Polka Dots and Post-industrial Humanity: On Yayoi Kusama and our Dotted World
30 April 2023
From the exhibition in Israel, Yayoi Kusama, 2022; Image Credit: Wikimedia
In an exemplary fashion the dotted works of Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, speak to us about the miniaturization and turn towards miniscule units that govern our increasingly programmed and coded world. Using her works as an artistic example and visualization, it is the purpose of this article to show how the dissolution of previous lines of thinking into points, bits and dots threatens our human capacity for reasoning and ability to question the world. The machine-like, programmatic style adopted by Kusama not only mirrors the way in which our computers work but also points to the limitations of human choices and human engagement as our reality becomes increasingly programmed beyond the borders of human perception.
In the beginning of his essay, “Our Dread”, Brazilian philosopher and media theorist, Vilém Flusser, gives the following description of our age: “Our situation is on a level of stupidity as never seen before. Idiotic objects surround us: plastic pens, electric toothbrushes, illustrated magazines, poster adverts, etc… This fact is not surprising. Apparatus, which have been defined as ´super-fast idiots´, have codified our world – thus nothing is more terrible than stupidity. Nothing deserves to be dreaded more.” (1) As a recent addition to Flusser´s list of idiotic objects one may add a product that has been the subject of much attention in the fashion industry in 2023: the polka dotted purses and polka dotted luxury bags that are the outcome of the joint efforts of celebrity artist, Yayoi Kusama, and the fashion giant Louis Vuitton. Together, the artist and the fashion company have launched a product that may be described as supremely idiotic – a product that hence demands our attention and possibly even, as Flusser suggests, our dread. The rise to stardom of Kusama, the Japanese princess of polka dots, and the success of everything to which she adds her famous dots, documents our idiotic situation: enchanted and hypnotized by dots – whether in the analogue form of paint or in the digital form of bits in our computers – we find the lines of thought that used to structure our perceptions and ideas broken down into miniscule points. The success story of Kusama and Louis Vuitton is therefore more than a simple story about art and fashion – it is also a postmodern and post-industrial tale: it tells us about the fragmentation and miniaturization that has conquered our aesthetic as well as epistemological and technical fields. It tells us about the power of the dot and about our codified world in which miniature units rule supreme.
When Kusama in the 40s and 50s started to break pictures and representations down into dots, she was doing artistically what scientists and engineers were simultaneously doing on early computers. During the 40s the engineer Claude Shannon had pathed the way for a new understanding of information and the possibility of breaking all kinds of information down into simple yes/no choices. (2) Computer bits and Kusama´s dots were thus born roughly at the same time: the one on canvases and inscribed in an aesthetic and sensuous world of art, the other on hard disk drives and beyond the reach of human perception. Above and below the level of perception the traditional lines of painting and the lines of language and information were suffering similar blows: miniscule units – dots and bits – were supplanting the old regime of linear information. Tellingly Kusama titled her early works Infinity Nets and explained her fascination with dots in the following way: “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.” (3) Computer scientists were aiming equally high and they too were creating their own nets of codes and digits that were to be cast over all communication, turning all information into a limitless stream of data. As Shannon had quickly realized: simple yes/no choices could render everything digital. What mattered was not the content of a message – only the amount of information and hence the number of digits required to encode it. From a strictly mathematical point of view, what was being communicated was of no consequence. (4) Shannon thus opened the gates to not only an endless but also a fundamentally meaningless stream of communication – a stream that Kusama in her own way seemed to match with her endless repetition of dots as if she too were working like a computer program or an algorithm, repeating the same operation whatever the context, material support or situation. Only one choice seemed to govern her Infinity Nets: dot or no dot, paint or no paint.
The question of meaning appeared as insignificant to her artistically as it was to Shannon mathematically. What the individual painting communicated was nothing more or less than what her previous painting in the endless row of dotted works had expressed. If something was caught in her Infinity Nets, it was no longer of an individual and irreplaceable nature but infinitely repeatable and replaceable: the result of a function more than a gesture, the outcome of a serial operation more than a singular, artistic inspiration. If Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists appeared equally repetitious and equally unconcerned with questions of both meaning and figuration, their philosophy was, however, significantly different: the element of chance and spontaneity that reached an almost spiritual dimension in the works of Pollock was completely abandoned by Kusama. In her work nothing is left to chance. Not because she, as the artist, is in absolute control, but because the program she follows is controlling her every move. Hence both the brilliance and the stupidity of her work – or better yet: the stupidity that is her brilliance. By turning art idiotically repetitious and numbingly redundant she stands out as the only artist of her generation – perhaps with the exception of Andy Warhol – in having understood and correctly “decoded” the Zeitgeist and the true cultural impact of the technological and communicational developments of our age: how the program with its fine-meshed net of miniscule choices and operations is the net in which the entirety of our culture is entangled and caught up – thus truly an Infinity Net since nothing is beyond its reach and calculations.
