Arts & DesignDemocracyEssaysFeature

Can Art Save Us from Bullshit?

The Practice of Making Political Art that Works

This essay is a version of a presentation given by the authors at the Public Calling conference, sponsored by the Fritt Ord Foundation & KURO/Public Art Norway, at the National Theatre in Oslo, Norway on 1 November 2016.

Many years ago, there was an emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well-dressed. One day two swindlers came to town claiming to be weavers and tailors who could create the finest garment in world. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid. “Those would be just the clothes for me,” thought the Emperor. He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once. The swindlers sat up night after night pretending to sew until they decided they were finally done. Then the Emperor himself came with his noblest noblemen to view the clothes; “How well Your Majesty’s new clothes look. Aren’t they becoming!” he heard on all sides. Although he saw nothing, the Emperor was convinced, and donning the imaginary clothes, he went off on a procession through town. Everywhere he went the people cheered him on and admired his clothes, for none wanted to seem the fool. Then, a little child in the crowd spoke up: “But he hasn’t got anything on.” “Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. But one person whispered to another what the child had said and at last the whole town cried out the obvious: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” And, finally seeing reality for what it is, the town lived happily ever after. [1]

This story, of course, is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Originally published in 1837, it is an enduring tale about the revelatory power of the truth — and the power of the truth-teller. It is also an alluring tale, for don’t we all imagine ourselves as that little child? Revealing the truth about those in power in order to wake the world up to their lies!

Trust in our politicians has plummeted in recent years; data is plentiful and unanimous.[2] While the causes for this collapse in trust are many, and too many for the purview of this short essay, one of the reasons has to do with politicians’ disregard for truth: their seeming disregard for hard data, and their replacement of reasoned arguments with public relations-crafted sound bites. Populist authoritarian leaders of nationalist party movements are currently having the most success with this strategy of indifference to the truth. Nigel Farage used such truth-bypassing techniques to get Britain out of the EU; Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, and Viktor Orban in Hungary use populist rhetorics to mobilize national fronts that are changing the fundamental power balance in Europe; and Donald Trump has blatantly trafficked in untruths to become the leader of the Free World.

Politicians like these turn reality into a carnival — and the clown is the king of the circus. Many of us did not take Trump seriously for that very reason. But this is also what has allowed him to get away with statements like: “We’re the highest taxed nation in the world” and “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” As Groucho Marx once said, “He looks like an idiot, he talks like an idiot, but don’t let this fool you. He really is an idiot.” But this idiot is now the president of the United States. How is this possible?

We can be said to live in an era of what The Economist magazine has called “Post-Truth Politics” — a time when truth seems not to matter. It is still disputed whether this moment is one in which the truth drowns in political spin and fake news fitted to our Google search profile, or whether we are just learning to harness the democratic potentials of a public sphere where citizens are moving from being mere consumers of gatekeeper-approved “truths,” to being producers of new knowledges, but one thing is clear: truth no longer holds the political currency it once did. Today, we live in an age of bullshit!

Yes, bullshit.

There are different modes of misrepresentation. The liar’s craft is falsity. Like the truth-teller, she is guided by the authority of the truth. So, the liar and the truth-teller play on the opposite sides of the same game. The Bullshitter, on the other hand, just doesn’t care about the truth. He makes up facts to fit his own reality. That is why Harry Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy and author of the book On Bullshit, concludes that the bullshitter is a greater enemy of the truth than the liar, for:

The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.[3]

Yet, seemingly paradoxically, we are in a moment of the instant fact-check. A study conducted by the American Press Institute found that the number of fact-checking stories tripled between 2008 and 2012, and 8 in 10 Americans view political fact-checking favorably. However, the “facts” don’t seem to have the impact that they once had for Hans Christian Andersen’s young child. When facts reveal lies, we sometimes simply ignore them. As New York Times editorialist Emma Roller underscores, we only pay attention to facts “as long as those facts confirm [our] point of view.” Facts, it turns out, are only important insofar as they help compose a good story.

