Detroit is Baroque: Ruins, Pornography, Kitsch, Pedagogy

by on Apr.03, 2014

This past weekend I went to Detroit to give a reading at the Salt and Cedar press, and it got me to thinking about “ruin porn” again, a pet topic of mine. As probably all of you know, “ruin porn” is the phrase used to condemn beautiful photographs of the ruins of Detroit (though I’ve also seen it on a local level, photographs of the ruins of South Bend at the local museum interestingly):


For example, I found this quote in a Huffington Post article summarizing this discussion: “Some have expressed frustration at the way decline is glamorized or exploited — it’s called ruin porn for a reason — rather than seen as part of the city’s larger ills.”

Glamor is a kind of exploitation because it is so purely aesthetic; it does not pay enough attention to context. And this comes up over and over in these discussions: these photos aestheticize or fetishize or glamorize the ruins. The key point is of course: they make art out of ruins.

The alternative would be to write a book detailing the context and history of Detroit and that’s interesting too, but it’s another kind of art. Or even better, I suppose: do some kind of activist work to help restore Detroit to its glory. The key is: you can do these too. But it’s strange to ask a photograph to do that kid of work. And maybe: This anti-porn critique asks “context” to be stable, asks art to be in a stable relation to a stable context.

What interests me about the anti-porn rhetoric is that there is something pathological, pornographgic, about art itself. The image is pornographic. Maybe not in a similar sense to the material on A Tube, for example, but nonetheless, it is pornographic in its own way. The deformation zone of art is seen as ruining context, when it fact it makes a zone out of it.

This takes me back to a post I wrote a couple of weeks about on Ranciere:

In one section he gives a kind of historical background to this kind of thinking, a background that links the “too much” criticism to the “society of spectacle” rhetoric, and links them both to a very old-fashioned form of elitism. He find the root of both of these rhetorical tropes in the second half of the 19th century – with science’s discovery that the brain worked by nervous stiumuli, not through a soul, and also with the simultaneous proliferation of mass produced images.

In the critique of “ruin porn,” there’s an urge for pedagogical art, for a rejection of visual pleasure, for an ethical condemnation of the visual and the way such art both mediates and absorbs.

I think of Detroit professor Steven Shaviro’s book The Cinematic Body, which is about “The delirious excesses of postmodern vision, the excitement and passivity of spectatorship, the frenzy and fragility of images”. In that book, Shaviro criticizes the pedagogical urge to critique etc: “It is high time we rid ourselves of the notion that we can somehow free ourselves from illusion (or from ideology) by recognizing and theorizing our own entrapment within it.”

Of course I think about kitsch. And about Daniel Tiffany’s observation that kitsch is about “excessive beauty.” Too much beauty, not enough learning, not enough taste.

Saul Friedlander on the kitsch-Nazi connection:

“Here is the essence of the frisson: an overload of symbols; a baroque setting; an evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, of the myth and of religiosity enveloping a vision of death announced as a revelation opening out into nothing – nothing but frightfulness and the night. Unless… Unless the revelation is that of a mysterious force leading man toward irresistible destruction.”

Is this describing “ruin porn”? Both “ruin porn” and Friedlander’s “kitsch” are ways of condemning intensively visual, intensively atmospheric art, art that isn’t pedagogically situated.

But things might be more complex… The morning after the reading, Matvei took us to see DABL’s “African Bead Gallery”:


Taking up a few blocks in a literally ruined part of the city, DABL has been picking up glass and nails and turned abandoned buildings into literally works of art: a kind of reverse-ruin porn!

To further complicate my easy binaries, it is full of pedagogical situation or scenes. This one has the name “Iron Teaching Stone how to Rust”:


1 comment for this entry:
  1. JHN

    Ruin-porn at its finest:

    A few weeks ago, The New Yorker blog had a rich article about the deterioration of American malls–which was interesting. But BuzzFeed is made for gorging.