In describing the nets of bits and data today structuring our culture Vilém Flusser writes in Post-History:
Mini-models, as information, are of extreme elasticity… Everything falls into the models´ net and cannot escape it. Its tiny meshes, the ´bits´, catch everything… Just like Gulliver, post-industrial humanity is caught by the Lilliputian net, however, given the elasticity of the net, humanity is not aware of that. It feels itself ´freed´ from the violations of industrial models. In such a situation man is effectively worthless: he does not even wish to free himself. He feels good as a slave. (5)
And Flusser continues:
Ideal models were values. When the Industrial Revolution transformed ideal models into forms, it provoked the ´crisis of values´. The counter-revolution of ´chips´ overcame the crisis of values. Once it transformed the models of forms into information, it turned them imperceptible. Values disappeared from humanity´s field of vision… Thus, the shrinkage of models is dehumanizing. It devalues life. Life within a miniaturized context is absurd. (6)
In continuation of Flusser´s analysis one may wonder if Kusama with her own “mini-models”, with her surrender to the simple operations of her own “Lilliputian nets”, does not herself, as Flusser puts it, feel “good as a slave”? Her mental diseases, her OCD taken into account one feels compelled to ask if her nets are not the gifts of a happy enslavement that only her programmed and compulsive practice can bring? But, more importantly, the general and generalizing shrinking and miniaturization of values as described above seems to be precisely what Kusama with her endless, miniscule dots not only hints at but renders both palpable and visible in her own unique way. By remaining firmly within the field of vision, within the borders of human perception, she appears to make the very imperceptibility and disappearance of all prior models perceptible. Her works are, in other words, the visualization and appearance of this very disappearance.
They make our post-industrial devaluations and dehumanization visible. They never stop testifying to the absurdity that is life within a miniaturized context. They are, as she herself has explained, a way to self-obliteration – a way to the dissolution and final disappearance of everything human. (7) Hence also the strange and powerful effect of her works: standing in front of her Infinity Nets one is confronted with the human devaluation and disappearance that is ours. By going beyond the human, by entering into endless spaces of dotted absurdity, her works speak an uncomfortable truth – the truth that is the absurdity of our digitalized, post-industrial existence. Hence also her work´s broad appeal and strange ability to fascinate and captivate its audiences. As Delphine Arnault, Louis Vuitton´s executive vice president, has recently described Kusama´s art: “It´s a very inclusive art. It speaks to everyone – it can speak to a child; it can speak to an intellectual. It´s not too hard to understand, although it´s very complex.” (8) Kusama´s art is not too hard to understand, we may add, because there is, strictly speaking, nothing to understand. The dots communicate the same meaninglessness, the same nothing to the child as to the intellectual. And this nothing is also, as Arnault rightly suggests, “very complex”: it is complex because it is the nothing of a new order and the absurdity of a new regime which renders all previous values obsolete. It is, in other words, the absurdity and imbecility of a culture governed by super-fast idiots – an imbecility that obliterates the difference between the child and the intellectual, rendering both equally helpless and idiotic. Where all lines are broken down – whether these are the lines of thinking, the lines of reading and writing or the lines of history and tradition – and where all models and values have become imperceptibly miniscule, there is nothing left for the intellectual to hang on to; nothing to separate her from the unknowing child. She floats in a polka dotted world of bits and data with nothing to ground her thoughts and opinions on. Any traditional concepts of understanding and knowledge are rendered nil.
