In Caspar David Friedrich‘s “Frau vor untergehender Sonne” (“Woman before the Setting Sun”), a young woman is depicted facing the setting sun, which turns her almost completely, but not entirely, into a silhouette. Her arms are slightly raised, in awe of the grandeur of the moment, as the sunrise illuminates the sublime landscape before her.
A contemporary equivalent of such a Romantic moment is provided by Plate 61 of Tor Seidel‘s photography book The Dubai (Hatje Cantz, 2014). Like Friedrich’s painting, the photograph shows a woman contemplating what is in front of her, her back facing the viewer, though, in the almost 200 years that separate Friedrich and Seidel, many things have changed.
Seidel’s woman wears a bikini, and she is standing motionless in a swimming pool. Her long hair falls over her shoulders, and only one arm, the right one, is raised, mirroring Friedrich’s woman, but it is lifted to hold on to the pool’s handrail. The scene in front of this modern woman is quite different as well. There is no sunrise to be admired. What natural landscape there might be is covered in haze, and the only things to be in awe of are three spick-and-span skyscrapers. From the camera’s perspective, the viewer must conclude that the pool is located on top of a fourth tower.
Today’s Romantic movement, in the form of The Dubai, is brought to the viewer courtesy of Deutsche Bank Dubai, Waagner Biro Stahlbau AG (an Austrian steel construction company), and Alexander Brexendorff (a Middle East business and legal consultant), as the credits at the end of the book make clear.
The awe of being in the presence of something bigger, out of humanity’s controls, has been replaced with the awe of being in the presence of something bigger that is very much controlled by humans, in whatever direct or indirect way.
Seidel’s photographs present this new Romanticism to us, photograph after photograph after photograph. His Romantic female observer reappears several times, always depicted from the back, always wearing form-fitting Western clothes (it’s not always the same woman, even though there appears to be some repetition: see Plates 19, 26, 50, 61, 63, 66, and 70). When other people appear, they are dwarfed by the buildings around them, and they’re mostly anonymous, hard to make out. The only people prominently featured are in depictions of advertising.
The Dubai does not appear to be serving as an indictment of the culture it depicts. Its goal is not as lofty as that of the Romantics. Rather, it seems to be a celebration of affluence. Call this Capitalist Realism, contemporary capitalism’s equivalent of Socialist Realism. These days, it is photographers, not painters or sculptors, who are at the forefront of Capitalist Realism. They can do what needs to be done, show what needs to be shown, in a much more convincing, much more awe-inspiring way.
The photographs in The Dubai fit into the contemporary tradition laid out by the likes of Andreas Gursky, Peter Bialobrzeski, or Robert Polidori. Much like Socialist Realism, which set out to celebrate the successes of collectivism, which served a tiny fraction of the population, certainly not the masses, Capitalist Realism celebrates the beauty of an economic system that relies on a brutish, brutal political foundation that ultimately benefits the select few, while leaving out the rest.
The crucial difference between Socialist Realism and Capitalist Realism is that while the former explicitly relied on workers as tokens of the power of its underlying ideology, the latter relies on something that only manifests itself indirectly: money. Hence the apparent emptiness of photographs by Gursky, Bialobrzeski, Polidori, et al. People are either entirely absent, or they’re reduced to countless tiny, anonymous entities. People have become redundant, literally and figuratively. It’s only capital (money) that matters.
In other words, those who question why there are often no people present in large swaths of contemporary photography miss the point: what matters is what’s there. What doesn’t matter is absent. Photographic Capitalist Realism faithfully and honestly describes the system we live in.
Given that capitalism does not need an underlying democracy — as China has demonstrated so forcefully — Capitalist Realism can be practiced almost anywhere capitalism rules.
Thus The Dubai celebrates the city for what it is and what it stands for, the purest symbol of an economic system, traces of which can be found all over the world. To expect anything different, say, photos of the city’s countless foreign workers, would be akin to expecting to see overcrowded communal housing in Socialist Realism.
