An Open Letter About Re-Reading and Re-Contextualizing the Function of Art and the Creative Process in the Practice of Democracy

Dear Lovers of Art, Freedom, and Democracy, 

In an effort to gain more clarity about the present crisis in the practice of democracy, I decided to look into the matter and share what I found in an open letter to you. This letter contains some of the important historical factors that provide insight into recent events seen in many mainstream news stories. The crisis in American democracy is also a crisis in creativity possibility, and I am writing about it from my perspective as a visual artist who is committed to the idea that art can be an effective catalyst for individual and social transformation. The creative process consists of making informed choices to manifest in the world what is conceived within the imagination. Therefore, democracy makes imaginary and physical space for the creative process to reach its full expression. In turn, creative expression generates the vital force driving the progressive cultural impulse of a democracy. We need to produce culture because it is how we individually and collectively advance in our evolutionary process. We create culture because culture will help create who we will become and I truly believe the practice of real democracy helps us to reach our full potential. And that is why advancement in the Arts and Humanities is crucial to American culture. 

The New Atlantis. First published in 1627. ISBN 978-1-775410-50-8 © 2009 THE FLOATING PRESS.

In 1627, Francis Bacon’s magnum opus, an unfinished work of fiction called The New Atlantis was published. Bacon’s novel put into tangible form his utopian vision and political objectives for a new democratic society based on scientific and spiritual principles. Francis Bacon’s ideas contributed greatly to the founding of the United States of America which became a reality 149 years after Bacon’s death. For almost 400 years, The New Atlantis continues to generate a fundamental impact on the cultural trajectory of this country.

“The Hegelian Dialectic is a false dilemma, a logical fallacy which presents two opposing choices, in such a way that they are made to appear to be the only available possibilities: such that, if one is true, the other must be false. There are several important dialectics at work in Western societies, principally the dichotomy between science and religion, and the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals. However, the most important political dialectic is the enduring contest between the “East” and “West,” which has played out since the late eighteenth century as the Great Game between Britain and Russia. This then evolved into Cold War and the modern Clash of Civilizations, involving continued confrontation between the US and NATO against Russia and its aspiration for a Eurasian Empire.”—David Livingstone, from the book series Ordo ab Chao

Opposing points of view arising from this unfinished utopian project are causing perceptions about American democracy to be in constant flux. As a consequence, all are invited to participate in a collective discourse to determine what America is and what this country will become. Formal discussions were formed as a debate, a debate turned into a competition then the competition morphed into battles…Lines are drawn and choices are made. But where are the contests for authority in America leading us? What are all of the dialogue, debates, and culture wars actually producing? Will we be able to avert another civil war? The choices are put before us but will we make an informed choice in service to our evolution and the future of life on Earth? Or will our choice only provide us with a different version of a dilemma we already have?

Greenpeace activists hang “Resist” banner above White House to protest Trump. Photographer unknown.
Blood on President Zachary Taylor’s bust in U.S. Capitol after the January 6th insurrection, photographed by Frank Throp.
The Christopher Columbus Statue in Boston, Massachusetts. Source: NorthEnd Waterfront

In the film Matrix Reloaded, the Oracle talks with Neo about what is required after his choices were made. She tells him, “Because you didn’t come here to make the choice, you already made it. You are here to understand why you made it… We can never see past the choices we don’t understand. You have made the choice and now you have to understand it.” Neo refuses her proposition. Then the Oracle says, “You have to—or Zion will fall.” 

The choice to understand my choices to embrace freedoms is, for me, the choice to understand that my choice is a choice to discern the difference between truth, half-truth, or falsehood which is necessary in order to discern fact from fiction. The choice to understand why I made certain choices is also a choice to think, and to affirm my loyalty to my own mind over following those who may attempt to manage my thoughts or my perceptions of reality. The choice to understand my choices is also a commitment to discover the meaning of my choices for myself. The refusal to know or understand why I made the choices I did is, by default, a choice to forfeit my ability to choose, thus allowing others to make choices for me and to determine the meaning of those choices.

