People of Colour exhibition / Source: Mercy Pictures
Artillery Row

Policing art is a slippery slope

The hunger for policing thoughts as well as bodies hasn’t been eradicated, as recent events in New Zealand show

Just as the seventeenth century great plague of London was foreshadowed by decades of witch trials, the rolling state terror of the current pandemic was preceded by ideological fears of supernatural contagion.

The hunger for policing thoughts as well as bodies hasn’t been eradicated

Beginning in 2012 with the subversion of Occupy Wall Street through intersectional divide and conquer, but escalating sharply in early 2016 with Brexit and the unexpected US election victory of Donald Trump, dangerous thoughts, ideas or ideologies became increasingly conceived as radiating diabolically from certain symbols, words, or individuals. The outcome was an adoption of superstitious tactics of no platforming or cancellation to prevent contamination.

With the ongoing biopolitical cancellation of the planet, this ideological hysteria has lost some social market share. Yet like the virus itself, lurking patiently behind the current transnational initiative to utterly destroy society as it presently exists, the hunger for policing thoughts as well as bodies hasn’t been eradicated, as recent events in New Zealand show.

Thanks to implementing a zero tolerance health dictatorship including mandatory indefinite detention camps for anybody testing positive for a virus with an average age of death of 82, offline social life has been permitted to continue in the interior of the remote country. The result has been an outbreak of the supernatural malady following an exhibition called People of Colour” at independent art space Mercy Pictures in Auckland.

The collaborative work of Jerome Ngan-Kee, Jonny Prasad and Teghan Burt, three young artists from mixed backgrounds who are also co-directors of the gallery, the exhibition displayed without comment some four hundred miniature paintings of flags drawn from across the political spectrum. The response was an immediate spasm of outrage from social media users virtuously discharging disgust.

Two particular infractions by the artists were identified: on the one hand, cultural appropriation for including tribal Maori flags and, on the other, “platforming fascist ideology” for including fascist flags among the four hundred paintings of banners, and for commissioning an essay by my friend Nina Power, a humanist philosopher and writer who has been the target of an ongoing harassment campaign by online so-called “Antifascist” activists for several years now.

The New Zealand media, including nominally reputable outfits, picked up the story and for the last fortnight art coverage in the country has rehearsed the script of what post-libertarian blogger and wrong-thinker Mencius Moldbug called the brown scare”, as references to Christchurch mass shooter Brenton Tarrant chase outright lies and fantastical allegations taken from anonymous blogs for the competitive title of the most hyperbolically insane analysis.

Fundamental to all these examples is the rejection of the idea of art as offering a model of critical contemplation

In fact, the script has now been rehearsed so many times that it has become a cliche. All the same elements (exceptionally interesting artists, an anodyne and backstabbing art scene, a resentful middle-aged male intellectual channelling vicarious outrage, an intolerably independent-minded woman…) were already on display in February 2017 when independent London art gallery LD50 was branded a Nazi” gallery for programming an exhibition and conference about the online right and forced to close after a vitriolic intimidation campaign applauded by all the respectable art world institutions, apparatchiks, and organs.

That same spring the Whitney Biennale in New York hosted a comparable controversy when a painting of Emmett Till by an artist named Dana Schutz was denounced to general acclaim by an ambitious British art activist, who demanded it that be destroyed. Most recently, a major global retrospective of the American painter Philip Guston was postponed until at least 2024, over reasonable fears that his use of KKK imagery might be misunderstood.

Fundamental to all these examples is the rejection of the idea of art as offering a model of critical contemplation to an informed public. Just like expert scientific criticism of current global health polices now being implemented across the world by vested political and economic interests, this idea of art is now rejected as potentially dangerous, if not inherently harmful.

What is replacing it is a conception of art explicitly subordinated to ideological criteria. Here again one discovers the assertion that the act of exhibiting a political symbol in an art gallery equates to promoting it, as if Andy Warhol was promoting Maoism with his giant silkscreens of the Great Helmsman. Here too one registers the curious power of the charge of illegitimately appropriating symbols in the maelstrom of the semiotic anarchy of postmodernity. Instead of detached intellectual reflection, one encounters a selective iconoclasm focussed on extracting material for denunciation against an index of the resources of the local economy of grievance, just as menus of international fast food chains feature exotic local flavours.

Underpinning these developments is not only the malevolence of activists, who are ultimately only mindlessly responding to incentives, but a structural transformation in the public sphere which has been driven by the internet. In subordinating exhibition space, along with every other kind of space, to the total dominance of cyberspace, the special atmosphere which art galleries require is subjected to the accelerationist dynamic which governs participation in cyberspace communications: psychological discharge, mimetic escalation, and finally frenzied cancellation.

The regression from an intellectual to an emotional vocabulary organized around economies of hatred is one symptom of this situation: a hate group is a group you are encouraged to hate, by one of the legion of pale apostles of hatred who haunt the crossroads of the medium.

Anyone and anything may now be turned into a flag by being labelled with a stigmatizing epithet

No longer limited to a self-selecting public of connoisseurs, exhibition space becomes open to anyone, anywhere, and any agenda whatsoever, to a point where it is no longer necessary to attend an exhibition, or read a book, or see a film in order to condemn it. At the same time, an increased demand for attention, in the context of a overproduction of cultural workers on the one hand and the collapse in educational standards on the other, has both fuelled resentment of competitors, and created incentives for a form of cultural activism where a rival can be denounced for profit, or at least symbolic profit, or at the very least the compensatory enjoyment of watching someone suffer. All that’s needed is a fragment of an image, an ambiguously floating signifier, or an association one can sculpt into an ideological complaint, and support from others also interested in mobbing will be forthcoming.

In this context flags acquire an augmented significance, both as symbols in themselves, and as symbols of the broader situation of the current cultural economy. Anyone and anything may now be turned into a flag by being labelled with a stigmatizing epithet (Racist! Nazi! Fascist! Transphobe! Terf!) marking a friend/enemy distinction and therefore a potential target. The practice marks the mirror image of the proliferation of identities under the banner of the ubiquitous synthetic rainbow flag and the ideology of BAME/POC/LGBTQI+.

Evidently there is no logical limit to the production of these identities, which is why new letters are continually being added. Nor is there any concrete basis, except for bureaucratic regulations and the image of an enemy, which unites their separate factions.

Hence the inability of anyone so far to give this ideology a name. In the end, it isn’t a consistent conception of the world but the breakdown of the possibility of rationality as such, into anarchic random impulses and competing plays for power. Almost nobody today, it seems, still remembers how to think, but only what they are supposed to feel, without really understanding those feelings. As Thomas Sowell said: “One of the painful signs of years of dumbed-down education is how many people are unable to make a coherent argument. They can vent their emotions, question other people’s motives, make bold assertions and repeat slogans—anything except reason.”

What we’ve learned in 2020, watching politicians repeating mantras as they tighten senseless regulations and encourage mindless fear, is that this is a much more destructive syndrome than any real or supernatural virus.

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