Useful Idiots of the Art World
In a gallery in East London, in the summer of 2016, something strange was taking place. LD50 was about a year old by then, run by Lucia Diego, and had hosted shows by prominent artists at varying stages of their careers—Dinos and Jake Chapman, John Russell and Joey Holder, Deanna Havas, and Jesse Darling to name a few. A program of speaking events was organized, described by the gallery as a “conference on reactionary and neo-reactionary thought.” Amid reputable speakers, a number of more divisive figures were programmed. Nick Land was one, widely acknowledged to be an intellectual inspiration for segments of the alt-right, though he retains some residual credibility in the art world resulting from his academic work at the University of Warwick in the nineties. Brett Stevens was another, an extreme ethno-nationalist who inspired and praised the murderer Anders Breivik. “I am honored to be so mentioned by someone who is clearly far braver than I, no comment on his methods, but he chose to act where many of us write, think, and dream,” he wrote.
During the same period, a show titled “Amerika” was put on at the gallery, dedicated to popular alt-right imagery. A Hitler quote is placed alongside a picture of Taylor Swift in one piece. Cutesy semi-ironic placing like this helped to keep the tone of such work questionable, allowing itself plausible deniability. Lucia Diego’s contention was that the gallery’s aim, too, was to “explore” rather than to propagate. What does it mean to put alt-right imagery in a room? Well, what does it mean to place any object in any particular room? Who can say?
After comments by artists querying Diego’s opinions and voicing dissent were repeatedly deleted, artist Sophie Jung made public a private message sent to her by Diego. In it, Diego bemoans the cultural echo chamber of what she perceives to be the left-leaning art world and expresses qualified support for Trump’s Muslim ban on the basis that “it is a temporary measure to help transition governments.”
At this point, things blew up. The message was widely shared on social media, calls were made for artists to disavow the space, British newspapers picked up on the story. In a shockingly reckless move, Diego leaked screenshots of the artists involved to the far-right website Amerika.org. A movement was organized to shut down the gallery. Protestors gathered outside LD50 on Saturday February 25 to leaflet and alert the local community.
It’s a story about what exactly is gotten away with under the assumed guise of irony and objectivity.
This seems to me an important starting point for a discussion of what has taken place at LD50; a concerted refusal of Diego’s attempt to frame the NRx conference as abstract.
LD50 is a real place, in a real neighborhood, filled with people who are directly threatened by the vile speech of the very real racists who were invited into it. Repeatedly, the defense mounted by the gallery has been that it was attempting to have an open discussion about reactionary ideologies. The implication is that LD50 were engaging in some sort of completely neutral anthropological consideration of current events, rather than extending a fawning welcome to alt-right lynchpins.
I have seen it said by antifa that LD50 is not a story about art, but about fascism. I take the point—what’s at stake here goes beyond the merely aesthetic. But as much as this is a story about actual violence, it is also a story about art. It’s a story about how the excesses of one allow the outrages of the other. It’s a story about the voiding of language’s applied meaning. It’s a story about what exactly is gotten away with under the assumed guise of irony and objectivity.
We can see clearly in Diego’s initial message to Jung, as well as in her subsequent justifications following the story’s leak, that she considers herself an underdog. She claims to be troubled by the dictatorial left that dominates the art world. She is concerned by what it means for art that all ideas—even fascist ones—cannot be platformed. She is struggling against it! She is a renegade, a rebel! The famous liberal elite are at it again—quashing the little guy!
This self-perception as brave outlier is an absurd belief that Diego and her defenders have in common with the heroes of the alt-right. They believe we live in a world dominated by authoritarians who impose a militaristic political correctness upon private citizens. By their logic, they are the put-upon underclass. They are rising up to defend the oppressed conservative whites. This, the age of Trump, of Breitbart, of Pepe, is their equivalent of the flower child’s sixties.
The disgraced former tech editor of Breitbart Milo made this clear in “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt Right” in March 2016, outlining their need to feel part of a transgressive rebellion. Another British import to the American movement is Paul Watson of Infowars. Watson is a strange and sad man who videos himself talking in front of a large map in his home, curiously red and wet mouth flapping incessantly at the camera, begging his teenage fans to continue thinking he’s badass. Watson furthers Milo’s proposition and renders it significantly more risible by claiming that the alt-right is “the new punk rock.”
To consider the alt-right a cultural proletariat is so ridiculous as to be difficult to address, and I suspect this is partially the point.
We can see a direct link between the two worlds in the words of one “DC” Miller. I hesitate even to mention Miller here, so thirsty is he for the least of publicity; he is to be seen at present defending LD50 in a video on their homepage. However I was struck by a revealingly stupid turn of phrase he used when a recent talk of his on the spiritual-racist thinker Evola was cancelled in Berlin—Miller used the term “cultural proletariat” to describe people like himself and Diego. Cultural proletariat. What a choice of words Miller has made here! Lacking any real kinship with the proletariat, cultural or otherwise, Miller is led to believe that the experience of not having his talk hosted (or a book published) is akin to being systematically and historically oppressed. To consider the alt-right a cultural proletariat is so ridiculous as to be difficult to address, and I suspect this is partially the point. Ideological and linguistic absurdities are fodder to it, a group utterly fixated on the Socratic method—another iteration of Diego’s kind of insistent abstraction. This method is at its worst when its initiators are able to constantly scream that they are fair and rational while ignoring the socialized, even atavistic dynamics at work in a given situation. The question remains: who is allowed to speak and why?
Miller and Diego will continue to present themselves as bravely evading the usual confines of liberal society, will go on contending that “the art world” is a bubble, where left-wing politics are the only kind that are tolerated. What they mean by this is difficult to parse. Art is, like any capital-driven cultural industry, deeply conservative. Let me be clear that by attacking LD50, I do not exonerate the excesses and failings of that world. Its engagement with left-wing politics is often shallow and manipulative. There is plenty of scope to criticize it alongside LD50, but by conceding as much we can’t shy away from the matter at hand, which is violent racism and xenophobia being disseminated and tidied up and labelled safe for us to consume. Why? Because it’s art. To take a stance is to sully yourself, to date yourself. Deanna Havas, who showed at LD50 has said: “My job is really to be apolitical. I can feel one way one day, and if my mood is different another day then I can try on different ideas and ideologies, and just step out of them—and that’s fine.” For a word, an image, a conference to mean something? God, how hopelessly provincial.
The dithery political ambivalence of much of the art world leaves it available as a useful idiot for the right.
Art has a talent for mystification, for muddying meaning—prides itself on it even. That its insistence on the endless interpretability of words, gestures, and images lends itself to manipulation is not surprising. There is strong evidence to suggest that Diego is and has been for some time personally sympathetic to the far right. But even if she wasn’t, the dithery political ambivalence of much of the art world leaves it available as a useful idiot for the right. As the Shutdown LD50 website says, the alt-right are making moves to speak more directly to white middle class “progressives,” and what better place to start than here; here, where any and everything goes, so long as it can plausibly be called ironic or discursive; here, where you can be guaranteed a column crying censorship if you object. It could hardly be easier.
Art is not abstracted from human life. A gallery is not a vacuum in which ideology is stripped of meaning, and beyond attack. I do believe that art is sacred, is special, but it is so because it is of humanity, not above it. When art, or fascism in art’s clothing, appears which disrespects and threatens the humanity of us, our friends, and neighbors, it is not only acceptable but obligatory to refuse it.