The Oscars MFA

‘There is no right way of living the wrong life, for a formal ethics [of disposition] cannot underwrite it, and the ethics of responsibility … cannot underwrite it either.” Adorno

The shift toward University trained artists and writers has been going on now for forty years. Most acutely, however, for the last twenty five. Today, if you are a playwright, for example, you have to get an MFA if you expect to even be considered for a reading, let alone considered for a production.
MFA programs are the new apprenticeship in a sense. I imagine there are many who will argue that this is just fine, and a natural evolution of some sort. Others will see the Balkanizing influence of institutional exclusion at work. Going to a blue chip program such as Columbia or Brown costs a lot of money. But there is another aspect to this system, and that is how a regressive populism has utterly infected the Academy. It comes in the form of mass corporate owned cultural product (TV and film mostly) now treated on a par with Shakespeare.
Universities pursue TV show runners and producers. Not film departments, but literature and theatre departments. There are other versions of this that cut across disciplines. Graphic design is barely considered separate from painting or installation art or sculpture. One might see in this the end of a certain bourgeois monopoly on the arts, and I suspect that would be correct. This is often viewed as a positive blurring of the artificial dichotomy of high and low art (sic), which is also true. But it comes via a corporate structured delivery system. The entire scaffolding on which culture now rests is manufactured by vast telecoms and studios and networks and all of them with varying links to the U.S. government.
In TV for example, a quick perusal of shows such as Madam Secretary or House of Cards, or even shows such as The Good Wife, or any Aaron Sorkin scripted piece, and you will see a uniform political vision. And often there are direct links to the Democratic Party. A show such as Madam Secretary might as well have been written by Allan Dullus. In fact Dullus was mentioned in glowing terms on this show, a show that had Madelaine Albright as a guest star. The Good Wife repeatedly promotes anti Arab sentiments and anti Chavez story lines. The total absence of an avant garde today has resulted in (and this is a chicken and egg question) an absence of radical voices, but more, an absence of working class voices. And this can be seen in academia, in various panels and symposiums, in fields like philosophy and psychology and political theory. Find me a symposium to which a non-accredited speaker is invited.
In place of the avant garde today one has a new faux branded radical. Molly Crabapple is the perfect example, who besides informing on critics often willingly fabricates and invents her first person narratives. The pernicious influence of the VICE and GAWKER outlets is huge, or the reactionary non art of a Marina Abramović is the new branded outside. In effect there is no visible outside. And increasingly there is little desire to separate the fantasy from the reality.
The overriding sensibility today is conformist and reinforcing of the status quo. The co-opting mechanisms of advanced capital are acute but in a sense the corporate co-opting no longer has anything to co-opt because everything is pre co-opted. Young artists and thinkers often begin from the default position of management. And one of the ways this occurs is to manufacture a false opposition. Identity politics plays a part in this.
Various issues, usually quite narrowly defined, are given space and siphon off radical energy in the service of tepid reform. There is scarcely a show on TV today without a gay character or gay married couple. On the one hand, yes, this is progress and certainly better than the previous homophobic tenor of work from the 50s. But it also serves to obscure the fact that there is still a huge problem of poor trans and queer minorities, and secondly, that it helps distract attention from issues such as poverty and police violence and Imperialist war. The followers of Hillary Clinton are rightly aghast at her open lies regarding Nancy Reagan and the AIDS crisis, but had no issue at all, and in fact were mostly unaware of, her orchestrating a coup in Honduras to put in power the most repressive regime imaginable.

James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview (image: Sony Pictures)

