts the discourse around social practice, Occupy, and the left in general. If anything, the Trump presidency has thrown into sharper relief the debate between reform and revolution.

Yet the reformers and revolutionaries seem to share the same myopic focus on the one percent, which is a relative measure—there will, after all, always be a one percent. Reeves grasps the tension between absolute and relative measures of economic prosperity. “We would likely be more relaxed if society were more equal, since the fall would not be so great. Likewise, if everyone was getting generally better off, slipping a quintile or two might not seem like the end of the world. But whatever we do, an inconvenient truth will remain. If more kids from lower-income quintiles are to move up, more of those from higher up must fall” (Reeves, ch. 4).

Critical Practice

Andrea Fraser again shows a way out of this myopia by focusing on the intersectional aspects of inequality that Reeves alludes to. Her 2016 work, Down the River, at the Whitney Museum of American Art transforms the museum into a prison with a soundscape recorded in Sing Sing and other correctional institutions. In an interview for the Guardian, Charlotte Burns asks Fraser about her desire to reconnect an elite institution like the Whitney with the social and economic context in which it exists: “‘The public institutions that define my public life are the museum and the university.’ To some extent, the Whitney project is about trying to bridge her own distance from the ‘massive prison system that affects such a large swath of the population in the US, but never touches me at all, at least not directly’, she says (Burns).” Fraser astutely observes that museums and galleries, built by the wealthy for the upper middle class, “[embody] our ideals and aspirations” whereas “direct public provision—actually taking care of people—would foster laziness and immorality (Burns).”

Fraser is, of course, not alone. Other artists have waded into the uncomfortable territory of inequality beyond simple economics. Mark Bradford uses data to address inequality through a sophisticated consideration of race and sexuality. His piece, Finding Barry, addresses the unequal impact of HIV in the US. The excavated wall of the Hammer museum renders a map of people with AIDS in every state, showing dozens of percentages—not just one and ninety nine. Bradford is aware of how hard the landing is for those who fall through the safety net, and when he discusses his background, a picture of Reeves’ more relaxed, more equal society comes into focus. In Interview Magazine he tells Barry Jenkins that being raised in a boarding house “was already kind of communal living,” and describes the salon where his mother, and eventually he, worked as “this kind of cooperative, mercantile, small-funded system, which just feels right to me (Jenkins).” In Bradford’s case, art has led to greater wealth, but it is this earlier attitude towards cooperation and community that demonstrates why artists are particularly well suited to realize Reeves’ vision.

In 2014, National Public Radio asked, “who had richer parents, doctors or artists?” The US Bureau of Labor Statistics data used by NPR corroborated the UK data behind the aforementioned survey by Goldsmiths University. And, yes, artists had the wealthier parents. NPR also analyzed the intergenerational economic mobility of artists, along with many other professions for comparison, and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that artists had the greatest downward mobility of any profession. Compared to their parents, artists’ incomes decreased more than people working as custodians, waiters, administrative assistants and in many other precarious roles. This is not to say that artists end up the worst off. It is also a reflection of their privileged starting position, which is why I argue artists can afford to embrace this downward intergenerational mobility. But if, as NPR has shown, artists already lead the way in downward mobility, then why do I need to argue for it at all? I am not arguing that artists should earn less. I am arguing for more artists.

According to a 2014 report by BFAMFAPhD, only ten percent of people with a bachelor’s degree in the arts work primarily as an artist. Twice as many have professional or managerial jobs. Financially, it is easy to see why. The BLS data show that media and communication workers tend to stay in the same socioeconomic position as their parents, and this is exactly the sort of job one might get with an arts degree. These jobs may satisfy some graduates’ intellectual and creative curiosity, and may even seem like a way to shape the culture, or to reform the system from inside. If art students end up working in design, advertising and communications, Debord’s position seems more pertinent than ever. Contributing to the commodity logic of spectacle by offering consumers more fragments to choose from empowers the spectacle more than it empowers consumers.  “The real values of culture can be maintained only by negating culture. But this negation can no longer be a cultural negation. It may in a sense take place within culture, but it points beyond it” (Debord, 210). Artists should be skeptical of their power to reform the system from within. The incremental advances of progressive identity politics have secured more diverse representation in media, which nevertheless perpetuates the spectacular social relations mediated by imagery and capital. According to the BLS, Americans now spend more than half their leisure time watching television (and the accompanying advertising), a fact that should give pause to those in the creative sector who seek to improve social relations from within the cultural realm. Consuming images, no matter how diverse or progressive, is still just that.

