To be an artist is to risk more or less constant opprobrium from the more conservative-minded members of the population.
We know this to be true. We’ve all experienced it, in response to some mildly radical artistic statement we may have made, at one time or another, even if inadvertently. There are some people only too eager to denigrate your work and tell you all the reasons why they don’t like it, whether or not you’ve asked for their opinion.
They dislike disruption, change or having their world views or belief systems challenged in any way. Seeing things differently causes them intense cognitive discomfort. Consequently, they tend to be the sharpest and most vicious critics of contemporary artists. Often, their criticisms amount to little more than a peculiar set of personal preferences, rather than appeals to objective quality or aesthetic criteria.
Who are the people that critique our art? What are they like? Are they as wise and all-knowing as they pretend to be? Do they have a connection to some mystical, objective, superior insight or truth, as they like to posture? Why do they feel an entitlement to pontificate, as if they have the weight of a sensible majority on their side? Indeed, what makes a popularly-held point of view inherently virtuous and correct? History is littered with concrete evidence to the contrary.
Let’s put their assumed wisdom under scrutiny. What does it really amount to?
At the risk of unfairly stereotyping, let me attempt to sketch a typical specimen. The unifying idea that seems to underpin the values of all those that vociferously criticise creative people has its roots in a Bronze Age parable – the punishment meted out by God to Adam and Eve for their original sin. They were sentenced to the burden of childbirth and of enforced labour to feed, house and clothe a family.
As a consequence of unquestioned belief in this biblical story, being a hard-worker is seen as commendable; almost virtuous. The insult, “get a job” is intended to insinuate that someone is lazy and contributing very little to society, while “hard-working people” are considered morally decent citizens. In the eyes of people that consider themselves to be hard-working, all artists are jobless and hence, lazy and parasitic. Their very independence is taken as justification to dehumanise them.
Let’s put aside, for the moment, that the people that consider themselves to be hard-working rarely make useful things, or provide care, but are instead engaged in various forms of stealing value, or living off unearned incomes (such as share or property speculation, derivatives, abstruse financial instruments or otherwise collecting rent on engineered scarcities). They don’t think of the work they do as pointless, unnecessary or immoral, because it provides the requisite penitence. Their suffering, in commuting nine to five to engage in labour of dubious value, is their badge of honour.
It’s essentially a religious idea. To work is to self-mortify, in the eyes of God. Suffering has become a token of economic citizenship. Like all religious ideas, it’s an article of faith; seldom subjected to rigorous, objective analysis. It’s simply taken as axiomatic – a given. Occupying this moral high ground entitles the holder to pontificate on the worth of any artistic work by dint of their moral superiority over a dirty, lazy artist, in this hierarchical framework of privilege.
There is a terrible, problematic consequence of this way of thinking and living, however. People who are too busy working, especially if their work is pointless, don’t have the time or inclination to perform their civic duties, develop intellectual or creative interests, collaborate in community-building activities, exercise their creativity and agency, or develop sophisticated morals. They never actually develop as human beings beyond the stage of adolescents.
For these reasons, they can reach late middle age with scant exposure to, experience of or empathy for people less fortunate than themselves. They lack insight into other forms of suffering, social injustice or how the other half lives. They’ve been so self-involved in the vacuum of their careers, that they simply haven’t rounded out as human beings.
Before long, they begin to believe they have everything figured out and, by virtue of their suffering, must be infallible. You get letters to the editor like these, written by such people:
This is pure ignorance, disguised beneath superficial manners and a posh accent. It’s spiteful and frankly none of her business, but she feels compelled to expound her baseless, simplistic and empirically discredited theories anyway. She’s wholly unaware of the mounting evidence or solid science around the root causes of obesity, but doesn’t care, because she sees herself as virtuous and therefore above reproach. Her solution, in common with most people of her type, is to inflict more punishment. Suffering is virtue, after all.
I would hazard a guess that this correspondent is not an endocrinologist, with any qualifications in diet-related metabolic disorders. Clearly, she has no experience of, empathy for or insight into what it must be like to have a carbohydrate sensitivity, in a world that adds sugar and starch to most (i.e. almost all) pre-prepared food and in which official government advice offers strong encouragement to consume what is slowly killing them. Instead, she takes glee in shaming and humiliating the obese; stripping them of their dignity, personhood and right to be alive.
Welcome to conservatism with a small “c”. It lacks civility.
Conservatism, with a small “c” (though it also applies to the large “C” political philosophy) is a fear of having to think morally and ethically, or taking responsibility. Instead, there are simple rules that must be followed, without question. Cold, hard, cruel, inflexible rules. Anybody that doesn’t comply or obey is considered a threat.
Conservative-minded people have effectively outsourced civilisation, leaving it to corrupt elected representatives and the power-crazed authorities, so they can live on autopilot, pretending to be sage and sensible, but that stance being based on no direct evidence or first hand experience of living among diverse people and circumstances. It frees them to work and to to suffer. From these fertile soils springs the “what you reckon” society. It doesn’t matter what the facts are, so long as you believe fervently in your opinion.
