We used to assume that creating alternate realities was the privilege of artists. We were wrong: the lunatics have taken over the asylum. As sci-fi writer William Gibson recently observed: he had expected the events of 2016 to unfold over the next 20 years. As I write, it’s just gone 6am in Washington D.C. and, at the White House, the ‘Mango Mussolini’ – as President Donald Trump has been dubbed by New York protesters – is most likely unleashing another series of unhinged, alt-fact tweets. Meanwhile, in London, I can picture Prime Minister Theresa May clicking her high heels like Judy Garland’s Dorothy, still psyched-up from the previous day’s parliament vote in favour of a hard Brexit, supported by a lemming Labour party, totally disregarding the expert assessments that spell disaster for the UK’s future. As ideals of an ‘open society’ are replaced with isolationism and xenophobia, the illusion that anything other than illusion will be declared the official government story is terminally shattered.
We should have known better. How could we forget what writers such as Hannah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht and George Orwell described more than half a century ago: that, in a society under increasingly autocratic rule, it
is the ‘privilege’ of those in power not only to lie about reality but to define, shape and usurp reality itself. No wonder social-media feeds are awash with their quotes.
As artists find themselves pressured to respond to the challenges of nationalist populism, there’s been a surprising revival of supposedly outmoded forms. Just as historic texts are circulated to shocked readers who sense an eerie topicality, so too are old poems and images of venerable monuments. Who would have thought, only a few months back, that we would see so many cartoons of the Statue of Liberty, with her beacon dimmed, her head chopped off and worse? In her famous 1883 sonnet, Emma Lazarus puts words in Liberty’s mouth that are a forceful riposte to the current wave of anti-immigration xenophobia: ‘Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’
Yet, while the statue and poem may be experiencing a revival during this moment of peril, fabricators of images must also keep looking for other, newly invigorated approaches. The discussion so far has been too concerned with the age-old script that pits universally abstract or intimately figurative work against the overtly political. One party advocates for the former, arguing that it’s precisely during times of repression that the experience of hearing a melancholic violin solo or of seeing a carefully handcrafted vase are safeguards of civility and sanity. Others fiercely oppose that view, condemning ‘painters covering the walls of sinking ships with still lifes’ (Bertolt Brecht, 1935). And then there are those who think that the real point is to resist by keeping the full spectrum of artistic utterances alive, countering the urge to play off one kind of artistic sensibility against the other, honouring delicately intimate expressions as the existentially necessary complement to agit-prop action. Ordinarily, I tend to agree. Right now, however, I don’t think it’s enough.
In this current climate, it has become harder than ever to devote attention to artists crafting footnotes to art history or replicating tried-and-tested art-market fodder. How can artists producing lazy hoaxes or mildly funny mockumentaries still think they are subversives trolling truth and reality, when the biggest troll of all sits in the White House? At a time when trolling has become the dominant formula for political success across the globe, spurred on by racist armies of haters and meme replicators, what is needed are strategies for smart counter-trolling.
In 1988, Gran Fury, the ‘art division’ of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), hijacked George Bush Sr.’s populist campaign line promising not to introduce new taxes – ‘Read My Lips’ – and linked it, on posters and stickers plastered across cities, to images of homosexual couples kissing. They were, in effect, trolling the man who was soon to be in power. Earlier this year, former White House chief photographer, Pete Souza, created an Instagram account that, at the time of writing, has attracted a million followers. Every day, he posts snapshots of Barack Obama’s presidency that are subtle comments on the current idiocracy: on the day the ‘Muslim Ban’ executive order was signed, for example, he posted an image of Obama chatting with a young Muslim refugee in a Kuala Lumpur classroom.
For years to come, it seems to me, the task will be to pool these counter-intelligence strategies and to fire each other up with surprising ideas wrenched from very real feelings of depression, fury and hope.
Lead image: Gran Fury, Read my Lips (boys), 1988. Courtesy: 80WSE Gallery, New York
First published in Issue 186