Unrequited

A poem by K.R. POPE:

Unrequited

is this

Otherness

so this love expression

becomes halted in an intangible place

between now and acceptance

held in suspended animation

without agency

without recourse

without breath… smothered beneath mythic belief

smothered beneath polemical narratives

smothered beneath cultural subtext

methodically melded

then brought to bear

upon this consciousness

and upon this body

concluding them as neither here nor there

by the wanton ignorance of those

dwelling in shade and shadow of moral twilight

the sanctimonious… who do not receive the truth before them

for they are rendered inhumane by deeply rooted indifference

their chosen default

when intellectualizing

when policing

when erasing

expressions of Otherness

that they do not understand”

Copyright©K.R.Pope2022

From a Spectator to an Active Participate in American Culture

Briefly, in this section, I recall the process of my participation in culture from being a spectator into an active participant. This process may be insightful for readers to think about the various ways in which artists, writers, and activists enter and navigate within the American cultural scene. 

During his speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King did a curious thing. He encouraged the poor, racial outsiders, and the disenfranchised to dream just as Francis Bacon and the Founding Fathers were inspired to dream about America. I didn’t really grasp any of what it meant since I was a very young child at the time but I chose to dream Dr. King’s dream. It seemed to be the natural thing for me to do. Years later, my choice to dream “The Dream” caused me to step out with those who stepped outside of certain social conventions into a real experience of what American democracy could be.

In 1976, my high school photography teacher’s definition of art as a catalyst for individual or social transformation articulated the concepts I developed throughout my activities as a visual artist. Her mantra about the power of photography was that “It was not the sit-ins or the anti-war protests but the constant circulation of horrific images of violence on television and in newspapers that changed public opinion contributing to the end of the Vietnam War.” 

My knowledge about how photographs communicate and circulate in the public sphere deepened during my undergraduate study at Southern Illinois University. By applying the concept that cinema and photography are dialects of visual language with their own semantics, syntax, and structure, I was able to produce photographic images that could function within a fine art or commercial art context. I also acquired a basic understanding of postmodern strategies just when they were widely used in contemporary literature, architecture, and visual art in the 1980s. After graduating from SIU, my photographic and installation work entered into public circulation, first as a commercial photographer and later, as a conceptual artist.

In hindsight, I clearly understood the choices which led me to be a visual artist but I was unaware of the hypnotic effect American popular culture had on me until I discovered that advertising, marketing, and the mainstream media influenced me much more than I realized. I now know that I was hypnotizing others with the glossy veneer of commercial images in precisely the same way I was being hypnotized by them, without any conscious awareness of the messages embedded behind the gloss.

One of the advertisements for Edward Bernays’ “Torches for Freedom” campaign for Lucky Strike Cigarettes.

The only method short of terror to have real influence on their(the public’s)conduct is through the carrot and stick approach. It is not surprising that the recent generation of intellectuals who grew up in the insane atmosphere of rampant advertising—and we were taught that half of politics is image making. And the other half…the art of making people believe in the imagery should almost automatically fall back on the old adage of carrot and stick whenever the situation becomes too serious for theory. The greatest disappointment in the Vietnam adventure should have been the discovery that there people with whom carrot and stick methods don’t work either.”

— Hannah Arendt from her lecture “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” at Carleton College in 1972.

Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann and The New Art in the Practice of Democracy

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations revolutionized techniques used in modern advertising, marketing, political propaganda, and social engineering to this very day. Bernays was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew and he borrowed from Freud’s theories, history, and sociology and from the work of Walter Lippmann, famed writer and author of the book Public Opinion. Both Bernays and Lippmann served on President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, an independent agency of the U.S. government which successfully changed widespread pacifist views into pro-war, anti-German sentiments to gain the public support needed to enter World War 1. Serving on the Committee on Public Information had an enormous influence on Bernays’ use of propaganda. Public relations, advertising, and marketing were weaponized by Bernays and Lippmann to manipulate the general public by circulating opinions as facts in order to engineer public consent for “the benefit of American society.” 

Public intellectual, linguist, and political dissident, Noam Chomsky in a C-Span interview spoke briefly about what Bernays and Lippmann learned from their time serving on the Committee on Public Information. Chomsky, author of the book Manufacturing Consent, quoted Lippmann’s views on propaganda by saying that “there is a new art in the practice of democracy, the manufacturing of consent.” Bernays and Lippmann both believed the public should be spectators and not participates in the democratic process. Then, Chomsky continued to paraphrase Lippmann’s views by adding that the public “are ignorant and meddlesome outsiders and we, the intellectual minority, the responsible men must control them.” 