I think that living like this, without emancipation from the very machine they participate in maintaining, which keeps everybody subservient, is a manifestation of venal cowardice. It is the real “project fear”.
The strict adherence to enforced rules, typical of this mindset, gives rise to unconscionable bullying. You may have detected this bullying attitude in the specimen letter to the editor previously cited. This thread, taken from Twitter, nicely characterises the salient features of the bully:
So, there you have it. At root, it’s all about weakness and insecurity.
Americans and Home Counties English people have this myth of themselves as radical revolutionaries, but the truth is that they’re wholly defined by incremental change. Even today, Asians, Muslims, immigrants and people of colour don’t have full personhood, in the eyes of predominantly white, conservative-minded people. They consider these “others” to be below them in their socioeconomic hierarchy and that this demarcation is right and natural. In other words, people that aren’t exactly like they are must be less than human. Artists are included in the category of untermenschen.
This extreme, incrementalist conservatism has run out of road. The time has come to let this delusional world view go. For all their posturing as wise sages, with a steady hand on the tiller, their belief system is intellectually bankrupt and indefensible. Their imagined natural hierarchy has no empirical basis or legitimacy.
The real radical revolutionaries, who include artists among their number, are fighting against the rising forces of ignorance, darkness, inhumanity, falsehood and folly; globally. Extremists, nationalists, neoconservatives, neo-fascists, racists and supremacists have risen from the ranks of small “c”conservatism. They’re a reactionary force, resisting a few undeniable, self-evident ideas as violently as their cognitive dissonance compels them. They must be faced down and resisted.
The following ideas are unarguable and self-evident, except by resort to the false comforts of supremacism and personal exceptionalism. The first idea is that every human being is entitled to full personhood. There are no vermin, animals, plagues or infestations. Every human life has the right to being regarded as a person, without discounted or denied rights, or conditional acceptance criteria. You’re either a human being, or you’re not. You can’t be a lesser human or a semi human.
Given that every human is a full person, then they’re entitled to live with dignity. There should be no shaming or humiliation, degrading treatment or violence toward them. This second idea is axiomatic. If you deny anyone their dignity, you’re denying their humanity and full personhood. That makes you a thorough-going supremacist.
The third self-evident idea is that living with dignity means you are not beholden to, or subservient to anybody. In other words, dignity requires emancipation from any and all forms of enslavement, including self-enslavement to an imaginary social hierarchy, where you are compelled to work hard at something that causes you suffering, simply to earn admission to the ranks of commendable, virtuous, morally acceptable, decent citizens. A dignified life is self-directed, self-governed and self-fulfilled. To live life as an independent artist is to taste a dignified life.
You either believe in these three big ideas, or you don’t. This, more accurately than any other dichotomy, currently categorises the two different factions of humanity currently in open conflict and delineates the points of disagreement between conservative-minded people and progressives.
Sadly, Surrey busybodies and their ilk are not yet willing to have civil discussions with people they disagree with. Yet, uncomfortable conversations are essential. The conservative mindset extrapolates to atrocity and we are alarmingly far along that path already. It’s time for something more than gradual, incremental change. Those currently living with a boot on their neck can’t and won’t wait.
We were all taught that compliance was the highest good from an early age. The opposite of compliance, we were told, is failure. Failure, when we were children, meant shame, humiliation, loss of face, loss of status, degradation and exclusion. It was abject, not recoverable through resilience, persistence and tenacity. Today, we know failure is an essential pre-requisite for learning and progress. In other words, compliance stifles us all. To amplify compliance, people in authority have instilled in us not just a fear of failure, but worse, a fear of that fear itself. This is why so many people are conservative-minded.
The reason it’s so hard to push ourselves, even when there’s no external downside of doing so, is our meta-fear – this fear of the fear of failure. That feeling of insufficiency and doom we dread, which failure would bring, pushes us to seek the comfort of compliance instead. This is the root cause of our collective, venal cowardice, insecurity and weakness. It’s why we bully.
We ought not condemn younger generations to suffer the long-term consequences of short-termist decisions we make, but won’t live to see through to fruition. Today, the forces of extreme conservatism are doing precisely that, shaping the world in ways that will take a lot of cleaning up, if it’s possible to rectify the situation at all. Why impose this on people that will have to live with it, long after we’re dead and buried?
So, these are the critics of your art – people with such a muddle-headed, fear-riddled, prejudicial, ignorant viewpoint on pretty much everything. Their criticism is of very limited value to you, as an artist. Indeed, their contribution to the debate on most important human concerns is of very limited value to the collective consciousness too.
They hide behind the thin veneer of civility, but they are wrecking civilisation wholesale. In doing so, they are uncivil and uncivilised. We have no reason to treat them with civility and every reason to confront them with their destructive beliefs and projects. Civilisation means universal personhood, universal dignity and universal emancipation. Anybody that denies one or more of these axioms is a force for regress. Regress must be resisted, or progress will not be possible.
If you can, press your art into the service of changing conservative mindsets.