Art’s Complicity in Authoritarianism
Notes on Artists’ Literacies, Part 2
In Part 1, I described how a public ‘illiteracy’ in the disjunctive synthesis of collage allowed authoritarian atrocity to occur in plain sight.
While artists might recognize what’s going on, thanks to their training or their cultivated instinct in ‘collage logic,’ there’s a secondary question of equal importance: what are we doing about it?
A few months ago while absentmindedly listening to some vaguely German classical music that had come on the car radio — (something like Wagner but less so) — I began to think about the service artists have done for oppressive political regimes. German fascism is the easy one, its stars nameable by any high school honors student: Wagner, Riefenstahl, Speer. Artists — in theater, design, fine arts, literature, film, etc — have been useful to political movements of all stripes, both left and right. Sometimes they’re actively making propaganda (PR) for hire, sometimes they’re long dead — like Wagner was by the time of the Third Reich — and their work is repurposed or re-imagined for political aims, and oftentimes perhaps it’s just a case of creative interpretation of nonpolitical art on the part of political operators.
In all of these cases, the art served a political agenda by reinforcing a social narrative needed by the regime. For example: Riefenstahl’s glorification of the physicality of the ‘master race’ was fuel to Nazism’s appeal. But beyond that, the art itself wasn’t the direct agent of oppression — the art didn’t hold the gun or turn the key in the prison-cell lock — even if the ideas and ideals embedded in the art did. Art’s violence could be said to be motivational, indirect. This isn’t to argue that it wasn’t violence of an order equal to direct violence, only to draw a contrast to how art today, in broad and enormous ways, can now be the direct agent of state and economic violence. I’m compelled to lay out an argument that implicates the vast majority of contemporary creative practice as a direct agent in a new form of violence, embedded directly within the culture itself.
Direct state-to-state violence — international war — is an unpopular solution to modern political ambitions. The hegemonous expansion of capitalism to be the all-encompassing socio-economic model has meant that land-grabbing by means of rolling tanks is no longer worth a regime’s while. It’s expensive, and power in the new landscape is held with money and attention, not with territorial control.
While perpetual military engagement in the Middle East may make it seem like war is still fashionable, this endless war isn’t territorial at all, but a form of colonial reverberation that still generates more money for its participants than it costs. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa are the unwilling hosts of capitalist regimes’ war-games, where missiles are spent not so much to kill, as so that more missiles must be ordered.
The manner of global war today is economic and cultural. The ‘world powers’ that waged territorial war with tanks and planes last century are now engaged in such a war, one whose aim is the continued stripping away of most human agency and maintaining the general population’s captivity within capitalist spectacle. Stripped of dignity, sapped of security or economic aspiration, people remain diligent consumers, a state of being which prevents critical citizenship. A consumer, dependent on commodities and spectacle (the commodification of experience), doesn’t have the capacity of time, energy, or hope to challenge political or cultural regimes. Cultural control is a much more effective way of conquering a population than surrounding them with soldiers.
There won’t be any invasion. The Russians aren’t coming; they’re already here. As are the Chinese, the Sheikhs of the Emirates, the European supercapitalists, and our very own oligarchs. America is an occupied country already, and its citizens have been so deeply robbed of individual dignity that we obey whatever entity keeps providing us with the subsistence goods of a consumer existence.
This state of affairs was achieved through cultural violence that most of us weren’t even cognizant of. Often this violence occurred through our very upbringing: raised in America, boys learned to oppress girls and girls learned to be oppressed; white learned to oppress black and brown, and black and brown was taught that liberation might be achieved through obedient consumption, because above us all there were the virtuous rich. These structural and systemic oppressions of Western culture weren’t put there by an army of tanks and guns. The soldiers in this occupation have been the culture-producers themselves. And I say this as one of those culture-producers, as both a participant in and a teacher of the means of art- and media-based communication and cultural expression.
The occupant of the American White House is there largely because he’s a recognizable character from a reality show. Some consumed that show with the vigor of the uncritical, not recognizing it as kitsch; but many, many others consumed it ironically, the way you might eat a chocolate-covered cockroach on a dare, but never claiming it was your staple diet. The ironic viewership recognized the way that these amoral gladiator games stripped the culture of its dignity, but still clung to some aspirations of making almost academically high meaning out of it.
Many of these shows were produced, shot, edited, and packaged by a population of extremely savvy, smart, sophisticated, and largely political left-wing types who embedded the ironic wink of post-Warholian trash culture in these shows with deliberation. I was witness to this, spending years working in film and television trying to support art and filmmaking aspirations of my own.
A video camera operator in New York in the 90s or early 2000s, if he or she (and let’s face it, mostly he) wanted to string together a living in a world gone freelance, would definitely end up working on one of these shows. The pay was good, the product seemed harmless. I was there.
I myself never worked on The Apprentice (in fact I turned the job down when I the producer mentioned they might need me for a 14 hour day), but the world of reality-show technicians was a small one and I knew many of the sound recordists and cameramen there. While I was day-playing on The Real World, for example, close friends were miking up Donald Trump’s suit jacket.
