What has ‘mushfake’ got to do with fictions of universality in the art world?

Paper presented to AIAE Conference, ‘Journeys: Migrating Australian Art Education’

Griffith University, Gold Coast, 25-28 September 2004

Dr. Karen Knight-Mudie, Senior Lecturer,

Expressive Arts Education, University of Southern Queensland.


Throughout history human beings have woven and continue to weave a great meaning-map that is used to fuse singular persons together in family units, thence into nodes of community that in turn are linked to each other by the essence of species identified within the wider taxonomy of biological genus. This living meaning-map shifts as it tracks and produces signs that bring into awareness something other than them. We can argue that ‘language’ is the use of any sign as involving knowledge or awareness of the relation of signification and hence the use of words is not always necessary for ‘language’. Indeed, people have been concerned with the artistic/aesthetic behaviour of ‘making special’ that Dissanayake (1992) considers is the most important basic need of human beings. Every move we make turns on this need because our ‘zones of comfort’ and survival are at stake. What could be more important than our day-to-day ‘making special’? Hence this paper has to do with artistic behaviour that ranges across a variety of ‘signaling systems’ that produce something special.

The implications of such an understanding have enormous bearing on education in the 21st century. It is argued that we experience conflict between trying to recognize that our inherited meanings are no longer connected to our affective experiences. Instead, we find ourselves situated in cultural niches, cocoons of manufactured meanings that envelop us.

What has ‘mushfake’ got to do with fictions of universality in the art world?

Once upon a time there was a seemingly static world where meanings of abstract concepts appeared stable and reliable, where knowledge was something outside a person and values were passed on according to traditional notions of good and bad. That time was before the year 1914 that heralded the beginning of the Great War. During that time in England, Fussell (1975) tells us that two ‘liberal’ forces were coinciding and the repercussion of such coinciding was the establishment of “an atmosphere of public respect for literature unique in modern times”. The two forces connected aristocratic and democratic respect for the universality of literature and sustained a belief in the educative powers of classical literature on the one hand and the appeal of popular education and self-improvement on the other.

But such admiration for, and engagement in, the structure of words could not continue when the collision between events and the available language seemed incompatible as evidenced by the silence of many soldiers returning from the Great War. According to Fussell (1975) another phenomenon was the progress of euphemism whereby nasty things were reported nicely until the language became impenetrable though remaining noble and dignified in tone. A belief in the historical continuity of styles forced those reporting on the war “to appeal to the sympathy of readers by invoking the familiar and suggesting its resemblance to what many of them suspected was an unprecedented and (in their terms) an all-but-incommunicable reality”.

The point of drawing attention to the impact of the Great War is to highlight the chasm between the known and the unknown and the inability of many in those times to cope with the seemingly impossible task of bridging such a great gap beyond the ‘universal’ understanding of the times, context and place. Such was not the case in America where no national literary canon inhibited the use of sparse and telling language and, by the end of another more horrible war, WWII, the English language chasm was bridged by the new idioms of Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Pound and Yeats. But that does not mean that anyone understood any better.

The legacy of euphemism, which originated in a writer’s sympathy for the feelings of readers, actually widened the gap of incomprehension between addresser and addressee. Also, the dilemma of not saying what one really wanted to say gave rise to the famous Field Service Post Card that Fussell (1975, p.185) nominates as the first widespread exemplar of the ‘Form’:

            It is the progenitor of all modern forms on which you fill in things of cross out things or check off things, from police traffic summonses to ‘questionnaires’ and income-tax blanks. When the Field Service Post Card was devised, the novelty of its brassy self-sufficiency, as well as its implications about the uniform identity of human creatures, amused the sophisticated and the gentle alike, …


Artistic canons were also re-imaged in new frames of reference-isms and schisms as constructivism, dynamism, neoplasticism, orphism, productivism, purism, suprematism, vorticism and anything-goes were embraced and discarded as easily as fast food wrapping. The parade of artworks accelerated into image jargon to provoke discussion, gain fame or make money as the culture industry gained momentum during the 20th century.   The art industry boomed as blockbuster exhibitions were staged around the globe, books about art abounded, words about multiculturalism clouded comprehension and post-modern uncertainty ushered in a new millennium.

It seems that in the midst of Post Modern theories, all signs were freed to join in the circulation of commodities in our postmodern society in which multiple, temporary and unstable moods diffuse the ego, undermine autonomy and challenge the very centre of our beliefs. Grossberg (1988, p.36) suggests that texts (in the Postmodern view) may be "sites of many different activities and effects" at which we may stop and "install" ourselves into practices as we shuttle across the surfaces of culture.

The notion of surfaces is crucial because it supposes many reflections that make it increasingly difficult to differentiate between reality and its images. This is an important point because it demands re-thinking our notions of personal experience and the degree of effort required to maintain some form of stability upon and within surfaces that, as Grossberg (1988) argues, question our ability to anchor ourselves into their imaginary depths. The constant transformation of places into spaces, and spaces into places, disperses stable systems and offers no depth of commitment into which we can anchor ourselves ideologically. Thus we experience an identity roundabout on which we are constantly seeking some sort of stability amidst the fluctuating signs of meaning.

