The 2016 US election has brought the nation’s rifts to a point of blood-curdling, irreconcilable vitriol surely unseen since the civil war. Amid such mayhem, an accusation that artist Marina Abramović has been schooling senior Democrats in black magic is almost a welcome bit of light relief.
How did avant-garde art star Abramović get involved in America’s most corrosive election season? Her name appears in the emails of John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which have been released by WikiLeaks. In one of the messages, she invites Podesta’s art-collector brother, Tony, to “a spirit cooking dinner at my place” and says John would be welcome, too.
From this apparently innocuous invitation, the rightwing Drudge Report came up with the headline “Wiki Wiccan: Podesta practises occult magic”. It reimagines Abramović’s performance art as nothing more nor less than satanic rites (well, she did once carve a pentagram into her stomach with a razor blade) and we are invited to picture her dinner party as a black sabbath of the liberal elite. Infowars, the website of conspiracy theorist Alex
Jones, raves that “the latest bombshell to come from WikiLeaks connects Clinton campaign head John Podesta to top occultist Marina Abramović”.
It is fitting that as this year’s surreally hyperbolic confrontation between two visions of America moves to its conclusion, art has been thrown into the noxious mix. The caricature of Abramović as an occultist is a parodic reductio ad absurdum of a longstanding conservative obsession. The wicked liberal arts have been turned into a political issue by the American right before, and the demonisation of the avant-garde has actually been an important ingredient in conservatism’s long march towards the refusal to accept that any liberal can ever have democratic legitimacy.
Before the infowars came the culture wars. In the late 1980s, the rightwing Republican senator Jesse Helms launched a savage attack on America’s National Endowment for the Arts, accusing it of promoting offensive and indecent art that mocked true American values. Helms tried to ban the use of public funds to “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials ... or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion”.
Robert Mapplethorpe was the main target. His photographs – particularly his X Portfolio with its delight in sadomasochism – were demonised as a vile assault on decency, instead of the beautiful and sublime images they are. Speaking of demonisation, rightwing conspiracy theorists may want to note that like Abramović, this sensual photographer did occasionally use the pentagram in his work. Spooky!
Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was another target of this attack on art. “Serrano is not an artist,” said Helms. “He is a jerk.” Given that not only have Mapplethorpe and Serrano endured as artists – whereas the name of Jesse Helms is only kept alive outside extremist political circles probably by his association with their work – but also that the controversy made contemporary art famous and inspired more artists to delight in shock tactics, it might seem a failure for conservatives.
Yet in the light of what has happened to the Republican party, from the rise of the Tea Party to its takeover by Donald Trump, Helms looks like a sinister visionary. Coming at the end of an era in which Republicans dominated the American political mainstream, the culture war against art was a step towards the aggressive, deliberately divisive American popular right of today.
Perhaps the strangest and most revealing thing about Republicans demonising artists, from Mapplethorpe to Abramović, is the obvious connection between art and money. Mapplethorpe was no revolutionary – he was as American as apple pie, especially in his desire for success. Art in the 1980s was big business, and it’s an even bigger business today. So in attacking it, conservatives from Helms to the Drudge Report are attacking capitalism – they are saying there are more important American values than making money. Those higher “cultural” values always seem to come down to hatred of minorities and difference, of course.
Damn, I was looking for light relief. But this story about art, satanism and conspiracy theories is just another window on what has gone wrong with democracy. When you define those who disagree with you not just as political opponents but satanic acolytes of darkness, you are committed to a politics of unreason, intolerance and hate.