Choosing Downward Mobility

It is not enough to leverage the tools of the artist to pursue financial stability, cultural capital, or other goods valued by society at large. Thankfully many artists want other things, or at least claim to. If “we can truly understand this society only by negating it” (Debord, 199) then artists are equipped to do so by rejecting the security of a media or communications job with its promise of cultural influence, incremental change in favor of unalienated labor and non-instrumental social relations. Artists stand to lead more fulfilling lives than those with whom they share an income bracket or a downward trajectory. Artistic labor may be undervalued, but it is not alienated or exploited. Those who choose their art practice over a more stable, lucrative career should be the model for downward mobility. It is all but certain that the custodians and service workers descending alongside them are simply the victims of an unjust system, whereas those of us reading The Society of the Spectacle (even if we should read it more carefully) may yet emancipate ourselves from the control of commodities and images, from competition and hierarchy.

To do this, we need to look beyond the one percent and examine our relationship with the bottom eighty. It is time we break through the glass and free ourselves from the desires and metrics of our commodified existence, to flourish or fail by the ethics and aesthetics of our practice. This is easier said than done, as Fraser notes in L’1%, C’est Moi: “Any claim that we represent a progressive social force while our activities are directly subsidized by the engines of inequality can only contribute to the justification of that inequality – the (not so) new legitimation function of art museums. The only ‘alternative’ today is to recognize our participation in that economy and confront it in a direct and immediate way in all of our institutions, including museums, and galleries, and publications.”

The resistance will fail if we are simply demanding the deal we think our parents had: home ownership, college, retirement and so on. The golden age is the spectacle.

The data are clear; more artists and more downward mobility will help mitigate our socio-economic stagnation in relative terms. Importantly, a society with more artists would also see greater economic justice in absolute terms, and the timing is dire. Artists have played a leading role in revolutionary times. The Situationists in 1968, Gran Fury in the 1980s and ‘90s, the Yes Men in 1999, Not An Alternative in 2011–and all manner of socially engaged practice between these moments–exemplify the imaginative capacity of artists to create space for progress. This is yet another revolutionary moment.

January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, witnessed the Women’s March, the largest protest in human history. Many who marched were protesting for the first time. The unashamed surfacing of America’s divisive, bigoted populism, foreseen by Debord, has mobilized a new generation of organizers, especially among vulnerable populations. Amid the concrete demands of activists and incremental reforms by organizations, artists are especially well suited to the messier side of these movements. The motley coalition resisting Trump is full of seams and friction, and there is important, uncomfortable work to be done in the zones of contradiction and compromise.

Today’s focus on intersectionality and, as Reeves notes, the general discomfort that comes with checking one’s privilege, requires an understanding of agonistic participation in all its imperfection. Thanks to critics and theorists like Claire Bishop and Chantal Mouffe, artists have focused not only on the emancipatory potential of direct democratic participation, but on the quality and content of the social relations engendered by this participation, and the art that catalyzes it. With the help of artists, the organizations and movements that have sprung up in response to Trump can form a true multitude–not the ninety-nine percent against the one percent, but a fluid, agonistic body bound by unalienated communication, generosity, and creativity. We need more artists.

Works Cited

  • Bradford, Mark. “Mark Bradford” Interviewed by Barry Jenkins. Interview Magazine, 12 Jun. 2017. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.

  • Bui, Quoctrung. “Who Had Richer Parents, Doctors Or Artists?” Planet Money. 18 Mar. 2014, NPR. Accessed 30 Dec. 2017.

  • Burns, Charlotte. “Andrea Fraser: The Artist turning the Whitney into a Prison.” The Guardian. 24 Feb. 2016, Guardian News. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. American Time Use Survey – 2017 Results. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 28 June 2018. Accessed 4 July. 2018.

  • Davis, Ben. “Do You Have to Be Rich to Make It as an Artist?” 14 Jan. 2016, artnet News. Accessed 30 Dec. 2017.

  • Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. Translated by Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2005. Web. 23 Dec. 2017.

  • Ellis-Peterson, Hannah. “Middle class people dominate arts, survey finds.” 23 Nov. 2015, The Guardian. Accessed 30 Dec. 2017.

  • Fraser, Andrea. “L’1%, C’est Moi.” Texte zur Kunst 83, 2011, pp. 114-127. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.  

  • Jahoda, Susan et al. “Artists Report Back.” BFAMFAPhD. 2014. 15 p.

  • “Projects.” Red Line Service. Red Line Service. Accessed 4 July 2018.

  • Reeves, Richard V. Dream Hoarders. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. 2017. e-book.

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met Launches a New Immersive Program with Artists and Communities Committed to Social Change. New York: The Metropolitan Museum. 5 June 2018. Accessed 4 July. 2018.

  • The Museum of Drug Policy. The Museum of Drug Policy. Accessed 4 July 2018.

  • Zaretsky, Robert. “Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle.’” 20 Feb. 2017. The New York Times. Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Levi Sherman is a designer and interdisciplinary artist, currently based in Columbia, Missouri. He received his MFA in Interdisciplinary Art at Columbia College Chicago in 2015, where he was a Print Production Fellow for the Journal of Artists' Books. He currently serves as book review editor for Openings: Studies in Book Art and is a moderator of the College Book Art Association’s Book Art Theory Blog