‘Culture is Ordinary.' To start comprehending what Raymond Williams means by this phrase, and to relate to what Allan Kaprow wrote in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life we must, first, delimitate what the author comprehends as ‘Culture.' In Raymond Williams words,
“We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life – the ordinary meaning to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort. (…) I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction”.
“Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind.”(R. Williams) This statement may seem a little vague at first glance, but it says a lot about how we manage our everyday lives.
The culture (in the broader sense) that we live in works merely as a background for our daily errands - and most people can go through life without actually thinking about it. Sure, we can quickly point the differences between our culture, and other cultures – as our habits and traditions are very different from Japanese’s or primitive African tribes – but how often do we think about our habits and traditions?
Allan Kaprow and his fellow artists invite us (by ‘us’ I mean ‘viewers’ and ‘spectators’ of their artistic performances) to reflect about our everyday life by putting the spotlight on our ordinary routine. In his text, The Education of the Un-Artist, Part III, Kaprow give several examples of experimental arts that use the modern society as a model – and bring the audience from watching to performing.
Ultimately, daily habits are taken as performances, and that completely changes its meanings because, as Kaprow says, “consciousness alters the world, that natural things seem unnatural once you attend to them, and vice versa.”
That statement made sense in the 1970s when it was written, and still makes very much sense right now. People have become obsessed with their daily routines to the point that, now, it all seems too much.
All routines, today, seem exhaustively rehearsed – but not to be intellectually reflected upon, but just to look prettier in the picture. And people perform non-stop. A walk on the street could be a walk on a runway (we all have a paparazzi-like friend who may take a picture anytime), and a meal at a restaurant a grand event. Kaprow’s ready-mades are now all over the place.
With the advent of social media and the powerful ‘share’ button, there aren’t any boundaries between personal and public life. Want a proof? Just open your Instagram. (Well, if you don’t have Instagram, try Facebook. And, ultimately, if you are not at all in the social medias, check the tabloids) How many pictures of food and people waking up, or brushing their teeth, or looking in the mirror, or of their pets can you count? What does all that mean? Who cares about that? Apparently us. (Yes, sorry to inform, but you too).
Back to Raymond Williams text: the author paints a panorama of the English society of the late 1950s, analyzing its thinking and behaviors, influenced by Marxists ideas. Regardless his personal identification with communist philosophies, he still manages to recognize that some of the Marxists interpretations of society cannot be accepted: Raymond is radically against the idea of the prejudiced expression ‘ignorant masses.' Moreover, his against the term ‘masses’ at all:
“I don’t believe that the ordinary people, in fact, resemble the common description of the masses, cheap and trivial in taste and habit. I put it another way: that there are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses”.
With these statements - and a few others throughout the text - Williams portraits, unintentionally, a common human feature: to think of ourselves as a separate piece of the society; as individuals, and not in a group kind of way. It is always ‘them and me,' instead of ‘us.' And that is one of the reasons why the term ‘ignorant masses’ is still accepted by some people.
They (those who believe in the word masses, and that the masses are ignorant - and I do not include myself as I do not share this belief) failed to understand that they too are part of this group so-called ‘mass.' That everybody is in the same boat, the same society, with the same culture and values. To consider your peers ignorant is to assume your ignorance. And no one wants to look at him or herself like that.
Allan Kaprow says in his essays that ‘Only in the fine arts does the quest for originality remain a vestige of individualism and specialization. It is the ideological token of the sufficient self’. Although the text was written almost 40 years ago – and at that time, could have made sense - today, the reality is other: everybody strives to be different, to stand out. True, we still have the need to feel ‘part of something,' as every human being probably has, but we want to be unique.
And artists, too, want their art to be unique. “Originality as an index of integrity may be on the wane” (A. Kaprow). Is not. Nowadays, to make an imitation became just too easy. Everyone can scan a painting; print a poster, or copy paste a text. The same way that everybody can be (or at least, everybody thinks that they can be) a photographer just by having a smartphone and a photo-editing app.
“Artists are noticeably discarding unique handmade qualities for multiples made by machines or teams, ideas conceived by groups or processes generated in the lab environment.” To Kaprow, that citation signifies the decline of the uniqueness of artworks. But, today, that can mean the exact opposite: everybody can take a picture, as the digital cameras do all the work practically themselves, but there are only a few people who can gather big teams, and generate grand ideas that end up being unique pieces. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are just two examples.
All in all, we may all have become a performance artist, waiting for someone to press ‘Like,' or share our video on YouTube. The audience? No worries. Google and Facebook will provide us the ratings.