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Introduction

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History is full of suppression. Reactionary parties forbidding subversive ideas to have direct access to the public discourse, thus defusing the role of subversive artists and intellectuals. These mechanisms, used to re-frame them as separated from the most topical events, and divert from them the taste for the new that may dangerously appeal to the masses. These tools of suppression, originally used to maintain power in the pre-capitalist world, have now evolved to fit the hand of powerful corporations who will do anything to stoke the fires of hyperconsumerism. I will identify this suppression of subversion and prove its utilisation in the present day.  Beliefs, arts and values, are being trivialised and sterilised, in order to be safely incorporated back within mainstream society, where they can be exploited to add new flavours to old dominant ideas. 

“There was a time where there were men and animals.
And men painted men and animals.
Then gods and kings came and men painted gods and kings.
Then men sat in carriages that moved over the earth and men painted carriages.
And now men fly to the starts. And men paint flying to the stars.
At this moment in London millions of men millions of objects millions of machines.
Million of interactions each fraction of a second between men objects and machines.
Day and night inventors create new machines, objects that will be produced day and night.
The artist’s entire visual field becomes the work of art.”

Religion has always been a distraction from who really holds the power. Faith built God the castle and Monarchs sat at the throne. When the chains between church and state broke, an illusion of freedom was cast over the people. Reason had begun to trump religion, but 

“From the ruins of Heaven, man fell into the ruins of his own world.” 

The Monarchy still ruled, and after the invention of the printing press, many elaborate methods of censorship had to be put into place, fearing the new and efficient diffusion of ideas. 

The press brought forward a rapid growth of newspaper publication. They, and books, began a huge improvement in the speed of delivering information sources across Europe. But it also increased the reactionaries worry that unlimited access to information would be harmful to society and public morals, particularly in times of war. And so the Licensing Act of 1662 was strong enforced in Britain, through censorship, trade restrictions and lack of paper for printing. These subtle means of censorship, even today, effectively hamper the development of the free media in many countries.

Controlled by politicians, intellectuals and clerics, various institutions were set up to deploy mechanisms, one which functioned through exclusion and prohibition, and the other which worked by means of distribution and regulation. This suppression was no longer just a question of public morality or political power. It had become a means of economic control over the print market, by ensuring information only reached people ‘worthy’ of hearing it.

“It is the case that most of the post-publication strategies of censorship were ‘prohibitive’, i.e. based on bans, book burnings and punishments, whereas most pre-publication strategies were ‘regulative’ in the sense that they were based on surveillance  and licensing systems.” 

Colonial Britain, exercised tight control over political publications in their domains. The imperialist government maintained a rule of unequal cultural, economic, and territorial relationships, based on domination and subordination. This suppression of people and territories allowed the extraction of everything of value from the colonised people and territories. However as society developed it was no longer politically viable to maintain an empire, wealth and power no longer were defined by territory. 

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” 

There was another wind of change. Consumerism was taking a hold of the western world, needs and wants were moving from the every day, to every thing. The social status relationship between the consumer and the goods they purchase had intensified. As had the status anxiety of not belonging to ‘the right social class’. The personal identity the consumer applied to the goods they own, generating a sense of belonging.

“Just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully, and more definitively into the consciousness of Man.” 

From this, corporations and the mass media changed the tools of suppression to suit the needs of monetary rather than territorial gain, and with an easily persuaded government they could exploit these factors. Capitalism and consumerism grew, and in doing so society started to reflect what Guy Debord describes as ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. 

From Suppression to Subversion

African American history is the best example of the transition, from suppression for territorial gain on the Frontier, to reluctant acceptance and then appropriation for monetary gain. The shift from slave to ‘citizen’ was the beginning. The emancipated African Americans, began to strive for civic participation, political, cultural and economic equality. However the Democratic whites denied African Americans their exercise of civil and political rights by instilling a rule of racial segregation in the South. Life became increasingly difficult and African Americans began to migrate North in great numbers.

Harlem became the destination for these people, seeking work away from the South. Originally built as an exclusive suburb for the white middle and upper middle classes, by the early 1900s Harlem had become an African American neighborhood. And as the First World War continued many more African Americans arrived concentrating these ambitious people where they could encourage each other. As a consequence, great social and cultural change was accelerated. Desperate to break away from racial stereotypes and in a search for equality, the Harlem Renaissance begun.
In 1917, the premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre took place. These plays, featured African American actors conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. This subversion from the stereotypes of blackface and minstrel shows has been described as 

“The most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theater.” 

Two years later poet Claude Mckay published If We Must Die. Although never alluding to race, African American readers heard its note of defiance in the face of racism and by the end of the First World War, the poetry of Claude McKay was reflecting the reality of living in contemporary America as an African American. 

“What was birthed from the writing of the Harlem Renaissance were hip-hop subgenres that touted consciousness as the ultimate goal, commentary on the politics, socio-economics, and cultural foundation of America.”

However once corporations recognised the earning potential of rap music, the mass recuperation of hip hop began. Record labels to urban radio stations were all bought out. This corporate free for all echoes that of the European conquest of native America. Hip hop became commodified and the more money it made the less diversified rap music became. This subversive voice for the persecuted was again being suppressed.

Through this commodification, the corporatations were able to silence progressive voices, all the while promoting rappers who would embody an image of black people that they felt more comfortable with. The resistant black youth represents a direct threat to white establishment power. Mos Def’s song ‘The Rape Over’ was removed from the album before release. 

