At the heart of all democratic institutions and states is the notion that they are a legitimate expression of the popular will. Within a democracy it is legal and necessary to criticize the institutions because we know that they, like people, can lose focus, become overly institutionalized or indeed moribund and they or their officers may become corrupted. Fair and open criticism and legal recourse falls within the ambit of responsibility of a free press and free individuals who have rights within the law to criticize and object.
Unfortunately, much of the ‘free’ media – radio, television and the press – are owned and controlled by large and remote, often transnational corporations, whose vested interests are in maintaining the status quo and their relationships in high places. This means that profits and influence are more important than truth. As the media panders and cajoles the powerful, its role as truth-teller and therefore as an important component in maintaining a healthy democracy diminishes. This leaves civil society to its own devices.
Beyond criticism and objection there is rebellion, which is another order of things. Rebellion is a consequence of frustration with the status quo, a belief that the institutions have been completely corrupted and that tinkering no longer work. It is also a response to endemic injustice that seems to have become institutionalized within the framework of what may once have been a representative and legitimate state.
Political forms of rebellion manifest themselves in many ways. Sometimes people become involved in individual acts of vandalism; groups perform inchoate and often nihilistic and perhaps violent anarchistic assaults upon people and places (last years London riots); sometime there are genuine grassroots people’s movements demanding change and sometimes, as we have seen throughout history, there are violent uprisings. The latter was called ‘the great excess of history’ by Leon Trotsky.
Today we in the West are witnessing the failure of the latest phase of capitalism: the American neo-con’s globalist dreams in which all space, all air, all actions are privatized, all governmental participation in economic oversight, regulation and in the provision of public goods is handed to the private sector and governments become a conduit for the wishes of the large corporations. Thus far, public expressions of opposition have been ignored or suppressed (as the Occupy movement) and mass news coverage has been hysterically against it (Fox News) while serious coverage has been marginalized.
When you consider how difficult it is to get your phone fixed or to sort out your taxes, how difficult is it to change the institutionalized social democratic capitulation to the avaricious but influential demands of the one percent? We see that the politicians and the institutions of the state (and the corporations) are neither responsive to our needs for food, jobs, education and healthcare, nor to our desire for a better inner as well as the outer life.
Nietzsche said ‘we have art in order not to perish of truth’. We know that artists are generally concerned with the human condition and that they are therefore acutely aware of injustice. Within non-democratic societies it is a fairly straightforward matter to attack the rulers, precisely because they do not have legitimacy. Within the ‘democracies’ it is less clear. Do we need to vote out the current bunch and vote in a new lot or what? After realising that the political classes of all brands have capitulated to the corporations, the bankers, the hedge fund CEOs, to whom do we turn for ideas, vision and analysis?
In many countries, often the first and most durable opposition has happened among and from artists. (Tony Judt’s book POST WAR, retells how the artists and intellectuals of Eastern Europe struggled against the oppression of the Soviets.) Artist’s sympathy for rebellion is inextricable a part of their sensibility; often they are the first within society to sense changing currents. As Benjamin Barber wrote: ‘It is a subversive role to the extent that the arts are associated with freedom and diversity and plurality, their opposition to an authoritarian state is natural.” To the authoritarian state yes, but as well to any authoritarianism, even within a degenerate Western democracy.
With this in mind, artists have one of two roads to travel: the first is to ignore the corruption and injustice and capitulate to or join with the status quo. If artists surrender, they produce pap entertainment at best or propaganda at worst. The second is to create art, which in essence, opposes the status quo. The course of resistance and opposition should not be prescriptive, under the influence of the rising rebellion or under the spell of the party. Art, to be art, opens people’s sensibilities to the world around them, entices empathy and encourages understanding of the human condition. Art moves people’s hearts and enlarges their emotional and intellectual scope and therefore may, in the context of the social situation, be rebellious.
Rulers rule in one of three ways: when wealth is seen to be sufficient and fairly distributed, the rulers will have a sustainable amount of legitimacy which lulls the public into compliance. When the economy fails or war or other disasters threaten, rulers hope to maintain control through determining our beliefs, convincing us that our problems are down to some inevitability, some inner threat or foreign cause, some fate we can all accept. But if their propaganda fails, because the state usually has a monopoly on the control of large-scale violence, order is maintained under the bayonet. Within these paradigms of power and control, the citizens in a modern state are numbered, categorized, sub-divided into economic groups, hemmed in by the educational system, tax offices, banks and corporations and of course the always propagandizing media. We lose our identity in this ‘unbearable lightness of being’.
It is precisely because art fosters a mysterious and indefinable shift in consciousness towards discontent and rebellion that the money and power boys are frightened of it. Art and reactions to it are not quantifiable. The elites are trained to command, to convince us to hate the ‘other’, to go to war, to kill fellow citizens, to knuckle down and pay for the politician’s friends’ gambling (the current banking fiasco). Members of these ruling elites have no use for empathy; for them it hinders action. A lack of empathy generally describes a sociopath. Is it any wonder that they sense art and therefore artists are their enemies? They are right.
Artists can never claim that they are apolitical. The very claim is a capitulation to the status quo. Silence is not resistance but defeat. Every artist has within his/her hands the ability to inspire transformations within others.
The Hungarian art critic Georg Lukacs, although severely compromised by his position in a Stalinist hierarchy, was none the less, an acute critic of Western art. He believed that the West’s tendency towards naturalism was an acceptance of a single dimensional reality, that the surface of things, well depicted, would reveal the truthfulness of a condition. He distinguished naturalism from realism in that the latter reveals both an outer and an inner life and the tensions between the two. This dialectical relationship was the source of truth and drama that mattered.
When artists who practice realism choose subjects that are at the heart of contemporary struggles, they may produce work that has relevance to the rest of society. When they do not, they produce popular cultural fodder, suitable for Hollywood and the great cultural dumpster of history.
For artists to stay true to their feeling, they must question the legitimacy of the status quo and therefore they must inherently be rebellious… uncomfortable? Yes. Necessary? Yes.