In this land of advertising-as-culture...
It is no mere coincidence that US elements dominate this programme. This does not mean that all the films come from the States — actually only two come from America, two from Austria, and one from Germany — but, interestingly enough, all five contributions are based on visual and sound material produced for, or by American mass media. Today this no longer points to America´s artistic hegemony in the field of art per se, but it still hints at one in the realm of culture in general.
After the European avant-garde film movements of the twenties it was in America that people first continued to work genuinely artistically with the medium of film. As in pictorial art, from the early forties onwards, America also became the trend setter in the area of avant-garde film, whereas this development only recommenced in Europe some time later.
The availability and relatively reasonable price of 16mm equipment was an essential material, technical, but also aesthetic basis for films produced individually and independently in the States, a basis provided by mass culture. Especially significant, the US-army further developed the 16mm format during WW II, which contributed to the widespread use of a previously rather unsuccessful medium in amateur circles.
Europe saw a similar situation only much later, if at all. The European avant-garde films of the twenties (and to some extent their successors in the fifties and sixties too) were all produced in the much more expensive industrial standard 35mm, hence, despite generous sponsoring, the movement was only possible for a short period of time. Following up on Mekas´ statement, one might argue that 16mm is not 75 years old, but only about 50.
A head start of several years in television also contributed to the fact that the 16mm format was available for artistic purposes earlier in the USA than in Europe. 16mm was used for newscasts, hence the industry supervised it and developed it further as a professional format. So one might assume that the progress of (cinematic) art has its roots in the development of mass culture, not only on the technical and economical level, but also — though partly in a negative way — on the level of content and aesthetics.
Here one might be reminded of Theodor W. Adorno´s and Walter Benjamin´s views of the new technical media´s possibilities and their importance. Benjamin´s thesis, that they (he was thinking above all about films) should contribute to the dethroning of art´s aura
, hence the democratisation of art, in their characteristic diffused reception, was criticised very early by Adorno. According to Adorno, who studied the mass media in their then most advanced forms during his American exile, the technical reproduction of art does not at all lead to the dethroning of works of art, but on the contrary to a new fetishism. The oeuvre becomes available as a product and has to submit to the conditions of its (technical) commercialisation .
The perfectly functioning shining apparatus as such, with all its small wheels interlocking so exactly that there remains no space for the sense of the whole, is the new fetish.
In his Dialectic of Enlightenment , written together with Max Horkheimer, he even more radically analyses the booming culture industry and its mass deception According to Max Horkheimer and Adorno, the culture industry carries out the complete transformation of the utility value of works of art to their mere exchange value.
Everything is looked at from only one aspect: that it can be used for something else, however vague; it is valuable only to the extent that it can be changed.
The thesis of the fusion of industrialised culture with advertising analytically brings this perversion to the point.
Every movie is the preview of the next one, promising to re-unite the same heroic couple under the same exotic sun: who comes late, does not know if he is watching the preview or the film itself. The assembly-line character of the cultural industry, the synthetic, planned method of turning out its products (factory-like not only in the studio but, more or less, in the compilation of cheap biographies, pseudodocumentary novels, and hit songs) is very suited to advertising: the important individual points, by becoming detachable, interchangeable, and even technically alienated from any connected meaning, lend themselves to ends external to the work. The effect, the trick, the isolated repeatable device, have always been used to exhibit goods for advertising purposes, and today every monster close-up of a star is an advertisement for her name, and every hit song a plug for its tune.
Yet what Horkheimer / Adorno did not suppose to be still possible, namely that works of art could be created outside the culture industry — though not completely independently and unaffectedly — was becoming reality at the very same place and time as their writing Dialectic of Enlightenment. It cannot be mere coincidence that some of the most important pioneers of American avant-garde film of the forties — Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, as well as the Whitney brothers — started their careers as artists in Los Angeles, in the Hollywood atmosphere, though completely outside the industry. Whereas in Europe the respective development from the mid-fifties onwards is rather to be seen in the context of pictorial art, the American avant-garde film must be regarded from the beginning as a pronounced counter-movement to the industrial cinema of entertainment — Hollywood´s overwhelming power — as well as to commercial mass culture and the mass media in general. Though not explicitly, the early American films can already be read as a critique of the products of the culture industry. The analysis of the entertaining but also informative mass media film and television becomes more direct in works incorporating material taken from these media in their own making. To cut it short: in the sub-genre of Found Footage Film.
For the time being it is less important for us that all the films in this programme draw their raw material from US mass media rather than from the mass media in general. Perhaps a culture industry earlier pronounced called forth an earlier critical potential in (cinematic) art in America.