Jun 072015

[zuerst erschienen in: Paul Ferstl/Keyvan Sarkhosh (Hg.): Quote, Double Quote. Aesthetics between High and Popular Culture, Amsterdam und New York: Rodopi 2014, S. 23-42]

In the mid-sixties, Susan Sontag explained to the readers of glossy Mademoiselle magazine that, with her intellectual and artist friends, a new song by the Supremes would get the same kind of appreciation as a new Robert Rauschenberg painting.

“The fact that many of the most serious American painters, for example, are also fans of „the new sound“ in popular music is not the result of the search for mere diversion or relaxation; it is not, say, like Schoenberg also playing tennis. It reflects a new, more open way of looking at the world and at things in the world, our world. It does not mean the renunciation of all standards: there is plenty of stupid popular music, as well as inferior and pretentious „avant-garde“ paintings, films and music. The point is that there are new standards, new standards of beauty and style and taste.”[1]

In doubling the phrase „new standards“, followed by the polysyndetic construction within this quote’s last sentence, Sontag conveys an emphasis I want to build on in this essay. Is it possible that half a century later, half a century which saw the rise and development of media, market, and pop culture into the dominant culture of our age on a global scale, we, as literary critics, still have not lived up to these new standards? Doing academic research on Trash and Camp, for example – doesn’t it still have the aura of something that may be necessary, but cannot be taken fully serious, like a children’s menu?

In this essay, then, I will go back to some of the essentials of the aesthetics of Camp and Trash and argue that they should be generalized as aesthetic principles not just of pop culture, but of our culture full stop.


When Susan Sontag talks about Camp, or Pop, she does not regard it as some kind of trivia to be mentioned in addition to the real stuff, “like Schoenberg also playing tennis”. Rather, “this is about aesthetics, therefore it is about everything”, as Willi Winkler stated in his 1999 review of Tristesse Royale,[2] the minutes of a panel discussion featuring five ‘pop authors’ in the Berlin Hotel Adlon[3] – words, spoken in the spirit of Friedrich Schiller. For it was Schiller who held, that only an aesthetic concept could “give mankind its full expression”.[4] “For, to speak out loud for once, man only plays, where he is man in the word’s full meaning, and only in playing he is fully man.”[5] Therefore the German classic author is

“looking for a type of man […] who is active without working and can idealize without romanticizing, who grasps the reality of life without being limited by it, sailing the stream of events without being carried away by its torrents. Only men like these could be the keepers of the beautiful whole of human nature […] and, in all human affairs, give common judgement its law by their sensibility.”[6]

As we know, Schiller found this type of man in the poet. In particular, though, his description seems fitting for the young man in the course of his pop cultural socialization, the maker of lists, the mixtape bricoleur, the expert within a culture of subtle distinctions, the “dandy in the age of mass culture”,[7] the intellectual fan that has been the hero of pop literature for a couple of years now. Five of these advanced bachelors staged themselves as the aforementioned pop cultural quintet in the Adlon, to discuss at some length the difficult aesthetics of contemporary pop. Quite explicitly, they were willing to give common judgement its law by the means of their own aesthetic sensibility, a mode of taste they sought to express in their own complex but apodictical manner. Which, then, sounded something like this:

“Benjamin v. Stuckrad-Barre: Pop is based simultaneously on the principle of exclusion and on consensus. […] As a hippy, it would be quite natural to say: How wonderful that the great band Kruder & Dorfmeister is successful at last. But as soon as the Golf driver begins to listen to the same music as I do, one might get the idea that we might have other things in common, too, and therefore I turn away from this music. Because with the music, I don’t want to go for the lifestyle of the Golf driver, things like Kenwood stickers and mobile phones on the belt. This we reject. Categorically. Difficult.”[8]

Evidently, the aesthetics of Pop that is displayed here is an aesthetics of mixed feelings, or mixed emotions, as it was called in the 18th century. “Pop is based simultaneously on the principle of exclusion and on consensus”, it requires distance and, at the same time, identification. How so?

One reason can be seen in the fact that the universe of pop culture consists of things that are always already industrial products and therefore made for mass consumption, even where they stand for elitist values. Prada or bell bottoms, Zegna shirt or Barbour jacket, Marusha or soft rock, Massive Attack or German Camp punkers Die Goldenen Zitronen, Oasis or Dieter Bohlen, Sushi or Crunchips – the individual position within this culture can only be defined by selection and differentiation. Therefore, there is nothing within the cosmos of pop culture that is not, at the same time, a sign of demarcation against something else, establishing its meaning via difference.

