On Art and Populism: SMP – Social Media Politics

arendtHannah Arendt

Selfie populism leads to mob rule, but its delusions are the fault of the elite

09/12 2015 Reading Hannah Arendt is helpful when looking for the origins of certain assumptions we hold to be true about democracy. In her book On Revolution (1963), she notes that the persuasive power of the American Revolution lay in its material basis — what’s known today as the “American Dream.” Arendt writes: “the conviction that life on earth might be blessed with abundance instead of being cursed by scarcity, was prerevolutionary and American in origin.”1 Knowledge in Europe about the American colonial experience had the effect of breaking the psychological impasse of the belief that the rich and poor lived in an unchanging natural state. This lay the groundwork for the role played by what Arendt calls the “social question” in the revolutions that followed, starting in France, that ushered in the modern age. In Arendt’s terms, the social question is the ability of political institutions to ameliorate the problems of need faced by the poor. Innate to this historical development is the notion that fairness is a shared social value; it is one of the building blocks of liberal democracy we enjoy today. Seeing this value eroded by an overreaching rentier class is one explanation for the current groundswell of popular unrest.

The success of Populist political candidates in the US and Europe suggests that this covenant of our political institutions is perceived to be broken. As a result, voter allegiance with Populist alternatives is arising spontaneously, all the while being manipulated by demagogic operators. The American journalist and left activist Chris Hedges has made covering this epochal unrest his beat for some time now. A former war correspondent, the Pulitzer Prize winning Hedges has written twelve books, including five titles that anatomize what he suggests is not merely the moral decline of the US, but signs of the collapse of [its] political and cultural institutions. He sees Donald Trump, whom the New York Times likens to an American Berlusconi, as an inevitable symptom of a political culture made bankrupt by liberal and right-wing elites equally. “It was only a matter of time before a demagogue whom these elites could not control would ride the wave of alienation and rage,” he writes, noting that “Trump is not making a political revolution. He is responding to one.” Hedges’s point is echoed by Chantal Mouffe, who warns that the cheap satisfactions that come with moralizing against the populist tendency, come at the expense of understanding the reasons behind the increasing success of right-wing populist parties.


The anthropologist David Graeber, who wrote about his experience with the decentralized political movement Occupy in his book, The Democracy Project (2014), notes how the financialization of capitalism creates a sense of the waning legitimacy of mainstream institutions. Most people are aware that increasingly 1% wealth is “no longer from the fruits of industry or commerce but from sheer speculation and the creation of complex financial instruments.” This process affects aspects of daily life that were previously untouched by high finance — student loans or municipal bonds, for instance — ensuring that an increasingly larger proportion of public commons gets implicated in the financialization of debt.2

I am sure it is nice to be a recipient of the outsized gains that ensue from a casino capitalism. However, it’s probably not a great gameplan in the long term. Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter, billed as a “leading authority on competitive strategy,” is acclaimed for introducing the idea of “shared value” as a business concept. Porter points out, it’s only common sense that if you mire your populace in debt and limit their ability to participate in the economy by paying them low wages, diminish their quality of life by cutting social programs, all the while degrading their environment through the practice of greedy, unregulated business practices, in the end you won’t have any customers. It’s as simple as that. Elites ignore Arendt’s social question at their peril. In a widely-circulated article, the self-described billionaire Nick Hanauer says as much. Hanauer attributes his success, not to being particularly smart or hard-working; instead,

What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future. Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship.

And what do I see in our future now?

I see pitchforks.

Writing on the same topic, the Political Scientist Ira Katznelson describes Populist currents roiling democratic countries with an elegant and an all but devastating accuracy:

there is a sense that constitutional democratic forms, procedures, and practices are softening in the face of allegedly more authentic and more efficacious types of political participation—those that take place outside representative institutions and seem closer to the people.