This new art in the practice of democracy was also employed by the United Fruit Company to garner widespread support for the CIA-led coup that successfully deposed the democratic government of Guatemala in 1954. Bernays stoked fears about a Soviet threat in Guatemala which were found to be false.

Meanwhile, the CIA was also secretly funding and operating the Congress for Cultural Freedom(CCF), a Cold War front used to fight the spread of communism by promoting creative freedom in American culture. The CCF opened offices in 35 countries and published over 20 prestigious magazines. The CCF also targeted a number of famous artists and writers with pro-communist ties. Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollack, who was labeled as a leftist communist sympathizer was re-branded as a heroic American individualist just as worldwide critical acclaim of Abstract Expressionism turned New York City into the global epicenter for modern and contemporary art. The CIA used the CCF to maintain American cultural dominance over Europe until the operation was revealed in a series of articles published by the New York Times in 1966. The CCF ended but other agencies within the U.S. government continued issuing talking points and messaging to direct the production and circulation of imagery to advertise the idea of America is an open society that permits the free expression of political ideas. The mainstream circulation of those ideas helped fuel the Civil Right Movement, the Hippy Movement, the Women’s Movement, and other social movements until they too were dismantled by methods used in advertising, public relations, and marketing. 

In order to counter U.S. cultural imperialism and its anti-communist agenda, The KGB unleashed a decades-long asymmetrical counterinsurgency called ideological subversion to re-work anti-American views and authoritarian Marxist-Leninist propaganda as deeply-held democratic principles. The recent trend of Western democracies moving toward right-wing authoritarianism is due to the KGB deployment of propaganda within a comprehensive, long-term social engineering program. KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov states, in a 1983 interview that ideological subversion “is the process which is legitimate, overt and open. You can see it with your eyes. All you have to do, all American mass media have to do is unplug their bananas from their ears(an oblivious reference to Bernays, the United Fruit Company, and the CIA-led coup of Guatemala)and open up their eyes and they can see it. There is no mystery to it…(It)is a slow process that we call either ideological subversion or active measures—or psychological warfare. What it basically means is to change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite their abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.” 

Ideological Subversion and Edward Bernays 2.0 with Bricolage and Weaponized Pastiche

After the fall of the Soviet Union(1989-1992)and after being ravaged by Milton Friedman’s disastrous economic policies on whatever remained, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a former FSB/KGB intelligence officer became the President of Russia in 2000. Behind Putin, is a group of political technologists inspired by the utopian, science fiction writings of the Strugatsky brothers. The World of Noon is where many of the Strugatsky brothers’ books take place. The Noon Universe is more advanced compared to our contemporary world in every conceivable way. Does this all sound very similar to Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis? 

When Putin’s political technologists took over the State-owned television networks, they took Edward Bernays’ Lucky Strike “Torches of Freedom” campaign to an entirely different level. Not just one or two news stories were public relations stunts but everything broadcasted was honed into tightly scripted, perception management operation. The perception being managed is a double image of Americans and others in the West on the Far Right and the Russian government as mirror reflections of each other involving a cast of thousands of real-life actors. The spectacle of the world’s largest theatrical production with Vladimir Putin in the starring role as the Founding Father of the Eurasian Empire is being managed with “democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent.”

Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin in 2006 (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

“I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system,” Vladislav Surkov told us by way of introduction. On this spring day in 2013, he was wearing a white shirt and a leather jacket that was part Joy Division and part 1930s commissar. “My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernization, innovation, foreign relations, and …”—here he pauses and smiles—“modern art.” He offers to not make a speech, instead welcoming the Ph.D. students, professors, journalists, and politicians gathered in an auditorium at the London School of Economics to pose questions and have an open discussion. After the first question, he talks for almost 45 minutes, leaving hardly any time for questions after all. It’s his political system in miniature: democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent.”

Peter Pomerantsev, the November 7, 2014 issue of The Atlantic Magazine
Andy Warhol – MAO (F. & S. II.90-99), photo: Sotheby’s

Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?

—Andy Warhol

pas·tiche

/paˈstēSH,päˈstēSH/

noun

an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.

