Sign is symbol, symbol is sign. Consider:
*Powell goes to the United Nations so that the missile attacks on Baghdad and Basra can begin — and, in the lobby of that grand building, Picasso’s “Guernica” painting, which depicts the horrific results of the Nazi bombing of that Spanish town, is covered over prior to Powell’s arrival. No use embarrassing the U.S. by reminding folks of what’s in store for Iraqi civilians.
*Ashcroft, in his police-state zeal, begins shredding the Constitution’s Bill of Rights with its guarantees of due-process of law, and, early on, has the huge lobby statue of the Goddess of Justice draped and covered over because of its exposed breast. How appropriate to shroud Justice so that she can’t see what’s being done in her name.
*First Lady Laura Bush cancels a poetry workshop at the White House because she suspects that a number of America’s high-profile poets, in the sacred grounds of that seat of power, will raise the issue of the coming war with Iraq.
Did you notice the thread that unites these events? In all three cases, symbolic shrouds are placed over art, so that nobody will notice the bad things that are being done in American citizens’ names.
But art knows. Art sees beyond, often before the general public is aware of what’s going on. (Often before the artists themselves are conscious of what they’re revealing.) Art points us in new directions that make us think and question.
To those inclined more to rigid-order mentality, art is a virus that needs to be stamped out, or, at the least, tightly controlled. (“When I hear the word culture,” said Nazi leader Goebbels, “I reach for my revolver.”)
It’s all part of the so-called “cultural civil war.” Those who control the signs and symbols control the polity. Thus, minions are trotted out to denounce artists and their tendency to look for complexity, ironies, hypocrisies, hidden humor. To incipient fascists, the world is a Manichean one, divided into black and white, those who are Good and those who are Evil (“You’re either for us or against us”).
And since they are certain that God obviously favors their side, it follows that those in opposition — or even (or especially) those who point the way to other visions of complex reality — are part of the enemy forces and must be dealt with.
One problem with authoritarianism — whatever brand comes along: Stalin’s communism, or Hitler’s fascism, or Islamic Talibanism, or whatever we’re moving into in America right now — is that it makes art more delicious and tempting. The public is not dumb and eventually comes to figure out that the “truth” being propounded by the frightened rulers does not match the world most citizens actually live in. And so they begin to seek out and support art and artists and, most of all, comedians — those sly artisans, those holy fools, that can shake the foundations of power with a well-aimed dart.
Musicians, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors, dancers, novelists, filmmakers, online satirists, comics — everything these artists do in an authoritarian society comes to be seen by the public in the light of the repression visited from above.
A story to illustrate this point: American avant-garde theater artist George Coates was invited to bring his visual extravaganzas to Poland during the dark times there. One of the huge slide projections used by Coates was of a manhole cover, which image covered the entire staging area. Various human forms emerged from the holes — i.e., real actors came out of holes in the stage, but, given the projection, they appeared to be emerging from the holes in the manhole cover.
The audience took this in with rapt silence and then a few brave souls began clapping. Then waves and waves of applause and cheering washed over the actors. Coates was mystified by the audience reaction. Audiences in the U.S. loved this bit of theatrical magic, to be sure, but nothing like this Polish crowd.
After the show, various Polish theater artists came backstage to talk to Coates and his cast. They nudged Coates in the ribs and whispered their admiration for his willingness to confront the Polish Communist rulers by celebrating the “underground.” Yes, what was merely an interesting use of a visual image for Coates was a cunning reference to the underground resistance of a budding Solidarity movement. After a few attempts at explaining himself, Coates simply smiled and nodded as the Poles heaped praise on his revolutionary “political” art.
Art has power. Art unmasks. Art tells lies in the service of truth. (Whereas governments lie in order to conceal truth.)
The more lies authoritarian governments tell their citizens, the more a sub rosa consciousness bubbles up from the culture’s artists and then from its ordinary citizens. It’s a slow-growing and, at times, dangerous movement — which is why the forces of reaction try so hard to stomp on it — but it is an amazingly strong and vital and resilient force.
Because totalitarian governments rest on fake foundations, when those regimes fall, they fall with amazing quickness and ferocity. One day there’s a wall, the next day it’s torn down and the celebrations begin. One day there is officially sanctioned art, the next day those huge statues are toppled. One day, the culture arbiters and censors are in control, the next day they are in disgrace — or in jail.
Americans, still gripped by fear from 9/11, have tended to be in a state of animated numbness, putting up little resistance to the machinations of the authoritarian rulers. Similarly, out of great sympathy for the post-9/11United States, various nations around the world bowed to the wishes of the Bush government.
Bush&Co., meeting little resistance, interpreted this relative lack of opposition as full support for their programs, foreign and domestic. And so they’ve continued to want more, tighten the screws more, reach and then over-reach for more. Their motto and guiding principle seems to be: “We can’t be stopped, so let’s just go take it all.”
Suddenly, though, Bush&Co. are running into overt opposition. Their allies abroad are telling them — to their face — that current American policies are mad, wrong, dangerous. More and more conservative allies at home are warning the Bush Administration that their dash toward imperial rule abroad and draconian Constitution-shredding at home is a violation of what America stands for, and will bring the United States (and, given the economic interweavings between nations, much of the world as well) nothing but disaster.
The current U.S. rulers will not alter their course. It’s war with Iraq, full speed ahead and to hell with the rest of you — especially ignorant “old Europe,” and American dissidents at home. It’s a proposed extension of the so-called USA Patriot Act, to give the federal government even more martial-law-like police powers in controlling the society — the “cover” is hunting for terrorists, of course — and to hell with the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
These Bush&Co. leaders are so arrogant, so rude, so greedy and power-hungry, so taken with themselves as God’s mesengers and as the world’s only Superpower, so convinced they are right in the tunnel-vision black-and-white world they inhabit, that it’s clear their days are numbered. It may take a bit longer to build to critical mass — and there is going to be death and destruction and persecution while that momentum is being built up — but when the time for their fall arrives, it’s going to be quick and nasty. And we’ll finally all wake up from this nightmare that has crushed our economy, diminished our moral light in the world, disgraced our beloved Constitution and country.
And at the vanguard of this movement away from the shadow America and back into the light will be our our poets, our comedians, our painters, our playwrights, our novelists, and so on — “dangerous” artists all, even when they’re not political. They simply see too much, too clearly.
A toast to their hungry vision.
BERNARD WEINER, a Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, served as theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and written widely for progressive journals. He is co-editor of The Crisis Papers.