The following texts are excerpts from “Art & Power,” Creative Time: The Book (New York: Creative Time and Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). They were read by David Levi-Strauss as part of project:rendition's performance program at Momenta Art, Sunday June 17, 2007.
[see: video of the readng]
Dispatch — for Dziga Vertov
This is a clear infraction. The signal-to-noise barrier has been repeatedly violated in this sector. Irrational dogs roam the perimeter, barking in time. Do not abandon your vehicle; it will only make it harder for you. We will continue to entertain proposals from interested parties, but all resistance will eventually be crushed. We repeat: Do not attempt to leave your vehicle!
We send you greetings from the front. We have engaged the enemy and are taking heavy losses. The enemy is faceless, soul-less, and ubiquitous. Please think of us as you go about your daily business. Remember us in our fight. The signal war must go on. If the signal fades, we will all be lost, without direction or succor. We will wander the world like zombies.
The evil-doers are like that. They move from cave to cave in a deathlike state. No amount of signal can reach them now, because they are out of range and receiverless. We will hunt them down, drag them out of their holes, and bring them to justice. Signal will pour down on them like rain, until they are seized with fear and abandon their vehicles.
That whirling mass on the screen is the future. But make no mistake about it, that future is entirely preordained and inevitable. It was all written down long before these childish visions of the social appeared; long before this imagination of human agency. The modern was a dream from which we awoke sober, relieved, and determined.
Calm yourselves. Everything is in our hands now, and we will not let you down. We were chosen for this task before we were born. Though we wandered for a while in the wilderness, at the appointed time the signal reached us, and we were born again. When the towers were hit, our mission was written in the sky. Be of good cheer: We are at war, now and forever.
Dispatch — for the Friends of William Blake
“Nought can deform the Human Race/ Like to the Armor’s iron brace.”
We’ve given up our right to think differently. We’ve agreed to sit idly by. We’ve been bought off with cheap technological trinkets and the vague promise of interconnectivity.
Only our machines will forgive us in the end. They won’t judge us, as other people do. They don’t require anything of us, except that we continue to stroke them, as they lie suspended in their glorious web.
But the images still come up on our screens, unbidden. The images of our complicity and of the prosthetic dead. Because someone has to be face-to-face. Someone has to pull the trigger. That’s what we pay for, after all. Cheney, and the ones who pull the trigger.
There is no shortage of surrogates. The young and the poor are especially convenient, lacking both purpose and means. We give them both, but we are especially generous with purpose. Freedom and democracy. Ultimate evil.
We play some music for them when they leave, and again, if they return. Once a year we remember them. We salute their sacrifice, we really do, even if they don’t die. We thank the Machines every day that we are not them.
When we invoke interconnectivity, we don’t mean them. We mean us. The ones who don’t talk back, or come back dead.
But someone needs to do something. We have enemies, real and imagined. The struggle is endless. Our leader is blameless. He takes his orders from the voices inside his head. The voices of the Machines. Look in his eyes—you can see him listening to them. You can see their dumb metal.
The current Bush regime’s invocation of a “state of exception” in its War on Terror has led to a multitude of officially sanctioned abuses, including torture and murder, and has created a climate in the United States in which the efficacy of such methods has been debated openly. The lessons of the French experience in Algeria came into play in 2003, when the Pentagon screened Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1965 film, The Battle of Algiers, for its special-operations chiefs as an example of the tactical use of torture and murder against terrorism.
When it was first published in 1958, Henri Alleg’s book The Question helped turn public opinion in France against the use of torture and murder in Algeria and ultimately against the occupation itself. Alleg said he had written the book because the French “must know what is done in their name.” In his preface, Sartre asked, referring to the French paramilitary forces, “What distinguishes us from these sadists?” and answered, “Nothing does, because we do not protest.” The French philosopher also posed terrorism and torture as commensurate and complementary: “The ‘forces of order,’ hindered by their own might, have no defense against guerillas except punitive expeditions and reprisals, no defense against terrorism but terror.” The inhumane and illegal treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo has been deemed acceptable by the Bush administration because these prisoners are considered beyond the pale; they have no rights because they are considered already dead. But when they try to materialize their true condition by hanging themselves or going on hunger strikes, they are forced to remain in this limbo—this state of exception.
“Appalled,” Sartre wrote, “the French are discovering this terrible truth: that if nothing can protect a nation against itself, neither its traditions nor its loyalties nor its laws . . .then its behavior is not more than a matter of opportunity and occasion. Anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.”
