The Second World War brought devastation to the world and change the thought, affecting all spheres of life. Carefully optimistic philosophic movements could no longer provide people with answers they sought, and it gradually shifted to skepticism, sarcasm, and deconstruction of everything. New philosophical and art movements began appearing, varying from new iterations of the previous ones, which had “neo” in them, to feminism. The culture of the past was re-evaluated critically, and new art objects were produced, either original or derivative, addressing the predecessors. A new understanding was necessary to clarify the confusion caused by the disaster. This research paper will analyze “The Naked City,” a postwar artwork by Guy Debord, by various postwar concepts, and will draw conclusions about its significance.
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The artwork under consideration, “The Naked City,” was made by Guy Debord, a French philosopher. In order to understand “The Naked City”, it is necessary to focus on the main points of the creator’s philosophy, as the artwork may reflect it. Guy Debord was a Marxist and Letterist, and he was an avid critic of both capitalism and communism (Hemmens 144). Debord criticized the concept of “the spectacle,” which is based on technology and political economics (Jappe 29). As Lettrism was mostly an art movement, the representation of the artwork could have drawn inspiration from it, while Debord’s Marxist leaning could have influenced its concepts. “The Naked City” depicts Paris using pieces of what could be considered a map connected by red arrows. The style is defined by Debord himself as psychogeography, which strives to evoke emotions from the audience by depicting geographical locations in an unusual way. “The Naked City” follows the pattern of psychogeography; however, there is also a significant philosophical element complementing it.
The two techniques of psychogeography include dérive and détournement, which are the concepts coined and defined by Debord. Détournement implies “the subversion of existing forms in order to reveal the potential for change within the present,” and the said subversion is evident in the artwork. Perhaps, “The Naked City” highlights those parts of Paris that Debord considered essential, static, something that should not be changed, while the arrows referred to the negligible and mutable parts of the city (Bunyard 87). Dérive, on the other hand, implied “drifting through the city, following no prior plan other than the whims and desires provoked by the local ambiances” (Bunyard 88). In the case of “The Naked City,” the arrows would serve as such whims, as they are depicted sporadically, fitting the concept. Meanwhile, the static parts of the city would be the local ambiances, the starting points of the journey, the drifting. Thus, the psychogeography techniques can be applied to the artwork, and speculations about the subject matter can be made based on them.
An anti-capitalist reading of “The Naked City” is also possible, being true to Debord’s views and beliefs. Paris is inherently a capitalist city; it accrues money and makes money from such activities as tourism, being home to many historical landmarks and Louvre. They draw tourists from all over the world, including the former French colonies, and enrich an already affluent city. By reducing Paris to only a specific number of spaces, which may not be profitable, Debord removes its capitalist value, but he retains the city’s identity and, perhaps, locality. Paris may no longer be recognizable to the worldwide public, but those who live there still feel familiar with it. Therefore, different kinds of feelings are produced by those who can no longer recognize Paris and feel confused and by those who feel surprised at being able to recognize it. The focus on the feelings, inherited from psychogeography, nullifies the capitalist value of the artwork, makes it more human. It is an important notion to consider, as capitalism is mostly criticized for its lack of “a human face,” and Debord attempts to find that face.
The selected parts of Paris could be random to follow the drifting logic or deliberate to suit the anti-capitalist reading. Some of the parts are general knowledge, for example, the Louvre and the Luxembourg Gardens, while some parts may be known only to the citizens, such as the Rue Mazarine and the Place de L’institut. However, even if someone is a Paris citizen and knows the names of the landmarks, it does not mean that they routinely visit them. Thus, “The Naked City” offers such citizens an opportunity to revisit and rediscover their city, while also offering those who may be unaware of the most depicted points an introduction to Paris. Regardless, the audience is supposed to experience the feeling of drifting, either through a partially known or totally unknown city and avoid subjugating to the capitalist notions criticized by Debord.