“Benjamin v. Stuckrad-Barre: Liking certain movies, for example. How strenuous is the discussion about “Pulp Fiction” by Quentin Tarantino. For nowadays you simply don’t know what to deal with any more, coming up with an opinion about the movie or coming up with an opinion about other people’s opinions.

Christian Kracht: Thus, it is no longer possible to have an opinion.”[9]

It would be a mistake to take statements like these not seriously, just because they are brought forth partly in the form of non-serious routines. Of course pop authors can and must have opinions and take stands, after all, they are quite notorious for their “terrorism of taste” (Der Spiegel), their aesthetic verdicts. But mostly, these verdicts are not based upon the thing itself, e.g. on some intrinsic quality of Kruder & Dorfmeister or Pulp Fiction, but upon the position the thing occupies within the differential system of pop culture.

As it was stated by de Saussure and has become commonplace knowledge within post-structuralism, the meaning of a sign is not defined by its reference to something else, but by its difference and equivalence to other signs of a given system. Within postmodern culture, Dirk Baecker, a disciple of Niklas Luhmann, states in his book Wozu Kultur?,

“everything appears twice: first as what it is, and then as what it means within the frame of a comparison. And of course, the conjunctures of meaning feed back on what something “is”. Finally, there is nothing that “is” anything anymore if it does not, at the same time, “mean” something.”[10]

The protagonists of Tristesse Royale take up on this semiotic common knowledge, transferring it into the sphere of aesthetics or, rather, of aesthetically dominated rules of conduct. This, then, leads us back to Schiller, whose aesthetics aimed for ethical dimensions as well. Some of us might remember the Frankfurt School-type criticism of the 1970s and early 80s accusing Schiller’s aesthetic education of repressing the political. The sometimes scathing criticism of Tristesse Royale in German feuilletons refers mainly to this kind of provocatively staged re-aesthetification. For example, when the five authors take a break to visit a political rally at the Brandenburg Gate, only to judge about the Donna Karan tops of the female protesters afterwards. Or, to give an other example, Florian Illies writing about the liberating effects of Kracht’s 1995 novel Faserland:

“Finally, I can say that I am not the only one to find it harder to decide between the green and the blue Barbour jacket than between CDU and SPD. To finally be allowed to call the whole arsenal of values and slogans of the generation of 68, things you always found daft, daft in public simply felt liberating.”[11]

To scent neo-conservatism here, as many critics did, still meant to judge from a political point of view, thus missing the point that the political has lost its primacy here to the aesthetic.

“This is about aesthetics, therefore it is about everything.” Or rather: it is about the possibility of aesthetic self-fashioning within Pop and therefore within the brand, media, and mass culture that Adorno horrified under the label of ‘culture industry’. Susan Sontag posed her famous question “how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture” as early as 1964. In striking distance to Adorno, one might say, and just like Schiller, she starts off from the authority of her own aesthetic sensibility which might aptly be characterized as a mixed emotion: “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.”[12] Under the label of Camp, she characterizes an attitude of good taste within bad, which at first is given as a factual sensibility. Thus it is only at second sight that she can manage to figure out the laws of this strange taste, to put its new “logic of taste” into terms.

Sontag is speaking from the New York of Andy Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. The finding-campy of Tiffany lamps, King Kong, Jane Russell or Swan Lake, of Flash Gordon comics, feather boas and bad stag-films, but also already of pop music (“post rock-’n’-roll, what the French call yé yé”[13]) – all of this comes as a strategy of gay aesthetics at first, serving to break away from the existentialist highbrow culture of their contemporaries. Today, the more interesting aspect of Camp might be its inclination towards a genuinely aesthetic possibility of transcending the disgust for the technically reproduced work of art. This is closely connected to a subliminal scepticism against all quasi-religious attitudes towards high art, an art that believes to stand apart, or rather: high above the age of mechanical reproduction, occupying some kind of authentic space outside the discourses of our media-dominated present. “Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch”, as Sontag remarks.[14] In revaluing things like these, though, Camp also implies “a new, more complex relationship to the ‘serious’”, which Sontag therefore puts in quotation marks. “One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough.”[15]

Almost en passant, Sontag is mapping out some aspects here that some years later will become notorious under the label of post-modernity and are still characteristic of our pop authors in the Adlon hotel. Camp has always already taken things not as they are an sich, but as what they mean. The quotation marks of Camp, then, do not only relativize the alleged serious, they relativize everything at all:

