[Week6] The Weak vs. the Strong

de Certeau’s chapter was a rather deep and intense piece to read. I found his definition of strategy vs. tactics very illuminating, as it differs a lot from how I would normally perceive the two. In particular, de Certeau emphasizes how the weak can win over the strong through tactical practices and this reminds me of historical instances in which marginal culture (“the weak”) penetrated societies and managed to take some power away from the elites (“the strong”).

The rise of pop art against traditional elite culture in the 1950s seems a good example. Traditional fine art was the most powerful at the beginning, as elite artists and critics held the belief that art is superior to life and should not be easily comprehended by a layman. To them, real art lasts, and it often takes time for great art to reveal its value. Adhering to this set of values, the elites dominated the art space and were able to strategically control what appears in the art scene. They had the power to include only those that fit their values within the scope of mainstream art.

On the other hand, pop art emerged along with modern technologies and consumerism, and quickly gained its popularity among the mass. It more easily produced resonance with the public, since the objects it used were derived directly from contemporary life, often already familiar to both the artist and consumer. Compared with the delicate, alienated classical paintings that are hundreds of years old and still being studied by elites today, pop art was a “short-term solution” designed for the present; and for complex and recondite images that are only understandable by educated elites, pop art substituted them with easy, proverbial iconographies so that one needs little knowledge to both access and appreciate them. As a consequence, it was accepted and recognized readily; artists no longer had to wait for decades for the public to notice their works. The rapid development of new technologies (photography, digital recording, etc.) and a consumer-based culture (involving mass consumption and mass media) significantly fostered this new art form and, in this sense, they could be seen as some of the “opportunities” that pop art tactically seized so that even though its power was very weak and it did not have a seat in the art space at the beginning, pop art eventually gained its significance and made its way to victory over the elites. To use de Certeau’s terms again, this reflects a “tactic mobility” in pop art as it took advantage of the opportunities and penetrated the cracks between art and real life, between elites and laymen, and between aesthetic importance and commercial value.

(Yet upon second thought, I am not sure whether pop art – or other cultural movements – should really be considered a result from tactics… de Certeau says a tactic accepts “the chance offerings of the moment” and creates unexpected outcomes. But for pop art, one might argue that it is not a product of chances, but bound to emerge when a society is characterized by mass production/consumption, enormous wealth and with no war or depression. In a more general sense, it seems plausible to believe that many movements in history did not happen by chance, but were unavoidable given those economical/political circumstances. There are many stories of “victories of the weak over the strong”; how could we know which of these victories were gained by employing tactics, and which were simply a natural consequence that is perhaps inevitable? )