Saturday, October 27, 2007

Art For Business' Sake

In the previous post, I showed a page from Chairman Mao's Red Book that said that "There is in fact no such things as art for art's sake." Mao sees everything in terms of class and politics. "Our purpose," Mao is quoted a couple pages later, "is to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part."

What if art were self-consciously working -- or employed -- to fit into the commercial machine? In the latest (and maybe last) issue of The Baffler, Catherine Liu is skeptical of business' embrace of the "creative class," especially in Singapore:
"Today it is creativity, not eugenics, that fires the fancy of Singapore's rulers. But the hyper-rational logic remains the same. The government still wants to engineer social progress and prosperity -- only the new maxim is art equals money."
Apparently, some Singapore government research proved that art and culture bring greater returns than banking or petrochemicals these days. Introducing: "Art for Business' Sake." No one has spelled it out so explicitly before. Liu continues:
"Thus the winding path by which art for art's sake has become an official initiative of an authoritarian government."
So Mao's idea of art for revolution's sake, is turned into a much more insidious project. But as Liu points out, Singapore got the idea from America.

But the idea of an authoritarian government taking control of art as a way of taking control of people is not new, nor necessarily American. In Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'N' Roll, now in previews on Broadway, Jan (played by Rufus Sewell on Broadway and in London last year), a Czech intellectual and rock connoiseur, had served some prison time after being arrested with the Czech rock band The Plastic People of the Universe in 1976 -- the band was accused of "spreading anti-socialist messages in their songs."

In one scene, Jan is talking to a British journalist (Nigel) in Prague in 1987 -- more than 10 years after the Plastics did prison time. He is explaining "Rockfest," a government-sponsored music festival:
Nigel: Rock Fest . . .?

Jan: Sure. Even a Communist government wants to be popular. A few years ago life was getting better, everybody could have a refrigerator, okay, but the West was going to hell with Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, the Sex Pistols . . . But now economically we are behind Nepal, it's embarrassing for the leading role of the party, and rock 'n' roll costs nothing so we have rock festival at the Palace of Culture.
The Plastics were invited to play if they changed their name to PPU. There was an argument in the band. Well, it's a question. If you play your music and hide your name, are you making fools of the government or is the government making fools of you? Finally they agreed PPU was not exactly changing their name. They got a girl singer, like Nico, and rehearsed. But the police found out and cut off the electricity.

Nigel: When was this?

Jan: Then they were offered to play in a club in Brno if they agreed to be on the poster as 'A Band from Prague'. It was a crisis. Some said yes, some said no. Bad things were said between the band. Terrible things. It finished the Plastics. There is no Plastics now, after twenty years, it's over.
And so a quasi-dissident rock band was made inneffective by mild government pressure, in the guise of a loosening of the rules.

We act horrified by this brand of culture control by a government, but we used to do it all the time. We -- the U.S. -- would export our abstract art, our anti-communist intellectuals, all fully sponsored by U.S. intellegence services. It's not a conspiracy theory, nor is it an unproven technique. It worked. We remade Germany and Japan in our own "free-market" image after the War.

The only question is: Why the hell aren't we doing it in the Middle East and Iraq today? Surely it would be better than paying private military contractors loads of dough to hide the fact that it takes a shit-ton of guys to pacify an angry and unstable post-dictatorship country.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian cultural critic, used to joke about how much more free he felt under the grip of Eastern European communism before the Wall and the Soviet Union fell. Back then, the enemy was not subtle. In his 2002 book of essays on the September 11 attacks, he wrote in a footnote that when he was involved in Slovene politics in the early 1990s, he was considered for a government post:
"the only one which interested me was that of the Minister of the Interior or head of the secret service -- the notion of serving as Minister of culture, education, or science seemed to me utterly ridiculous, not even worth serious consideration."
But are they not the same posts from different ends? The one pretends it doesn't have an influence on culture and the other pretends it does -- at least in a "free" society.

And this why Zizek had the odd nostalgia for totalitarianism: because the rules were clear, the roles were clear, and the rebellion was a fight by good (the people) against an obvious evil (the government).

So when the government -- and in America, this means business -- starts telling you that it's interested in your art, something is very, very wrong.

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