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.”[16]

And this is exactly why the mixed emotions of Camp are so well suited for aesthetic orientation within the complex culture of media, commodities and surfaces they originate from. We must not forget that 1964, when Susan Sontag came up with Camp’s “logic of taste”, this whole culture stood only at the beginning of its exponential growth and differentiation into the global pop cultural universe we are facing today. Maybe Camp proper is only known to specialists now,[17] but in our way of dealing with pop music, movies, TV shows, advertisement, and brand products, we are familiar with a whole range of closely related aesthetic sensibilities of the mixed kind. Historically manifest facets of this spectrum are known by the names of Cult, Trash, Punk, Glamour or Pulp Fiction – if yet named at all. The vast majority of these mixed emotions, so it seems, are still waiting for their Susan Sontag. Events like the cultural ennoblement of Tarantino, or even the German pop literature boom of the mid-nineties and the lively debates it triggered in feuilletons and university classes, can be seen as the symptoms of a beginning aptness-for-discourse of a mass culture we all grew up in and were moulded by. This socialisation took place in the shadow of and sometimes decidedly against a canonical Western high culture that was the dominant culture conveyed to us by educated parents, schools, music schools, feuilletons, quality TV and universities.


Take Trash, for example. When Sontag wrote her article on the New York intellectual fad called Camp, California-based act The Trashmen had their biggest hit with Surfin’ Bird. The general repertoire of The Trashmen closely resembles that of, say, the Beach Boys, but Surfin’ Bird is an exception.

“There’s this one song in the rep that just drives the kids nuts. It starts as a cover of The Rivingtons’ 1962 hit, “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”. The wilder, louder and faster The Trashmen play it, the nutzier the crowds become. The Rivingtons’ follow-up, “The Bird’s the Word”, is absorbed into the mayhem, and the medley takes on a life of its own. Local dj/emcee Bill Diehl christens the resulting insanity “Surfin’ Bird”.”[18]

As we learn here, there is no original song material whatsoever in Surfin’ Bird, still the “medley”, that is, the collage of two older songs “takes on a life of its own”, is eventually recorded and becomes not only a hit, but a classic that until this day is much better known than the originals by The Rivingtons.[19] Thus, it is simply not true, that “[m]usicians glutted with influences and inputs almost inevitably make clotted music: rich and potent on some levels, but ultimately fatiguing”, as Simon Reynolds complains.[20] One could well make the opposite point: good pop was never based on originality, and it has always been a product of the media-culture industry-complex. In the case of the Trashmen, DJ Diehl eventually manages to interest local producer George Garrett, who sells to major Midwestern producer Amos Heilecher of SOMA records and so on, a process far from the creative core no pop song could exist without. In addition to this story, Quaglieri’s liner notes convey to us the reaction of guitarist Larry LaPole after hearing Surfin’ Bird for the first time: “After a moment of stunned silence, Larry says, ‘Jesus, that’s the worst thing I ever heard in my whole life”[21] – only to get down and write the follow-up piece King of the Surf. After all, it is Trash, or, as Sontag has it: “It’s good because it’s awful.”[22]

For our aesthetic reasoning, it is especially telling that in 1970, Richard Meltzer opened his book The Aesthetics of Rock by printing the three pages of this song’s lyrics without any comment.[23] They consist of nothing but obstinate repetitions of the lines (or rather: fragments of the lines) “Everybody’s heard about the bird”, “Everbody knows that the bird is the word” and “Papa-oom-mow-ma-mow”, the deeper meaning of which must have escaped even the contemporary surfer. The Trash aspect is enforced by the fact that in the middle of the song, the moment the first Rivingtons’ tune melts into the second, its title phrase (“Surfer birrrrrd”) is pronounced in a way that Meltzer transcribes as “prolonged sound of vomiting”. The statement in printing this nonsense, obviously, is that dealing with the special qualities of rock we need to abandon some of our traditional categories.