And bullshit is a more pliable, creative material than facts. Here is Frankfurt on bullshit again:

[T]he mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art.[4]

This rise of the art of bullshit could be reason for pure political despair. Democracy is based on an ideal of a rational public with full access to the facts. This is our Enlightenment legacy. This is the ideal that Andersen held up. And this is the ideal that is drowning in bullshit. Here is Milo Yiannopoulos, a senior editor at the Alt-Right Breitbart News, celebrating the age of bullshit:

To the extent that it’s good that we’re in a post-fact era, it’s good for people who are more persuasive, and more fun, and more engaging than these dour, miserable, leftie losers. I benefit, obviously, from that, but it’s crucial we get our facts right first. Living in a post-fact era doesn’t mean you don’t tell the truth anymore, it means that the facts alone are not enough.

Although we occupy the other end of the political spectrum than Yiannopoulos, we couldn’t agree more: facts are not enough.

In this realization there is some hope. Sprouting up in this new — and well-fertilized — political terrain are new forms of activism, some of it coming from a nationalist, xenophobic Right, but other forms deeply rooted within a Left project of expansion of democracy and social inclusion. These new forms of activism on the Left get past bullshit with the use of art: appealing to the desire for story, spectacle and emotional pull that a bullshitter does, but using artistic elements to counter bullshit. It is useful to remember that while Andersen held up the truth as an ideal, he was an artist and made his arguments through the art form of a fairytale.

This new form of activism is artistic activism: invisible theater, Trojan horses, prefigurative interventions, guerrilla wall projections, along with minor additions or twists to the already known repertoire of demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, barricades, boycotts, petitions, and lobbying. When the artistic activist succeeds, she is able to use what Gene Sharp calls “political jiu jitsu” to formulate an immanent critique of the system, be it communism or capitalism. She provokes reflection through surprising interventions, creates an alternative space for utopian shadow boxing, and facilitates co-creative participation by changing the rules of the game (instead of blaming the players). She is also a beautiful and sensitive coal mine canary whose vital signs we have to be aware of. So, the artistic activist can be a dreamer and clown, a therapist, a warrior, and a life-safer.

Artistic activism is thus a hybrid practice that combines the affective qualities of art with the effective capabilities of activism. The words “effect” and “affect” are sometimes used interchangeably, but their meaning differs subtly, and critically. Effect, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is “To bring about (an event, a result); to accomplish (an intention, a desire).” To have an effect is to cause a demonstrable, often physical and material, change. Affect, the same source informs, is “To have an effect on the mind or feelings of (a person); to impress or influence emotionally; to move, touch.” To generate affect is to stimulate feelings, or create an emotional state in a person or group of people. The combination of effect and affect we might call “affective effect.” Or, if one prefers: “effective affect.” Or, simply: æffect.

Artistic activists, like our friends the Yes Men, are masters of this mobilization of æffect: Performing a lie to get at the truth, revealing the lie which masquerades as a truth, or demonstrating a more profound truth. Yet, as brilliant and creative and funny as this type of artistic activist intervention is, it is still staged within the binary realm of truth/false, facts/lies. As such this form or artistic activism is relatively powerless in an age of bullshit.

How, then, might we get outside this discourse, yet still have the emotional pull, the spectacular vision and the narrative draw that bullshit at its worst/best represents?

By going beyond performing truth and falsehood and instead performing material services, coming up with concrete, but still critical and creative, solutions to societal problems — what are traditionally thought of as functions of the state. As what Sidney Tarrow calls “strangers at the gates,” such creative citizens operate on the boundaries of the polity. Instead of standing outside the system, they negotiate and collaborate with entrepreneurs and elite inside reformers on the threshold of that broader system of conflict and cooperation that we call contentious politics. The outcomes of these intersections, in turn, can shape how a democratic state evolves.

Artistic activists in collaboration with the state? No bullshit!

