This post got shelved for a while because, life. But in an all-you-can-eat-postmodern-aesthetic-buffet, little is genuinely new. Activity is frantic, but progress is slow. Observations can be defrosted and reheated, with only a minimum of seasoning necessary to make them palatable again.
In the last post, we discussed the structural Asymmetry which underpins Left and Right power dynamics.
Here we temporarily shift our focus away from such meta-level concerns, back towards the contemporary art world to pose a simple question:
Q: How many non-leftwing art galleries are allowed to exist in London, in 2017?
I repeat, zero.
How is that for an example of a nice, even cultural playing field, undistorted by underlying, inherent bias?
Until relatively recently, with the reaction to the curatorial program at LD50 gallery, this arithmetic was more implicit than explicit. True, there weren’t any non-leftwing art galleries in London, but neither was there a salient example of an explicit prohibition against the possibility of one existing. For reasons which, in the wake of the militant opposition to LD50, seem painfully obvious in retrospect, no one in the contemporary art world had sought to curate an exhibition that seriously challenged or transgressed progressive neo-religious values.
Of course, to anyone who has been frequenting the same darkened corners of the Internet as Parallax Optics, this should fail to register as a surprise. In 2017, the vast majority of artists, curators and gallerists are uber-progressives – people who ascribe wholesale to the progressive neo-religious worldview, only more so. It’s therefore highly unlikely that the thought of questioning, let alone transgressing, the sacred tenants of their belief system, which they don’t even conceptualise as a belief system, would readily occur to them.
And if it did occur to them, it would probably be relatively easy to dismiss the impulse to act on it as “too inflammatory”, or “immoral”, or “career suicide”, or something… Besides, how could anybody seriously object to the universal values held sacred by the progressive neo-religion – are they not, self-evidently, good and pure and true?
After all, the high-status progressives all behave as if they were… at least in public, anyway.
The fact is that contemporary artists fail to comprehend the inherently religious nature of progressive ideology, and because of this they fail to perceive how their own thoughts are circumscribed by progressivism, to the point of epistemic closure. It’s important to notice that “radical” or “political” contemporary artists all cluster to the Left, a position from which it is safe to criticise the State for being insufficiently progressive. Positioning themselves as holier than the State enables contemporary artists to signal their radical political credentials safely, without actually putting themselves, or their career prospects, at risk.
Indeed, it is possible to travel a considerable distance to the radical left without facing any formal, legal or social consequences as a result of your political beliefs or actions. Move a fraction to the right of the Overton Window, however, and you are potentially in for a very bad time – exposed to the strong possibility of real-world consequences courtesy of your political adversaries’ anti-heretic torture kit.
In his detailed introduction to reactionary political thought, Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell, Scott Alexander, who is not himself a reactionary, and has criticized aspects of it extensively, nevertheless passes the ideological Turing Test in articulating this dynamic:
If you “criticize” society by telling it to keep doing exactly what it’s doing only much much more so, society recognizes you as an ally and rewards you for being a “bold iconoclast” or “having brave and revolutionary new ideas” or whatever. It’s only when you tell them something they actually don’t want to hear that you get in trouble.
And so the main difference between modern liberal democracy and older repressive societies is that older societies repressed things you liked, but modern liberal democracies only repress things you don’t like. Having only things you don’t like repressed looks from the inside a lot like there being no repression at all.
This ideological blind spot has led to the formation of what the director of LD50 gallery, Lucia Diego, described as a “cultural echo chamber” – a defined system in which certain ideas and beliefs are reinforced through communication and repetition, while competing ideas and viewpoints are disallowed, screened out and censored:
We feel that the exceptionally aggressive, militant and hyperbolic reaction that this [exhibition] has provoked vindicates our suspicion that at some point, as a society, we have drifted into a cultural echo chamber.
Our position has always been that the role of art is to provide a vehicle for the free exploration of ideas, even and perhaps especially where these are challenging, controversial or indeed distasteful for some individuals to contemplate.