The short form version is to simply point out that mass culture serves as propaganda today. The well known fact that Hollywood works in consort with the Pentagon to promote positive views of the military is only the most obvious example.
Jamie Taraby writes,
“The U.S. military offices usually ask to see the entire script, not just the parts that relate to military involvement and, based on the entire script and the portrayal of the troops, will move it forward in the approval process. If based on a historical event, it also needs to pass muster with the Pentagon’s historians.”
This sensibility trickles down to non profit work and University writing programs because nobody born after 1995 has ever seen narratives critical of U.S. imperialism.
David Walsh back in 2007 wrote,
“No doubt, in many cases, a sincere desire to see social reform and improve the general conditions of life motivates such people in supporting liberal politicians, as well as environmental and charitable causes. The war in Iraq and the criminality of the Bush administration have clearly disturbed many in Hollywood. There has been a certain change in the tone of American film-making over the past several years. However, this is a privileged layer that sees the world and the political process in the US through a thick haze. Its particular brand of liberalism is shaped by a terrible distance from the working population and its concerns, the degree to which it is shielded from everyday life in general by managers, assistants and intermediaries of every sort, and its essential satisfaction with its own lot … For such individuals, the US population is essentially a mystery, most often a malevolent or menacing one. Pleased with their own economic situation, they have no real sense of the devastation that has been wrought by the closure of factories, the destruction of decent-paying jobs and the gutting of social programs—often at the hands of Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton—and the resulting levels of frustration and outrage with both Republican and Democratic politicians that widely prevail.
The hypocrisy, emptiness and anti-working class character of Democratic policy over the past several decades, which has stunned or even driven into the arms of right-wing demagogues considerable numbers of people, is a closed book to the film and entertainment industry liberals. How else to explain the attraction of a Clinton, an Obama or an Edwards, who promise more of the same?”
and more recently Gavin Mueller, writing about the Seth Rogan comedy The Interview,
““The Interview” builds its butt jokes on a platform of criminal activity. It tells of a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency to recruit two journalists, played by Rogen and Franco, as spies — a widely used agency practice that journalist groups have repeatedly condemned as endangering the lives of reporters. The two are tasked with assassinating North Korea’s head of state, which, while it may have once been illegal and even thought immoral, has long been a part of the CIA toolkit. The depiction of their mission’s ultimate success was so grisly that Sony’s CEO demanded that it be toned down.
With this setting, “The Interview” effectively naturalizes such dangerous and illegal acts, making Americans more amenable to them. This is by no means an exaggeration. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s favorite television show, “24,” helped normalize torture by presenting outlandish scenarios of ticking time bombs. Soon even the enablers of torture envisioned their job as part of the show’s plot. Sony has contributed to this whitewash: “Zero Dark Thirty” perpetuated the CIA’s lie that torture produced actionable intelligence. Hollywood helps lay the groundwork for excusing the atrocities of the future. And bumbling man-children may be an even more effective vehicle for this than Jack Bauer’s steely resolve.

Theodor Adorno

After all, we like to think of ourselves as saviors of the world, but only reluctantly so, without guile or malice. Hollywood and the American state are intertwined. While the U.S. film industry is heavily subsidized by all manner of incentives and tax breaks, it uses international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, to thwart other nations’ attempts to protect their domestic cinema production and to enforce intellectual property laws favorable to U.S. companies. The result is a worldwide saturation of American-made media as Hollywood productions capture audiences and profits abroad at the expense of other countries’ film industries. In 2013, U.S. films took 75 percent of the global box office.”
This saturation of American made media effects is a hegemonic cultural template that shapes the consciousness of every young artist working today. If you applied to the MFA progam at one or another elite University and submitted work that countered the prevailing narrative on, say, NATO bombing the former Yugoslavia or the recent coup in Honduras, or worst of all, suggesting the Soviet Union was the single biggest reason the Nazi’s were defeated, you would be rejected. There is a uniformity of opinion in today’s culture that is stunning.
Brad Evans and Henry Giroux wrote recently “The expansive politics of disposability can be seen in the rising numbers of homeless, the growing army of debt-ridden students whose existing and future prospects remain bleak, those lacking basic necessities amid widening income disparities, the surveillance of immigrants, the school-to-prison pipeline and the widespread destruction of the middle class by new forms of debt servitude. Citizens, as Gilles Deleuze foresaw, are now reduced to data, consumers and commodities and, as such, inhabit identities in which they increasingly become unknowables, with no human rights and with no one accountable for their condition.”
The teaching of all things related to art and culture today is overwhelmingly consistent with the values of the ruling class. This is true even if the individual program intends it to be something different.
Raymond Geuss, writing on Adorno:

“Art is critical through its form. The most radically negative kind of art would be one which did two things at the same time. First, it would, through exclusively artistic means, turn the most fundamental, received laws of a certain kind of artistic activity upside down or inside out, and do so precisely by treating these received laws, principles, and rules of procedure with the highest seriousness and developing them consistently in a non-arbitrary way into their opposite. Second, a fully radical form of art would be one which by its internal negation of the artistic tradition also succeeded in inculcating into people an appropriately cognitively grounded negative attitude toward their own society.”