For example, let’s take two types of visual image; on the one hand we have a famous painting and on the other we have a design image for a magazine advertisement.   The former could belong to the ‘fine art’ category while the latter might be recognized as ‘popular art’. The former might be argued as exemplifying art for art’s sake while the latter could be substantiated as an example of art for commodity’s sake. From most perspectives the two images serve different purposes and fall into disparate realms of understanding and appreciation. Many might argue that the example of ‘fine art’ embodies esoteric aesthetic fulfillment while the design for an advertisement embodies market materialism. One might be appalled at the thought that the two works might serve the same purpose and yet I argue that this is now the case.

Once upon a time an image carried a unique and special message. Like a particular word, an artwork had a specific purpose that could involve substitute imagery, illustration, beautification and/or persuasion/conviction. An image could preserve the notion of something or an important idea; it could tell stories or record events; it could humanize in the sense of make intelligible or beautify artifacts; or it could act as a vehicle for transmitting social values, ethics and beliefs. Less easy to define was another purpose that involved artistic expression. This was recognized as the skill or competence in making works to fulfill the other social functions and, during the Renaissance period, such skill as a conduit for articulation of universal concerns was considered noble and humane. It was not until some two hundred years later that making artworks became more self-conscious until finally, around the mid nineteenth century, the notion of being an artist dominated thinking and making art for personal reasons became an end in itself.

Gowans (1981) refers to twentieth century art for art’s sake as being in total opposition to historic arts where artists committed their skill and knowledge to some great social function through the mastery of both theoretical and natural philosophy that epitomized the difference between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. The measure of difference lay in knowledge, skill and performance.  

It is difficult to argue that art for art’s sake, or art in the guise of personal expression, falls into the category of social function because individual expression is not something that society cannot do without. Rather, artistic expression is subjective and thus some such works might exemplify Goya’s (c.1798) notion that ‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts’. In other words it might be that some artists-as-artists value themselves for lack of formal technical skill and refusal to be held accountable.   Such a stance is prevalent in postmodern society where personal identity is the ultimate goal and thus finding oneself and doing one’s own thing is the normal quest.

Yet such a quest is sabotaged by the legacy of the Field Service Post Card spawned by the Great War. In proclaiming its self-sufficiency while implying the uniform identity of human creatures, the FSPC can be seen as a prototype for the ubiquitous forms that flood our daily lives. Ranging from surveys, questionnaires, tax forms, pamphlets, brochures to all manner of greeting cards, invitations and the like, one can find a standardized format that relieves the addresser and addressee of any real personal communication. One has only to fill in things or cross out things or check off things and since one did not devise the actual content of the form one is also relieved of authorial responsibility.

If personal communication and authorial responsibility have been relinquished by many to the form, format, formula of systematized transfer of information it seems logical to propose that such persons renounce the need to think for themselves. Hence they slide into a pattern of sameness to become easy prey for advertisements offering an equally easy format for pseudo individuality.

At this stage I’d like to go back to the beginning and investigate the title of my discussion – ‘What has ‘mushfake’ got to do with fictions of universality in the art world?’ There are four words that need explaining before the argument I intend to weave might make sense. These words are ‘mushfake’, ‘fictions’, ‘universality’ and ‘art’. As I mentioned earlier, I argue that fine art and advertising art now serve the same purpose.

Already I have dealt with the notion of universality, the idealism of essential meanings and fixed values that are out there, isolated and apart from the messy terrain of people patches on earth. Such a notion was shattered by the unprecedented events of the Great War.

Also, I have talked about the historic functions of art, though when such works were in the making, the term ‘art’, as used in modern society, was not conceived. Such works as painting, prints, sculpture, architecture, jewelry, mosaic, armour making and body decoration served social functions and fulfilled a human need to make things special. Hence expressive effort was poured into the works and during the Renaissance the revival of Plato’s notion of the ‘inspired poet’ fuelled painters to jostle for similar status. However, for the next two hundred years the social functions continued to guide and dictate artistic behaviour and such social functions were not focused on instant gratification for the individual. Sir Walter Ralegh makes this very clear: “Heaven the judicious, sharp spectator is / That sits and marks still who doth act amiss:” (On the Life of Man, 1612: 5-6) and this commonly held belief guided many in Renaissance days.  

However, the union of artist and craftsperson had been ruptured and a growing awareness of Arti del disegno began in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Such heightened status allowed the makers of artworks to align themselves with their aristocratic patrons but an implicit notion of the universality of social functions still prevailed. Nevertheless, as pointed out by Josephson (1996), a rising class of educated laypersons started collecting artworks but, not having knowledge of the artistic skills involved, judged the works on their form and subject matter.   Hence, the social function of beautification (in the sense of elevated knowledge of truth) began to etch its way to the forefront motivated by the Neoplatonic ideal of beauty as being akin to God’s concepts.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the attainment of pure beauty became the ultimate quest of artists and, while aspiring to imitate the external form of Greek sculpture in its purity and noble grandeur of harmonic contours, the Neoclassic artists re-contextualised the function of artworks. The Neoplatonic philosophy of making something to express the universal ideal of perfection of mind, body and soul was modified by Neoclassic artists into using art as a vehicle for telling grand stories.

