The curious problem of the relationship between Sanjaya Malakar, Marc Newson and Marcel Duchamp.
“Vainglory,” an anachronistic term meaning an unjustified and excessive pride in one’s own achievements or abilities is one of the primary forces animating and shaping contemporary culture. The phenomena that is American Idol
owes its considerable popularity both to its role in discovering legitimate, almost freakishly superhuman singing skill, but also as a window into contemporary culture’s vainglorious soul. From William Hung to Sanjaya Malakar, to the multitudes of nearly nameless aspiring Beyoncé imitators, American Idol
draws a large measure of power from the vainglorious displays of the painfully talentless. A critical component of the show’s success resides in early rounds marked by limitless displays of stupefying arrogance by countless untrained, unskilled and unaware contestants. Like throwing Christians before lions, the deliciously evil pleasure of reveling in another’s misery may temporarily slake the thirst of the populace, but it’s also a horrifying look behind the veil at the monstrous face of Mediocrity itself. Sid Vicious and Sanjaya Malakar Vainglory is the symptom, mediocrity the disease.
Whereas historically, bravado has been the parasitic twin of bell curve-busting skill, American Idol
provides a clear view of an historical value inversion. We now find ourselves living in a culture that has so thoroughly jettisoned any concern for craft (more accurately “Techné”) that the display of bravado comes before, and in spite of, the act of mastery. The issue is at best inconsequential if we’re concerned only with the condition of pop music in 2011. But we’re not. American Idol
is an exceedingly easy target serving a rhetorical end, and as such it is a powerful display of our social mores.
The conversation becomes exponentially more difficult, but no less horrifying, when we broaden the cultural terrain to include the role of Techné in (nearly) all aspects of culture today. By drawing a line from Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades
(1915) to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes
(1964), then Gabriel Orozco’s Empty Shoebox
(1993) to Rachel Harrisons’ Huffy Howler
(2004), we find what began as a radical counter-cultural concern for the conceptual (in opposition to the technical) has shifted over time from a vanguard oppositional position, into farcical status quo
. We also find the institutionalization of critique supplant the real thing — genuine opposition. We could find a similar tectonic shift at work by tracing a line from Hugo Ball and the Cabaret Voltaire to the Sex Pistols, through Sum 41 and on to Sanjaya Malakar.