A View of Detroit’s “Beautiful Terrible Ruins”
From ruin porn to a call to action
Wayne State University art historian Dora Apel’s new book, Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (Rutgers University Press, 2015) is the last word (at least, I hope it is) on the disreputable photographic genre known as “ruin porn.” Bringing her usual due diligence to bear, Apel digs deep, tracing the roots historically, culturally, and politically of the West’s fascination with ruination and its import for today. The book continues Apel’s research into the visual culture of trauma, which began with her analysis of art in response to the Holocaust and continued with studies of lynching photography and the imagery of war.1 Beautiful Terrible Ruins is, arguably, the most astute yet, bringing into focus, as it were, the significance of ruin imagery under the conditions of late capitalism.
Writing about the breakdown of European Enlightenment with the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin in the epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” states that: “Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”2 This observation could just as well serve as an epigraph for the contemporary consumption of ruin imagery, particularly of Detroit, in the wake of the collapse of Fordist capitalism and the rise of neoliberalism.3
Apel traces the origins of Western fascination with ruins to early Romanticism, starting with eighteenth-century notions of the sublime as typified in the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke. Apel notes that the sublime, as conceived by Kant and Burke, is a sensation of the terror of nature experienced at a safe remove and, hence, ultimately made gratifying; a therapeutic kind of frisson. It is an appreciation of the horrible power of nature with the assurance of being safe from its dreadful effects.
The sublime effects of ruins in the Romantic imaginary are typically historical; they are the product of uncontrollable laws of entropy experienced at a distance in time as well as space. Their appeal to European cultural elites of the period was teleological and ideological: the decline of previous civilizations, constructed as Other, justified the authority maintained over them under Western imperialism. Examples Apel cites are the ruin paintings of J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Cole. Adolf Hitler’s favorite artist, the German Romantic painter Casper David Freidrich, was also famous for his depictions of ruins.4
Modern ruins are of another order. Palpably present in the here and now, they cannot be experienced at a remove but, instead, stand as an indictment of the failure of the existing social order — in this case, the promise of capitalist mass manufacturing and its fable of material abundance for workers and owners alike. The consumption of the imagery of modern ruins is fueled, Apel argues, by anxiety over the apparent crisis of contemporary capitalism, as manifested in steeply rising inequality, austerity and increased civil unrest. Nowhere is this anxiety more at play than in the photographs of the deindustrialized and abandoned precincts of Detroit — once the dynamo of modernity and the source of widespread prosperity under Fordism — that are now the stock in trade of ruin porn.
Actually, it doesn’t take too long, a scant six pages, for Apel to dispatch with the ruin porn concept. Her method is to compare images taken by perceived offenders, in particular Andrew Moore, but also Yves Marchand, Roman Meffre, and others, with those of the ostensibly more legitimate variety taken by James D. Griffoen, publisher of the Detroit-based blog Sweet Juniper and claimant to having coined the term ruin porn and initiating the critique of it.5 Visually, there is little perceptible difference between the purportedly pornographic images of ruination and those of the supposedly more virtuous kind. It appears to come down to a matter of intent (and sometimes production values as the ruin pornographers generally seem to have better equipment) — the pornographers are usually outsiders who parachute into the city, capture their images, and bug out whereas the legitimate shooters, i.e., the locals, chronicle the devastation as a kind of witnessing. Indeed, in Griffoen’s defense, his images are intended to illustrate his blog posts and not be consumed as ends in and of themselves.
And yet, as Apel notes from the perspective of many of the city’s residents, the images are demoralizing no matter who takes them and under what auspices. It is not insignificant that all of the photographers under consideration, including Griffeon, are white and working in an overwhelmingly majority black city. But for Apel, it is far more important to understand why the images of what she terms Detroit’s beautiful terrible ruins, along with others of the modern variety, fascinate than it is to parse out who has the right to make them. In the case of ruin imagery, according to Apel, the consumption of what can be termed a post-industrial sublime assuages anxiety over the crisis of contemporary capitalism in two ways.
The first is to normalize the ruination of Detroit, and other First World metropolises, as the inevitable result of market forces; this casts the city as regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage resulting from the shifting in the world’s economy from the industrial to the informational form of organization. The second, more pernicious way is to construct the failure of Detroit as the direct result of past mismanagement and corruption at the hands of the city’s primarily black, Democratic leadership. Both obscure an understanding of the more conscious machinations of capitalism in the pursuit of profit over the last four-plus decades in dismantling the Fordist utopia, of which Detroit and its working classes were a paragon.6 This agenda, which some term post-Fordism, has been pursued with a vengeance in Detroit.7
It began not long after the Second World War with the migration of automobile production to the suburbs and the southern United States. It picked up steam with outsourcing to the Mexican maquiladoras in the 1970s, which the American automobile industry pioneered. Added to this has been the repression of union organizing and the use of racial prejudice to whipsaw workers against one another. The city’s economic infrastructure was hollowed out and its physical plant largely abandoned. And it is one of the very few hesitations about Apel’s book that she generally uses the term “decline” in relation to the circumstances of latter-day Detroit, which effectively continues to naturalize it. “Destruction,” “annihilation,” or “obliteration” might better convey the agency at work in the process.
While Detroit is ground zero of her study, Apel expands the discussion to include broader considerations of anxiety within postmodern culture. She considers other postmodern meditations on the ruin, such as those of British geographer Tim Edensor and philosopher Dylan Trigg. While both offer more nuanced perspectives, they ultimately replay Romantic notions of naturalistic decay and renewal.