Thus we arrive at the word ‘fiction’ that is defined as ‘invented statement or narrative’. The ‘grand stories’of Neoclassicism were taken from Greco-Roman myths, historical events or stories from the Bible and, according to Josephson (1996, p.54), the mission of artists was “to teach by pleasing, and please by teaching”. Hence artists used grandiose themes as they worked within an imitation-theory of telling about past things as cultural critics and advisors rather than spiritual leaders. Admittedly the narratives were not totally fictional as artists had to be knowledgeable in history and literature so that paintings would be accurate and morally uplifting. But the dictated Neoclassic uniformity of style served to instill a fiction of universality into the works. By this I mean that subject matter and technique were not generated from within the heart and soul of the artist but were imposed from outside and, without first-hand experience of such stories, artists became conduits rather than creators. The establishment of the Academie Royale de Peiture et de Sculpture in 1648 dominated all aspects of making artworks and through an elite exhibition system prizes were awarded according to strict criteria.   A cultural niche for Fine Art so developed and along with the prestige of institutionalized exhibitions, competition flourished and an art market grew.

As with any market system there is a need for promotion. Thus the discipline of art history filled this need through the production of catalogues, records and reviews so that the collectors of Fine Art merchandise were assured of getting good quality. Those who were responsible for interpretation of styles and artworks played a powerful role in shaping opinions and, as the focus shifted to subjective appreciation of beauty, the most esteemed social function of art became aesthetic. The complex question of how one judged beauty was resolved through aligning appreciation of beauty with a special state of mind that required a type of disinterested aloofness conducive to rational thinking. As suggested by Josephson (1996) this approach to aesthetics reinforced the aristocratic way of life because only someone with ‘good breeding’ and hence ‘good taste’ could appreciate the concept of beauty in fine art.

By the nineteenth century the art market was well established. Increasing democratization of the art public saw commissions coming from merchants and manufacturers instead of church, state, or aristocracy. The role of the exhibition played a major part in allowing artists to attract this new, expanding group of potential buyers and thus the function of artworks became that of collector’s item. By the latter half of the nineteenth century the art world opened its doors to a wider mass audience including the lower classes. This was inevitable as times were rapidly changing with the development of industrialization and a growing market where, in the words of Eugène Fromentin, ‘[T]he favors of the public are despotic:’ and the business of selling turned exhibition spaces into a ‘confused conglomeration of pictures’ (Nochlin, 1996, p.21). Similar sentiments were expressed by the Goncourt brothers who thought industry would kill art and by Champfleury who talked of artists forced to commit suicide ‘in the dungeons of conventionality’ (Nochlin, 1996, p.37).

By 1887 William Morris was referring to people as auxiliaries to modern machines and ‘Commercial Profit’ as ‘the monster who destroyed all that beauty’ and his reference to ‘a sham art’ brings me to the term ‘mushfake’. At the time when Morris was lashing out against art as commodity lacking a specific social function, he feared that ‘this gibbering ghost of the real thing would satisfy a great many of those who now think themselves lovers of art;’ (Nochlin, 1996, p. 138). His definition of the notion ‘sham art’ seems closely aligned with Gee’s use of the term ‘mushfake’; a term from prison culture where it refers to making do with something less when the real thing is not available. Gee (1992, p.118) admits he got the term from Mack (1989) however, Gee uses it to mean “partial acquisition coupled with metaknowledge and strategies to “make do”.

In returning to an image regarded as high art we need to look at what happens in the art world today. If we thought or hoped that making images was to fulfill some great social function or even to serve some form of self-gratification the following web summaries of a recent ABC programme might make us think again.

Reality Bites: Art House

Art For Art's Sake

8:00pm Tuesday, 24 August

Episode three of Art House - "Art For Art's Sake" - looks at the huge increase in investment buyers who have entered the art market as Christie's and Deutscher-Menzies organise their preview hangings for the upcoming auctions. Now the catalogues are out, they must find buyers for their six million dollar sales.

David Cook is heading his team at Fox studios in Sydney, where he must also hang BHP Billiton's corporate art collection that will be auctioned the day after the August seasonal sale. He is hoping to attract new buyers from the interest generated by the BHP collection.

Damien is busy hanging a selected preview for the Sydney buyers before the paintings are transported to Melbourne for the showing and auction there. He is excited as the preview "is where the penny drops, people see a picture and fall in love".

Art consultant Alison Renwick is advising her client Yasmin Allen on what is the best value for money at the forthcoming auctions. Dealer Ron Coles, who runs an investment gallery, says he can get a return of 10-15% per annum if you invest in blue-chip artists like Brett Whiteley, Arthur Streeton and others. He specialises in superannuation funds, which have a bizarre tax ruling: "if you buy art you cannot hang it on your wall as it is for investment purposes, not enjoyment, and must be out of sight". To get around this loop he offers to store the painting for you.

