Cultic Cultures

This feature on the hazards of group affiliation and the unquestioning embrace of apparently deviant epistemologies, was published in Art Monthly issue 404, March 2017. 

The double detonations of Brexit and Trump have, like a dynamited dam, unleashed a torrent of ignorance and bigotry, a rank deluge flooding the already mucky terrain of the UK’s socio-cultural and political landscape. The effect on its agenda-setting media was immediate. Large tabloid, broadsheet and broadcast news corporations – entities whose considerable market shares allow for significant influence over government policy and control over the nation’s access to information – reduced their already partial coverage to a near total focus on the fallout from the referendum and the US election. Over in the comparatively rarified worlds of arts and culture, a strangely petulant series of outbursts followed both events.

Highly successful cultural producers (among them Grayson Perry, Slavoj Žižek, Patrik Schumacher and Adam Curtis), exasperated by what they perceived to be the inef ectiveness of that perennial construct ‘the left ’, began to blurt out bizarre statements, some of which were right-positive while others seemed designed to shock a newly identified group of so called arts professionals. Here, so the thinking went, was an indulgent, self-obsessed group of apolitical snobs who never listened to the ‘white working classes’ and so are culpable, on both sides of the Atlantic, for the supposed right-wing ‘whitelash’. In each instance these outbursts achieved two things: one, they reproduced the media’s gross simplifications of voter demographics (both economic and racial); and

two, they used the circumstances of the speaker’s own socio-economic conditions (comparatively elite and affluent) as the model from which to generalise and tar a whole sector. Chief among them was doyen of docsploitation Curtis. His outburst, as a clear articulation of a certain weak ideology many now feel emboldened to support, is worth attending to here.

The intention of this article is to explore how a distorted view of collectivism has laid fertile ground for the growth in prominence of what British sociologist Colin Campbell in 1972 dubbed the cultic milieu, a ‘cultural underground of society’ that is composed of and conducive to the creation of cults: groups whose members are unified by adherence to a set of principles deviant from dominant cultural orthodoxies. According to Campbell, this cultural underground is ‘much broader, deeper and historically based than the contemporary movement known as the underground, it includes all deviant belief systems and their associated practices’. My contention is that a 21st-century expansion of the cultic milieu – aided by the ‘underground’ spilling over into the ‘mainstream’, by the world wide web’s dispersal of deviant tendencies and by technologies of telepresence allowing for heightened experiences of group entitativity (the extent to which a group is felt and recognised as a coherent unit and not as a disparate collection of individuals) – has seen a growth of cultic or cult-like groups within society and by extension within the art world. This growth is aided by an impulse in cult-prone individuals who, in retreating from the potentially distressing realisation that nothing lies behind the societal constructs constituting the world, run to groups of ering access to an essential truth and in so doing relinquish the critical scepticism born of uncertainty. A possible way out of this dynamic is of ered through a reassertion of the importance of self-reflection, and a restatement of the interdependence of (and not hierarchical distinction between) group and individual activity. Curtis’s antithetical comments provide a useful starting point.

In a 2016 interview with commercial art collecting website Artspace, Curtis dismissed art and artists as agents of capitalism peddling the neoliberal philosophy of individualism through self-expression. According to the director, ‘at this point radical art involves going of on one demonstration, or doing an installation that says something angry, and then going home … however radical your message is as an artist, you are doing it through self-expression – the central dominant ideology of modern capitalism’. He followed this later with the comment that: ‘the elitist, obscure, rather smug art that we’ve had over the last five or six years is part of the sort of metropolitan stubbornness that Brexit reacted against in my country, and that Trump voters reacted against in your country … the only way to challenge deeply entrenched power is through mass collective action, not through a radicalism that is rooted in individualism.’ Given his confession at a 2013 e-flux lecture that it was ‘the first time I’ve had anything to do with the art world’, Curtis’s ill-informed assessment is at least understandable. But while his ignorance of contemporary art in general and politically engaged work in particular is unsurprising, Curtis’s incomprehension of the compound, multidimensional nature of contemporary activism reveals a more wilful disconnect from reality, rationalised by a superficially radical yet ultimately conservative ideology of collectivism-first. This is a system of belief that holds that the power of groups is inherently good and capable of instigating meaningful political change, while the inwardly directed nature of self-oriented behaviours is inherently bad because such behaviours perpetuate tenets of neoliberalism and are therefore capable of changing nothing.

