What to do with Ambiguity in Art when the Poles Shift

by Manuel Gnam

If one was to attempt to trace the shift in meaning that came through the recent right-wing revolution, it becomes quickly clear that like in a true revolution, or an ‘upturn’, the poles got reversed on many levels. Apart from the direct politics that will have to be played out, I will try to see what kind of deeper conflicts will affect art because of it. Some of these problems could stem from intrinsic discrepancies that have been building up for a while, others are direct effects from right-wing strategists appropriating culture, causing confusion or seemingly threatening to relativize positions that long ago have been culturally and historically legitimized.

One of the problems for artists might be that chaos and ambiguity have become the main tools of the right, which is exemplified by the independent existence of countless completely made-up stories that are politically used, confirmed and denied at will or ominously hinted at, even by classical figures of authority such as government members.1 This means if fiction is written by politicians and news channels, artistic fiction becomes less of a distinguishable art form that would operate on a different plain. It also has the effect that it pushes people who are not on the right towards reason, clarity and order – and that leaves a very limited space for aesthetics.

Another related conflict that just became apparent is that once you imply a negatively rooted meta-understanding of the world, you might contribute directly to a future reality whose manifestation will be real and bind you to it even if you were only being critical. So for example an artistic approach that expresses some sort of cultural pessimism at this stage is more likely to confirm a trajectory of the right that is already in motion rather than having a progressive effect. Similar difficulties may occur with many strategies of subversion, appropriation, cynicism or even irony.

In effect these two constellations together form a cultural dilemma. The anti-mainstream sentiment on the right appropriated various forms of being against the ‘system’ from the left which fed trolls, memes and fake news with conspiracy theories, numerology, quasi religious ideas including the simulation argument which all point towards an ‘underlying truth’ or a ‘meta-understanding’ of the world. In contrast, the left are more and more forced to take a clear position, often left with little more scope other than having to become moralistic, activists or straight-forwardly modernist. The reason why this has become so confusing for many people on the left, and also why it could have a very big impact on art, is that at the core of the political divide is probably a question of belief.

What makes the alt-right position so accessible and compelling is precisely its ambiguity, that it is perfectly possible to believe in it sincerely, ironically or cynically to the same effects, namely to have a corresponding ideology to it, to troll within an ironic frame of reference, or to use it for political ends without having to engage with the complexity of a situation. The real scariness from this vantage point unfolds when the belief in it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and its hyperstition hints at a historic inevitability – as seen with Trump and Brexit – where the violent force of the event seems much stronger than its protagonists. It reaches a point where it seemingly has a life of its own and a dark foreboding feeling lingers that what drives this pulse might be a deeper evil that lies in the nature of all human beings. This is the point where computational complexity may have overwhelmed the minds, where programmers who believe we are living in a computer simulation and evangelical Christians come together, and maybe what made Cody Wilson, the inventor and distributor of the 3D-printable gun, say in a recent interview: “I’m not even sure I’m an anarchist anymore. I feel like I’m almost just, like, the accidental node in something else... something deeper and not at all concerned with the affairs of men.”2

In art however, larger parts of the left have long been self-serving filter-bubbles and critical comfort zones that got detached from relevance and lead to a kind of globalized provincialism, whereas the more progressive left have massively reduced themselves to identity politics, especially after the failure of the Occupy movement. After the deconstruction of subculture (by its own deconstructive disposition, the speed of the internet and mostly, by a globalized industry leaving no potential to grow) there is less wider understandability for the single diverse positions, and if they are not connected to power, they cannot build for example a new form of elitism or meritocracy. As a result, many small fields of reference exist and many artists point to themselves and towards their individual struggles. However if a critical mass of artists adopts identity politics as the main principle of their artistic practice it threatens to relativize or weaken the artists whose identities have a big transformative and symbolic potential on society and are therefore artistic. And, it is disadvantageous in a battle against universal arguments, as identity politics mostly point at their particularity or their difference and therefore ultimately at the individual self as the argument itself. As Kathy Acker said: “when reality – the meanings associated with reality – is up for grabs, then the body itself becomes the only thing you can return to.”3 So the challenge here could lie in realizing that the engagement in short-term speculation of the left together with the self-marketing of individuals has created its own, though much more inclusive and social, but nevertheless capitalist competition – one that maybe adapts the American Dream in an internet way, but has no larger underlying philosophy that could compete with its opposite form on the right, which is fundamentally based on a crazy belief in racism and social darwinism.

