BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 01 JUN 17
Featured in
Issue 188

Divide and be Conquered

In his latest film, Adam Curtis holds artists and curators partly responsible for the current state of the world – and he’s not alone

BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 01 JUN 17

Blaming people in art and culture for the rise of nationalist populism has become the favourite sport of, well, people in art and culture. The first, glaring example of this surfaced back in October 2016, weeks before the US election, courtesy of Adam Curtis. In HyperNormalisation (2016), the British film essayist confronted us with a surprising explanation for the rise of Donald Trump (hold onto your hats!): it’s the fault of Martha Rosler and Patti Smith.

Curtis’s shtick is to scavenge the BBC’s archive for vintage footage of political violence, cheesy period commercials and post-interview moments of awkwardness from the cutting-room floor. He has built a career on weaving these findings together into narratives that tell us how we’ve all been duped by background manipulators. Smith – and all those other spoiled brats of punk loitering in 1970s New York – apparently betrayed the working class because they ‘turned to art and music as a means of expressing their criticism of society’. No wonder the banks had an easy job forcing the city’s government into austerity politics, so paving the way for Donald Trump’s real-estate empire! With excerpts taken from Rosler’s video performance Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) – without so much as mentioning the artist’s name or the title of her work, which would have clarified its deadpan feminist irony – Curtis suggests that these self-indulgent artists made silly gestures with kitchenware and otherwise shrugged their shoulders. Rosler and Smith, along with Jane Fonda – 1960s Vietnam-war protestor transmuted into 1980s aerobics queen – serve as illustrations of his essentially anti-feminist narrative: working-class struggle was terminally undermined by female narcissist waywardness.

Declaring artistic experimentation, along with feminism, to be a form of bourgeois indulgence is a pretty antiquated, pseudo-Marxist argument. But, in addition to rehashing outmoded ideology, Curtis actually perpetuates conspiracy theories. For example, he implies that the 1986 bombing of the West Berlin discotheque La Belle was not instigated by Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya but by Syria. This tired thesis was disproved years ago, however, when, in the aftermath of German reunification, Stasi files were found that confirmed Libya’s involvement. Acknowledging this, of course, would have contradicted Curtis’s neat narrative that Gaddafi was merely a puppet of American geo-strategic politics in the Middle East. (How that, in turn, connects to female artists paving the way for Trump is, seemingly, destined to remain comprehensible only to the filmmaker.)

It is startling how little criticism HyperNormalisation has drawn in the art world. Links to the film, or to interviews with Curtis in which he repeats his mantra of artistic self-expression as the root of all evil, are still being shared on social media – not least by artists – accompanied by the ‘you have to watch this’ sort of comments that express unquestioning belief. This response is not unique, however. To give a further example: leftist journalist and co-founder of The Baffler, Thomas Frank, recently published in his magazine an article that identified another reason for Trump’s ascendancy – curators! After observing how the word ‘curating’ is now employed to describe anything that used to be called ‘editing’ or ‘aggregating’, Frank posits, with his usual irony, that the world needs ‘this heroic profession, not merely to oversee its art galleries and wine lists, but also to screen the transmission system circulating our knowledge for tell-tale signs of wholesomeness or decay’ – i.e. to eliminate the fake news ‘that had elected Trump’. Of course, Frank is alluding to the no-brainer that it wasn’t lies that got Trump elected but real people. It’s also clear where his thinly veiled scorn is directed: at the liberal mainstream media, from
NPR to The Washington Post, who supposedly ‘curate out’, along with fake news, Frank’s voice, your voice, ‘our voices’. In order to construct this narrative, ironically, Frank ‘curates out’, into a coy footnote, that Trump has often been described as having ‘curated’ his brand and the music for his campaign rallies. Here we go again: like Curtis, Frank ignores whatever doesn’t fit his thesis.

But why are artists and curators being singled-out? The underlying psychological mechanism is simple: a feeling of impotence vis-à-vis the larger scheme of things is redirected at those who bother to listen and are masochistic enough to take the blame. (The same mechanism also seems to have played a part, to some extent at least, in the controversy around a Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney Biennial, but that’s another, much more complicated story.) Nothing invites blame so much as the liberal guilt complex. It’s a form of scapegoating that offers both relief and a faint feeling of power. And it undermines any progressive coalition-building against the reigning oligarchic overlords.

Main image: Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. Courtesy: the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New YorkMain image: 

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.