“the operetta is a pastiche of 18th-century styles”

bri·co·lage

/ˈbrikəläZH/

noun

noun: bricolage; plural noun: bricolage; plural noun: bricolages

  1. (in art or literature) construction or creation from a diverse range of available things.” the chaotic bricolage of the novel is brought together in a unifying gesture

The latest innovations in the circulation of propaganda are the result of “organized lying.” a term coined by political philosopher and Holocaust survivor, Hannah Arendt. In her book, Truth and Politics, Arendt states that constant lying in politics not only replaces the truth with the lie but ultimately “undermines the factual character of reality.” If facts are treated as opinions(or truth-free “alternative facts”), there is no factual account of reality or human events and there is no basis for mutual agreement in the organization of human affairs.

KGB ideological subversion consists of weaponizing postmodern appropriation and pastiche in the circulation of propaganda campaigns. Weaponized postmodern strategies are being deployed to reframe right-wing authoritarian sentiments as well as acts of domestic terror into a new form of American patriotism. The sleight-of-hand trick of this subversion is the re-working of anti-democratic messaging into propaganda fashioned into democratic pastiche. The mirroring, doubling, or echoing of this form of propaganda multiplies its circulation and hypnotic influence on unsuspecting viewers. It is the author of the mirroring, doubling, or echoing of the propaganda, not the author of the original content, who dictates the meaning of both the imagery and its circulation in the public sphere. One of the goals of ideological subversion is to re-make America into a provisional and shifting “managed democracy” or a “post-modern dictatorship” by taking Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann’s ideas about the public circulation of propaganda to their logical conclusion. The current deployment of idealogical subversion is proof that the Cold War never ended.

A Call for Visionary Approaches in the Practice of Democracy

My critical examination of the history of propaganda in the U.S. and Russia is not about positioning myself as anti-American/Pro-Russia or vice versa. It is my intention to gain the clarity to demystify the undue psychological manipulation that is compromising the stability of this society. Another speech, or another public relations or marketing campaign to tell us what to think or how to think about democracy will not provide the depth of meaning needed. Each one of us gets to produce meaning within ourselves and demonstrate it to others in order for creative freedom and democracy to be something more than just pretty words. Democracy can and will make space for creative possibility to be a progressive, civilizing force and not an abstract concept, if you really want it. 

The committed practice of democracy is indeed an art and confronting the challenges of failure in the art-making practice is an important part of the creative process. Failure, when it appears, can be an invaluable opportunity if one goes beyond conventional reactions to it. Making failure productive is the very thing people who are stopped by failure rarely consider. The productive aspects of failure helps us to be innovative and to move out of dead-end situations. I believe making failure productive is one of the most rewarding challenges artists will face at this time in history since spaces for creative expression and possibility are now threatened.

Did Francis Bacon die before he was able to complete The New Atlantis or was it meant to be an unfinished work? The fact that The New Atlantis is unfinished suggests that it is up to us to finish our journey toward democracy. Francis Bacon’s vision is still calling to us. Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, and Vladislav Surkov’s visions are calling to us as well—What will our response be? Whose call will we answer? One can choose to go along with the flow of the current situation or against it. Or choose to be committed to the choice to understand and effectively navigate the ebb and flow of one’s journey. How will I navigate all of this? How will you? What dreams will we dream? What kind of new art will we create from our experience of democracy? How will that art function in the world and how will it inspire myself and others?

“Several outcomes seem possible from this swirling crisis: a new authoritarianism, a perpetual crisis, or, just possibly, a time in which my claim to the right to look is met by your willingness to be seen. And I reciprocate.”

—Nicholas Mirzoeff from his book, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality

Moving on from this recent crisis in a democracy requires imagination and innovative vision which is why I am writing this open letter to inspire all artists and visionaries to claim a space for creative possibility in a manner that is right for you and keep that space open for yourself so you can hold space for others in the future. 

Sincerely Yours,

Carl 

To learn more about Carl and his work, please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Robert_Pope

Carl and Karen Pope’s video Palimpsest [1998–99], which was in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, was recently featured in Artforum. Check it out here: https://www.artforum.com/print/202207/huey-copeland-talks-with-janet-dees-about-a-site-of-struggle-88915