I wonder whether Jean Baudrillard ever went to Dubai. It seems unlikely - he’d been ill for some time before his sad death earlier this month, and anyway he was a life form uniquely adapted to the thin, heady air of the 5eme arrondissement. And anyway again - do prophets take any pleasure in the ways in which their prophesies come true?
Baudrillard was the French intellectual whose theories about consumer culture and the manufactured nature of reality once seemed fascinating but a bit far-fetched - at a time when the extent of my consumer culture meant baked beans on toast for the third night running and the manufactured nature of reality was an innovative fib about why an essay was late again. But time moves on, and if, like me, you happened to be in a place such as Dubai (talking of manufactured realities) on the day Baudrillard died, all you had to do was gaze out of the window of your 44th-floor hotel room at an artificial island in the sea made in the shape of a palm tree and larger than Manhattan, and you’d think that Baudrillard didn’t, frankly, know the half of it. Hyperreality, anyone?
Perhaps it is in the nature of all far-seeing radicalism that it ends up tamed, assimilated, domesticated. It comes true in an awful way. Impressionism was once a derogatory term for some silly fools who played about with light and used no earth pigments. Now it’s the holy of holies, and we’ve all seen those umbrellas printed with Monet’s waterlilies. Punk was assimilated into the fashion industry almost before it got going. The list is long. And now the poor old surrealists, who thought they were so wild, so out-there, who melted watches to attack the deepest structures of the establishment, have been taken over by London (a place that never loved them), and by marketing (a concept they would have despised).
But their domestication, their assimilation, shows they have conquered us at last. When a big city department store ”brands” a whole floor of its emporium with the slogan ”This Is Not A Shop”, the baked-bean eater in me is immediately tempted to reply, ”Fine, then I won’t buy anything from you.” But that response only shows my age. I may not want to spend my money on a scentless perfume, but I recognise clever marketing when I see it, and the way in which a mind-set - in this case, a lo-cal version of surrealism - enters our daily diet.
I don’t know if there has ever been an artist who did not think they were revolutionary - even if only in a small way, even if workaday work had to be done to pay the bills. We’re now in an era where taboo-breaking is virtually mandatory, and - more unusually - in which the market loves a rebel. Years ago there was likely to be a time-lag between the making of radical art and its acceptance, and thence its marketability. But this has changed. The YBAs were the perfect example of that: their work never had, or was intended to have, a minute’s breathing space between its ”radical” production and its movement into the grandest of galleries and museums. But it was not always so, and it’s tempting to think (this is very old-fashioned of me, I admit) that when art was made without any sure sense of its market value there was a different ideal in the minds of its creators.
One definition of art is the subversion of the real and the rational in order to feed the inner life of the mind. That’s certainly what the surrealists were after. In lit-crit too there is a term for what many writers try to do with the everyday: ”making strange”. Make it strange, make it seem odd, so that people can suddenly see their ordinary surroundings differently. It’s a process of defamiliarisation, and one deeply embedded in many art forms. The films of Bunuel or Robert Altman, the paintings of Edward Hopper or Brueghel, the stories of Chekhov or Raymond Carver, the plays of Harold Pinter - you name it.
But I think the post-Baudrillard world needs a new term. Not to do with making things strange, but to do with making things un-strange. The process by which the unthinkable becomes ordinary. Palm-tree-shaped island in the Arabian gulf? A department store that spends a bomb advertising that it is not a shop? Or the world envisaged by Baudrillard, one of structural semiotics in which the ”real” has been reduced to the self-referential signs of its own existence. I am because I say I am. Several people have recently quoted the dictum that there is more surrealism (or perhaps more of Baudrillard’s hyperreality) in 10 minutes of yesterday’s MTV than in the past 50 years of high art - but no one seems to know to whom this comment should be attributed. That’s completely in keeping with the spirit of the thing. The graffiti artist Banksy - the invisible man who, in this age of celebrity, is smart enough never to be photographed - overturns the famous remark of another super-media-smart figure, Andy Warhol (the artist formerly known as rebellious), by promising every one of us 15 minutes of anonymity.
Can I have my 15 minutes now, please? Peter Aspden is back next week.