Trump himself was a joke to the crews. But he was a joke understood by most of us to be quarantined safely in the cultural garbage-heap of reality TV. In between working on those shows, many of these smart, kind humans would also be writing screenplays, working on art and independent films, painting, making music. They were film-school graduates, aspiring directors, late night and weekend painters and performers. This was a gig to pay bills, and it was in visual media, which seemed close enough and fit their skillsets. Almost across the board, the people working on those shows might have considered the work ‘beneath’ them, a career stepping-stone or a subsistence wage. The industry was comprised of talented craftspeople who cared about the quality of their work, but operating with a condescending, patronizing view of the projects on which they labored.
The idea that this group of largely normal, humane people are complicit — even responsible — for the creation of a neofascist monstrosity in the Trump regime may be a hard one to swallow. But there was violence in the act of filming people like that, of broadcasting them out to a population that wasn’t visually literate enough to see the joke or the threat within it, and of amplifying their patriarchal, racist, oligarchic voice to a population that had been so stripped of individual dignity by consumerism that they could do nothing with that media other than aspire to it. Even immersed in kitsch, pointing a camera at these characters was a dangerous amplification of a value system that is viral and destructive.
Media is potent. It shapes culture, which means it creates the menu of aspirations for the people who experience it.
This isn’t only the case for aspiring filmmakers working on junky tv shows. The economic survival of all kinds of artists, in all kinds of exploitative, junky cultural production is a widely-experienced phenomenon. Artists of all types pay their bills making ‘low culture’ so that they can pursue their ‘high culture’ personal projects, and perhaps all too often end up causing cultural collateral damage that they could never calculate. The artist is the soldier, marching to the orders of a power they’ll never see, trusting that somehow in spite of the shots they’re firing over the battlefield that they’re not hurting nearly as many people as they’re saving. But they can’t be sure. And today, we see more clearly who’s orders they were following.
By thus wrapping artists into the production of spectacle — simply for economic survival’s sake if nothing else — artists (filmmakers, writers, musicians, painters) have had their hands placed on the very triggers of the contemporary war. The footage we gather for the spectacle, the sound we record, the sequences we edit, are all ammunition doing direct violence. If we’re working on something that doesn’t look like overt political propaganda, perhaps we feel like we’re free from complicity. But if we consider the larger project — the construction of a vast landscape of narrative through which the public understands the workings of the world around them — these innocuous pop-culture confections become touchstones for misunderstanding. They leverage the narrative illiteracy of an under-educated populace to hold the territory of their awareness.
Beyond just the creation of understanding that artists produce, there is also the creation of money itself. Following the argument that power is held through wealth and attention, it’s also worth noting that one of the West’s only sources of wealth creation over the past 50 years has been speculation in contemporary art. Tellingly, this is the source of the family fortune of Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, to take just one glaring example. Artists’ ability to summon value out of the ether has been regularly exploited by the oligarchs of the West to amplify their wealth and power quite literally on the backs of artists.
The ‘impact’ of artists on our culture has been enormous — contrary to the usual line of despairing thought among eternally struggling artists. It’s just that it’s probably not the impact we had really intended to have.
The media landscape, in its inadvertent and chaotic collagist nature, is a petri dish for the exploitation of the mass consciousness. There isn’t a new model of media that’s going to eradicate the potency of ‘fake news,’ because knowing if something is real or fake is not the key difference. The greater issue is preventing the paralysis of action and response which is the inevitable result of being a passive witness to narrative construction.
Audiences will tend to be narratively illiterate, simply because this isn’t a taught language. They can look at a film or a piece of media or the landscape of snippets that they click through on a daily basis, but they are not capable, innately, of making these things and thus understanding the nature of narrative catalysis. They can experience the story being woven around them, and they can even possibly think and speak critically about that story: listing Trump’s lies, or proving Russia just helped gas a village full of Syrian civilians. But being literate means one can not only read the story, but write their own.
Most of the film students I’ve ever known don’t actually go on to make films. And I think this is for the best. We don’t necessarily need that many films (we need plenty of films, but that would be a lot of films). What we do need en masse are citizens who are narratively-literate, who are not paralyzed when they’re being told a story, but whose minds are active, engaged, and critical. These erstwhile filmmakers are these model citizens — equipped with the literacies to navigate the spectacle with critical lucidity. And they can teach this, share this, and spread this critical lucidity. Artists, through their instincts at first and finally through their training, are able to free themselves from the hypnosis of the narrative-collage of the world. And they can then free others.
The problem posed, then, is how do artists and filmmakers make a living without either overtly producing political or economic propaganda, or serving with complicity in the construction of a narrative landscape that only consolidates hierarchies of power?
I don’t have a comprehensive answer to that question. What is clear, though, is that the academies within which artists and mediamakers learn are not equipped to answer it either, and instead have tilted toward jobs-training programs and tips on just making it in the market, instead of transforming it.
What we don’t yet have is an academy for artists who want to use their strengths to build a new science of artists’ literacies, where these literacies and forms of knowledge can be developed and shared, where new ways of communicating news and information can be developed that aren’t vulnerable to such a crude but effective hack as Trump simply shouting ‘fake news’ or Putin saying the atrocity he enacted never happened, so that the masses are no longer passive subjects to the desired narrative of the Putins and Trumps, but are empowered to live out their own story in dignity and independence.
If artists are culture producers, and culture is the territory over which our current World War is being waged, then we may need a mobilization of artists. But not to perpetuate this military metaphor; artists can simply declare peace, and begin new forms of work that built the culture we wish to be a part of. That work is immense, challenging, and frankly frightening for the instability it threatens us on an individual level. But it is utterly necessary.