Sotheby's auction is first in the round of the Sydney auctions, then Christie's the following evening and then Deutscher-Menzies' a week later in Melbourne. Chris Deutscher, Executive Director of Deutscher-Menzies, predicts Christie's may have some trouble with their big pictures, such as the Brett Whiteley cover lot of "Arkie Under the Shower" estimated at between $800,000 and $1.2 million. He wants both Sotheby's and Christie's to do well, so the buyers feel confident that the art market is strong. "But we don't want them to succeed too well - it's a curious balance," he says.

Production Details

A Hilton Cordell Production. Executive producer Chris Hilton; producer Ian Collie; writer/director Lisa Matthews. Executive producer for ABC TV Dasha Ross.

Reality Bites: Art House

The Auction

8:00pm Tuesday, 31 August

Christie's have finished their preview and are setting up for the auction on tonight's final episode of Art House. Sotheby's auction the previous night had mixed results and David Cook is unsure how this will affect the Christie's auction.

In Melbourne, Chris Deutscher and Damian Hackett are finalising the showing for the Deutscher-Menzies Melbourne preview, the same night as Christie's auction in Sydney. Chris believes the key to success is not just "hanging the pictures on the wall but finding the clients, constantly communicating with them to keep them buzzing around you always wanting to know what you've got coming up."


The Christie's auction commences. Art consultant Alison Renwick is bidding on an Arthur Boyd painting for a client in New York. In less than two minutes she wins the painting for $120,000 and she is ecstatic. The auction goes smoothly until the cover lot of Brett Whiteley's "Arkie Under The Shower" - estimated to sell between $800,000 and $1.2 million - is passed in at $700,000. The failure to sell a cover lot not only looks bad for the auction house, but can also send shock waves through the art market.

The Deutscher-Menzies auction goes well despite Damian selling the Arthur Streeton painting for $140,000. He is disappointed as he was hoping for more. Vendor Philip Stevens is happy with his investment. The Peter Booth painting he purchased for $23,000 in 1998 sold for $67,500.

For the August round of auctions (excluding one-off sales like BHP Billiton) Christie's and Deutscher-Menzies come neck and neck in the mid $6 million range, with Sotheby's trailing behind. It seems that the market is buoyant, but how long can the successes continue?

Chris Deutscher predicts that with 50% sale rates, the market will not sustain itself and the big three houses will not be viable. David Cook believes that at the moment "there appears to be enough stock for the three houses but it'd be better if there was one less. I don't mind who it is as long as it's not us."

Production Details

A Hilton Cordell Production. Executive producer Chris Hilton; producer Ian Collie; writer/director Lisa Matthews. Executive producer for ABC TV Dasha Ross.


From the above it is obvious that little other than money is the focus as the paintings are traded as commodities. As with selling a perfume or a new sports car it is hoped by one dealer that “people see a picture and fall in love". While it is important that a person likes what he/she is buying, such feeling is secondary to “what is the best value for money at the forthcoming auctions”. Such advice is given to her client, Yasmin Allen, by the art consultant, Alison Renwick, as noted in the above summary. Further advice from an investment gallery director specializing in superannuation funds lets us know that “blue-chip artists like Brett Whiteley, Arthur Streeton and others” can get a return of 10-15% per annum but "if you buy art you cannot hang it on your wall as it is for investment purposes, not enjoyment, and must be out of sight".

At no time during the programme were the aesthetics, the mastery of skill, the design elements and principles or the social content of the paintings discussed. One might ask why such things are important anyway if the work “must be out of sight” or only to be loved until traded in on a better investment. Such investment is whimsical because so much might depend on the sale of the cover lot and, if not sold, it becomes the bad apple in the box contaminating all other ‘apples’ as repercussions of “shock waves through the art market” doom potential sales. Where in this real life scenario can one find any sense of personal fulfillment and autonomy for to-day’s artists?   What has happened to the quest for personal identity in postmodern society? Even more pressing is the question of what social function does art serve?

The answer to the first two questions might simply be – don’t ask. However, we do have an answer to the third question – the function is in a package.

Chris Deutscher, of Deutscher-Menzies, believes that the key to success is not just "hanging the pictures on the wall but finding the clients, constantly communicating with them to keep them buzzing around you always wanting to know what you've got coming up."

Such is also true in the advertising world where the major function is to sell something – and that ‘something’ is not only a product but also a way of life. Nearly every moment of our lives is filled with advertisements acting as ubiquitous factors moulding our culture; we cannot escape them and we cannot ignore the powerful role they play in structuring meaning. Such meaning was once the responsibility of religion or art. Once upon a time there was a seemingly static world where meanings of abstract concepts appeared stable and reliable, where knowledge was something outside a person and values were passed on according to traditional notions of good and bad. And once upon a time an image carried a unique and special message. Like a particular word an artwork had a specific purpose that could involve substitute imagery, illustration, beautification and/or persuasion/conviction.