The ideology of collectivism-first does not originate with Curtis; it has a historical precedent. In the UK, a simplified 20th-century genealogy could begin with a postwar polarisation situating the welfare state of William Beveridge, John Meynard Keynes and Clement Atlee on one side (a model rooted partly in socialist principles), and the small-government, free-market, deregulatory economic philosophy (otherwise known as neoliberalism) of Friedrich von Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society on the other. From their beginnings in the 1940s, both wended their way through the century influencing the course of social, cultural, economic and political theory and practice. The welfare state forms a kind of bedrock of pragmatic socialist principles, ostensibly collective in nature, that are used to support and give credence to class struggle, social justice and progressive political reform. Free market capitalism births the consumer society, compulsory embourgeoisement and the anti-society rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher – from whom Tony Blair gleefully grasped the neoliberal baton. It is through elementary readings of these two developments that a simple ideology is formed which characterises, on the one hand, group action as positive collectivism and, on the other, self-centred activity (in the literal and not pejorative sense) as negative individualism. In the field of contemporary art this philosophy informs and supports the theory, prevalent within discourse on participatory art, of spectator activation through collective and relational experience. It is a set of ideas that originally found favour in a post-1950s atmosphere of happenings, communitarianism and co-operative organisation which grew in opposition to formalism’s veneration of subjective interiority. Of course, like most dichotomous thinking, the polarised distinctions underpinning collectivism take mutual exclusivity between two positions as a first principle, ignoring the fact that productivity actually takes place where both supposedly discrete sides meet.

A distorted view of collectivism has laid fertile ground for the growth in prominence of what British sociologist Colin Campbell calls the cultic milieu, a ‘cultural underground of society’ that is composed of and conducive to the creation of cults.

To be specific, in contrast to the Manichean distinction Curtis draws, actual activism is carried out on a continuum plotted between collective action and personal responsibility. Activists move between co-ordinated shows of strength, solidarity and dissensus through various incarnations of work, protest and creativity on the one hand and, on the other, individual activity focused on research and analysis (legal, cultural, party political, historical etc) and detailed critical appraisal of one’s own moral and ethical framework, which also incorporates interrogating the givens that inform the composition of society. This latter territory is where large proportions, if not all, of the preliminary and essential work (the research and conceptualising preceding the formalisation that then pulls in other parties) of contemporary art takes place. It is why undergraduate curricula incorporate critical theory so that students can learn – through the rejection or adoption of certain ideas and perspectives – how to carry out such thinking for themselves.

The basis for artistic practice, then, is not in Curtis’s romantic and outmoded process of self-expression, privileging an ego that cuts itself of from the world in order to give material form to some interior emotional state. It is, rather, rooted in a process of self-reflection where the basis of activity is the analysis and interrogation of the world and one’s own moral, ethical, linguistic and aesthetic commitments – which are never completely one’s own but are the world’s. The word ‘world’ in this instance does not refer to some global planet or collection of natural laws; it refers to that system of human made tools, concepts, technologies, narratives and so on that construct the total relational environment we are each thrown into at birth. The world, then, being a human-made thing, is necessarily composed of operative constructs. Fabrications like race, aesthetics, gender, justice, subjectivity and nationalism all orient behaviours for the benefit of some and the detriment of others. This is why the statement ‘all artwork is political’ has some veracity, because if the basis of most contemporary art is critical self-reflection (as defined above), then any interrogation (for example of aesthetics) will also be an interrogation of the world system that generated that concept, the particular communities or actors within that system who benefit from it and the conditions of those it blocks.

Through group activities such as strikes, protests, boycotts and outright revolution, collective action is extremely effective when combating or removing large oppressive parts of a given world system. However, it is difficult for groups to work at the level of detailed analysis necessary to identify and dismantle ideologies and the day-to-day structures, procedures and behavioural routines through which they operate. To carry out such work requires space and time, a room or studio of one’s own. Despite the obvious foundational importance of the latter, relatively little critical attention, within the field of contemporary art, has been paid to what happens to individuals during processes of self reflection. This inattention is arguably the result of collective-first biases (the impulse to dismiss inner-directed activity as a symptom of neoliberal individualism) inherent in the discourse of spectator activation. However, two recent artworks produced by Maria Eichhorn and Manon de Boer bucked this trend. By looking at each of them it is possible to examine how this process is accessed, and what its rewards and hazards may be.