“In the musical phenomenology of the whole thing, here’s the way rock can represent it: a song with a tune at first seemingly not strong enough to back up and validate any set of words, with words not really discernible at first and not reinforcing of the strengths of the music anyway once you know ‘em […], the whole thing being reinforced by in the word-learning and tune-remembering process […].”[24]

Music that can’t stand for itself and ditto lyrics, both already quotes of former pop material, melt into something new, a song-hit of high quality and high potential also in terms of economics and media. Interestingly enough, the trashy status is part of the “whole thing” from the very beginning. The sleeve notes of the Tube City collection of Trashmen hits feature a chart that lists well-known pop songs against characteristics like “analyzed by English teachers”, “technically perfect”, “takes itself too seriously” and “could be sung by Neil Diamond” on the one hand and “stupid”, “shallow”, “fun”, “meaningless”, “enjoyed by people of all I.Q.s” and “understood in any language” (let alone “triggers dangerous teen hormones”) on the other, only to proudly present Surfin’ Bird at the rear end of the spectrum (with The Beatles’ A Day in the Life residing at the top). From its very beginning, Pop itself proves to be very conscious of the difference between what it “is” and what it “means”.


Summing up our observations on Camp and Trash, the main aspect seems to be that both of them, as mixed emotions, are in no way naïve. This goes for the intellectual New York-style “it’s good because it’s awful” as well as for the allegedly somewhat simpler “I know it’s only Rock-’n’-Roll but I like it”. In both cases, identification or immersion requires something like a Kierkegaardesque leap, overbearing the awareness of aesthetic inferiority and ending up in high esteem. And in both cases, therefore, the relativity and artifice of these aesthetics is well reflected upon. Thus, Camp and Trash, in spite of their ostensible naiveté and spontaneity, still prove to be aesthetics of distance, not of immersion.

In Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795/96), Schiller had given the theory of mixed emotions a historical index. In the artificial, reflexive modern age, naïve poets are “not really in the right place any more”,[25] poets whose “signs disappear completely in the signified” and whose language “as if by inner necessity springs from the thought”. There might be a latent nostalgic longing for this primordial state of authentic speech and primal words, but in the enlightened present, “sign and signified stay forever heterogeneous and estranged”.[26] Thus, modern man is condemned to reflexive distance:

“The mind may suffer no impression without immediately witnessing itself at play and placing whatever happens inside of it on the outside and apart from itself. This way, we will never retrieve the object itself but only what the reflecting reason has made of the object, […] what it has thought about it as its own spectator.”[27]

Therefore, even for Schiller sentiments appropriate for the culture of the present have to be mixed ones, because they simultaneously include sensual impressions and reflection, empirical and ideal concepts, emotions and their relativity. Where the ancient peoples “felt in a natural way”, we “feel the natural”, Schiller says.[28] Not nature, as Susan Sontag would put it, but “nature”. Modern history, up to our contemporary Western mass culture, has only deepened this reflexive distance, strengthened this imperative of semiotic quotation marks. We never get hold of the thing itself, Schiller says, just of what our reflecting reason makes of it, and Baecker adds: “Finally, there is nothing that ‘is’ anything anymore if it does not, at the same time, ‘mean’ something.” As we have seen, this is true even for the happy Surfer Pop of the sixties.

Just like Schiller’s sentimental sensibility, the hybrid aesthetic sentimentality within pop culture can be directed towards products that are genuinely naïve as well as towards those that come with this hybridity already inscribed. The aesthetics of Trash can either appreciate the Die Hard movies starring Bruce Willis or the disco world of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever directly or mediated, e.g. as parts of a movie like Pulp Fiction, which quotes both aspects already marked as Trash. Pulp Fiction is not so much starring Bruce Willis as “Bruce Willis”, not John Travolta, but “John Travolta” – if the difference is not wiped out for good, that is. From Grindhouse to Arthouse. “And of the quotes of these quotes”, moans Tristesse Royale’s Joachim Bessing, “culture around us is made”.[29] Already Susan Sontag drew a distinction between naïve and voluntary Camp: Busby Berkeley with his sumptuous musical revues of the thirties “does not mean to be funny”,[30] in Fellini’s Dolce Vita, though, Anita Ekberg is staged without her knowing as a campy quote by her director. As far as the object is concerned, Camp can be “either completely naïve or else wholly conscious”,[31] on the receptive side, though, it is always conscious.

An aesthetics of Pop, therefore, is not likely to result in any kind of aesthetic arbitrariness, but on the contrary will lead to rather decisive verdicts of taste. The principle of exclusion-plus-consensus remains in place, but is set to work only in full consciousness of its own relativity. As early as 1909 German expressionist Carl Einstein put the paradox of snobbism into the formula: “We need to construct a visible law that can separate us and give us faith even though it is our own construction.”[32] Under the conditions of our own present we might rephrase: We need to construct a visible law that can separate us and grant us identification, even though, just like everything else, it is an effect of our own consumer and media culture. Or, for that matter: How to be a dandy in the age of mass culture?

