Filmmaker Adam Curtis newest documentary called HyperNormalisation, makes the argument that “Self-Expression Is Tearing Society Apart”, as he explains in an Artspace interview by Loney Abrams.
L.A.: Towards the beginning of HyperNormalisation you talk about a shift that happened in the ‘70s when artists detached from reality and retreated into themselves to mine content for their work. Your argument is that this kind of individualistic self-expression is antithetical to political change. How so?
“Individualism is the really big thing of our time, and both left and right have been affected by it. It’s this idea that had been growing since the counterculture of the 1960s that really came to fruition in the 1970s—the idea being that what you as an individual feel and desire are the most important things, and that if you followed anyone who told you what to do you were inauthentic. People don’t believe they should give themselves up to the church or trade unions any longer. They want to be themselves.
It was a wonderful shift because it did stop us from needing to be told what to do by elites and old hierarchies. It freed us of that and that’s really great—we are, to a great extent, free individuals. The problem with individualism is that, whilst it is liberating and exciting and beautiful, when things get difficult you are very weak. If you go into the woods at night, by yourself, it’s frightening, isn’t it? You get scared by the slightest noise, the slightest snap of a twig. If you go into the woods with your friends in a group, it’s incredibly exciting and thrilling because you somehow feel stronger. It’s as simple as that. That’s one point.
The other part of that shift in the early 1970s was that more and more people looked to art as a way of expressing their radicalism in an individual way. Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids makes this very clear. People like her and Robert Mapplethorpe didn’t want to be just a part of radical groups, they wanted to be individuals challenging the system. While that may have dropped away with Mapplethorpe, it remained central to Smith’s belief. But what I was trying to say in the film was that the very idea of self-expression might not have had the radical potential they thought.
What rescued the U.S. economy from the economic crisis of the 1970s was a massive wave of consumer capitalism. And behind it were the forces of finance, because they offered credit to millions of people for the first time. In another series I made called The Century of the Self, I tried to show how the other essential component in that wave of consumerism was the idea of self-expression. People were encouraged to buy all kinds of stuff, not to be like each other as they had in the past, but instead to express themselves as individuals. In this way the very idea of self-expression became central to the modern structure of power.
We look back at past ages and see how things people deeply believed in at the time were actually a rigid conformity that prevented them from seeing important changes that were happening elsewhere. And I sometimes wonder whether the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is, that have little to do with our present day fetishization of the self. The problem with today’s art is that far from revealing those new ideas to us, it may be actually stopping us from seeing them.
This might be quite a difficult one to get over, but I think this is really important: however radical your message is as an artist, you are doing it through self-expression—the central dominant ideology of modern capitalism. And by doing that, you’re actually far from questioning the monster and pulling the monster down. You’re feeding the monster. Because the more people come to believe that self-expression is the end of everything, is the ultimate goal, the more the modern system of power becomes stronger, not weaker.”