Capitalist Realism has two sides, which seemingly — on a surface level — operate against each other, but that in reality pursue the same goal. A good example of the countervailing side is provided by Nadav Kander‘s Dust (Hatje Cantz, 2014), which features photographs of the former Soviet Union with a focus on a nuclear test site and a formerly closed city (plus a few images of the ecological Aral Sea disaster area).
Much like the photography in The Dubai, the images in Dust are highly stylized. Here, however, we are looking at present-day wastelands, as opposed to Dubai’s future ruins — to use a term from Einstürzende Neubauten‘s Die Befindlichkeit des Landes (“die neuen Tempel haben schon Risse / künftige Ruinen / einst wächst Gras auch über diese Stadt / über ihrer letzten Schicht,” or “the new temples show cracks already / future ruins / some day, grass will also grow over this city / over its most recent layers” [my translation]).
The net effect is that while the photographs in Dust are aesthetically pleasing, they also skirt the edges of coming across as calculated and a bit more polite than the subject matter might warrant. But the same could be said about Seidel’s work, the only difference being that the Dubai photographs look like high-gloss brochures for capitalism’s empty promises. In both cases, a focus on the aesthetic itself misses the works’ ultimate aim.
Kander invites us to be in awe of the failure of a system that seems to be a mirror image of our own. It is true that we have our own nuclear testing grounds and off-limit territories (explored in rather different and altogether much more political ways by artists like Trevor Paglen), but those restrictions exist to, as it is said, protect us, and we’re careful enough to realize the difference between the two kinds of forbidden zones.
Capitalist Realism has implicitly embraced the underlying economic credo: what isn’t fit to survive must perish or be disrupted (to use the term du jour), so that from its ruins new things can rise, albeit not necessarily in the same locations (or the same wallets).
What has been termed “ruin porn” is an essential part of Capitalist Realism, just as the depictions of ruins were part of 19th century Romanticism. I suspect that much of the resistance to “ruin porn” derives from the realization that there really is no critical distance in Capitalist Realism between circumstances and their causes (for more on “ruin porn” read John Patrick Leary on its relation to the city of Detroit; also noteworthy is Jamie Rann’s examination of our fascination with Soviet ruins).
Seen this way, the resistance to “ruin porn” is a resistance to Capitalist Realism and, by extension, our current capitalist system itself. The Capitalist Realism that focuses on the detritus of what’s been buried — literally and/or figuratively — confronts us with what we have come to detest in a system we cannot escape, given that we are willing participants (who, for the most part, are still doing quite well, thank you).
The Guardian‘s photography critic Sean O’Hagan wrote that the photographs in Dust “possess a hyper-real aspect that to me makes them seem oddly unreal.” This is exactly Capitalist Realism’s form of the sublime, realized in part through photographic technique. There is indeed “the lingering sense that something human has been lost in all the digitized grandeur, in this utterly faithful reproduction of the natural and the man-made” (O’Hagan again), but what was lost was lost long before the photographer went there. The “digitized grandeur” is merely a tool, much like Friedrich’s paint strokes on a canvas.
In other words, we are far removed from Nature, including our own nature. But we have lived this way for a long time. In fact, acceptance of this reality is an absolutely necessary part of this system we live in. The photographers amplifying this removal even more, using whatever tools are at their disposal, bring it into clearer focus: after all, the very photographs themselves are a part of the system they intend to glorify or criticize (or both, or neither: some photographers are unwilling to take a stance). The photographs are being sold for vast amounts of money to a very select group of wealthy collectors. And the books, as beautiful and haunting as they are, also are part of a similar system, albeit one that includes a few more people.
The genius of the system we find ourselves in is that there is no real way out — or rather, none of the possible ways out have led anywhere, given that we will protest only so long before the weather gets too shitty. Criticism is ultimately as complicit as glorification.
Photographic Capitalist Realism makes this point very clearly. Putting this world into sharp focus (literally and figuratively), with its grandeur and its failings, often (always?) means playing by the very same rules that have made its very grandeur and failings possible.