“Old white men is running this rap shit. We poke out our asses for a chance to cash in.” 

Through this corporate homogenisation and censorship, the lyrics of the song are proven even further. 

“It is as if the days of the minstrel show have returned. Those rappers who are most willing to step into the corporate supported stereotypical costumes, lyrically and physically, are the ones who will receive the record deals and unfettered airtime.” 

This cookie cutter image of the black rapper has prevailed in corporate hip hop industry, promoting senseless violence, materialism, and misogyny. It is the perfect example of the mechanism of suppression, then appropriation of the subverting oppressed. 

Artificial Subversion

The same mechanisms were again used in the Cold War, except this time the subversion was grown in a lab at the heart of the American government. Founded in 1947 the CIA fostered and promoted Abstract Expressionism around the world for more than 20 years, as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of America. Constructivism, trapped inside the world of communist idealology, could not compete. 
Agitated at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the CIA made the decision to include culture and art in the Cold War arsenal.

“We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War.”

In 1958 the touring exhibition “The New American Painting”, was to be shown in Milan and then in other major cities including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. The exhibition consisted of works from 17 painters, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

“Yet in spite of their conscientious intransigence, their following increases rapidly. The paintings themselves have a senenous, emotional, aesthetic and at times mystical power which works can be overwhelming. The movement can be said to have flourished in its maturity since about 1948, roughly the starting point of this show, and is now dominant throughout the United States.”

The Tate Gallery was keen to have it next, but could not afford to bring it over. Luckily an American millionaire and art lover, Julius Fleischmann, intervened just in time with the funding and the show was brought to London. This money however, was not his but the CIA’s. It came through a body called the Farfield Foundation, of which Fleischmann was president, and was a secret conduit for CIA funds.

The Cold War was a conflict of ideologies. The CIA chose culture as their weapon, loaded it with 17 rounds of ‘self expression’ and pointed it at the Soviets “rigid” heart. The world watched this mexican standoff, unaware that the weapon was in fact loaded with blanks. This subterfuge of culture set a precedent of manipulation for capitalism to exploit.

Fufilling and Defying a Prophecy

Today, almost all primary art sales bought from the artist occur through art galleries. Galleries through ‘curation’ set taste and prices of the work. These prices are manipulated to an extent that would be illegal in most industries. An organisation with financial interest controlling a market is alarming. In any market, price manipulation distorts causes shortages, and inefficiency. 

To get around this the industry has developed an intricate process where the approval of a handful of galleries, collectors and museums, determines what is of good taste and value. Dealers who own and work at art galleries invest many resources in building the artist’s brand. Through these mechanisms the art world has fufilled Guy Debords prophecy. Society has taken the form of ‘The Spectacle’. The Arts, the instruments of cultural production, have been commodified and artistic expression is now given shape by the person’s ability to brand themselves.

“As soon as art­ which constituted that former common language of social inaction ­­establishes itself as independent in the modern sense, emerging from its first, religious universe to become the individual production of separate works, it becomes subject, as one instance among others, to the movement governing the history of the whole of culture as a separated realm. Art’s declaration of independence is thus the beginning of the end of art.” 

Galleries will drop an artist rather than lower the price of their work. This mechanism that the art world has adopted, puts all the focus on the value of the artist and the credibility of the gallery. It’s a vicious cycle, which necessitates more manipulation.

Gustav Metzger, created his manifesto and the theory of auto destructive art as an attack on the capitalist art market and on capitalism in general. In defiance of the production of art objects Metzger developed his pieces without a final material form. Seen in these terms, auto-destructive art describes the process rather than objects produced.

“His use of rubbish is something more than a desire to employ unusual
materials. One could interpret it as a protest against the false and shiny
standards of modern society, or as an almost mystical affirmation of the value of 
everything, even that which is rejected and despised, or perhaps as a psychological 
necessity on the artist’s part to identify himself with what has been cast out.”

Metzger’s auto-destructive art defies ‘The Spectacle’ and places value back into the expression of the moment, the human interaction between spectator and artist, artist and canvas. 

“Metzger’s aesthetic articulation is irreducible to mass culture, and it escapes any potentiality of reproducibility to deny ideological instrumentalization. In it, he remains both sensitive and thoughtful toward potential intimacies between politics and culture.”

Metzger pioneered another movement. Curators and artists were seeking to move away from the individualistic approach to art and exhibition making, and towards a more democratic system. A key example of this process was the staging of a seminar with it’s aim to open a discussion with all parties involved as a way to create a more equal opportunities between artists and curators. The works presented in the exhibition all engaged with political critique and yet ranged greatly in form. Gustav Metzger chose to remove himself from the exhibition completely as a protest against the art world. This began the Art Strike of 1977.

“The refusal to labour is the chief weapon of workers fighting the system; artists can use the same weapon. To bring down the art system it is necessary to call for years without art, a period of three years – 1977 to 1980 – when artists will not produce work, sell work, permit work to go on exhibitions, and refuse collaboration with any part of the publicity machinery of the art world. This total withdrawal of labor is the most extreme collective challenge that artists can make to the state.” 

The call criticizes the doctrine of ‘The Spectacle’ and the work of artists engaged in political struggle. The use of art for social change as well in the service of revolution is reactionary and only feeds the mechanisms in place. Instead, it states that the true revolution of methods of production, distribution, and consumption of art is the refusal of labor.