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Changing times in a contemporary dystopia: How does art respond to politics?

By Anna Souter


Image: Antony Cairns, TYO2_081, 2016. Courtesy of Roman Road and the artist. © Antony Cairns

In an age of troubling politics, unsettling new possibilities for technology, and the ubiquity of the term “post-truth” in the media, there is a strong debate about where art should fall on the spectrum of political activism. Artists such as Richard Prince, Shepard Fairey and Shia LaBeouf have made strong artistic statements of protest against Donald Trump’s presidency, all of which have been well-received by the art establishment. But it’s notable that in the art that most effectively captures our imaginations today, political commentary is often subtle or barely there at all.


The world wants to know how the arts can hit back at what it sees as problematic politics, but often the most powerful messages are conveyed by artworks which present us with a version of our lived reality and invite us to look at the world we know with fresh eyes. Art doesn’t have to be overtly political in order to tell us something about the politics of our times.



A dystopian age


This mode of nominally apolitical but socially engaged art often touches on the politico-cultural undercurrents of contemporary life. Today, it is becoming increasingly evident that the visual language of dystopia permeates contemporary art, and this can almost certainly be linked to the international political and cultural climate. Drawn from literary description and films by directors such as Kubrick and Welles, the aesthetic of dystopia (often a provocative blend of run-down and futuristic) speaks to a world in which change, speed and political expediency appear to define our lives.


The term dystopia was developed as the opposite of Utopia, a name given to a fictional perfect world and derived from Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book of the same title. Both utopia and dystopia are originally literary tropes, but most people today conceive of dystopia as an idea of a hopeless environment ruined by humanity’s actions, rather than as a fully-realised fictional scheme. There are hints of the idea of dystopia everywhere in contemporary culture and politics, from the Hunger Games franchise to Donald Trump’s inauguration speech and the media’s reception of Kellyanne Conway’s appeal to “alternative facts”.


Faced with the complexities and media-ready visibility of contemporary politics, artists often feel compelled to document the less-seen side of a place or issue, which could be a city, a class of society, a politician or the internet. Whether it’s by photographing usually-bustling streets in the silence of the night or providing viewers with instructions on how to avoid online surveillance, art gives visibility to the point where the seen and unseen meet. These margins are often brought to the surface by drawing attention to something which offers an unfamiliar perspective on something familiar, and the aesthetic of dystopia is the perfect place in which to play out this contrast.



Trump’s America: A fiction


In Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, his rhetoric suggested that he has inherited an America in a dystopian state, strewn with the wreckage caused by former governments. This dismal imagined land is a powerful fantasy of Trump’s and plays perfectly into his political positioning.


“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential.”[i]


His language is surprisingly poetic and filled with imagery, giving him an ill-suited air of literariness. This verbal alignment with the fictional dystopias of literature would give his words a greater sense of authenticity, if we could put aside the idea that fiction is just that: fiction.


It seems, however, that we can. An article in the New York Times by Adam Kirsch asked what happens to the status of fiction when lies and truth have apparently become interchangeable:


“The problem with our post-truth politics is that a large share of the population has moved beyond true and false. They thrill precisely to the falsehood of a statement, because it shows that the speaker has the power to reshape reality in line with their own fantasies of self-righteous beleaguerment. To call novelists liars is naïve, because it mistakes their intention; they never wanted to be believed in the first place. The same is true of demagogues.”[ii]


Trump’s words are deliberately aligned with fiction (literary or otherwise) because it’s what many people seem to want; people accept falsehoods because they play into the confirmational bias of what they want to hear. It is ironic, then, that Trump’s attitude towards fact and fiction, demonstrated in his presentation of an imaginary American dystopia as fact, is uncannily aligned with ideas expressed in George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.


The story’s protagonist works at the Ministry of Truth, where he amends historical records to conform to the ever-changing party line. Orwell knows, as does every member of the society in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that “he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”[iii] Donald Trump’s editing or ignoring historical facts seems to be an attempt to do just this: to control the past, present and future.