Between 23 April and 29 May 2016, Eichhorn produced 5 weeks, 25 days, 72 hours at London’s Chisenhale Gallery. For the exhibition’s duration staff were given time of with full pay and the gallery was closed. Using the logic of the gift, Eichhorn stated that ‘my artistic work for Chisenhale Gallery consists in giving time to the staff. Once the staff accept the time, once work is suspended while staff members continue to receive pay, the artistic work can emerge’. Like many of Eichhorn’s project statements, the sentence seems clear, concise and logical, but her final assessment of 5 weeks reveals an intentional lack that nevertheless makes the project feel incomplete. Almost all of the analysis, explanation or interrogation of the work took place at the point of its execution and was, to a large extent, preoccupied with what 5 weeks revealed about capitalism in the 21st century. Catalogue essays, an artist interview, a conversation with staff and a day-long symposium all centred on familiar issues regarding contemporary conditions of labour, value, precarity, indebtedness and institutional operations. Eichhorn wrote that her interest lay ‘in the fundamental possibility of suspending the capitalist logic of exchange by giving time and making a life without wage labour imaginable’, but in order to avoid anything like work impinging on the gif ed free time once the project was over and gallery staff returned to work, no questions were asked about their briefly labourless lives, the emotional impact of 5 weeks or any subsequent changes in attitude. Of course life without wage labour is imaginable, the primary activity it enables also has a name: leisure. But despite Eichhorn’s assertion that ‘the artistic work can emerge’ with the cessation of wage labour, no indication of what leisure (free time) can mean for self-reflexive individuals made its way into the project. For that it is necessary to look elsewhere.

De Boer’s 36-minute 16mm film An Experiment in Leisure, 2016, leaves aside preoccupations with wage labour to focus instead on a qualitative investigation of free, open-ended time; not time in which a different form of work is conducted along the consumption-production axis (dining out and rating your experience online, for example), but time that is undirected and without a given task orientation. In the film, long panoramas of a Norwegian coast are interspersed with static shots of artists’ studios. A relationship is suggested by intercutting between both, whereby the seascape’s expansiveness can function as a visual metaphor for interior vistas of the imagination accessible via the concrete location of the studio. The work was inspired by Marion Milner’s 1937 book, also titled An Experiment in Leisure, in which the British psychoanalyst wrote up her experiences of a prolonged period of self-examination made possible through leisure, which for her was – to quote de Boer’s description – ‘not a moment opposed to work, but a time allowing us to perceive and think freely without an immediate objective’. Throughout the film six artists read and reflect on excerpts from Milner’s book in which the author recounts the details of various psycho-physiological states that emerge during introspection. These passages are used as points of departure for the artists’ own similarly speculative descriptions of creativity that introspection enables. ‘For me, vulnerability is a real working space’, says one artist, ‘that means I have to devise strategies. It’s what I call protecting … At some points certain states of being cannot be exposed, states that cannot move between outside and inside without getting harmed.’ The abstract nature of this comment makes it hard to assign it a definite meaning, but it is illustrative of a general sensation of vulnerability that can open up during introspection, particularly when the self is confronted with the self. I would argue that part of this vulnerability also stems from a horizon of uncertainty that comes into view during introspection; a location that if properly explored reveals the essential fictiveness of the world and its various epistemological foundations. For some this can be a source of productivity and empowerment, for others it can be a source of crisis, causing them to seek existential surety in alternative world views purporting to offer the essential truth.

One description of Milner’s that is not included in de Boer’s film is the psychoanalyst’s flirtation with witchcraft. The book’s third chapter opens with the sentence ‘for a long time I had had a vague interest in witchcraft’, an interest explored more fully during the period of reflection when she ‘happened on a book about witchcraft called The History of the Devil’. Milner’s dalliance is short-lived, but it is useful here as an example of how mysticism and the occult tend to emerge as attractive alternative epistemologies when normative bodies of knowledge are in question. In his classic 1972 essay ‘The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularisation’, Campbell uses and elaborates on the concept of ‘seekership’ as both an operative state for potential cult members and also as the ‘common ideology’ that unites the cultic milieu. Building on US sociologists John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s assertion that seekers are defined as ‘searching for some satisfactory system of religious meaning to interpret and resolve their discontents’, Campbell asserts that ‘if this conception is widened beyond the restriction to a religious frame of reference, then it can be seen that this notion of seekership prevails throughout the cultic milieu’. It is my contention that if the areas of interest Campbell ascribes to the cultic milieu can be widened beyond questioning religious and scientific orthodoxies to include the aesthetic, the philosophical, the political and the psychoanalytic, then it has some striking ramifications: not only can Milner be positively identified as a seeker, but the operative mode of those engaged in the practice, interpretation or display of contemporary art can also be defined as seekership. This is because the field’s foundational activity is rooted in the critical interrogation, or at least investigation, of dominant cultural, social, political, economic and aesthetic orthodoxies; a process that involves the necessary embrace and or authorship of deviant epistemologies.