Why not use torture? Because it is immoral, and because the use of it diminishes all humankind, but also because it is ultimately counter-productive. Intended to dehumanize the enemy, it ends up dehumanizing, demoralizing, and corrupting one’s own personnel and discrediting one’s own cause.
“Neither its traditions nor its loyalties nor its laws.” In the five years since September 11, Bush & Co. have changed what Americans think about themselves. Out of fear—the seed of terror—has grown a terrible complicity and stupor that surpasses even that of the French. The question the rest of the world is asking now is this: What are these new Americans—unrestrained by tradition, loyalty, or law—capable of?
Arthur Rimbaud’s “Democracy”:
“The flag goes with the foul landscape, and our jargon muffles the drum.
“In great centers we shall aliment the most cynical prostitution, and massacre logical revolts.
“In spicy and drenched lands!—at the service of monstrous exploitations, either industrial or military.
“Farewell here, no matter where. Conscripts of good will, ours will be a ferocious philosophy, ignorant as to science, rabid for comfort; and let the rest of the world croak.
That’s the system. Let’s get going!
George W. Bush is only a symptom, like a pimple or a rash. Irritating and unsightly, yes, but he’s not the source of the problem. We are. The fact that we, the American people, let this pimple president do what he’s done is the outrage to democracy.
George Washington: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
Recent polls show that nearly 70% of Americans now disapprove of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and want to see a pullout, partial or complete. This is a big change. The most terrifying thing after 9/11 was not the threat from the Bin Laden gang of thugs, or the threat from the Bush gang of thugs, but rather the way the American people passively went along with Bush & Company. I first saw this level of conformity and managed consent during the First Gulf War under Bush the First, when the integration propaganda was so complete that people began to operate under a kind of collective amnesia. People forgot, and just went along with it.
At times like this, we’ve got to demonstrate, to go into the streets and demonstrate our objections, our non-compliance—not to make us feel better about ourselves, but to remain visible and audible to the powers-that-be. It’s not enough to complain quietly, and it’s not enough to “Click Here.” We have to act socially. (As Peter Fuller said, contemporary American artists have “every freedom except the one that matters: the freedom to act socially.”)
People don’t believe in reality anymore. They believe in images. And this belief makes it possible for them to be manipulated through images. Images and words matter. The symbolic world, the world of phantasms, matters. We are all subject to it. And since this is where artists and writers go to work, I believe we have a special responsibility to try to unmask the propaganda and to decode the messages being sent out on American screens, and to try to counter them with different words and images—to imagine other ways of thinking and acting.
Over one and a half years remain in the Bush presidency. That’s a long time for a lot more to go extremely wrong. “Aspens connected at the roots,” like Scooter Libby told Judith Miller. These thugs have got to go. The trouble is that the people who are working for them, especially the Image Management people, the “Imagineers,” are not thugs, or at least not in the same way. They are highly sophisticated manipulators of the public imaginary. To counter them requires a great deal more knowledge and finesse than we’ve been able to muster so far.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the rest of the Abu Ghraib images (the ones we haven’t yet seen), and writing about the current struggle within the government over torture, and in the course of that I came across this quote from Donald Kuspit’s book on Leon Golub (The Existentialist/Activist Painter: The Example of Leon Golub) that makes a very important connection, I think, between the critical spirit and manipulation or torture:
“The critical spirit is always in bondage. It always seeks to escape, and always exists in a tortured state, because it always questions existing values. What is valued in the modern world is manipulation, whether in crude or subtle form, and Golub’s art can be understood as a critique of manipulation writ large—made radically explicit—as torture. When manipulation forces, rather than ‘persuades’ to conformity, or when it does not succeed, it becomes torture, and destroys what it cannot ‘convince.’”
This is the line we’re on.
Art & Power
The argument for deferring to experts in government is developed most by Plato, who began his career with a discussion of the political techne, moved on to his dream of rule by philosopher kings and queens, and ended it by devising a system in which highly educated legislators would work by night, planning to ram their laws into people’s minds with the help of the arts.
---Paul Woodruff, First Democracy
When I told the poet Robert Kelly that I was writing something on art and power, he said, “Well, without art, there wouldn’t be any power, would there?” He was not, as I first thought, referring to the apotropaic potencies of Lascaux and Chauvet, nor to the complex mirroring of Michelangelo and the Medici, but to the intricate web of symbolic capital surrounding and supporting Condoleezza Rice as she flies around the world implementing the Bush/Cheney Doctrine. This expanded (and older) sense of art, which includes public acts of phantasmic persuasion through symbols and images, makes the question of the relation between art and power especially urgent and consequential.