Where does this leave dystopia? Firmly set in our present reality, or an intangible concept rendered irrelevant by the fictionalisation of politics and information? It certainly remains a popular idea, with Nineteen Eighty-Four rising dramatically to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list after Trump’s presidential win. Some of the clearest places that it has come to rest is in the aesthetics of a plethora of films set in a dystopian future, in increasingly convincing philosophical theories that we actually live in a simulated universe, and in art.



Art and politics


It’s difficult to deny the intersectionality between a work of art and the socio-political environment in which it was produced. In the late 18th century, the industrial revolution in Britain brought about a time of immense social, political and technological upheaval. Artists such as Caspar David Friedriech, JMW Turner and Giovanni Battista Piranesi responded to the changing times (both consciously and subconsciously) by painting scenes of nature, often punctuated by the ruins of former cultures. From the dramatic fallen pillars of Ancient Rome to the crumbling castles of the Northumberland coast, artists found themselves drawn to the opposite of the technological progress represented by the industrial revolution, and to scenes which might prove prescient of its future downfall.


Some artists went as far as to create images of apocalyptic events, such as John Martin’s exploding volcanoes, or of the landscapes and cities of industry in ruins, strangely echoing Trump’s dystopian vision of America today. Hubert Robert, for example, famously painted fictitious scenes of the newly-constructed grand gallery of the Louvre in ruins, while Joseph Gandy depicted the Bank of England in a similar state, complete with the ivy and broken columns which are the trademarks of Romantic ruins.




Image: Hubert Robert, Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins, 1796

It could be argued that a similar phenomenon can be found in art today, when we are once again caught up in the hurried grip of a technological revolution. We can find a number of examples of contemporary art where human beings are almost eclipsed by larger scenes of technology or urban space, echoing the literary dystopian trope of individuals being subsumed by the totalitarian society or technological autocracy of which they are a part.


This can be seen in Antony Cairns’ blurry process-driven images of famous cities at night; generic concrete blocks loom down over disconcertingly empty streets and the lights of vacant rooms cast an impersonal glow. It can also be seen in Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), a video which gives instructions on how to become invisible in the digital age. The film features a human model, who is constantly interrupted and encroached upon by CGI imagery and environments.



Escaping or facing the future


It is tempting to think of these works as offering a form of cathartic escapism; to banish the frightening future scenario by expressing it. But these works aren’t depicting the future, they’re firmly rooted in the present. They point to a potential possible future, but only in a subtle way. Cairns’ photographs are taken in real streets in international cities visited by millions. By using the distorting processes of analogue photography, he creates images that are both familiar and unfamiliar; the world he presents appears dystopian but it is only a small and disconcerting step away from our own. His images prompt us to look at our own understanding of our environment again, and to see the darker side that we might miss in our everyday lives.


This is not to suggest that artists such as Cairns and Steyerl are necessarily making a deliberate reference to the idea of dystopia and its visual tropes. The point is that the idea of dystopia has been an undercurrent of our social-cultural thinking for several decades, and it has recently been coming to the surface more frequently, perhaps as a response to the technological changes taking place in our society. This surfacing has left its mark on our collective thought and, consequently, on art and literature.


This is not a new phenomenon. From the industrial revolution to the Second World War and the student uprisings of 1968, extreme political environments have drawn artists and writers to these images of dystopia: Gandy’s ruined Bank of England, Orwell’s novels and the are-bure-boke aesthetic of the Provoke movement in Japan are all examples of this. The psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm has argued that “George Orwell’s 1984 is the expression of a mood, and it is a warning. The mood it expresses is that of near despair about the future of man.”[iv] This mood seems to have gripped the world once more. But art, with its capacity to make us see the unseen and look more closely at the highly visible, can offer us a way to express and work through our fears.


[i]  Donald Trump Inauguration Speech, quoted in The Financial Times, 20 January 2017

[ii]  Adam Kirsch, “Lie to me: Fiction in the post-truth era”, The New York Times, 15 January 2017

[iii]  George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949

[iv]  Erich Fromm, quoted in Louisa MacKay Demerjian (ed.), The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future (Cambridge Scholars: Newcastle, 2016)



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