On Art (and why we need it)

Rochester Literature Festival Hypernormalisation BBC Adam Curtis

Christina takes a close look at the Adam Curtis film Hypernormalisation, and his assertion that the art world may be partly responsible for Brexit and Trump.

One of the positive things that came out of Brexit and Trump’s victory is that people are now more interested in politics. Everyone is talking about Brexit and Trump.

This article, with the headline ‘Is the Art World Responsible for Trump?’, features an interview with Adam Curtis, producer of the documentary HyperNormalisation.

In the film, Curtis tells the story of New York and Damascus, how Assad of Syria tried to unite the Arab countries, only to be betrayed by Henry Kissinger; the story of the invention of suicide bombings as retaliation against US intervention; the rise of the internet and the digital revolution that took over our lives and gave tremendous power to the banks.

The documentary itself has caused some reaction. The Spectator called it ‘gloriously compulsive and maddening’; both The Guardian and The Independent commented on its unusual presentation: a 165-minute long collage of interviews, news footage, and documentary material narrated by an invisible presenter released on a Sunday on iPlayer. It’s a film that can’t be watched in one sitting, and which requires some serious effort from the viewer to understand. In the above interview, Curtis explains to Artspace’s Loney Abrams why he made the film and how he wants people to respond.

Art and self-expression

“Individualism is the idea being that what you as an individual feel and desire are the most important things, and that if you followed anyone who told you what to do you were inauthentic”

Curtis traces the origins of individualism to the liberation years of the 1970s, when people freed themselves from the control of the Church and elites. They saw themselves as free individuals who no longer had to do as they are told. In the beginning, to be an individual was itself a radical political act. But then, the story goes, Iraqi artists lost hope and began to retreat into individual self-expressionism. Around the same time, consumer capitalism pounced on this wave of self-expression to sell products that claimed to express the individual buyer’s personality. Now, to be individual is to buy different things that ‘express’ your personality.

Rochester Literature Festival Freedom Art

“People were encouraged to buy all kinds of stuff, not to be like each other as they had in the past, but instead to express themselves as individuals. In this way the very idea of self-expression became central to the modern structure of power.”

Rather than to be like each other, people now want to different to one another. The paradox here is that because everyone is so desperately trying to be different, they’re all the same, and the things that they buy to be individual are in fact all mass-produced.

Political art

“What I’m really questioning is whether the function of art is to change the world, or whether its function is really to express what is happening in the world in a really clear way. Ever since the 1960s there has been this idea that the function of art is to change the world, and it will do so by changing the way people think and see.”

Curtis makes a point about how, in spite of the spectacular protest marches and activism we’ve seen in these past decades, none of it has made any impact. The Iraq war protests where thousands of people thought walking the streets with a banner for a day was going to change the world, were in fact just self-expression which failed to do anything. Here he sees protest art as ‘protestation’: art that protests the person’s dislike of something. But saying that you don’t like something isn’t going to make it go away. He sees the same thing today after the US Presidential election. Anti-Trump protesters chant many impressive slogans that express their frustration but they don’t make any difference to the results.

Rochester Literature Festival Art Donald Trump

“The real issue for art at the moment is that not only has it not changed the world for better, it may partially be responsible for the counter-reaction from Trump supporters.”

The inaccessibility of art itself exemplifies the political divisions we are currently having in Britain and the US. The ‘high art’ that the art world values are art that is ‘dense’, aloof, and conceptual, understood and bought only by those who are well-educated and rich. This kind of art doesn’t reflect the lived realities of everyday people. People from the lower classes, those who voted for Brexit and for Trump, see their votes as protests against this art, against the elite. So Curtis is saying that we shouldn’t feel that populism has come out of nowhere, because it has always been there, it’s just that art failed to mark it out. Art failed to express the voices of working class people.

What do we do with art now?

“I think one of the most beautiful things artists and journalists can do at this moment in time is to be sympathetic and understanding to the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, and then bring to the fore the invisible power structures that those people feel completely distanced from so that they know where power is. And do it in such a way that isn’t obscure so people like me don’t have to read it three times just to understand it. Do it in a way that really grabs ordinary people’s imaginations.”

In response to ‘what do we do now?’, Curtis suggests that we need to pay more attention to the people who voted for Brexit and for Trump. Art needs to change to be more accessible to the public. Art can challenge the elite and criticise those in power. They can “show us the rich, elite world in a powerful and dramatic way, and let us see it more clearly and thus make up our minds about it.”

Curtis’ narrative is compelling, but it’s one-sided and self-contradictory. On the one hand, he argues that individualism and self-expressionism have turned art into a kind of escapism from real problems. On the other, he claims that the reason why people voted from Brexit and for Trump is because they feel alienated by art, which seems to suggest that actually art isn’t as expressive as he supposed.

Art is expressing some people, the privileged classes, but not others. Curtis is right about that. But to say that people need artists and journalists to express their opinions seems to be a tad condescending. If the problem is that ‘high art’ is not expressing the common people, then surely the answer is that common people must become artists themselves to express their views, not to have some artist paint their portraits. What is lacking is community art, the ‘low art’ that relates to everyday life issues. People voted for Trump because he is not a professional politician and does not speak jargon they don’t understand.

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This is why it’s important that we continue to support community arts projects and arts education. To produce art that speaks to the common people, it must be made by the common people. We need more working class artists and journalists who have insiders’ views about what it is like to be working class and show it to the elites. Street artists like Banksy are popular because they make art that are about real life issues and take art out of the galleries into the streets. Art is changing, and this is not reflected in Curtis’ film.

To be an individual does not mean that you cannot be part of a community. Curtis is wrong that self-expression and protests don’t do anything. For someone who is an ethnic minority, religious minority, LGBTQ, or disabled, the very expression of their beliefs or gender are still dangerous and political. Women continue to face harassment on a daily basis, based on the way they look or dress. Having the courage to ‘come out’ as transgender or to wear a hijab in public in a society that is increasingly transphobic and Islamaphobic, is very political.

Self-expression didn’t cause Brexit or Trump’s victory, ignorance did. We can’t just express ourselves, we have to listen to others and acknowledge different opinions as well. Arts education teaches people to be open-minded, creative, and independent in their thinking. It has the power to bring people together, to provoke debates. More than ever, we need to keep making art.

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3 thoughts on “On Art (and why we need it)

  1. I enjoyed your piece very much. Not sure I totally agree about the ‘ignorance’ claim for the cause of Brexit & Trump. If you look at the interviews by those responsible for both the campaigns it’s interesting because you see that it was the appeal to voters emotions that was the deciding factor. The facts, however put, didn’t really come into it, and as such created a distraction for the various media to pick over and further alienate people away from actual information, indeed some are calling this period post- truth. I think all of what Curtis has ever done is about speaking of and to power. Whilst not agreeing with all he sais, it’s the essential beginning to any kind of change. Or to borrow from Anthony Sampson, who runs this place?

    • Hi Andy

      Thank you so much for your interesting comment. Perhaps I should have clarified what I meant by ignorance, which wasn’t not knowing the facts but not knowing other opinions because they are not reflected in mainstream art. It’s ignorance (read: ignoring / not understanding) of differences of opinions that I was referring to. Regardless of whether people voted by facts or gut feeling the Remainers were far too complacent and ignored the reasons people wanted out. The same in the US election. The liberal satirical art just didn’t reflect the real mindset of Trump voters.

      But I agree entirely that his work is important in that he tries to challenge power and it is good that it gets people thinking. I doubt many Brexiters would be watching this though.

      Thanks again for reading, hope to see you here again soon!

      Christina

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