The complaints that serve as social criticism in much of today’s art are delivered in non-radical form. If a character in a Hollywood sit com recited the Communist Manifesto it would only be a joke. But this speaks to something else, which has to do with an idea that somehow artworks are there for moral instruction. And this is the legacy of a society permeated with propaganda. Propaganda as an idea is now normalized and labeled spin or PR or marketing. The effects of what Adorno and Horkheimer called ‘instrumental’ thinking, a kind of positivist rationality, has had the ultimate effect of erasing anything not obviously definable. For the mostly white educated affluent class today even the idea of sub-text is akin to a conspiracy theory. So deeply runs the distrust of anything not easily measured and catalogued.
The secondary cause of this, or result (its hard to know which) is the normalized security and surveillance state.
The populations of most of the West are now completely accustomed to the loss of privacy. One is always being watched. And running beneath this acceptance is (at least in the U.S.) the legacy of Puritan/Calvinist distrust of complexity. If you can’t say it simply, then its not worth saying. There has always been in the U.S. a hostility to art. It was seen as too feminine, not practical, and the province of the weak. There are currents of misogyny in this, but the collaboration of young artists with an administered culture, overseen by corporate management has erased the last vestiges of anything like autonomy. And this loss is denied in large measure by many of the artists themselves. I hear more discussion about personal brands than I do about theory.

52 Pick Up

The final element here is connected to the ascension of a certain branch of post structuralist thought. The one that implicitly retreats from the political. And this retreat is carried out with two accompanying aspects: one is an increasingly private specialized jargon and the second with a devaluing of material reality.
The irony (if that’s what it is) has required a gross mis-reading of a large number of thinkers from the previous century who were deeply invested in the political implications of culture. The criticisms of everyone from Adorno to Freud to Lacan even, has come with popular mis-critiques. And this from all sides of the political spectrum.
There is one final note on this; the cost of resistance, psychologically, is very high. Paul Street recently mentioned the high incidence of what he sees as clinically diagnosable mental illness in many of his friends on the left. Not just the right, perhaps because those of us on the left assume the indoctrinated only exist on the right. This is partly the cost of dissent. In a society increasingly given to adjustment and conformity, the act of refusal carries with it a huge cost. And a justifiable fear of the neo-police state. Those who survive are indeed very strong people. And I’m thinking of community organizers and activists here as well as artists, those who toil without career ambitions.
Fabian Feyenhagen, in his book on Adorno, writes.

“Roughly, to say that we are prone to being caught up in ideologies is to say that we are prone to hold a set of beliefs, attitudes, and preferences which are false or distorted in ways that benefit the established social order (and the dominant social group within it) at the expense of the satisfaction of people’s real interests. The structure of our social world is such that by defending our behaviour or social position, we have to defend what should be criticized, namely, this social world or central elements thereof (such as its property system).”

The overriding sense of anxiety in contemporary society is linked to a number of factors, beginning with economic precarity. But one aspect less often cited is the intolerable ugliness of daily life in most of the West. And this starts with the aesthetics of the home. This was written about by Bloch and Adorno and others as far back as the 1950s. And this is coupled to the bureaucratic weight of existence today for an ever more vulnerable population (what Evans and Giroux called disposable). The anxiety runs right up to the very wealthy who fear losing their grip on the throats of the underclass. A fear their boot-heel might slip. But for artists the guilt inducing sense of complicity in the antinomy of contemporary life is just soul deadening. The contemporary urban home has little to do with those who inhabit it. They had nothing to do with its making and often little to do with its maintenance. Their community is erased usually, and life is led among, mostly, strangers.
For the arts to reclaim something like relevancy today will mean a rejection of the system of institutional authority (connected at its root to the market) that dictates taste. And to find ways to distrust the new faux left critics who serve as stand-in droids for the missing avant garde movements of the 100 years ago. Until institutional authority is interrupted, and working class voices heard, and sensibilities of the working classes forwarded, the aesthetic tyranny one sees expressed today in the art market will simply continue.
One has to stop willingly choosing the false and counterfeit.

John Steppling

John Steppling is a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation.

 

Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 pp 10-14

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