Purple Magazine
— S/S 2016 issue 25


cool memories



“There is perhaps in all systems and all individuals a secret impulse to rid themselves of their own idea, their own essence, so as to be able to proliferate every which way, extrapolate themselves in every direction. But the consequences of this dissociation are necessarily fatal. Anything that loses its idea is like a man who has lost his shadow: it falls into delirium and loses itself.” So wrote Jean Baudrillard in 1990 in The Transparency of Evil. The origins of this meditation stretch back to 1981 and his book Simulacra and Simulation, in which Baudrillard began to conceive of the simulacrum as a copy detached and freed from its original. Thenceforth, like a pyrotechnician, he would never stop sweeping for mines in the artifacts of his time. The simulacrum was the apogee of a certain falsification of the real: what Guy Debord, for his part, called “the spectacle.” Baudrillard’s thought revolved around three domains linked together by the simulacrum: art, pornography, and terrorism.

Simulacra and Simulation was a huge success in the United States. In the late 1980s, the artist Peter Halley took inspiration from Baudrillard to found a major art movement: simulationism. Artists like Peter Halley, Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton, and Allan McCollum worked to demystify the illusion of the real and the saturation of its signs.

And yet the thinker’s rapport with the art world wasn’t simple. Having lauded him throughout the ’80s, the art world disavowed Baudrillard in the ’90s, when he published his celebrated The Conspiracy of Art, a book that took pitiless aim at the “vacuity” of contemporary art. According to Baudrillard, contemporary art was more than just systematically taking on banality, waste, and mediocrity as its virtues and ideology; it was also taking advantage of its nullification of aesthetic judgments founded on “artistic” difference. In so doing, contemporary art had become an ironic misdemeanor for the initiated. Now it is the market — and not what was called the History of Art — that is the arbiter of value.

1990. The first Gulf War: “Western culture remains intact thanks only to the rest of the world’s desire to get in. At the slightest hint of rejection, the slightest withdrawal of desire, it loses not only its superiority, but also all of the allure it holds in its own eyes.” Jean Baudrillard would cap off the decade with two crucial texts on war and terrorism: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, in 1991, and The Spirit of Terrorism, written a few days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Baudrillard was once again dealing with the end of History and announcing its brutal return. Could the same be said for the History of Art? With their peerless analysis and powerful reflections on reality’s implosion into hyper-reality, these books demand a reading in the wake of the Paris attacks, just as they did in the time of contemporary art’s mega-fairs.

In 1996, Jean Baudrillard appeared at a philosophy conference in Las Vegas, city of absolute hyper-reality — a concept that he defined as the simulation of something that had never actually existed, to the exhaustion of its meaning. For our societies, the simulacrum had become the original of a sign that no longer even existed, that had exhausted the ideas of reality and history. Taking things to their natural conclusion, not without a little humor, he made his appearance in a gold lamé suit, a simulacrum of Elvis Presley. Though he observed that art was all but vanishing amid the circulation of images — well before the advent of the Internet — he himself undertook some artwork in the form of photography. In work largely ignored by the art world, he ceaselessly revealed a world stripped of the surplus of the signs of consumption. He reworked the image in a paradoxical battle to prevent its proliferation and impending hyper-consumption.

Since the ’70s, then, Jean Baudrillard has been prophesying the cardinal points of our era: wars, hyper- and virtual reality, consumption of empty signs, terrorism, pornography, contemporary art. This is probably why an entire generation of new Internet artists — Jon Rafman, Jasper Spicero, Amalia Ulman, Parker Ito, and Cayetano Ferrer, to name a few — is finding in Baudrillard a new source of inspiration and influence. All in their own ways are attempting to inquire afresh into the notions of simulacrum and simulation. Jean Baudrillard long ago described their hyper-real world of images, while also supplying the conceptual tools with which to resist its fascinations. In this era of “digital natives,” the antiphilosophy of Baudrillard has, in a sense, never been so necessary.

[Table of contents]

S/S 2016 issue 25

Table of contents

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