Now however, it appears that meaning is a network of idiosyncratic connections between people and objects, both of which are interchangeable. We are surrounded by objects, people and ideas that do not emanate from ourselves, but act upon us in stirring our emotions, confronting our beliefs and confusing our personal maps of meaning that no longer seem to correlate with what happens in everyday life. Our task is to negotiate some form of meaning or relevance from these things, and, in doing this, we utilize our own value system in the act of understanding or appreciation. This is becoming more difficult because, as Grossberg (1988, p.40) points out, "[P]ostmodernity points to a crisis in our ability to locate any meaning as a possible and appropriate source for an impassioned commitment". By this he means the conflict we experience between trying to recognize that our inherited meanings are no longer connected to our affective experiences. In other words, the exclusion of feelings demanded by our “theoretic culture” (Josephson, 1996, p.193) does not satisfy our cognitive needs because our everyday lives and our cultural identities no longer provide a sense of purpose and place in the overarching global stories that once gave us a sense of connection and identity in nature and our environment. Instead, we find ourselves situated in cultural niches, cocoons of manufactured meanings that envelop us.

Williamson (1994) refers to the basic structuralist-semiotic theories that emphasize how meaning is produced in specific contexts and times thus rejecting universal notions of essential meanings and fixed values that are waiting out there to be discovered. Hence, we must say good-bye to fictions of universality in the advertising world.   Also, because I argue that artworks are now part of the advertising world, the same ‘good-bye’ applies in the art world.

To understand some marketing strategies used in selling products we need to review Marx’s idea of ‘commodity’. According to Suchting (1983, p.78), Marx defines ‘commodity’ as ‘use-value’, that is, something that is able to satisfy a human want or need. Such things are generally so according to inherent properties of the object (for example oil) or may be less obvious things like music or services of instruction. Such things in themselves are void of ‘use-value’ until a person assigns ‘use-value’. In a second sense a commodity is a ‘use-value’ that is produced on a regular basis for exchange for another ‘use-value’ (barter) or for a symbol of ‘use-value’, money. Hence ‘labour-power’ can be seen as a commodity when the ‘use-value’ of that labour is exchanged for money. The recipient of the money can then exchange that symbolic ‘use-value’ for another ‘use-value’ of some sort and so the market chain of commodities expands. Because ‘use-value’ can fluctuate as desire or need for a commodity varies, it is essential that the commodity producer keeps the desire or need for his/her commodity alive and constant.

If we think of all the things that are bought and sold we cannot ignore the biggest commodity of all, advertising. As the ‘labour-power’ put to work on ways of selling millions of other commodities, advertising is an on-going ‘exchange-value’ system that is rotating so fast we have no time to notice that it is no longer ‘things’ we are buying or selling, but ourselves. This is a desire and need that will not fade and hence self as commodity is an established norm in postmodern society. Williamson (1994, p.14) talks about the way advertising works in that:

… it feeds off a genuine ‘use-value’; besides needing social meaning we obviously do need material goods. Advertising gives those goods a social meaning so the two needs are crossed, and neither is adequately fulfilled. Material things that we need are made to represent other, non-material things we need; the point of exchange between the two is where ‘meaning’ is created.


When investigating the meaning of advertisements it is necessary to go beneath the overt level of the signified and probe the ways in which formal techniques are used to act as signifiers. In other words, we need to expose the ‘intention’ that connects a signifier (the sign proper) to the signified (concept of something triggered by the sign user). The majority of people think of advertising as simply a means of promoting a product linked in a dyadic relation of signifier/signified. Few consider the complexity of sign systems that are constantly mutating because of a crucial third aspect – a mode of conduct that forms a connecting bond between the desire and the realization, between the wish to sell and the actual sale. All the in-between stuff involves the planning, plotting and programming to make a connection between one ‘use-value’ and another ‘use-value’.

If, for example, a company wants to sell a new model of a particular sports car, the first thing to consider is how to create a differentiation between that particular car and all the other cars that fall into the same category of vehicle. As Williamson (1994, p.24) points out the object is provided with a certain ‘image’ so that it stands out from the rest. However, because the new model car has similarities to all others in the same category, the most powerful form of differentiation in providing an identity ‘image’ is to highlight what it is not through using a referent system from which a sign has been appropriated by the advertisement system. Such a sign is often the image of a beautiful or famous person and, as a sign from elsewhere, this appropriated sign refers back to its origin and hence links the new sports car also with that origin – thus the car is no longer like the rest.

Over time the link becomes habitual and erroneously seems ‘natural’ and ‘makes sense’ so that what was non-sense in the original juxtaposition of car and person becomes imperceptible to the prospective purchaser. An unconscious link is established between sign systems and in this way images, ideas or feelings from elsewhere become attached to the product rather than originating in it. Hence a type of emotional recipe is used in mixing things and feelings so that the advertisement makes the unnatural appear natural and the unattainable within reach.   Williamson (1994, p31) points out the crucial psychological play involved in creating such linking or ‘objective correlatives’ based on differentiations. As she says: ‘[I]t is not the ad that evokes feeling, it simply invokes the idea of a feeling; it uses feeling as a sign which points to the product. But then emotion is also promised when you buy the product.’ Hence, feeling and product become simultaneously interchangeable.