After WWII, the welfare state was developed in the West, and in the 1960s it experienced tremendous growth, particularly in Europe. In the early 1970s, there was a severe economic crisis, and in 1975 the Trilateral Commission argued that the welfare state was growing out of control and could not meet citizens’ bloated expectations. Hello Reagan and Thatcher. Hello streamlining and deregulation. Hello New Public Management. Today, welfare states have developed into what the Danish Professor Ove Kaj Pedersen terms “the competitive state.” This is a move from moralism to economism, from a focus on the good to a focus on what is most effective. With this move, the political culture itself has become a competitive factor. (Which makes bullshit an actual currency.)

To solve so-called “wicked” problems in an increasing complex and globalized world, new civic actors have arrived on the scene, bringing with them new forms of collaborative innovation in the public sector. The growing practice of participatory budgeting is one such example of the democratic value of this approach, while the new Danish party, The Alternative, uses “political laboratories” to demonstrate how the development of policy itself can be crowdsourced. Such approaches are steps in the right direction. However, while the interaction patterns have changed, the involved agents are often still old favorites and deliberate procedures are often as uncreative as always.

Here’s where artistic activists can help.

Historically, artists have played little role in the development and the running of the state. Sometimes they have played a critical, corrective role, but this has most often been from the outside. In the 1960s and 70s, we saw experimental attempts to let the work of the artist challenge and inspire state functions. One example is the Artist Placement Group, who, in the UK and Europe, managed to get artists “residencies” within various government agencies and private industries in order to challenge their inner dynamics and come up with unconventional solutions to real problems. But they never really managed to transcend the avant-garde performative category, partly because they never succeeded in including and expanding the activist component of their practice. In more recent years, however, artistic activists have had more success in crossing the lines between artistic creativity and governmental agency. Below are a few contemporary examples of artists working with and within the state who inspire us:

Traffic Mimes

Antanas Mockus faced many serious challenges when he became mayor of Bogotá, Colombia in 1995. The city, one of the most violent in the Western Hemisphere, also had a seemingly intractable problem with traffic congestion. Cars and people alike ignored signs and laws, and the result was chaos: gridlock and fatal accidents. Looking for a solution, Mayor Mockus surveyed residents’ attitudes on law and civil society. He discovered that the people of Bogotá had very little respect for law and order but put a great deal of emphasis on social norms and behavior. Armed with this knowledge Mockus came up with a plan.

Rather than imposing heavier fines, which he knew would be resented, or displaying more traffic signs, which he knew would be ignored, Mayor Mockus did something very creative: he fired the existing, and notoriously corrupt, traffic police and hired four hundred and twenty mimes to direct traffic in their place. These traffic mimes roamed the streets of the capital in brightly-colored clothes and painted faces, mocking and shaming pedestrians and drivers using the centuries old art of pantomime. The shock-value of the mimes’ presence, along with their appeal to citizens’ sense of humor (and their fear of ridicule) was impressively æffective. Due to the mimes, and other creative tactics, traffic fatalities dropped in Bogotá by over fifty percent. The mimes were so successful that other Latin American cities followed suit, using humor and ridicule to solve their traffic problems.

Crossings

In in the Midwestern US city of Milwaukee, performance artist (and recent MacArthur “Genius Award” winner) Anne Basting got a gig working at an old age home, hired to do “storytelling” with old people. She soon realized this didn’t work with a population facing senility: they simply couldn’t remember enough to be effective storytellers. But what they could do, and do brilliantly, was improv theatre.

Her work with the elderly also helped Basting understand their difficulties in navigating physical as well as mental spaces. One problem older people faced was simply crossing the street. Traffic lights are timed for younger, faster walkers with lights often changing as the elderly only make it half-way across the road. Working with her new theatre troupe of old people, as well as students from the local university, Basting created “Crossings” — a performance piece-cum-”demonstration” of the fact that traffic lights are not timed for old people. Performing for the public and city officials, Crossings was so affectively effective that it led to changes in local traffic laws.