Tristesse Royale and the better part of recent pop literature develop their strategies in full awareness of this paradox, which, more often than not, makes them look somewhat more intelligent than their critics. “Irony is over. Bye, bye” is the motto of Mesopotamia (1999), an anthology of pop prose edited by Christian Kracht, and quotes the lyrics of a Pulp song with the quite ironic title The Day After the Revolution. When taking part in a Christoph Schlingensief-performance, Stuckrad-Barre appeared with the crosses out word irony written across his forehead (IRONIE) – a well calculated mixture of labelling the body and embodying the label. In ways like these, pop literature has adapted or re-invented Derrida’s technique of sous rature, keeping the die-hard grand ideas of occidental metaphysics still readable under their cancellation. It’s not meaning, but “meaning” we are talking about here, and this, indeed, is about everything.


„The farther west we drove, the more Pop everything looked on the highways“, recalls Andy Warhol about a journey he took in the early sixties.

“Suddenly we all felt like insiders because even though Pop was everywhere – that was the thing about it, most people still took it for granted, whereas we were dazzled by it – to us, it was the new Art. Once you ‚got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.

The moment you label something, you take a step – I mean, you can never go back again to seeing it unlabeled. We were seeing the future and we knew it for sure. […]

The mystery was gone, but the amazement was just starting.”[33]

„Once you ‚got’ Pop“ – Warhol is talking about a new mode of aesthetic reception here, a mode that not only focuses on certain objects in a new way but changes aesthetic perception in general: “you could never see a sign the same way again.” Sontag’s “more complex relation to the ‘serious’” is pointing in the same direction, putting “the serious” into quotation marks, but not the ‘more complex’. If we are to take this seriously, with or without quotation marks, our task would be not to also talk about Camp, Trash, and Pop, but to fundamentally redefine the status of art and literature in the age of market and media culture, including Camp, Trash, and Pop. Sontag’s “new standards of beauty and style and taste”, then, would mark a historical break, an epochè, whereafter a novel or a painting would not any longer belong to the same species as, say, a novel by Thomas Mann or a painting by Picasso. Once you ‘got’ Camp, you could never see a work of art the same way again. Seriously?

To be honest – I don’t see a lot of backup for a basic re-orientation of asthetics as implied here in today’s academia. If you do a bibliographical research on Camp, for example, you will come up with hundreds of publications dealing with certain segments and varieties of gay aesthetics. Well, yes, art can also be gay, like Schönberg playing tennis, but the idea that Sontag had a point here that might challenge the whole system of our aesthetic perception and production of meaning comes nowhere into sight. Even Adorno was closer to the point when he warned in his Résumé über Kulturindustrie (1967): “Intellectual entities produced by the culture industry no longer are also commodities, but are commodities through and through.”[34] Still, his kulturkritik perspective on the culture industry definitively belongs to the old paradigm of avant-garde aesthetics. The Frankfurt-School critics had no self-doubt about being able to get an unmitigated view on the capitalist contexts of delusion granting their objective analysis. As we all know, products of the culture industry, like the western or jazz, are notoriously losing out here – but they are taken very seriously all the same. When Adorno talks about jazz, he is far from using any quotation marks:

“Triumphant trivialities, the bias of superficiality as doubtless certainty, glorify the recreant blocking of all self-reflection. All these well known modes of reaction have recently lost their innocence, they presume to be philosophies, which makes them pure evil.”[35]

Hermann Broch had already described kitsch as “the evil in the system of art values”.[36] As phenomena of anti-enlightenment governed by capitalism in the mask of harmless entertainment, the new products of the culture industry subvert the old standards of an avant-garde aesthetics and its program of radical destruction of any petrified, wrong way of life. One could read the Frankfurt School rants against pop culture as phrasing the back- and outside of what Sontag and Warhol ‚get’. Broch, Adorno and Horkheimer note from the outside the same transvaluation of all signs and values the young New Yorkers describe from the inside. Or, in the words of German pop theorist Diedrich Diederichsen:

“At one point, the format of pop music had superseded the classic formulas of the old avant-garde for art with immediate effects on the reality outside. This day had come when the commodity began to promise more than the revolution.”[37]