Thus we come to the next step in the mode of conduct and this is assigning ‘meaning’ in the sense of ‘use-value’ to the product. Because ‘meaning’ can only be assigned to the product by some thing or person (‘objective correlative’) that is already meaningful, it is the signifying function of the ‘objective correlative’ to link the signified, the product, with that use-value meaning. Once a product has thus received a ‘meaning’ infusion from the ‘objective correlative’, it in turn assumes a meaning that can be transferred to another object and so on. According to Peirce (1895, p.171):

A sign stands for something to the idea which it produces, or modifies. Or, it is a vehicle conveying into the mind something from without. That for which it stands is called its object; that which it conveys, its meaning; and the idea to which it gives rise, its interpretant. The object of representation can be nothing but a representation of which the first representation is the interpretant. But an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it, may be conceived to have an absolute object at its limit. The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation.


In the continuing complexity of representations, a product as sign may become its own referent.   Williamson (1994, p.36) explains that in the world of advertising, a product is always a sign in the ad and functions by representing an abstract quality or feeling, however, it is a potential referent. The new sports car in the ad is a sign that may be infused with ‘meaning’ of glamour and speed through linkage with its ‘objective correlative’, the famous person or beautiful woman. Thus the sign, the car, may represent glamour and speed; but the act of buying the car changes its function by releasing the referent qualities. It becomes the buyer’s ‘objective correlative’ imparting glamour and speed to the new owner.

As we saw above, a product may become what it represents; it is made interchangeable with an abstract quality and when this happens we have ‘exchange value’ and thus the product can be used as a type of currency. When ads are so presented that they generate a connection between two ‘use-values’, it appears that the product can perform the ‘exchange’ and thus do for you what you cannot do for yourself. If the new sports car can move from representing the idea of glamour and speed to being a glamorous, fast prestige object then the owner is linked with such status.

However, the object always remains an object even though it may appear to have such super-human abilities. The ‘exchange value’ is always in the mind of a person and the way in which a product moves from being signified into becoming signifier depends on a person creating some sort of meaning for the object. But a person doesn’t do this without some reason or motivation. Those working in advertising understand this very well and thus advertisements are designed to address separate persons as though the communication is an intimate message for ‘you’ alone. ‘You’ make some personal association with the message and hence create its meaning and thus ‘you’ are instantaneously and simultaneously creator and active receiver. The advertisement has triggered some existing facts about ‘you’ and ‘your’ values and given ‘you’ the choice of acting according to ‘your’ values. Such illusionary freedom of choice is basic to advertising.

Thus we have the situation where what is important to ‘you’ determines the ‘exchange value’ and, because values are not static, the ‘exchange value’ fluctuates with ‘your’ desire or need. Hence we have value as an abstract notion. In everyday life we use money to buy things and we think of money as a sign that represents value or worth of something. This is not so. Money only gets its value by what it may be exchanged for – as prices go up the value of money goes down! Because a system of values constitutes an ideology, such a system can only continue in a cycle of transference or, in other words, a constant regeneration of meanings.

This is fertile ground for advertising within which an ad functions as the conduit for transferring meanings between the ‘objective correlative’ and the product’s system while employing ‘you’ as a willing and active maker of assumed meanings.   As Williamson (1994, p.43) says: ‘Things ‘mean’ to us, and we give this meaning to the product, on the basis of an irrational mental leap invited by the form of the advertisement’.   In making this mental leap we also expose ‘ourselves’ as subjects responding to the call of the advertisement where we fill the void between the signifiers. All the while the images in the ad are simply images doing nothing until a person makes the link between them, until someone interjects self in the space and creates meaning.

Once ‘you’ interject self into an advertisement ‘you’ become interwoven into the ‘value exchange’ as firstly, a signifier creating meaning and, simultaneously secondly, as signified because the product becomes a stand-in for ‘you’ (as we saw earlier, it appears to perform on ‘your’ behalf) and so replaces, hence signifies, ‘you’. In this way the advertisement gives meaning to ‘you’ as a ‘Charlie girl’, a ‘Landcruiser bloke’ and so on through an exclusive process of identification that Williamson (1994, pp.26-27) refers to as a kind of totemism in the sense that the objects used in ads to differentiate between the various types of ‘you’ are contrived and false.

…the objects that create these ‘totemic’ groups are not natural, and not naturally different, although their differences are given a ‘natural’ status. … So what is involved are two sets of false differences: between products, and between people, each perpetually redefining the other, through an exchange of meaning in the ad, and an exchange of money in the shop.