If Antanas Mockus is an example of the kind of partnership we are talking about from the top down, then Anne Basting is an example of the same from the bottom up. Here is a different sort of example: the contractual kind.

Legal Love

Kenneth Balfelt is a Danish artist who uses citizen involvement techniques to come up with creative solutions to issues facing marginalized groups who are often forgotten in urban development plans. He has, for example, in collaboration with junkies and nurses, designed and created open and safe “injection rooms” for addicts in the old war bunkers around and underneath Copenhagen.

Balfelt’s project was highly controversial and served as a concrete point of departure for the heated debate it triggered. A couple of years ago, this debate finally led to the passing of a law in Copenhagen that introduced drug user rooms. A substantial victory.

Balfelt’s work also led the municipality of Copenhagen to choose him and his team to restore Fredens Park in Nørrebro — a strategic city square for politicians, media and political and social outcasts alike. An ingenious project in itself. But what was truly creative was the sort of deal Balfelt negotiated with the state. In the public contract between the state and the artist, Balfelt insisted upon the inclusion of the word “LOVE” as one of the criteria to be enacted and fulfilled. Had the municipality contracted an architect they would have gotten a space-use plan. Had it contracted an anthropologist they would have gotten a report. With Kenneth Balfelt’s contracted love affair, we received something more: the acknowledgement of the moral component of state governance.

Unlike bullshit, whose relationship to the truth is that of a cover-up, a replacement of the real with the fantasy, the service-performing artistic activist brings their art into the creation of real, material, social change that can be felt and experienced on the ground.

There are potential problems with this sort of collaboration. In learning to speak the language of the state do we risk losing the power of the unspeakable that is art? In her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” the great activist poet Audre Lorde wrote “I could name at least ten ideas I would have once found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems.” That is to say, art allows us to imagine things that are otherwise unimaginable, to conjure up new visions that can help us escape the prison-house of the useful and the rational. Yet, art also allows us to say things that cannot otherwise be said. As Lorde continues, “poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”[5] As such, art can give form to abstract feelings and ideas and present them in such ways that they can be communicated with others… and realized in practice.

Another potential problem: in privileging artistic expression and affect, we risk producing less than efficient social services or undermining the welfare state by letting its core services be provided by “amateur” volunteers. In this way, as the art critic Claire Bishop points out, the turn toward “socially engaged art” dovetails nicely with the neoliberal reduction of state services and valorization of social entrepreneurs.[6] Furthermore, this inclusion of artists within state services comes at a time when skills such as “critical reflection” and “creativity” seem to be the most important human qualities in job advertisements for corporate managers and state bureaucrats alike. Who is co-opting whom?

These are real risks, but they only become real problems if we think of the roles of creative artist and governmental activist in exclusion from one another. It needn’t be this way. At first glance, the aims of artists and activists seem at odds with one another. Activism moves the material world, while art moves the heart, body and soul. Classical democratic and economic theory would have us believe that people enact change because they have been “enlightened” to do so through a process of reasoned deliberations and rational choices based upon full access to the facts. As Marshall Ganz reminds us — or any seasoned activist can tell you — people don’t soberly decide to change their mind and act accordingly, they are moved to do so by emotionally powerful stimuli, be it love, hate, fear, hope, or compassion. And, as cognitive scientists like George Lakoff suggest, we make sense of our world less through reasoned deliberation of facts than through stories and symbols and metaphors that allow us to “make sense” of the information we receive. When it comes to stimulating social change, effect and affect, civic activism and artistic creation, can and should be intertwined. Through co-creative campaigns with the state, the power of imagination is set free and given a productive direction.