The last time that American artists felt collectively implicated and embroiled in this larger public sense of art was during the Culture Wars at the end of the 1980s. The political/cultural calculus shifted in this country when the Right figured out how to demonize artists as elitist and un-American, after too much of what remained of the Left had accepted the postmodern shibboleth of the “anti-aesthetic.” Fake populism is employed by politicians of both political parties, but the Republicans wield it with much greater force and effectiveness. Artists, writers, intellectuals, and even journalists are transformed into the privileged (and despised) elite, while representatives of the real corporate and financial elites like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney successfully masquerade as plain-speaking Good Old Boys. At the same time, Bush’s economic policies rapidly concentrated wealth in the top stratum, which “trickled down” to mortgage bankers and hedge-fund managers, creating a new class of overheated cultural consumers, and igniting an art market boom. Within the market, virtually anything is possible in terms of content, but the trade-off is that artists can no longer have any social reach or impact outside of the market. You stay in your market, and I’ll stay in mine. One might be forgiven for remembering the divisive reign of Jesse Helms with a certain fondness:
I believe that Senator Jesse Helms taught artists, and other people who care about free expression, an important lesson. He reminded us that art productions are more than merchandise and a means to fame, as we thought in the 1980s. They represent symbolic power, power that can be put to the service of domination or emancipation, and thus has ideological implications with repercussions in our everyday lives. Helms made us recognize that free expression, even though guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, is by no means secure without the vigilance of a public that is ready to fight for it.
— Hans Haacke
Thanks to Helms and his confederates, public support for art in America all but disappeared, replaced by corporate sponsorship, with its far more sophisticated and effective ways of limiting freedom of expression. The market giveth, and the market taketh away. There is no longer any question of public accountability, and no need for overt censorship. Financial capital is exchanged for symbolic capital in a highly functional and more or less closed system.
Why is the art market booming? Because people with money want art. They want signs and images and beauty and facture. They want symbolic capital. And they want “creative time.” They may not have time, themselves, to create. But they have the financial capital to exchange for the compressed expressions of it, made by artists.
So, what is possible? “Paradoxically,” as Pierre Bourdieu said, “it is in the name of everything that assures the autonomy of their universe that artists, writers, or scholars can intervene in today’s struggles.” Their relative autonomy and marginalization gives them a measure of market independence that makes radical action possible. It was Marcel Duchamp, of all people, that enigmatic daimon of contemporary art, who said that “great art can only come out of conditions of resistance.” In these times, when most of the symbolic arena has been seized and put into the service of domination, a real resistance can perhaps, conversely, emerge from non-sanctioned (non-market) art.
The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things.
— C. Wright Mills 
In his extraordinary series of lectures broadcast by the BBC in 1993, Edward Said called for artists and intellectuals to confront political power in the symbolic arena, and to develop a politics and poetics of resistance:
Speaking the truth to power is no Panglossian idealism: it is carefully weighing the alternatives, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change.
Said warned against the seductive trappings of professionalism that can sap one’s ingenuity and will. The greatest danger of all, he asserted, is “the inevitable drift towards power and authority in its adherents, towards the requirements and prerogatives of power, and towards being directly employed by it.” Said’s warnings about the pitfalls of professionalism are perhaps especially relevant at a time when all parts of the art world are becoming more professionalized and managed, when most young artists hold professional degrees, and when it is increasingly difficult for younger practitioners to imagine operational independence from powerful institutions.
Against the constrictions of professionalism, Said asserted the role of the freelance amateur, acting in public: “In the first place amateurism means choosing the risks and uncertain results of the public sphere. . . over the insider space controlled by experts and professionals.” By insisting to work in the public realm, the amateur becomes responsible to a different audience, which requires a new language, and new forms. The tendency today is to withdraw from the public sphere into the private, and this has an immediate political effect. When we withdraw from the public, we cede political control to others, to act in our name.
Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. . . . When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.
— Hannah Arendt
This type of representation is unavoidable, but it must be continually negotiated. Hannah Arendt believed that the coercion of power would always be vulnerable to the persuasion of art. The Bush/Cheney Doctrine has gotten as far as it has because its rhetoric contains a grain of truth: people everywhere do want freedom. The question is one of means. The ultimate expression of power is war, but the ultimate expression of freedom is art. And that distinction will remain, no matter how much symbolic capital is stacked up to obscure it.
the New World
feels so old—
not ancient, but
gone in the teath and hair,
bitter and short
with its loved ones,
making their care a chore.
of its youth has turned
around in the tunnel,
and there’s no more