There are infinite permutations possible because there are hundreds of products on the market and, in a very clever way marketing mandarins ensure that advertisements re-group members of society in terms of consumerism. Basically ‘you’ are what ‘you’ buy. As previously suggested, we find ourselves situated in cultural niches, cocoons of manufactured meanings that envelop us. Within these cocoons ‘you’ become the same as everyone else by being made ‘different’ in the same way; the advertisement constantly reassures ‘you’ that ‘you’ are special. Did ‘you’ not choose a particular product and thus select ‘your’ unique identity of sameness within a totemic group? How often do we hear a friend comment, ‘it’s so you’ when a new purchase is displayed? How often do you think, ‘it’s so me’ when you respond to the call to purchase? Are not the qualities connected with a product, qualities that you also possess or would like to be seen as possessing?

Such wistful thinking is not overlooked in the world of advertising. We know that there are many sides to a person’s personality and some advertisements cater for such division by presenting a layout as a type of gestalt where different aspects of ‘you’ are represented simultaneously, seen at once and thus united – just like ‘you’. Williamson (1994, p.60) explains:

What the advertisement clearly does is thus to signify, to represent to us, the object of desire. Since that object is the self, this means that, while ensnaring/creating the subject through his or her exchange of signs, the advertisement is actually feeding off that subject’s own desire for coherence and meaning in him or her self. This is as it were the supply of power that drives the whole ad motor, and must be recognized as such.


By collaborating with the ad and allowing objects to ‘speak’ for us we abdicate autonomy. The objects reflect and project our values and in this ‘value-exchange’ we are re-designed in a sign system that is so delicately complex we continue to act like the ‘emperor’ unaware of our exposure. Even when we recognize the fakeness of some ads, ironically we still accept the ‘authenticity’ that things can make us ‘other’ than we are and so we continue to adhere to the codes of consumer style. According to Goldman (1992), the focus of selling something is no longer on the actual utility of the object, but on what it stands for and thus we are taught to consume the sign, not the product.

As discussed earlier, a sign stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity as a sort of idea that gives rise to another sign in an endless series of representations. However, when we start thinking about something as a type of conventional linkage in denoting a kind of thing, we have a symbol. For example, a badge or ticket evokes a certain mental association through regular connection to a type of thing or activity. Because of the habitual nature of symbols and because they can contain many emotional and mental signs, symbols spread and grow constantly. In fact they spread like wild fire in the advertising world and are traded as commodities.

If we now turn attention to the Art House we move into the world of Fine Art where the challenge for Sotheby's, Christie's and Deutscher-Menzies is to ‘find buyers for their six million dollar sales’. We can thus presume that there are many objects to sell. Because the objects are all similar in that they are artworks, an important part of the marketing scheme is to provide a certain status to each of the works so that through differentiation certain artworks are no longer exactly like the rest. Some have higher status than others and the referent system that supplies an ‘objective correlative’ of high status may be ‘price’ or ‘brand name’ (the artist). For example, ‘Chris Deutscher, Executive Director of Deutscher-Menzies, predicts Christie's may have some trouble with their big pictures, such as the Brett Whiteley cover lot of "Arkie Under the Shower" estimated at between $800,000 and $1.2 million’.

In the ABC programmes it appeared that Chris Deutscher himself was worried about selling the big Peter Booth painting he had procured (after numerous phone calls to the owner and many calculations regarding price). Hence, a competitive atmosphere was evident with both Christie’s and Deutscher-Menzies having secured prestige paintings to attract buyers. As noted in the advertising world, it is essential to provide status to the object and this is done through linking another sign as ‘objective correlative’ so that the association of the second sign envelops the object.

With regard to a painting, the object consists of some medium on a surface that is an image of an idea and hence is an icon. Attached to the icon is a signature that focuses attention on a particular object (the artist) and thus is an index and, in joining these two types of sign, a symbol comes into being. Symbols denote kinds of things that we habitually recognize as linked and thus give rise to mental and emotional associations. It is the mental and emotional associations of prospective buyers that must be aroused to achieve a sale.

In the case of the Art House auctions, the three big corporations, Christie’s, Deutscher-Menzies and Sotheby's all had a ‘collection’ to sell and by announcing, discussing and focusing on the ‘prestige’ paintings in the collection, the other works in the collection also assumed some of the prestige through association. A vital way of ensuring that this happens is through the preview system. Thus the preview acts as a complex system of ‘objective correlatives’ so that catalogues, invitations, phone calls, catering and venue all evoke an atmosphere of need, desire, glamour and power. The use of words and phrases such as ‘investment’, blue-chip artists’, ‘strong’, ‘wins’, ‘ecstatic’ and ‘buoyant’ conjure up notions of success and create a context in which social skills become purchasing skills. When referring to clients, Chris Deutscher points out that he needs to be ‘constantly communicating with them to keep them buzzing around you always wanting to know what you've got coming up’.

Much time, effort, emotional capital and money is expended in such an advertising campaign because the particular ‘layout’ happens in situ and hence there is a degree of uncertainty. By this I mean that certain signifiers are live people, some of whom know their particular ‘role’ while others simply assume their ‘roles’ in the preview activities.