This also hints at an inner fundamental conflict within the critical model of the left, namely that identity politics (or the identity of the ‘self’) must be subjected to deconstructionist ideas and therefore deconstructed too as soon as it exercises any power itself.4 In contrary the right has no such self-critical mechanism resulting in a straight forward relationship towards power and dominance. However, to some degree, the left in turn also needs such a dominant white male narrative to form its own alterity to it. In critical art in the past years this also lead to a certain form of dismediation – what Robert Storr called “hipster deconstructivists” – who have legitimized weak positions, white male entitlement and radical chic as a continuing aesthetic negative force posed as complications or critiquing male stereotypes, but eventually would only benefit a certain form of social power for certain groups of white males again. Similarly, there has been an often made conclusion by artists from feeling powerless against the values of the right to make self-loathing statements, to refer to oneself as a ‘piece of shit’, a ‘prostitute’, ‘slave’ or ‘servant’, or, when it comes to competing for resources, to a ‘vampire’, ‘cannibal’ or ‘parasite’ – in the current climate however it can be problematic to seek empowerment from that angle as it would just reaffirm the alt-right view that you would be scum.5

It may be hard to accept that being cool, cynical and anti-mainstream could have become an exclusively right-wing thing – that if you put ideas out there that perpetuate how bad things have become and try to delve in it to feel something, to feel ‘real’, which has been almost a natural impulse for young white guys, might be too little a reason to upturn the whole of democracy. This makes it so ironic that the founder of a whole generation’s most influential magazine (and, after a popular 2010 online vote, the 2nd biggest hipster of the decade of the 0s) has now become alt-right.6

Particularly over the last years, artists sometimes have taken the opportunity to hold ambiguous views in order to gain traction – and additionally the hackability of art as a system was relatively easy to do from many angles, which a lot of artists did too, making many networks complicit to it becoming broken and unclear. However whereas for a lot of white artists it has been very beneficial to get the rewards of staying politically ambiguous and keeping their heads down, there have been controversial and sometimes dubious engagements with ambiguity aside from that. A recent example would be Babak Radboy’s vision for the DIS Biennial’s brand, which appropriated Trump-speak and tried to apply his media tactics as, I am guessing, a form of accelerationism; or earlier, Timur Si-Qin’s Darwinian legitimation for the power of social attractors on the example of stock photography. Also a current gallery show at London’s LD507 tries to deal with the alt-right by ambiguously representing it in art-form. Consisting amongst other things of an occultish shrine with tweets and magic cards of alt-right figures, diagrams mapping out the ‘mysticism’ of the 4-chanosphere, a ‘memorial’ for the spree killer Elliot Rodger, digital video avatars of neo-reactionaries and a speaking life-size Donald Trump figure, the show reproduces a specific side of the right-wing movement that is already artistic, including the same semi-ironic summoning of Kek.8 Ironically, this angle of appropriation is exactly what is Kek, and in a way the show has successfully summoned the ‘demon’ by that, its larger ‘power’ took over it and turned the show into another meme.