While some concepts of “the spectacle” has already been discussed, it is worth reiterating that it criticizes the use of art as making one’s capital. Similar to how the subject matter of “The Naked City” could potentially be anti-capitalism, the artwork itself might bear an anti-capitalism message, as the artist did not intend to make a profit from it. Debord also might have wanted to avoid giving his artwork the same artificial quality for which he criticized media in general, so he chose a map-like representation, as maps are rather realistic. However, there is a difference between the realism genre and being true-to-life. The former can still profit from those ordered a piece or through other means and conceal the reality using various artistic techniques, while a map has a practical use. In other words, Debord might have linked “the spectacle” with the art’s main function to be aesthetically pleasing, and his works are a way to break that convention. However, what the artists intended might have lost its relevance with time.
The artist’s intent is connected with the art’s durability, but not all art retains its original importance or defiance. The intent of “The Naked City” could be anti-capitalist and convention-defying, but, looking at it through the current-day prism, it may not appear that way. Something that might be countercultural at a time would become a cultural artifact later. What is peculiar about “The Naked City” is that it may make one recall mind maps, a common form of representing and organizing information. Although the artwork may seem chaotic, there is still a certain logic behind the chosen pieces, and some mind maps could be equally complex if concepts are shared between different fields. There are also parallels between “The Naked City” and the “Choose Your Adventure” book series, as the artwork offers a choice of how to proceed from one point to another. Lastly, several modern city maps have adopted Debord’s approach and depict city areas in a similar way. Thus, “The Naked City” may have influenced contemporary thought, although the said influence may be used for financial benefit, defeating one of the main intents of the artwork.
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A relevant concept to consider while talking about the loss of Debord’s original intent is the death of the author, suggested by R. Barthes in his essay (142). The concept implies that it is unnecessary to dissect Debord’s biography and his philosophy, which was attempted in the paper, and the focus should be on the actual details of the work. The artist’s background only hinders the analysis of the artwork and implies that there is a definitive interpretation. The death of the author could be the reason “The Naked City” was appropriated to be used in the contexts it originally did not fit, contradicting the artist’s intentions. However, it might be difficult to separate the art from the artist, as Debord’s ideas add extra layers of meaning to the artwork, and to disregard them would be doing a disservice to the piece. Overall, an interpretation based on the death of the author is possible and has been used by the audience, but other interpretations are also valid.
If Debord is removed from the equation that comprises “The Naked City,” the suggested influence of the artwork also suffers. There are no studies that directly link “The Naked City” with the aforementioned modern works of art, although Sadler suggests its influence in the architecture field, Debord himself has an extensive impact (10). It permeates such spheres as philosophy, cinema, and art, which are also intertwined and reflect each other. “The Naked City” is not the only artwork of his that shared the same concepts and intents, as psychogeography as a whole was coined by him, but the depiction of Paris does make it unique. Paris, as aforementioned, is a prime example of a capitalist city, so its role as the subject particularly enhances the artist’s point of view. Therefore, “The Naked City” may have an individual value, while belonging to Debord’s canon, and any attempts to analyze it without his involvement would probably result in focusing on the superficial aspects of the artwork.
In conclusion, “The Naked City” is an appropriate representation of the postwar visual arts, as some of their key concepts manifest themselves in the artwork. “The Naked City” strives to criticize capitalism, both on the perception level and the meta-level, it tries to defy “the spectacle” and seeks feeling rather than monetary gain. However, times change, and what was the definition of anti-capitalism may become its very essence, as some derivatives of the artwork or Debord’s works, in general, are profitable nowadays. The artist might not have desired it, but art is not confined to the artist’s original intent and acquires new qualities depending on who views it. One may experience what the artist intended, and one may see a means to earn money. This contradiction is, perhaps, an inherent element of the postwar visual arts, as it reveals flaws in art creation and perception. Ultimately, the imperfections make art less of “the spectacle” and closer to reality, which correlates with Debord’s philosophical ideas and makes one wonder if some of the artist’s intent remained.
Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Fontana, 1977.
Bunyard, Tom. Debord, Time and Spectacle: Helegian Marxist and Situationist Theory. Brill, 2017.
Hemmens, Alastair. The Critique of Work in Modern French Thought: From Charles Fourier to Guy Debord. Pallgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Jappe, Anselm. Guy Debord. PM Press, 2018.
Sadler, Simon. “The Naked City: Guy Debord and Asger Jorn.” Companion to the History of Architecture, 2017, pp. 1-12.