In a different context Diederichsen asks “whether there can still exist a homogeneous theory of the musical field”, which, then, would have to include Mozart and the compositions of Adorno’s teacher Webern as well as The Beatles and Lady Gaga, or “whether pop music belongs to a totally different cultural order” than traditional music.[38] As I suggested above, this question should be posed for other arts, too, e.g. for the contemporary fine arts, changing constantly between pathos and what Jörg Heiser of Frieze magazine calls their constitutive slapstick-factor.[39]

Unlike theoreticians of the sixties like Umberto Eco who were the first to deal analytically with the new phenomena of pop culture, we must not necessarily understand this “different cultural order” as the sphere of the trivial in opposition to high culture. Rather, it seems to have developed into the cultural order of our Western democratic affluent societies. In other words: What from the point of view of an older episteme still looks like kitsch, trivial, middle or low-brow art, or even like pure evil, has been setting new aesthetical “standards of beauty and style and taste” long ago. And these standards of a global bourgeois culture – our culture, that is, the one that governs the circulation of aesthetic goods via media attention, supply and demand – these standards require a different type of product, too. Its effect is no longer required to unfold gradually in time, by the epidemiological process of slow geographical and cultural dissemination, instead it should be globally present more or less in the very moment of its first appearance. As Joshua Clover stated, this kind of ‘abundant’, synchronic, mass distributed work of art has to meet essentially different formal and aesthetic requirements than a traditional, ‘scarce’, diachronic work of art: “the idea that one would use congruent aesthetic criteria for scarce and abundant, or diachronic and synchronic, art forms is absurd.“[40]

Ever since Wassily Kandinsky’s manifestos on abstract art, avant-garde models have been based on some kind of trickle-down system, working down from the revolutionary artists on top of the spiritual triangle into broader circles of society, requiring a difficult and complex artwork, the meaning of which will only reveal itself in a long tradition of readings and interpretations – “the pill that dissolves over centuries”.[41] Avant-gardists like Carl Einstein used to discuss the formal aspects of their artworks under the label of totality:

“Entities only exist when they are clear, gain form; it is only their totality, their closure, that qualifies them as objects of cognition and makes their realization possible.”[42]

This realization as an assertion of the artwork’s intrinsic order, though, happens in time, and this, according to Clover, has “many aesthetic implications, which can be filed under the rubric of durability.”[43] In Einstein’s avant-garde opinion, the total closure of the work of art is but the other side of its radical difference from the order that governs the rest of the world; an order that it is, eventually, bound to erode.

The synchronic work of art of the global media age, on the other hand, has to open up and prove accessible to as many recipients at the same time as possible. Therefore no radical difference is required here, but quite the contrary: sameness, accompanied by minimal differences to grant instant recognisability. „The modality of the song-hit is not invention but intensity“, or, as T.J. Clark has it, not „the World Turned Upside Down“, but „an imagining of the world as it would be if it were more fully itself – with its basic structures unaltered.“[44] Maybe this opposition between the scarce and the abundant work of art could be a starting point to theorize the new standards of beauty and style and taste.


Among the few scholars tracing these basic changes in the semiotics of culture is Siegen media critic and phenomenologist Jochen Venus. At a lecture he gave in Halle he presented three pictures: a realist, an abstract and a comic book one, representing the “three prominent picture types of recent cultural history”.[45] He chose Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want for the realistic, referential type, a Mondrian for the abstract, non-referential type and a drawing of Donald Duck in his 313-car for a new third type specific of popular culture, characterised by “spectacular self-reference”[46] [Abb. 1]. While the Donald Duck picture, he argues, is referential in so far as we read it as the picture of something (a duck in a sailor suit driving a car), it is also at the same time “radically de-realised”[47] – ducks don’t wear sailor suits let alone drive cars or even have hands to hold on to the wheel, the red of the car is too red (without shades), isolated parts of the car like fenders or tires could not be recognized, the car’s speed is marked by lines that are easy to decipher for the comic book reader but have no correspondence in reality etc. In short: The whole picture of the car is ‘gestural’ – we would never recognize a running car in real life if we only knew it from this kind of picture, while we would easily recognize a roast turkey from the Rockwell. As Venus notices, in pictures of this third type reference and techniques of representation are “strangely inverted”:

“The referential view takes the place originally reserved for the means of representation: it becomes a means to an end. The representational means, on the other hand, are exposed in the mode of a self-reliant spectacular artistry […].”[48]

While referential art tries to correspond iconically with its objects, the techniques of spectacular art are arbitrary. Since the patterns it comes up with are “results of free choices of style”, they can easily be dismissed in case of failure but might nonetheless prove extremely stable in case of success. The reference, then, is not so much a duck in a car but being part of the „object class of all possible (and factual) Donald pictures“,[49] the Disney universe.