Detail and installation view of the exhibition 71822666 at LD50, London in 2016

As we see the most disgusting groups on the right coming together into one orbit to reap profit from the new power constellation – internet trolls, conspiracy theorists (from evangelical radicals to anti-semitic Rothschild-conspiracists to birthers and flat-earthers), neo-reactionaries, flat out racists, sexual offenders, Putin fans, Islamophobes, pick-up artists, apocalypto-libertarian gay movements, mansplainers, anti-vaxxers, the 4chan meme team, fake news bots, zero-hedge, white-lives-matter, Columbine glorifiers, Gamer-gaters, the manosphere, Martin Shkreli, Nick Land, Peter Thiel, Gavin McInnes, the killer of Cecil the Lion, The Eagles of Death Metal etc. – we might be getting to a situation where nearly everybody who believes in any of the values of the enlightenment finds themselves today somewhere on a spectrum of the left. This includes people who believe in connoisseurship, luxury goods and good taste or even mutual benefit in business (instead of conning); or who, more abstractly, might believe in knowledge, epistemology and education. It is going to be very interesting to see which artistic ideas will have an effect and how art is going to be affected by the cultural change: if for example the division between author and narrator will dissolve as fiction is created by politicians, journalists and artists alike; if infinite spillages of whataboutism can relativize the achievements of postmodernism; or if radical thinking can be pro democracy. Furthermore, if it can find a way to embrace the next steps of technology, whilst preserving sensitive issues of identity, contrary to the alt-right’s fundamentally anti-human approach.

If one follows through with this thought, what it could mean eventually, one gets to a place where everything that is anti-life becomes a thing of the right, such as excessive alcohol and drug-taking, guns, barebacking, chem-sex, industrial meat eating, hunting, climate change denying or believing in fixed genetic predispositions (including race and death), but NOT Transhumanism, Pranayama Yoga, organic foods and vitamins, mind-expanding drugs and everything prolonging life or improving it such as acquiring a skill in programming, science or the idea of building a civilization. Even further on, sentiments such as nostalgia or the tendency to want to repeat formulae would be a thing of the right, opposed to building a long-term future for everyone, being innovative, transformative and truly new. This is obviously not as binary, but the change that is necessary to happen right now will have to navigate somewhere around these lines. On another level, as a lot of modern life is interrelated to financial markets and specifically to speculation on future outcomes, the short-term ideology behind hedging and short selling is closely related to this short-term ideology of the right too. Their preference of a quick ROI is obviously related to populist methods of handling ‘post-facts’, the quick profit gained from investment in an ultimately destructive idea (like for example oil) as much as the quick emotional response to ‘fake news’ and the capitalization on the outrage on both sides, the believers and the non-believers in it. Part of the temporary win-win situation the right have created for themselves is that it doesn’t require any action – as long as ‘shit is going down’, they can always fall back on the claim ‘I didn’t make the game, the game made me’.

However, there is not much room to lower the bar anymore, but a lot of space above. Perhaps what the alt-right did, was taking a liberty away from the left, that especially artists could consider reclaiming – which is the possibility to explore ideas conceptually that go towards contradictory or even anti-liberal directions (but always within the frame of a liberal, democratic society) merely for aesthetic reasons. The cycles are very short now and for the ones who are trying to hedge bets on both sides, it will become too difficult not to get caught in the act of mingling with the right. Historically and at this moment, to go backwards cannot work. It will only take as long as it takes for the humans who adapt to this new technological stage to outnumber the ones who are seeking comfort or disguise for the poles to reverse again.

1 See for example “Pizzagate”
2 “An AR-15 in Every Home: 3D Gun Printer Cody Wilson on the Right to Resistance, Hacking the Media, and Trump”, on reason.com
3 Larry McCaffery, “An Interview with Kathy Acker,” Mississippi Review 20.1-2 (1991), 93.
4 Theoretically this would still be the more advanced model as it would constantly work to improve the system through continuous critical investigations into its faults
5 Also even this main idea of subculture, to become a person that is sub- i.e. below culture, to exercise a self-chosen break-off from society, has been lifted by the alt-right, who proudly became “deplorable”.
6 Gavin McInnes, pictured here in paradigmatic neoreactionary fashion
7 71822666, LD50 gallery
8 The “Egyptian Chaos-God” in the form of Pepe the Frog, worshipped by the alt-right on the internet