By Jeremy K. Thompson
I argue in defense of Umberto Eco’s position that a distinction between a work of art and a hyperreal object can be accomplished by categorizing hyperreality as those objects in which the viewer’s subjective understanding of the work’s meaning is mediated through an independent object or idea, as opposed to works of art where meaning is derived directly from the form of the work itself. In Travels in Hyperreality, Eco describes the predominantly American phenomenon of hyperreal forms of visual representation, but fails to make a distinction between how these hyperreal objects are different from canonical works of art that also function as representations of natural or real objects. Eco defines hyperreality as an artificially constructed object or environment that attempts to perfectly imitate an authentic original (i.e. a wax museum or a historical reconstruction). He says, “The aim of the reconstructed Oval Office is to supply a ‘sign’ that will then be forgotten as such: The sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement.” (Eco 1986: 7) However, many artistic media (photography, sculpture, cinema, etc.) are at least partially founded upon some form of replication or imitation of nature which would seem to make their categorization with hyperreality appropriate. Eco suggests throughout the essay that he considers things such as da Vinci’s The Last Supper and even photorealist schools as works of art categorically different from hyperreality (1986: 7), even though he ignores the potential argument that a portrait or stone sculpture could serve the same function as a wax museum figure. I will begin my defense of Eco by examining the differences between a viewer’s subjective experience and interpretation of a work of art and a work of hyperreality.
First, I address the necessary conditions for a material object to be classified as a work of art (at least the conditions that define art within Eco’s framework), so that a richer understanding of what it means for an object to be hyperreal can be developed in counterpoint. Eco describes hyperreality as an imitation that attempts to replace the thing it imitates (or “the absolute fake,” 1986: 8), so we can conclude that his characterization of a work of art would be that, even when it represents some independent object in the real world, art is considered at its core to have real or authentic properties. That is, real art does not depend on the reality of the thing it represents. From Immanuel Kant we understand that the material structure of the object itself is unknowable, and so authenticity is a subjective experience of the viewer (Ginsborg 2008). Because of the vast range of subjective experiences found within different media and historical trends in art, it might be difficult to pinpoint an experience that is common to all of art that gives it the authenticity not found in hyperreality. I will propose that this common experience is that the viewer is able to make a meaningful interpretation upon contact with the work. That is, the viewer understands the work to communicate an idea of some form, and this meaning is seen as intrinsically manifest from the form of the artwork. This meaningful interpretation is a cornerstone of the process of aesthetic judgment (also for Kant, artistic beauty is considered the expression of an aesthetic idea (Ginsborg 2008)), and the ability to make an aesthetic judgment is a necessary condition for a viewer to consider an object as a work of art.
Where hyperreality differs is that the idea is not an intrinsic feature of one’s experience of the object. Because the hyperreal object attempts to replace the original thing for which it is a sign, the viewer sees the hyperreal object itself as a phantom of sorts, perceiving it in reality as an obvious fake, but then denying a conscious interpretation of this “authentic fake”. What is seen in its place is the far-removed referent object, and it is this third party from which the meaningful interpretation is derived. For example, the interpretation of a reproduction of da Vinci’s The Last Supper in a California museum will render the physical object as meaningless for the viewer. If the reproduction is successful, the act of interpretation takes place only on the original work in Milan, for which the hyperreal object imitates the form to stand in as a proxy. Furthermore, this implies that the only measure of judgment the viewer has for the hyperreal object is the degree to which it imitates the originating idea. All other forms of aesthetic evaluation are reflective of the originating idea, and because the existence of this idea is not dependent upon the creation of the artwork, but is supplied externally, the physical form of the hyperreal object has no impact on how the viewer makes the aesthetic judgment. Since the ability to make an evaluative aesthetic judgment is a necessary condition for any form of art, and because the hyperreal objects fail this condition, hyperreal objects cannot be categorized as art.
However, an objection could still be made against Eco’s essay by noting that he also categorizes as hyperreal the fantastical environments of theme parks such as Disneyland, which not only have a deliberate goal of representing an enhanced, “better” version of a real object, but also representing imaginary worlds where no real world counterpart has ever existed. An example of this is the Fantasyland Castle. Although loosely inspired by traditional European castles, the exotic coloration and whimsical details make the building an original work of architecture not entirely unlike the works of Antoni Gaudí. It is this example that is the most problematic for Eco, because there is no third-party concrete object that mediates the interpretation of meaning between the subject and object; the Fantasyland Castle is not experienced anywhere else on earth except as it is found in Disneyland. The concept of a building that is simultaneously hyperreal and fantastical would be logically incoherent, as fantasy by definition can only exist in the ideal realm and imitates nothing real. While the parts of Disneyland that represent some other real place or time in the world belong in Eco’s critique of hyperreality, he was incorrect to include the elements of purely whimsical fantasy without qualification.
My reply to this is that the fantastical hyperreality of Disneyland is possible, and imaginative structures such as the Fantasyland Castle cannot be categorized as works of art. Eco briefly hints at a solution when he states that within Disney’s magic enclosure is “fantasy that is absolutely reproduced.” (1986: 43) Although he describes hyperreality primarily in terms of the imitation of concrete things, here he suggests that he also would consider the imitation of ideas hyperreality. The defining characteristic of what makes a hyperreal object as such is that the viewer has an inauthentic subjective relationship with the object, consciously denying the real existence of the object’s material construction, and experiencing a meaningful interpretation that is supplied from a third-party source independent of subject and object. In the case of the Fantasyland Castle, the viewers will recognize the object for how they perceive it to really be; i.e, it was made of polystyrene 50 years ago, built by Floridian contractors, and its goal is to imitate the idea of a perfect fantasy castle. However, Disney sets the context of these objects by telling viewers that what they are witnessing is not the representation of fantasy (this experience would be authentic and akin to the experience of many works of art and architecture) but is a manifestation of authentic fantasy itself. Therefore the viewer’s experience of the object is that it was made with Byzantine stone 500 years ago, built by All the King’s Men, and has the purpose of housing Sleeping Beauty. The meaningful interpretation is once again independent from the object itself, the idea of fantasy pre-supplied by Disney through the external context of movies, advertising, and so on. The judgment that the viewer can make is limited to how well the ideal of fantasy is imitated by the castle, not how the idea of fantasy is manifest in the castle’s visual form. Eco’s critique of hyperreality remains sound and is separate from the domain of artwork.
Eco, Umberto. 1986. Travels in Hyperreality. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Google Books. Web.
Ginsborg, Hannah. 2008. “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.