George Soros and his wife Tamiko Bolton attend the official opening of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) in Berlin. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The art of influence

Culture and propaganda are not easily separable

Artillery Row On Art The Critics

The European Union is founded “on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the [currently 27] Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail”.

Credit: Eva & Franco Mattes, United We Stand, 2005, offset print on paper, 140 x 100 cm

These values are promoted through cultural strategies where buzzwords chime loudly. Terms like networking, collaboration, common good, connection and cooperation promote an ever-closer union with culture, while the arts are deployed for soft power and propagandist tactics.

Networking is about the coming together of people and organisations with shared common interests or values that transcend local and national boundaries. This is necessary because the local/national is too fraught with messy contact with undesirable plebians whose thoughts, politics and differences of opinion are seen as nationalistic, reactionary or just too working class. 

A prime mover of establishing intra-European networks has been the multi-billionaire oligarch George Soros, through his influential philanthropic arm the Open Society Foundations. It has been “working in Europe since George Soros established his first foundation in Hungary in 1984 — at the start of his effort to help the countries of Central and Eastern Europe make the transition from Communism”. 

Its Brussels-based Open Society European Policy Institute “pursues advocacy and policy work with the institutions of the European Union”. It works to “influence and inform decision-making on EU laws, policy, funding and external action to maintain and promote open societies in Europe and beyond”.

Soros became a saint-like figure. Any criticism of his network is furiously attacked, as the recently deceased British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton experienced when he said in an interview with the New Statesman that “anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts”. 

Scruton was accused of anti-semitism, which led to the UK Government sacking him from an unpaid role as its housing advisor in 2019, but it soon came to light that the New Statesman quoted Scruton out of context. The magazine apologised to him and later published the full-transcript of the interview.

It could be argued that the SCCA served as a blueprint for the birth of the European Union’s Creative Europe programme in 2014, with its headquarters in Brussels, conveniently located 1km away from the Open Society European Policy Institute office. 

Such is the influential power of culture in delivering EU objectives, that it increased Creative Europe’s budget by an extra €100 million in 2022 to an annual budget of €385.6million. Culture promotes EU’s values and the European Green Deal, which strives to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

It’s an ideological cluster-bomb of American media

Soros’s influence on European socio-cultural affairs is indeed powerful — as explored in the current exhibition, The Influencing Machine at the landmark Polish Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (where I am co-curator with Agnieszka Kolek of the “Culture Tensions” series of discussions).

Conceived by the American curator Aaron Moulton, the exhibition features the works of 48 artists, many from central Europe. It critically celebrates the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art (SCCA), an expansive network birthed from a fine arts centre in 1985 in Budapest, Hungary. By 1999 there were 20 SCCA in operation across central/eastern Europe, including offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Moulton’s premise for the exhibition is that all art exhibitions are tools of propaganda, except that The Influencing Machine “is honest about it and actively teaches lessons learned from the SCCA legacy about the performance of propaganda as art and vice versa … It allows us to better understand how art is used to control society”. It could be argued that prior to the SCCA, art during the communist era was not what could be described as “contemporary art” in the western and north American sense of the term.

The exhibition is a journey into this flowering of contemporary art in post-Soviet/Communist Europe, engineered by the SCCA to usher in neo-liberal, post-modern, identitarian, socially engaged, environmental and de-colonised art. 

It is also a conversation with how American ideals of freedom in contemporary mediatised politics are played out within right-wing as well as the progressive liberal arts, with the final exhibition room an onslaught of the post-modern glut of technology. Political mind-maps, video games, livestream news, gender fluidity, activism, meme culture, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and viral culture mount a sensory assault.

It’s an ideological cluster-bomb of American media, perhaps pointing the way to how Soros may have inadvertently, or intentionally, unleashed a tactical viral load of transnational corporate America. After all, Soros “broke the Bank of England” in 1992 and opposed Brexit in 2016. After the referendum, he tried to influence MPs to vote against a Brexit deal. Soros favours supranationalism over democratic national sovereignty, saying in 2018:

I personally regarded the EU as the embodiment of the idea of the open society. It was a voluntary association of equal states that banded together and sacrificed part of their sovereignty for the common good. The idea of Europe as an open society continues to inspire me.

A previous gallery room in the exhibition is a more hallowed, hushed, quasi-mystical space curated by Moulton. He calls the space “Aspirational Union (Au)” and it features a wall fly-posted with posters promoting a movie called United We Stand with a subheading Europe Has A Mission, starring Ewan McGregor and Penelope Cruz. 

Of course, such an action-blockbuster Hollywood-like film doesn’t exist. It was a situationist-like (what would now be called fake news) public intervention by net art pioneers Eva and Franco Mattes. After making the work in 2005, they put the posters and billboards in cities around the world to promote a film of EU heroes saving the world from disaster. 

The room and floor are painted in the deep blue of the EU flag, without the 12 gold stars. Instead a Pagan/Wicca pentagram occupies the centre of the floor. The sacred and mystical relics displayed on a table were used by a Roma Romanian family of witches, Michaela Minca and her daughters, to undertake a ritual on the opening night of the exhibition. 

The instruction was to perform a cultural exorcism of neoliberalism. One would think that such paganism would go against the reported conservative politics and Catholic faith of the Ujazdowski Castle’s Director, but a plurality of political, cultural and religious opinion is both seriously and playfully enshrined at this rare gem of a publicly funded contemporary art space. 

What seems like a mash-up is in fact carefully calculated and orchestrated by Moulton, who creates a narrative employing parody, Matrix-like red pill/blue pill philosophies of pursuing either truth or living in naïve ignorance. Mysticism and a dialectic between liberal/left and right-wing political art vie for attention in the exhibition. Soros and his SCCA legacy are celebrated and critiqued as saint, saviour, visionary, villain and boogeyman.

The European Union is mired in an existential crisis

Meanwhile, the EU’s cultural arm, Creative Europe continues to virally spread its values and quasi-religious woke messages on its social media platforms and via its funding programmes: #TheFutureIsQueer, #EU4LGTBI, the Sustainable Theatre Alliance for a Green Environmental Shift, financial support for European Networks, European Cooperation Projects, aiming to “stimulate the digital and environmental transition of the European Culture and Creative Sectors”.

Soros’s SCCA legacy lives on via Creative Europe, but in the real world the EU punishes member states such as Poland for resisting the influencing machine. Poland faces consequences for its refusal to pay the EU 68 million euros after failing to shut down a coal mine, yet coal is of strategic importance to the Polish economy. 

The EU and its funded cultural projects’ missionary zeal to bring net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero by 2050, whilst its member states currently imports 40 per cent of its gas from Russia, clearly shows the supranational’s double-speak tactic: soft power is a camouflage for real neo-liberal economics, which will jeopardise energy autonomy and potentially the jobs of approximately 83,000 Polish and Ukrainian miners.

Gender equality is another priority strategy for the European Commission. Equality of opportunity is a key foundation in a democratic society, yet the EU’s strategy pursues “targeted actions” with “intersectionality” as a “horizontal principle for its implementation” that exacerbate divisions rather than uniting people. 

The EU is threatening to punish Poland by withholding hundreds of millions of euros in stimulus funds over the creation of LGBTIQ-ideology free zones by several Polish regions and municipalities. It is important to note that homosexuality was legalised in Poland back in 1932, and same-sex activities and relationships remain very much legal.

George Soros is right about one thing; the European Union is indeed mired in an existential crisis. So is its neoliberal politics, which this complex exhibition brings to light.

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