“According to its aesthetic principles, the self-reference of popular cultures constitutes (and stimulates!) a self-similar repertoire of forms. Whenever popular cultures are successful in gaining the attention an audience, a complex of similar products will crystallize around this success. Anything fascinating will immediately go serial, send out rays, grow metastases and include more and more recipients into its specific form of spectacular self-reference. Thus, style communities of normalised spectacle emerge.”[50]

It might prove worthwhile to translate Venus’s phenomenology of spectacular self-reference into semiotic terms to open up further perspectives for the adequate description and interpretation of artworks in the age of mass and pop culture, a project which at this point we cannot further pursue. But, since there is always a lot to learn from examples, let us take a final look at his example of good old referential art [Abb. 2]. While I basically agree with Venus’s threefold pictorial typology, I do have some doubts concerning the status of the Rockwell. This, after all, is realism after the avant-gardes, which means, it is no longer part of an unfettered post-medieval tradition of realist painting like, say, Dutch still lives from the 17th century or the art of Corot and Courbet. This kind of painting believing to achieve the object itself, one might argue, ended for good with the likes of Mondrian, Malewicz and Kandinsky and, in the age of Rockwell (Freedom from Want was painted in 1937), would be considered a naïve pursuit.

Thus, in the allegorical title of Rockwell’s famous painting we might recognize the promise of American or Western capitalism itself (freedom from want), and does not his style resemble early advertising and commercial art? In Rockwell’s artworks, one might well find exactly the dose of ‘too much’ that Sontag found characteristic of Camp. Look at the man in the lower right corner – I mean, how seriously are we supposed to take this American idyll? A campy reading of Freedom from Want, – not a turkey, but a “turkey”, not a happy family, but a “happy family” – seems not such a far-off option here. This would mean, though, that even Rockwell in his ‘realism’ tends towards Venus’s third type of painting, the spectacular. In its mode of reference, it might actually prove closer to the Donald Duck than to a 19th-century Courbet.

The campy parentheses around “the serious” indicate this transition into the new aesthetic order of significance. As we argued above, this new order calls for a re-evaluation of the status of ‘traditional’ realistic art (like Rockwell’s) and of ‘the authentic’ in art in general. In other words, even Donaueschingen, Herta Müller or Neo Rauch will nolens volens have to be analyzed within this new order with its mixed sentiments. On the other hand we are to deal with the self-referentiality of spectacular popular art forms. Not only do Donald Duck, Madonna, Kraftclub, Tarantino, Tatort, or The Simpsons grant us the satisfaction of elementary proto-aesthetic needs of entertainment, they might well be part of a new aesthetics, to quote Jörg Heiser:

“bringing forth a fundamental displacement in modern art: the principle of industrial and technical fabrication and copying has made art as a medium of realistic representation a nostalgic matter. “Salvation”, though, will not come from an evocation of the artist’s privileged access to visuality, vitality, beauty, and taste, but rather from taking up the challenge and appropriating forms of industrial culture, adopting them against the grim logic of utilization. Best slapstick in comic books and film could be the role model.”[51]

And we might add: best Pop and best Trash as well. In other words: pop culture has always been engaged in sailing the stream of the culture industry “without being carried away by its torrents”, and quite successful in giving common judgement its laws – “new standards of beauty and style and taste” – by means of our aesthetic sensibility. “Suddenly we all felt like insiders.” The history of this appropriation still needs to be written; systematically it is to be construed as evolution and differentiation of Sontag’s concept of Camp.



[1] Susan Sontag: One culture and the new sensibility [1965]. In: S.S.: Against Interpretation. London 2001, pp. 293-304; p. 303f.

[2] Willi Winkler: Männer ohne Frauen. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15.11.1999. All translations from German sources by the author.

[3] Tristesse Royale. Das popkulturelle Quintett mit Joachim Bessing, Christian Kracht, Eckhart Nickel, Alexander v. Schönburg und Benjamin v. Stuckrad-Barre. Berlin 1999.

[4] Friedrich Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung. In: F.S.: Werke in drei Bänden. Hg. v. Herbert G. Göpfert. München 1966; vol. 2, pp. 540-606; p. 557.

