Ideology, Activism and Art: The Bark is Worse than the Bite


Metamodern Art. Ideology, Activism and Art.

“The young characters are fluent in a hackneyed language of protest, fighting for what they believe in, standing up for something, supporting good causes and making a difference. But their naïve and self-congratulatory efforts suggests that privilege and nostalgia may play a role in watering down contemporary notions of activism. ‘I’m an old lady who lived in the South during segregation,’ one of Wolitzer’s high school staff remarks. ‘I have seen political protest and it doesn’t look like this.’ As web tools have made it possible for some forms of protest to become more passive, activism as a concept has also been loosened from its socio-political moorings.” – From Sex and War on the American Stage: Lysistrata in Performance 1930-2012, by Emily B. Klein (2014)


By Hugh Cunningham
Image (top) from the Tate. Activists stage protests against BP at the Tate Modern.

The Metamodern age has seen a surge in social activism, from the Global Justice movements continuing into the 90’s to the Occupy Movements of the 21st Century. A culture of revolution still remains, but no matter how fashionable it becomes, what’s waning in America’s ideology is the meaningful blood and guts intent of the unfettered anarchy that occurred within the modernists’ timeline. The industrial revolution brought with it violent rebellions from the working class. Two notable events were the Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the Ludlow Massacre in the Colorado mining camps of John D. Rockefeller in 1914. After the deaths of numerous women and children at the hands of law enforcement and the business elite, American laborers finally gained sympathy for workers’ rights, but not without sacrifice.

The art of the times always records social upheavals. And with the challenge of art comes the challenges of truth and originality. There are issues today that appeal to the metamodernist’s vocabulary that would never have been considered in less modern times. Animal rights are as important as human rights. One sided, feeble attempts at social justice and uncompromising attitudes on energy and environmental issues are at the forefront of our activism in the current period.

The end of the postmodern foreshadowed the sustainable economic destruction that we’re seeing with metamodernism. Our culture reflects the results of an almost ludicrous neglect of society’s awareness, unless used as a tool for marketing, and the decline of humanitarian based social systems and education. Instead of the spark being cultivated into a fire, our education breeds conformity and complacency; the antithesis of everything the warrior poet stands for.

Metamodern Art. Ideology and Activism.
“Human Meat”, an outdoor performance installation from

Metamodern Art. Ideology and Activism.
Haymarket demonstration poster in contrast to a current pop-culture reference against the TPP.

Since the racial and anti-war conflicts of the sixties civil disobedience has been gradually subdued by pop-culture and conformity. In the early 20th Century entire communities would rally with other communities and sometimes strikes would turn violent with provocateurs, gunfire and bombings. Fires were burning on college campuses during the Vietnam War. With few notable exceptions like L.A., the Seattle riots and Ferguson, most demonstrations are announced by the media, papers are filed and permission is granted. Demonstrations are authorized and homogenized into controllable displays of manufactured disapproval.

In the top image protesters are “invading” the Tate Modern in protest of BP. Museums and public media have seen vast increases in sponsorship from big oil, private trusts and other wealthy philanthropic institutions. The question becomes, how much freedom of expression can be tolerated when truth confronts the same authority who is ultimately hosting the event? It almost works in BP’s favor by taking the wind out of the whole “guerilla” aspect, by sponsoring an “unauthorized” two day performance. The irony is rich, but perhaps the end will justify the means as the issues of corporate sponsorship and conflicts of interest are explored in depth.

Our defense budget has trickled down to local law enforcement and intimidating displays of force are the order of the day in cities where the populations are big enough to be a quantifiable threat. A different kind of strategy and ideology is used in demographics where real disparity and social injustice are maintained every day. Ferguson and other racially dysfunctional communities feel the full force of police brutality as a matter of routine.

Metamodern Art. Ideology and Activism
Arab Spring spawned a trend of risk-taking activism in the streets of Cairo. Social media played an important roll during the uprisings in the Middle East. In America we use Facebook to share angry memes, before we go out to “occupy” ourselves with camping, partying and holding up signs.

Metamodern Art. Ideology, Activism and Art.
Not all ideological art is agreeable. This image of ISIS is an example of an ideology gone horribly awry. The self-proclaimed Islamic State has a very sophisticated guerilla media and social networking apparatus. Their far reaching hand of intimidation and terror has caused much distress in the Middle East and around the world.

The inherent rebellious nature of society is always kept in check by ancient applications going as far back as Ancient Rome with Diocletianus and the Great Persecution of the Christians and later with the Hegelian Dialectic which outlines thesis, antithesis and synthesis, or the problem, reaction, solution scenario. Some would consider the crucifixion story of Christ vs Barabbas as a classic example of crowd manipulation and the exploitation of herd mentality. Manufactured anger or opposition becomes redirected or controlled to produce a desired effect, ironically by the majority’s choice. The protest becomes either more passive or violent through the systematic infiltration of ideology or subterfuge.

A perverse sense of humor is reflected in some of the more relevant art. Political ideology is more cutting and harshly cynical than ever. Guerilla performances and public art have become more intelligent and resourceful. In contrast to political rhetoric, the artist can present clear messages enabling reflection throughout the narrative of the protest.

There is a myth that artists are generally drawn too deep into their own creative psychosis to be aware or participate in any of the pertinent political or social dialogues surrounding them. On the contrary, artists are quite perceptive and empathic to what’s happening around them. One intelligent work of art is worth a thousand politicians’ words. For the work to be relevant it requires a keen understanding of the issues as valid reference points to the work. The most relevant or effective work comes from those who know the issues well enough to exploit them and artists, when they choose to get involved, get deeply involved in the issues.

Metamodern Art. Ideology, Activism and Art.
Mini SHOVE as seen at Dismaland, limited edition of 23 handmade 3D works, box framed, dimensions 128cm x 40cm x 10cm.

So what have we really said? After years of protest spanning two centuries, we still have no closure on just about every issue ever initiated in the service of society. Maybe another observation of metamodernism is the fact that so many things have yet to be resolved since the activism of the modern period and have continued not to change throughout the postmodern and are still not changing in the metamodern; but not changing in so many different ways. One thing’s for certain, coming out of all of this social entropy or wasted energy is some very intelligent, thought provoking, and courageous art. Long live the revolution!

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