Given the above, it is no surprise that contemporary artists are and have been (art-historically speaking, Renaissance interest in hermeticism is a plausible point of inception) interested in the occult. A general, low-level and enduring enthusiasm for Aleister Crowley has been overshadowed by recent interest in witchcraft. Artist Anna Bunting-Branch’s ICA event ‘Witchy Methodologies’ brought together a collection of artists who have all expressed interest in the field, including Linda Stupart, Patrick Staff and Georgia Horgan, and a run of recent articles (‘Why Witchcraft is Making a Comeback’ in Artsy, ‘The Rise of the LA Art Witch’ in Contemporary Art Review LA and ‘What We Do Is Secret’ in Frieze) has sought to explicate or contextualise this attention as historically grounded in an impulse to revisit and further witch oriented feminist and queer liberatory strategies of the 1960s and 1970s. Laudable as such ventures and histories are, largely positive analyses of witchcraft, and by extension magic, miss their twin and syncretic relations to darker and more oppressive epistemologies within the cultic milieu. Specifically, they sidestep the occult’s just as intimate relationship with right-wing extremism, ultra-nationalism and the so-called alt-right. This last group are unified around a typically cult-like syncretic collection of white supremacism, Egyptology, magic, eugenics and gematria, and support for it recently surfaced within east London’s art scene.

A private Facebook message from Lucia Diego, director of LD50 (a small gallery in the East End), voiced vague equivocal support for alt-right principles and Donald Trump – ‘I’m not even sure if I disagree with the Muslim ban’ – and led to a mass of Facebook responses when artist Sophie Jung (who was rightfully alarmed by Deigo’s far-right leanings) posted it online for pubic view. The general tenor of the comments was that Diego’s message was the final act that revealed a long-suspected support for white supremacy to be true. Previous activity had included an exhibition dedicated to the alt-right held at the gallery, a gallery conference on and featuring neoreactionists (a group known for supplying some fairly esoteric philosophical underpinnings for the alt-right), tweets, blog posts and an Instagram account through which aspects of alt-right imagery and ideology were irreverently pushed. How did this happen? By widening our focus out from Diego’s support for the alt-right, or indeed a general enthusiasm for the occult, we can identify a larger cohesive in-group or even, in Campbell’s use of the term, a cult whose shared behavioural norms, values and lifestyles conspire to create an atmosphere in which such activity is par for the course. I am referring here to a section of London’s contemporary arts community comprising largely, but not exclusively, white middle- or upper-middle-class artists; a section unburdened by histories of oppression, suffused with privilege and the necessary leisure time available for seekership. This group’s thirst for nonconformist epistemologies is suffused with an appetite for irony quite capable of accepting the adoption of questionable tendencies, like white supremacy, as instances of banal posturing or jaded affectation.

This example of a route into potentially dangerous territory within the cultic milieu has been used to highlight a hazard of introspection, of the basic self-reflexive and critically engaged mode from which contemporary art is initially produced. What is not being suggested, however, is a simple reversal of the collectivism-first bias, maintaining that seekership or group affiliations and activities are inherently bad. To restate an earlier assertion, productivity takes place on a continuum between group and individual activity and not in the exclusive domain of either. However, in the case of the latter, periods of critical self-reflection that reveal the essentially fictive nature of received knowledge and normative orthodoxies can produce uncertainty, anxiety and the impulse to find another essential truth as a substitute elsewhere. To break this cycle, rather than regarding uncertainty as a state of fragility needing to be resolved by the adoption of newer bodies of knowledge, it should be recognised as a position of strength, particularly in times where plurality, heterogeneity and multiculturalism (states of fluidity) are being crushed under the steamrollers of homogeneity, nationalism and religious intolerance (states of imposed uniformity). While groups are capable of great displays of power, it is through an embracing of society’s root uncertainties that the criticality informing meaningful collective action can thrive. As well as bringing that criticality to bear on dominant cultural orthodoxies (the ‘whitelash’ and ‘ineffectiveness of the left’ narratives being two recent examples), uncertainty is what also keeps artists vigilant within the art world, a field that we should never forget is entered into via both institutional and informal processes of enculturation.

And so, in opposition to Curtis’s misconception, if there is anything approaching a suitable candidate for the artist’s role in the 21st century, it is that of the perpetual sceptic, an individual who questions everything.

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