The Work of Art in the Age of Duff McKagan

I’m a self-confessed addict. No worse sillier(?) addictions are there for me than the two men referenced in the title of this ramble: Duff McKagan and Walter Benjamin.

The chance to wax ecstatic about both is this junkie’s dream, man. Seriously.

See, I have a collection of video clips on my cinema course website called “Things to Do With Video Cameras,” most of which are snippets from Youtube of folks playing Rockband, recording themselves while drunk (thank you Duff–Big Dogs!), and creating instructional videos on raising cats. I’ve been meaning to blog on the youtube/Benjamin things for some time now (oh, since my dissertation was finished in 2006, I think), but I couldn’t pass the chance up today, when Duff delivered up a slice of morning silliness.

I put the clip collection up in order to show my darling students one example of what Benjamin might have been getting at in the “Work of Art” essay. If we accept that the information sharing capabilities of the Internet are indeed for everyone (and there is plenty of evidence that this is not the case at all), then Youtube is a logical end of Benjamin’s ideas; theoretically, all of us have ready access to the machinery of production (video cameras) and machinery of distribution (Youtube and the like). Youtube is an ideal space, one without the controls created by a capitalist machine such as Hollywood, that tends to isolate art and attempts to preserve a false aura (including in how we view the stars themselves) in a medium (film) that is, according to Benjamin, devoid of aura because there is no “original.” Benjamin remarks that (thinking, no doubt, of Riefenstahl here) that “the violation of the masses, whom Fascism with its Fuehrer cult, forces to it’s knees, has it counterpart in the violation of of an apparatus [film] which is pressed into the production of ritual values” (241). Film, as a mechanically reproduced medium, lacks aura, which contains within it all the “ritual values” Benjamin worries over, as they are often used to control the masses. He earlier remarks that a “…the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances, the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest if the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations” (232). These spectacles (think of the lighted sign under Hitler in Triumph des Willens) are intended to produce a false ritual value. And it works, which is why Triumph is so freaking frightening. If, instead, the masses control the property (in this case film production property and, presumably, the distribution as well), then the “absent-minded” masses cannot be lulled into a false sense that their needs and wishes are being expressed, rather than controlled.

Youtube suggests that the masses are now in control of both production and distribution. What this says about us may be a bit more frightening.

Ignore for a moment that Duff McKagan is hardly an example of the masses that Benjamin writes about, though I would argue that he saw himself in that light during the GNR days, when he steadfastly held to the belief that he really was blue collar. Mick Wall (why do I keep turning to that godforsaken interview??) quotes our hero as remarking in 1990 that “I’m just a normal guy, man…” (92). This after handing his fellow inebriate a $100 bill, because it’s all he had in his wallet. He seems to have, largely, left this particular pretension behind.*

So, the example that provided the fodder for this morning’s ramble. Loaded, Duff’s band, posted the next video web thingy (can’t think of what they called it right now–oh, webisode); they are currently recording their second album and are periodically posting snippets for the pleasure of, and no doubt adoration from, their fans. Included in Webisode #2 is, oddly, a grocery store shopping adventure with Jeff and Duff. The clip is below for the curious; note the overweening presence of technology, including the occasionally mentioned Blackberry (Duff is wearing glasses this time, so we can all feel a bit safer about him using it):

I am not getting into whether or not this constitutes art. Forget it. It’s Duff, so just work with me.

So, the masses (band and fans) have access that was once previously denied to them; the band can self promote and the fans can enjoy at leisure. No waiting until the record comes out to hear the tunes–fans get to play along. No evil record company jealously guarding and “reframing” the truth in order to protect the “image” (aura) of the band. Consider GNR (of course)–Geffen promoted them as dangerous, unstable, drug and alcohol fiends. It was a realistic schtick, but schtick nonetheless (one that the band had already exploited in their own promotions). The schtick worked too.

Aaaand, the webisode erodes the aura of the “rockstar.” Fans are RIGHT THERE! Jeff and Duff are shooting themselves in a grocery store; can’t get much more “everyday” than that, right? Except it too is an illusion (fuck). Would I watch the everyman in the grocery store? Probably not. Would I watch Duff? Duh.

My silly Duff example aside, I do think that Youtube provides interesting fodder for the Benjaminians of the world. What happens when the masses have the machinery at their disposal? What will they do with it?

  • Record themselves beating up other people?
  • Record their band fantasies (ala the Rockband videos)?
  • Produce new art from a montage of old such as in the infamous “Brokeback Squadron” or this “Lord of the Flies” bit or any of the fan made Duff videos?

What do we value in all of these postings? The art? The people? The notoriety? The comments? We have the access and control over the production and distribution. Now what?

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schoken, 1968.

Wall, Mick. Guns N’ Roses: The Most Dangerous Band in the World. New York: Hyperion, 1992.

*On further reflection, the fact that he’s recording himself in the most “normal” of places–the grocery store–may belie my comment. Maybe he’s just repackaging the normal bit. With Chocolate-covered kettle corn, you know?

One response to “The Work of Art in the Age of Duff McKagan

  1. karen-the-great

    “…a delightfully engaging mix intellectual drama and down-home silliness…a masterpiece…thrilling…enchanting…two thumbs way, way up!”

    Thinking about YouTube RockBand Videos: humans recording themselves attempting to simulate the console game arrangement of a recorded version of a studio recording (and if you consider how bands usually record – often each instrument/musician in multiple, separate takes) of a band playing a song.

    What degree is that?! Boggled.

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