In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Jean-François Lyotard makes the following observation:
It is only in the context of the grand narratives of legitimation – the life of the spirit and/or the emancipation of humanity – that the partial replacement of teachers by machines may seem inadequate or even intolerable. But it is probable that these narratives are already no longer the principal driving force behind interest in acquiring knowledge… The question… now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer ´Is it true?´ but ´What use is it?´ In the context of the mercantilization of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: ´Is it saleable?´ And in the context of power-growth: ´Is it efficient?´ Having competence in a performance-oriented skill does indeed seem saleable in the conditions described above, and it is efficient by definition. What no longer makes the grade is competence as defined by other criteria true/false, just/unjust, etc. – and, of course, low performativity in general. (9)
Whereas the grand narratives of human emancipation and the life of the spirit secured and guaranteed knowledge as an end in itself, the dissolution of these narratives have forced knowledge to find its value outside itself: in questions of profits and efficiency. What Lyotard already hints at is the fact that under these new conditions, knowledge and knowledge-acquisition must necessarily turn programmatic and computational since only computers can guarantee the productivity and efficiency now called for. With the old questions of true versus false, just versus unjust, rendered obsolete, data and data-processing emerge as the form this new knowledge must necessarily take. It is therefore an inhuman knowledge that characterizes our postmodern condition – it is a knowledge that may very well remain profitable to humans but that is no longer attainable by humans. We find ourselves limited to interfaces, keypads, and touchscreens, thoroughly and irreversibly removed from the programs and algorithms operating beyond the borders of our human perception. In Flusser´s terminology this turn of knowledge towards the inhuman is synonymous with the rise of a new world of “techno-images” (10) – computerized images that are turning our old world of linear discourse into zero-dimensional codes. The one-dimensionality of linear writing – on which our ideas of progress and history are based – is annihilated as techno-images take over the stage. In the words of Flusser:
The codified world in which we live no longer signifies processes, or becoming. It does not tell any stories, and living in this world does not mean acting. The fact that it does not mean this any longer is called a ´crisis of values´; for we are still generally programmed by texts, and thus for history, for science, for a political program, for ´art´. We ´read´ the world, for example, as logical and mathematical. But the new generation, which is programmed by techno-images, does not share our ´values´. And we still do not know for what meaning the techno-images that surround us are being programmed. (11)
If we use Lyotard to answer Flusser´s last question, we may say, that we do in fact know for what meaning the techno-images around us are being programmed: for efficiency and for profit. The mercantilization of knowledge as described by Lyotard must necessarily find its “meaning” in quantifiable and profitable outcomes. But as both authors agree, this is no longer a world of humanistic values and this is no longer a world to be “read”. The crisis of values and the transformation of knowledge are two sides of the same thing. To this somber picture we may add that this is also no longer a world to be criticized. If critique, at least since Kant, has meant to distinguish and delineate – to draw lines between what is knowable and what is not – this capacity must necessarily vanish as knowledge-acquisition and any traditional “reading” of the world is becoming computerized and digitalized. The turn from linearity to techno-images, from one-dimensionality to zero-dimensionality, is therefore necessarily a turn that takes place without resistance since the tools to resist are formulated in an obsolete language and produced in efficient and unprofitable ways – or to put it in another way: a critique worthy of its old name must be a critique that still believes in the fundamental difference between the value of the thoughts and opinions of an intellectual and the value of the thoughts and opinions of a child – something that, as Delphine Arnault and our contemporary culture in more general ways teaches us, is no longer the case.
What we are left with is only the possibility of making critical points – pointing something out, pointing towards something, pointing in this or that direction. The time of a linear, systematic and systematizing critique à la Kant´s is over. Hence the pointed character of most contemporary critique: the pinpricks that are no longer sustained by neither a system nor a tradition and that can only make tiny and quickly forgettable specks and holes in our societal and cultural fabric. Without lines to substantiate the critique the attempt to offer any larger, critical perspectives is rendered impossible – or left to the few intellectuals who have not yet fully realized their own obsoleteness and suffer from masochistic tendencies to keep thinking and writing anyhow.
Returning to the works of Kusama, we find that they with great precision exemplify the changes of knowledge as described by Lyotard and Flusser. To Lyotard´s questions: “Is it saleable? Is it efficient?” – the answer in both cases must be an unhesitant “yes”. Not only are Kusama´s works extremely profitable but they are also produced at great speed, with great regularity and with low costs. Or to quote Lyotard: “Having competence in a performance-oriented skill does indeed seem saleable… and it is efficient by definition”. (12) Kusama´s dots are, we may thus say, “efficient by definition” and her performance-oriented skills are unquestionable. The princess of polka dots has therefore emerged as the princess of the entire contemporary art world for good reasons. And the all-inclusive, all-embracing fascination with her work, as described by Arnault – her work´s ability to address and enchant children and intellectuals equally – might serve as a clear indicator of the loss of any critical perspectives and any critical judgements that the recent transformation of knowledge has produced. Without any lines to guide us, without any old-fashioned “reading” of her dotted work, the ability to critically delineate and differentiate is irretrievably lost and any possible and substantial critique is silenced. We are left with a collective experience of meaninglessness and absurdity – a sensus communis no longer based on a common and universalizing taste, as in Kant, but based on a shared and universalizing stupidity.
Thus, at the pinnacle of our culture we find a dotted handbag. And what is a handbag? – we may ask, as if we do not all know the answer. A handbag is a function – an empty function. It treats everything that goes into it the same way – not an Infinity Net for sure, but its analogue, material predecessor, governed by simple yes/no choices.
1. Vilém Flusser, Post-History, Minneapolis: Univocal, 2013, p. 123
2. Claude Shannon, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
4. Shannon, Theory of Communication, p. 31.
5. Flusser, Post-History, p. 81-82.
6. Flusser, Post-History, p.82.
9. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 51.
10. Vilém Flusser, Writings, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
11. Flusser, Writings, p. 40.
12. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 51.