David Griscom

Objective Desires

David Griscom
Objective Desires

Note: I wrote this piece in response to a call for artists for a post-fact art show by Dupont Underground. It does not seem that this show progressed from the original call for artists and seems to have been canceled. I will update this if it becomes necessary.

Resting in an abandoned streetcar station at Dupont Circle, Dupont Underground has the potential to be a monumental public site that could celebrate the ignored local history of DC.  For an exhibition space that born out of such imagination and with such potential, it is disappointing, in our disjointed time, to read Dupont Underground’s recent call for artists for the “POST FACT: An Exceedingly Honest Show for a Post-Fact World”.

"We are looking for visual artists, both local and national, whose work involves the use of data on relevant topics of today (i.e. climate change, population growth, politics, gender). These data-derived concepts will then be "fact-checked" by an independent professional fact-checker & accepted into the exhibition based on their honesty. The ultimate exhibition will be a "thoroughly fact-checked show for a post-fact world.”

The tongue-in-cheek message of this show is that if we can put together a fact-checked art exhibition, a decidedly challenging concept for a such a subjective field, then it is entirely possible for us to expect true & fact-checked statements from our governing entities and news organizations."   

    While likely well-intentioned, the “POST FACT” call for artists misdiagnoses the cause of misinformation in politics and entertains a dangerous anti-democratic solution. Tastemakers, curators, and fact-checkers tell us what we want, what we should see, and what is true. Often times it is for the best. What is worrying about the current admiration for these curators of truth is the obscuring of the subjectivity behind these positions, especially in the case of fact-checkers who are often presented as objective. The call reveals a feeling of inferiority of the subjective position of art compared to the objective. The “post-fact world” may be difficult to navigate alone but beware of a world put back in to order by those who say they have your best interests in mind and objective truth on their side.

    When presented with something to see, ask what is left unseen and why it is hidden or obscured. Exclusion can and has been used, as a force for political and social violence, to repress the voices and the human experience of those deemed ‘lesser.’ These attitudes were backed up by racist pseudosciences like social Darwinism and the discredited polygenism. Objectivity is not necessarily neutral and we should treat all ‘experts’ with suspicion. When someone is tasked to choose what is and is not be appropriate, proper, or interesting, we must ask why they have this power and whom they are providing this service for. In this alleged post-fact world, whose facts will we live by? 

Pieces for the proposed show will be selected “based on their honesty,” which strikes one as peculiar given the “relevant topics of today (i.e. climate change, population growth, politics, gender).” Under what standard of honesty will, for instance, gender be judged on? The struggle for liberation has fought to demolish long-standing “objective” and “scientific” understandings of gender. The objective approach denied individual subjectivity and rather dictated a genital-object oriented determinism. While I am sure that the authors of this call included gender to show solidarity with marginalized groups, a return to objectivity and determinism undermines the critical work of revolutionaries and activists in this field. An anxiety about subjectivity wrongly encourages the authors to take a reactionary turn.

In contrast to gender, an objective and scientific view of climate change is appropriate. Why not loudly and unequivocally state that climate change is, in fact, occurring? This has been the political tactic for some time. According to Gallup, 59% of Americans believe that protecting the climate is more important than energy production, while an even larger 68% believe that climate change is caused by human activities. While not universal a clear majority in this country believe climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity. Climate change deniers exist in opposition to the scientific and democratic consensus. Is a properly ‘fact-checked’ map of NYC underwater the best way to address Republicans funded by major oil companies that it is finally time to lower America’s carbon emissions? Republicans are against climate change because they serve the interests of America's energy industry, not unlike many Democrats. The battle for the environment is about political power and structures, not of facticity. On this level, ‘fact-checked’ art regarding the climate serves more to reassure the climate change believer than to challenge “our governing entities and news organizations.” Should the purpose of art today be to reassure those who have the backing of the vast majority of scientific and academic institutions?     

The choices that authors of this call make have consequences for what art is submitted and what perspectives are highlighted. Could the authors of this call have inadvertently written “population growth” instead of immigration? From the fleeing of poverty and death in Central America to the human travesty in Syria, human migration and immigration policy are relevant issues of today. Immigration is different from the population, one is about displacement and one is about numbers. It is crucial to be clear the crises that lead to mass immigration in Syria, in Central America, and elsewhere, are not a response to unmanageable growth in population. These are crises of governments, imperialism, and global capitalism. Population growth is used as a tactic by American nativist organizations to obscure their anti-immigrant and white-nationalist agenda. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed hate group Federation For American Immigration Reform frequently cities population growth and its “effects” on the environment as justification for their position. Rather than address the root cause of poverty in the developing world, capitalism, colonialism, and war, these groups cheaply and cynically imply that the cause is sexual impurity of the developing world, that they have too many children. When someone says, there are too many people, they always mean there are too many of THOSE kinds of people.

Contrary to the cliché, facts do not speak for themselves. The proposed art show presents itself as a challenge to those in possession of political and media power, “it is entirely possible for us to expect true and fact-checked statements from our governing entities and news organizations.”

Is misinformation the result of the government and corporate media being unaware of an available cadre of eager fact-checkers? While some misinformation is the result of sloppy vetting it is often intentional. Corporate media and government elites curate their own facts because their status allows them to.   

This is where the call for artists loses its grip on the political pulse. The desire of politics is to prove that your views are reflective of reality and if not to reorient the world according to your views. Trump’s politics are neurotic and personal, so his facts are alternative. Not only does attacking his ‘facts’ miss the tactics of Trumpism, which is to disorient the opposition, it plays to his advantage. It placates political energy. Simply put, fact-checking Trump is a Sisyphean task. No fact-checker has ever slowed down Trump rather, they do much worse actually, they embolden him.

The potential show, of course, is neither for Trump nor his supporters. It is aimed at liberal critics of the regime, Trump supporters are not using terms like “post-fact” though they do say “fake news.” So what message will the viewer gleam from these ‘honest’ and ‘fact-checked’ pieces?

Liberals pine for the return to an orderly and discernible world. The term “post-truth” embodies this desire for a lost paradise. Of course, as with most desires, these liberals want a fantasy. Governments have always thrived in secrecy. Our government executes prisoners privately, tortures in Guantanamo, murder with drones, manufactured evidence to invade Iraq, and continues to spy on US citizens, all based on the most tenuous ‘facts’. Trump didn’t invent this approach; he just doesn’t feel scandalized when he is exposed.

The issue with this call is not just that it misses the point; it is the kernel that made the curators believe that this was a good idea, to begin with. To introduce order into chaos one group must be given the authority to impose order on others. Post-fact implies chaos, a disorder of knowledge, which can only be combated with rigidity. In the case of this show, it is the objective (fact-checkers) over the subjective (art). By this logic, interpretation and subjectivity assume responsibility for the election of Trump, his ‘alternative facts’ and subjective ‘post-truth’ politics. The only way to reclaim order is to cede authority to the experts. In other words, for our own protection, we should no longer think for ourselves, we should let others do our thinking for us.

 The ability to determine what is and is not legitimate is a significant power and imposes new hierarchies. The concept of this proposed show does not open up a debate about fact and art; rather, it imposes a rigid grammar, with ranks based on objectivity. Is this a power we are willing to cede?

We must refuse Trump’s neurosis, the blatant lies, and deception of his regime. We must also reject any alternative that attempts to subjugate our minds to return us to a past without antagonism. Rather than limiting the possible we must expand our political imaginations to better futures rather than dreaming of the past.