But while identifying the operational mechanism of the cultural echo chamber is certainly important to gain an objective understanding of the contemporary cultural landscape, it’s the neo-religious, axiomatic foundational underpinning of the progressive echo chamber we are primarily concerned with here.
The Orwellian dimension of progressive power is expertly deconstructed by Karl F. Boetel, in the Orwell vs Huxley edition of Radish magazine:
When you start to notice how tyranny, in recent times, and for fairly obvious reasons, prefers to call itself nice names like “tolerance,” “freedom,” “equality,” and most of all “progress,” which is itself Orwellian; and that our collective blind spot for progressive tyranny results from progressives occupying almost every position of (real) power in the government, which is quite Orwellian; and that all of this is generally considered to be an unremarkable state of affairs and not in the slightest bit Orwellian, which is astonishingly Orwellian; then, and only then, will you begin to see the scope of our failure.
He goes on to enumerate how the Cathedral manufactures consent:
“Uh, no, progressives have barely any power, because—” Right, I know, something something “Republicans in Congress.” Thank you, Noam Chomsky customer, for proving my point exactly: a democratic state is guided by public opinion (this is where you’re supposed to stop thinking, but we barrel on), public opinion is guided by teachers and journalists, and teachers and journalists are guided by college professors, and yet for some reason you, college-educated New York Times reader, are unable to identify the universities and the press as informal branches of the government, which they evidently are.”
Contemporary artists are progressives and progressivism is power. Individual artists can be apolitical, which in practice means they are progressive by default. Alternatively, they can be self-consciously political and employ politics to status-signal, positioning themselves at the outermost edge of the Overton Window and pushing it further leftwards. Such artists have embraced the role of political shills – willing, indeed enthusiastic, tools of State propaganda – petitioning the State to move in precisely the direction it already wanted to go, only faster.
Progressivism holds a libidinal attraction for contemporary artists because they are drawn to power and social status, in particular when it is connected to virtuous pursuits, such as championing equality, diversity and environmental issues. As a neo-religious constellation of moral coordination points, progressivism forms a complete, self-contained belief system. At a structural level, its axiomatic constructs shape the epistemological landscape progressives inhabit, informing their assumptions on both a conscious and subconscious level. Indeed, their capacity to maintain ignorance concerning the theological underpinning of progressivism lends it greater tensile strength.
The contemporary art world – its institutions and personnel, viewers, consumers, and of course the artists themselves – is, overwhelmingly, uber-progressive. Contra to the rose-tinted perspective of its adherents, progressivism isn’t comprised of universal moral truths discovered by a combination of science and the application of pure, unbiased rational thinking. It is a hyper-predatory, neo-religious ideological system, highly evolved and weaponised to snuff out ideological competition. Despite progressivisms insistence on its universal applicability, which appears superficially plausible precisely because of its contemporary transnational dominance, it is in fact highly spatio-temporo-culturally specific, to the point of idiosyncrasy – nothing like it has existed at any other point in history.
Contemporary artists tend to think of “religious art” as an anachronism – a static, dusty old relic of the past. They perceive themselves as freethinking, rational individuals – atheists, or at least agnostics – unshackled from the strictures of naïve and pernicious religious dogma, which afflicted their predecessors – the dead, white, male artists of the past.
But this is fallacious. While the specific content of progressive religious dogma may have changed and evolved – respect for transgenderism is in, belief in the virgin birth is out – the overarching ideological structure of deontological religiosity, remains. Apprehended through these optics, self-styled “radical” leftwing artists can, at last, be seen for what they actually are – pious, conformist, zealots. They are not, as they claim, part of the linage of the Avant-guard, radicals or revolutionaries. Instead, they are self-appointed missionaries, in possession of nothing more “radical” than an updated list of sacred prohibitions and taboos, deployed in the service of the State religion.
Contemporary artists have always positioned themselves as special, freethinking iconoclastic individuals, who ask “difficult” questions and “speak truth to power”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2017 the “radical” edge of the contemporary art world is vastly overpopulated by intellectually timid, pseudo-creative missionaries of the Universalist status quo.