The idea that Populist political options would seem more authentic because they offer a more direct expression of the people’s will, puts me in mind of other formats of popular participation we take for granted today. The digital tools we group under the term “social media”, for instance. Perhaps a world-wide citizenry who now have a daily habit3 of expressing themselves directly on the internet assumes that this behaviour naturally extends to the way they exercise their political franchise as well. Maybe Populism is merely an expression of a new kind of social media politics? The selfie as a model of political identification bodes rather poorly for the future of our democracy; it also, however, suggests that other, more positive developments might be possible, in the sense that this is a new type of conversation and it’s just begun.

This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.

1) Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, (New York: Viking, 1963) 21-25.

2) David Graeber, The Democracy Project: a history, a crisis, a movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013) xxi-xxii.

3) On August 24, 2015, Facebook had, for the first time, one billion people worldwide use its service in a single day. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34082393

Kevin Rodgers: Contingency Problem

Kevin Rodgers
Poster from Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER, 2012 McIntosh Gallery in London, ON.

In a 1972 text that takes the Watergate scandal as its stepping off point, Hannah Arendt writes:

The deliberate falsehood deals with contingent facts; that is, with matters that carry no truth within themselves, no necessity to be as they are…

It’s hard to think of a better analogy for contemporary art practice, or at least a certain tendency within it. Watergate may be far from the concerns of contemporary art but the manipulation of contingent facts is often the way art gets practiced today.

The characterization of art as a species of lying is long standing. The idea dates back to Plato. As a bulwark against the temporal nature of existence (which changes and ultimately expires) and the non-omniscient perspective of human beings, Plato posited another reality, one that was more real than the one mere mortals’ experience. It’s a schema that takes solace in the possibility of transcending the imperfectness and contingency of everyday life.

For Plato artworks were non-ideal, mere approximations of their referents, if potentially seductive regardless. Today art trades in a subtle variant on this idea of art’s essential deception. Dispensing with the framework of the meta-physic, contingency is no longer a problem. Instead it represents the opportunity every artist engages with. With each instance of reception meaning crystallizes anew, which is why such a high value is placed on the actual encounter with the artwork.

However, encountering an artwork provides no guarantee that meaning will derive from it. In the best scenario, contemporary art aims for a kind of freedom enjoyed by the spectator in the contingent moment of understanding. But it’s not a freedom easily won, and the reason for this is directly connected to the way art intermingles with falsehood.

Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER
Installation, Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER, 2012 McIntosh Gallery in London, ON.

In a certain type of art practice things are made to stand in for other things. This type of practice makes literal the idea that appearances are deceptive. The art encounter that results will require viewers to hunt for the meaning of the facts presented to them. A mental operation will be required that is often tough because exceedingly subtle. Back to Arendt:

“deception [is] so very easy up to a point…it never comes into conflict with reason because things could have indeed been as the liar maintains they were…”

Artworks similarly never come into conflict with reason. If a work defies logic it simply isn’t successful. It fails the demand that it be in some way interpretable.

The best works of art are open-ended and susceptible to multiple interpretations. The onus placed on the viewer in this transaction accounts for the dissatisfaction about art often expressed by contemporary art audiences. Arendt gets at this idea when she says “factual truths are never compellingly true.” And the demand placed on the viewer is perhaps never greater, and meaning is never more elusive, than when artists present an assemblage of facts, things standing in for other things, with only minimal clues about how to grasp their intention.

How do we access the meaning an artwork implies except through the hard surface of the facts presented? In the end, there is only this surface, a set of appearances held in tension with one another and, implicitly, held in tension with what isn’t there. The clues and lack of clues work together to create a kind of surface coherence, the edits or cuts becoming as important, as you will come to understand, as what is left in its stead.

Rosemary Heather

Commissioned on the occasion of the show, this text appears on the poster give away that accompanied Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER, McIntosh Gallery in London, ON, 19 July to August 11, 2012. The exhibition was the culmination of the artist’s PhD research at The University of Western Ontario.

More information about Kevin Rodgers work can be found here.