Apel also briefly surveys work by artists who have intervened in the city’s ruined landscape in an attempt to offer prospects for some kind of transformation. For followers of the Detroit art scene, the names are familiar. Essentially exercises in turning lemons into lemonade, these projects take up neoliberal capitalist dejecta and refashion it into various aesthetic statements, appropriating the refuse created in the process of capitalist accumulation and bringing it into the refuge of art. These works are often categorized as “public art projects,” which is a miscategorization. Public art, strictly speaking, undergoes a process of validation by some authority, typically governmental or corporate. Marshall Fredericks’s Spirit of Detroit, 1958, is public art; Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, 1986-present, is not. (Certainly, City government has always had a less than enthusiastic relationship with Heidelberg and has tried twice to bulldoze it.) I have proposed the term “art of the common” to identify a space of action, which lies in the interstices of public and private as defined by traditional capitalist property relations.8
Beautiful Terrible Ruins ends with an analysis of the postapocalyptic in contemporary film, TV, and other dystopian productions, embodying the concern that the contagion of urban ruination threatens to swallow up the world at large. Culture industry commodities, such as World War Z (2013), The Walking Dead (2010-),and 28 Days Later (2002), typically end with a note of renewal, however provisional. They attempt to affirm the persistence of the life force amidst the devastation, easing fears of impending doom while allowing viewers to enjoy a moment of frisson, replaying the Romantic sublime with the assurance that it will all be okay in the end.
It is basically magical thinking and Apel’s clear-eyed analysis disabuses it. As Apel notes, “Detroit is the paradigmatic zombie city.”9 Recent gentrification of the central business district and environs gives the impression of a city coming back from the dead; yet Detroit currently ranks as the poorest major city in the US, according to the recent Census.10 And so one might well argue that the trend is really just another marker of rising inequality. Detroit is an extreme example of what is taking place in cities across the United States and other parts of the so-called advanced, global economy. Beautiful Terrible Ruins concludes on a pessimistic note, but as such, it is a call to action. It is thus essential reading.
This piece was originally published on Infinite Mile, a journal of art + culture(s) in Detroit.
Aglietta, Michel. A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience. New Edition. New York: Verso Classics. (1979) 2001
Apel, Dora. Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2015
Apel, Dora. Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2004
Apel, Dora. Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2002
Apel, Dora. War Culture and the Contest of Images. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2012
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968
Bouffard, Karen. “Census Bureau: Detroit is Poorest Big City in U.S.”. Detroit News. 17 September 2015.
Carducci, Vince. “Art of the Commons: Envisioning Real Utopias in Postindustrial Detroit”. Detroit Research 1 (Spring/Fall 2014): pp. 76-83
Carducci, Vince. “Envisioning Real Utopias in Detroit”. Motown Review of Art. 1 February 2012.
Eisenger, Peter. “Is Detroit Dead?” Journal of Urban Affairs. 1(36), 2013: pp. 1-13
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers. 1971
Griffoen, James D. Sweet Juniper.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2000
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 2007
Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador. 2007
Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2005
Widdick, B. J. Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. 1972
Williams, Corey. “The Demographics of Detroit Are Changing Rapidly”. Business Insider. 21May 2015:
1 See Dora Apel, Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing, 2002; Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob, 2004; and War Culture and the Contest of Images, 2012; all published New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
2 Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (pp. 217-251) in Illuminations, (Schocken, 1968: p. 242).
3 The term Fordism describes the high wage, high output system of mass production and consumption pioneered by Henry Ford after whom it is named. The concept first gained prominence in the 1930s in the writings of Italian Marxist and legendary jailbird Antonio Gramsci; see Gramsci, “Americanism and Fordism” (pp. 279-316) in Selections from the Prison Notebooks (International Publishers, 1971). On the rise of neoliberalism, see David Harvey,A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2007). On the more radical recent turn in global capitalism, see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (Picador, 2007).
4 See, for example, Freidrich’s Landscape with Temple in Ruin, 1797.
5 Griffoen, James D. Sweet Juniper
6 For a history of the contested nature of race and class relations in Detroit, see B. J. Widdick, Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence(Wayne State University Press, 1972). The best account of the dismantling of Detroit is, of course, Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton University Press, 2005).
7 The concept of post-Fordism is generally credited to the French Regulation School of Marxist economics; see Michel Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience (New Edition, New York: Verso Classics,  2001).
8 The notion of the common refers to the medieval common, land left open for grazing, farming and other uses by anyone without requiring individual ownership (the term “commoner” comes from it). A more contemporary interpretation comes from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as “the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude,” the collective freeing of land and labor from capitalist economic and social relations (Hardt and Negri,Empire [Harvard University Press, 2000: p. 303]).Among the more compelling work of the art of the common is that of Power House Productions in Banglatown and the Detroit-Hamtramck border, which is not surveyed inBeautiful Terrible Ruins. I have written about the art of the common concept on my blog Motown Review of Art. See, for example, “Envisioning Real Utopias in Detroit”. It is also the subject of my book Art of the Common: Art Activism in Postindustrial Detroit, currently under review for publication. A summary of the thesis can be found in my essay “Art of the Commons: Envisioning Real Utopias in Postindustrial Detroit”, Detroit Research 1 (Spring/Fall 2014): pp. 76-83.
9 Apel, Beautiful Terrible Ruins, p. 153.
10 Corey Williams, “The Demographics of Detroit Are Changing Rapidly,”Business Insider, May 21, 2015; Karen Bouffard, “Census Bureau: Detroit is Poorest Big City in U.S.,” Detroit News, September 17, 2015. See also, Peter Eisenger, “Is Detroit Dead?,” Journal of Urban Affairs 1(36), 2013: pp. 1-13.