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Obama and the Arts


Michael Shear, writing in the New York Times, “The Rise of the Drone Master: Pop Culture Recasts Obama,” (Apr. 30), ventilates for public discussion an issue hitherto largely suppressed–or, among liberals especially, complicit in and/or overly cautious in criticism of Obama’s policies and record, a response of indifference in order to shield him and perhaps protect the state of artistic expression itself from the basic criticism it deserves. The arts community, with few exceptions, glories in self-castration, jumping like Skinner’s rats negotiating hurdles to grants, popular acceptance, recognition. Conscience is a scarce attribute, as “creative” persons choose subject matter light-years away from the suffering caused by the administration’s domestic and foreign policy. Therefore, political consciousness likewise: We have no Brecht or George Grosz to call attention to fascistic structural-ideological trends, no Odets or Ben Shawn to reveal the lives of the dispossessed, no Aaron Copeland to present a magnificent Third Symphony dedicated to human emancipation from the forces of totalitarianism at home and abroad.

Yes, you’ll say, the times are different, and that the older radical aesthetic no longer fits. How expect the all-pervasive privatization of structure and political economy NOT to penetrate downward into the makings of a solipsistic personality, callous—like Obama—to social misery and human suffering, seeking refuge in distorted national pride via asserting dominance over others (and in so doing, strengthening the same tendencies at home in the form of widening class differentials of wealth and power)? That’s just the point, America, gradually over the last half-century, has changed for the worse—no longer even capable of confronting the repression it has created, directed to the poor, to unpopular ideas, to visions of brotherhood, as in Paul Robeson’s tribute to “my kind of a guy,” whether he’s black, white, or tan.

No Robeson, not more than a sprinkling of writers, actors, painters, dancers, novelists, playwrights, in pop culture particularly a dearth of stand-up voices against war, intervention, indefinite detention, surveillance, torture, rendition, MILITARISM in large, a corporatism gathering to itself the reins of what is left of democracy, all of which define the fabric of daily life—to be ignored, or occasionally applauded, on the road to fame and fortune. How much of this can be blamed on the psychological consequences of advanced capitalism—I think a cop out, because between the System and the Individual there is vast space for resistance, resistance no longer evident. What then? Although a world trend, it appears that America intensifies the numbness which births explosive-destructive outbreaks of political sadism, the numbness which sunders human bonds of societal welfare, leaving in its wake—once again, Obama as the quintessential persona of our times—an emptiness, the psychopathology of losing one’s identity in Structures of Power, crushing (as in targeted assassination) others for no other reason than a feigned belief that enemies lurk “out there,” waiting to take what is rightfully ours.

Capitalism DOES play a role, a world disease of possessiveness trumping all other traits and inclinations in the human repertoire, but explanation, even there, must make room for conscious action, that of a society’s ruling groups (now the military and intelligence communities welcomed into the charmed circle as junior members) calling the shots (pun unintended) of profit maximization and global hegemony, on one hands, and, on the other, off to the side, the artistic community (broadly conceived), derelict in its inner soul as that which must transcend capitalism—indeed, all social systems—in preserving what is distinctively human, a creative impulse nowhere supplied outside the self, what some 19th century writers, like my favorite American reformer, Henry Demarest Lloyd, called, the divine spark (and collectively, “the divinity of humanity”), a conflict, remaining on the conscious level, between what Lloyd in his classic analysis of US monopolism, valid to this day, called, “Wealth Against Commonwealth.”

Commonwealth does not exist today, nor does the artistic vision of transcendence and temperament of fearless facing down of Authority, either. One cannot hold the Arts responsible, yet neither can one let the situation go on still further, which is no more than the normalization of repression. The Arts must contest against normalization per se, constantly striving to enlarge human self-expression as the first step for reaching out, one to another, to building a human community shorn of deception, fallacious leadership, manipulation—what has become the norm of political life. In Shear’s article, the striking point to me is not the handful of examples protesting government policy—centered, he points out, on surveillance and loss of privacy—but their general paucity, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Where the counterpart to McBird and Strangelove, where Of Mice and Men, Waiting for Lefty, where the next group of Hollywood Ten? McCarthyism had one blessing, its obviousness and intellectual savagery, so that people could and DID fight back. Today we have Obama, NSA, DOJ (with its contempt for habeas corpus rights and civil liberties—Obama as well as Holder, to blame), the National Security State in full bloom, most Americans, the artist (again, broadly conceived) right in there, complacent and compliant.

Ah, the exceptions though, the best, most straightforward in Shear’s account: “On the campus of Occidental College in Los Angeles, the artists Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher sculpted a full-size 55-foot-wide MQ-1B Predator drone out of mud. In an accompanying manifesto titled ‘We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust,’ the artists say they are ‘proposing and modeling a possible act of resistance to the authoritarian machinery’ of the drones.” I write this on May Day, with tears in my eyes, for the victims of the armed drones whose missiles left only blood spats where human beings, flesh and blood like my own, once stood, and with anger in my heart, for the monsters in human form responsible for the whole “authoritarian machinery” driving this nation to the edge of fascism.

My New York Times Comment on the Shear article, same date, follows:

Obama has a visceral contempt for transparency, an attitude the tip of the iceberg for a REPRESSIVE society,nowhere better seen than in his campaign of massive surveillance of American society, that which is antithetical to the free expression of the arts and, as in his Espionage Act prosecutions, of truth itself.

Until recently the US artistic community has shown little guts in the opposition to fascistic-inclined government and public policy, a reflection of just how much the arts (I use the term inclusively) is overly-commercialized and in practice has groveled in the face of wealth.

If this is finally changing, and kudos to Shear for the article, it is certainly about time: The arts are an index of human freedom, or at least should be, and cowed submission speaks volumes about the degradation and commercialism heretofore seen. Drones are an excellent departure point, a POTUS poring over hit lists with his fellow zealots, personally authorizing assassination. No film noir could possibly depict a graver evil.

It is a function of the Arts to wake the people up, a populace which has countenanced multiple interventions and regime change under Obama, while transforming the nation into the most economically UNEQUAL in its history: the top 0.1% equals, what, at least the bottom 50%–and with unequal wealth comes unequal power, Obama presiding over a class-state ideally suited to militarism, which he abets at every opportunity.
Power to the Arts.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

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