For example, as reported in the summary, ‘Damien is busy hanging a selected preview for the Sydney buyers before the paintings are transported to Melbourne for the showing and auction there. He is excited as the preview "is where the penny drops, people see a picture and fall in love"’.   It is hoped that a prospective buyer will make a mental leap because the preview, as an advertisement, sets up the gap between the painting (product) and what it represents to a particular person. Hence a person becomes a willing participant as a subject (signified) in the process of ‘meaning-exchange’ because, in the act of buying, the painting signifies the purchaser as a ‘Whiteley (or Streeton, or Booth) owner’. Such a label carries status in the art world and this status emanates not from an individual subject but from the object purchased.

In the actual television presentation it was telling to watch the way in which the paintings were placed and then rearranged so that the desired gestalt effect ensured that different aspects of paintings, the signifiers, were represented simultaneously while others were to be discovered after the initial emotional response to the first seen paintings acted as a symbolic cue to the way in which the other paintings were then viewed.

When prospective buyers attended the preview, we could see this happen and thus many of these people slipped firstly, into the role of signifiers as they sipped wine, gazed at the objects and gestured responses as though in a glossy magazine advertisement in motion. The juxtaposition of people and paintings produced an on-going layout of signs constantly changing from signifiers to signified while the preview functioned as a transformational field within which a currency of ‘exchange-value’ circulated.

Thus I argue that the traditional status of an artwork is no longer evident and a new alienated function as commodity is determined by the relation of the artwork to the market. But the artwork has another crucial function – as a symbol of the artist and thus conduit for the transference of associated fame/prestige of the artist to the purchaser. Earlier, when talking about advertising and the way in which linkage to an ‘objective correlative’ (appropriated from another referent system) imparts associations to the object, the new sports car in this case, we saw that in the purchase of the new sports car the referent qualities are released through the car to the buyer. Is this not what happens in the art world? Does not the painting become what it represents and is thus made interchangeable with an abstract quality? Are not paintings now used as a type of currency?

It is ironic that many prestige objects such as sports cars, perfumes, designer clothes and so on represent themselves as works of art, while others are presented as a means of turning self into a work of art. Josephson (1966, p.176) highlights our obsession for wrapping ourselves in an ‘art package’ of fashion statements that project our profession and class identity as a stereotypical and easily read object in the mass-media language of form. Yet works of art are now representing themselves as ‘commodity investments’ and have relinquished a claim to once honoured traditions of substitute imagery, illustration, beautification and/or persuasion/conviction.   Social functions such as preserving the notion of something or an important idea; telling stories or recording events; humanizing in the sense of making intelligible or beautifying artifacts; or acting as a vehicle for transmitting social values, ethics and are no longer important. Objects now are personified (as I have represented in the first two sentences) and human beings have to buy back associations, characteristics and values through consuming the commodity-sign. The double irony is that the lost social functions of artworks are now appropriated by other referent systems so that through purchase, ‘you’ can turn self into a work of art; ‘you’ can buy the dream of being something special.

At the beginning of this discussion I introduced the function of the Field Service Post Card spawned by the Great War and in conclusion I return to that object.   I argue that the idea of a piece of paper saying for you what you could not say for yourself has unleashed a virulent breed of ‘other’ that even Hecate, goddess of three faces and three forms that express the ‘abundance of all magical signs’, might have difficulty controlling. Forms, formats and formulas are the very stuff of advertising where a visual language is used to produce a semiotic network of connotation so pervasive that even Fine Art is consumed as commodity.   Even worse, you now just pay to ‘win’ because in less than two minutes, Art consultant Alison Renwick ‘wins’ the Arthur Boyd painting for $120,000 and she is ‘ecstatic’.

In reality an object is an inanimate thing but in our world of commodified appearances, Goldman (1992, p.31), says that ‘the characteristics of acting subjects are attributed to objects, while relations between subjects appear as the relation between objects’. Marketing systems separate the intrinsic qualities of humanity from living people and infuse such qualities into commodity objects. Sadly, few people perceive this situation as unusual or problematic. Many people are eager to purchase ‘mushfake’ meanings as they consume commodities while fascinated and confused by the staging of communication in which they struggle to establish themselves as conscious, autonomous beings while at the same time submissive, obedient and conforming objects. Such is the latest fiction of universality in the art world.

Without awareness of the human predilection to make various things special and without taking the time to read non-linguistic signs in our environment, much of our search for meaning becomes ‘Mushfake’. We think only in signs and, if we want to make our life special and personally meaningful, we need to arm ourselves with the best possible equipment for the loving battle of using imaginative capacity in ways strange and probing. ‘Making do’ is often the slick, easy and half-hearted way of navigating through the congested traffic of signaling systems. It is unfortunate that artistic and non-linguistic signs now occasion more perplexity than ever before owing to the way in which they are traded as commodities rather than treated as intrinsic, biological ways of signing ourselves as special. Such is the next challenge for Arts Education.


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http://www.abc.net.au/tv/guide/netw/200408/highlights/236485.htm http://www.abc.net.au/tv/guide/netw/200408/highlights/237279.htm

Reality Bites: Art House Art For Art's Sake 8:00pm Tuesday, 24 August