But this needs to be real collaboration between art and politics. Not politics as mere subject matter for art, like much of what so-called “political art” does. Or art as decoration for political functions, which is what artists are often called to do. Real cooperation between art and politics happens in accordance with what James C. Scott calls “anarchism as praxis.” Scott does not understand anarchism in a Proudhonian sense as cooperation without any hierarchy or state rule, but as a particular way of seeing and interacting with authority: a more process-oriented perspective on the emancipatory potential of the rebellious and disorderly. Unlike some anarchist thinkers, we do not believe that the state is everywhere and always the enemy of freedom; we think that a creative state, one which can facilitate human freedoms and deliver necessary social services, is not only possible but necessary. This will only come into being, however, if the integrity of artistic activism and its creative discursive autonomy is maintained in the open interplay with mainstream politics. Kenneth Balfelt was shrewdly aware of this — and got it in writing.

This practice of making art that “works” — or what artist Tania Bruguera calls Arte Útil — is a unique political opportunity in the history of progressive politics to test new ideas and stimulate social innovation. The world is in too dire straits not to take a leap of faith. Artistic activists have the cultural capital and the creative toolbox necessary to open up new territory, open up new visions, create new languages, establish new perspectives, build new alliances, and constructively challenge and improve traditional ways of thinking about the state and its functions.

Trumpism, in all its global manifestations, in all its unethical and crude fashion, understands the “art” of the state in an age of bullshit. Right-wing populism has circumvented truth with bullshit, and has conjured up bright fantasies that cover over dark realities. Those of us opposed to this age of right-wing political bullshit must resist the withdrawal into the comfort of “telling the truth” and imagining ourselves as the small child who will reveal that the emperor wears no clothes. This does not mean abandoning the truth; nor, however, does it mean reliance upon the “truth” as an ideal disconnected from material reality. Instead it means to “tell the truth” in ways that excite and engage — and sometimes enrage — people. And then, more importantly, to put it into practice in ways that lead citizens to understand how we are working to design an artful and innovative, affective and effective state that might expand our notion about what a state can, should, and could do.

 

Bibliography:

Anderson, Will. 2016. “Milo Yiannopoulos is the Prophet of the Post-Fact Era.” In Burning Tree Magazine. 28 September. http://burningtreemagazine.com/2016/09/28/milo-yiannopoulos-is-the-prophet-of-the-post-fact-era/

Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London & New York: Verso.

George Lakoff. 1996. Moral Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ganz, Marshall. 2011. “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power.” In Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, edited by Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee, 273-289. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” In Sister Outsider, 36-39. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Mockus, Antanas. 2015. Personal interview, 3 October.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2015. “affect, v2, 2. a. ; effect v. 1. a.” Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/

Pedersen, Ove K. 2011. Konkurrencestaten. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag.

Roller, Emma. 2016. “Your Facts or Mine? New York Times, 25 October.

Scott, James C. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action Part Three, the Dynamics of Nonviolent Action, Boston : P. Sargent Publisher.

Tarrow, Sidney. 2012. Strangers at the Gates: Movements and States in Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Footnotes:

[1] The activist group Indecline’s The Emperor Has No Balls — naked statues of Donald Trump erected in cities around the US in the spring — played on this very tale and theme. Illma Gore’s contentious painting of a vain naked Trump with a tiny penis is another example of how the interplay of the mythical political body, and the disclosure of the phallic greatness of it, has been a central theme of the recent election.

[2] Data on trust in government:

US: http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-government.aspx

UK: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3685/Politicians-are-still-trusted-less-than-estate-agents-journalists-and-bankers.aspx

Europe: http://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/

DK: http://www.ugebreveta4.dk/danskernes-tillid-til-politikere-er-forsvundet_20331.aspx

World overview: https://ourworldindata.org/trust

[3] Frankfurt, p. 61

[4] Frankfurt, pp. 52-3.

[5] Lorde, p. 37.

[6] Bishop, pp. 13-18.

Stephen Duncombe

  • Joe Detroit

    If you look back over the past 200 years of news and political speech, I think you will see politicians have always distorted and manipulated information for their political advantage. Moreover, contemporary distrust in politicians really dates from the 1960s. So neither your casual explanation nor your explained effect correlate with the factors described in your argument.

Previous post

Fidel Castro, Liberalism's Future, and Fake News

Next post

The Metamorphoses of the 2013 Brazilian Protests