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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Authenticity is Overrated


A back alley in Shenzhen replete with knockoff merchandise.

Academics have long been accused of living in a state of separation from society at large.  The accusation even has its own recurrent idiom, the so-called ivory tower.  But given the strict admissions standards, high costs, and politics involved in simply being admitted to a leading university, this accusation of elitism is not altogether unfounded.  Thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer write from their privileged positions treatises on the relationship between art and authenticity with titles such as Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or the stunningly haughty The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

It’s not that Adorno and Horkheimer are wrong when they assert that “the culture industry confines itself to standardization and mass production and sacrifices what once distinguished the logic of the work from that of society”, but rather that they overstate the graveness of this sacrifice.  Further, they neglect to mention that standardization and mass production bring high art into the living rooms of ordinary Americans who would otherwise never be exposed to such profound work.  Might the artwork be diluted, removed from “its presence in time and space, its unique existence” as Benjamin insists?  Sure, but the inherent nature of masterworks is such that they are valued even in this state, even if seen behind a broken picture frame hanging from a wood veneer wall in a cheap motel.  If they weren’t, and if people weren’t still affected by their power and made the better for it, then surely no motel would spend the money to import a Chinese copy of Renaissance artwork to begin with.

With this in mind, I find it perplexing that Shenzhen has been second-guessed in its decision to create an art museum dedicated to the village of Dafen, the world’s epicenter of mass-produced and commoditized artwork.  Or that Urbanus, the stellar architecture firm behind the city’s most important public space in the Futian district, may be questioned in stepping up to design such a project as a tribute to the Shenzhen artists who preceded it.  The artwork coming out of Dafen may be fake in the corporeal sense, but demand for it across the world is very real in an economic sense.  Since economics teaches us that consumers are rational, we can infer that people derive at least some fulfillment from copied artwork.  If this is true, fretting about ‘mass deception’ would seem to be merely an exercise for those academics who have, well, a classic ivory tower disconnect from the more pressing problems of everyday life.

My question then: why did nobody propose the Dafen Art Museum sooner?

Matt Luery

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Filed under: Authenticity, China, Fake-Real, mass culture, Shenzhen

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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