[5] Friedrich Schiller: Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen. In: Werke 2, pp. 445-520; p. 481.

[6] Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, p. 596f.

[7] Susan Sontag: Notes on “Camp” [1964]. In: S.S.: Against Interpretation, pp.275-292; p. 288.

[8] Tristesse Royale, p. 27.

[9] Tristesse Royale, p. 26f.

[10] Dirk Baecker: Wozu Kultur? Berlin ³2003, p. 67.

[11] Florian Illies: Generation Golf. Eine Inspektion. Berlin 2000, p. 154f.

[12] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 276.

[13] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 278.

[14] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 278.

[15] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 288.

[16] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 280.

[17] While in recent discourse on pop music the concept is generally limited to its associations of “irony and mere trendiness” (Simon Reynolds: Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. London 2011, p. xxxii).

[18] Al Quaglieri: [Liner Notes]. In: The Trashmen: Tube City! The Best of The Trashmen. Coxsackie, NY 1992.

[19] Younger generations know it via Family Guy. By the way, before recording Surfin’ Bird, The Trashmen had not been a recording band at all.

[20] Reynolds: Retromania, p. 75.

[21] Quaglieri: Liner Notes, l.c.

[22] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 292.

[23] Richard Meltzer: The Aesthetics of Rock {1970]. New York 1987, pp. 1-3.

[24] Meltzer: The Aesthetics of Rock, p. 142.

[25] Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, p. 556.

[26] Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, p. 549.

[27] Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, p. 569.

[28] Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, p. 553.

[29] Tristesse Royale, p. 31.

[30] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 282.

[31] Sontag: Notes on “Camp”, p. 283.

[32] Carl Einstein: Der Snobb. In: C.E.: Werke Band 1: 1908-1918. Ed. Rolf-Peter Baacke. Berlin 1980, pp. 23-27; p. 23.

[33] Andy Warhol/Pat Hackett: POPism. The Warhol ’60s. New York 1980, p. 39f.

[34] Theodor W. Adorno: Résumé über Kulturindustrie [1963]. In: T.W.A.: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft I. Frankfurt 2003, pp. 337-345; p. 338.

[35] Theodor W. Adorno: Zeitlose Mode. Zum Jazz [1953]. In: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft I, pp. 123-137; p. 131.

[36] Hermann Broch: Einige Bemerkungen zum Problem des Kitsches [1950]. In: H.B.: Kommentierte Werkausgabe. Ed. Paul Michael Lützeler. Vol. 9/2. Frankfurt 1975; pp. 158-173, p. 170.

[37] Diedrich Diederichsen: Musikzimmer. Avantgarde und Alltag. Köln 2005; p. 18.

[38] Diederichsen: Musikzimmer, p. 25.

[39] Jörg Heiser: Plötzlich diese Übersicht. Was gute zeitgenössische Kunst ausmacht. Berlin ³2007; p. 15ff.

[40] Joshua Clover: Good Pop, Bad Pop. Massiveness, Materiality, and the Top 40. In: This Is Pop. In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project. Ed. Eric Weisbard. Cambridge, Mass./London 2004, pp. 245-256; p. 250.

[41] Clover: Good Pop, Bad Pop, p. 250.

[42] Carl Einstein: Totalität. In: C.E.: Werke Band 1, pp. 223-229; p. 226.

[43] Clover: Good Pop, Bad Pop, p. 250.

[44] Clover: Good Pop, Bad Pop, S. 254. Interestingly enough‚ ‚intensity’ is also the expression Carl Einstein uses to back up his concept of totality (see Einstein: Totalität, p. 226).

[45] Jochen Venus: Die Erfahrung des Populären. Perspektiven einer kritischen Phänomenologie. In: Jochen Venus: Die Erfahrung des Populären. Perspektiven einer kritischen Phänomenologie. In: Performativität und Medialität Populärer Kulturen. Theorien, Ästhetiken, Praktiken. Hg. v. Marcus S. Kleiner und Thomas Wilke. Springer VS: Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 49-73; p. 62..

[46] Venus: Die Erfahrung des Populären, p. 65.

[47] Venus: Die Erfahrung des Populären, p.66.

[48] Venus: Die Erfahrung des Populären, p. 65.

[49] Venus: Die Erfahrung des Populären, p. 67.

[50] Venus: Die Erfahrung des Populären, p. 67.

[51] Heiser: Plötzlich diese Übersicht, p. 36.


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