Tag Archives: Banksy

Dismaland, Ashley Madison and Duplicitous Fantasy

Dismaland

A friend of mine recently told me that his wife was often depressed by “looking at Instagram and seeing how happy every couple seemed.” The endless array of beautifully posed people, gleefully posting about their #blessed, #best and #NBD adventures on beaches and balconies, discouraged her. Compared with the carefree, happy-as-can-be photos that filled her social streams, her marriage seemed rocky by comparison; hardly Instagram-worthy.

She’s not alone. Who of us hasn’t struggled with the insecurities and comparisons that arise from the world of social media posturing. And who of us, if we’re honest, hasn’t perpetuated the problem by posting only the photos we’ve carefully selected, cropped and edited to present the best picture of our enviable lives?

Technology is making it easier and easier to live in a world of facades and false perfections. As we exist more and more in a world of digital mediation, a rupture widens between who we are and who we choose to be online, as perceived by the anonymous hordes. A rupture also widens between the reality of knowing and being known in embodied community, and the fantasies of disembodied escapism and false intimacy that can characterize life in the solitude of our iScreens.

Ashley Madison is just one byproduct of this widening rupture; just one (particularly brazen) example of the unreal escapism and supposed anonymity that characterizes so much of our lives online. The hack that lifted the curtain on Ashley Madison may elicit a “they had it coming” response from us, but the truth is we’re participants in the same brand of duplicitous fantasy with every exaggerated, embellished or painstakingly posed photo we post online. By slapping a happy hashtag and a Valencia filter on something and presenting it as real, we too are widening an identity chasm that may one day be too big to traverse.

Last week Banksy lifted the curtain on another sort of corrosive fantasy, albeit one that didn’t involve hacking and publishing adulterers’ e-mails. But with his Disneyland sendup Dismaland–a “bemusement park” installation billed as “the latest addition to our chronic leisure surplus”–he is exploring similar territory in the landscape of what he calls “post modem-ism.”

Though a predictable critique of a too-easy target, Dismaland (like all of Banksy’s art) is nevertheless right about the duplicitous fantasy that characterizes much of today’s Amusing Ourselves to Death world. It’s a “reality TV” world where “real” and “fantasy” are ever more conflated, where warzones make for good movies and movie theaters make for good warzones; where comedy substitutes for news reporting and news reporting is inadvertently comedic; where Donald Trump is thought to be a serious politician, baby dismemberment is considered polite lunchtime conversation and ISIS beheading videos show up in our newsfeeds in between Batman vs. Superman trailers and Farmville ads.

I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s classic book Simulacra and Simulation, in which he famously says of Disneyland:

“Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”

Bansky’s “Dismaland” confronts us with the blatant simulacra of not just Disneyland but of the entertainment-industrial-complex broadly and its mass machinations of fantasy. And even though Dismaland is itself (as a bourgeois  “art event” for dilettante consumption) a part of this entertainment-industrial-complex–anti-consumerism as consumer good (there’s a big market for it!)–its critique still has some merit. In amusing fashion it highlights the paradoxes and disconnects of our reality-confused, duplicitous age. Banksy’s clever installation is simply a more ironic and intentional version of the same observation offered (unintentionally) by Megyn Kelly’s FoxNews banter with Donald Trump. Both are highly amusing artifacts of a culture where “real” and “fantasy” have all but lost their semiotic difference.

Ashley Madison may not seem to have much in common with Instagram, Disneyland or Donald Trump, but they’re all connected; all products of the fantasyland in which we presently live, blissfully avoidant of reality until reality (inevitably) hits home… or gets hacked.

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Ego and Influence

I recently was invited to contribute an article to the ERLC‘s excellent new “Canon & Culture” blog (which you should check out). I wrote about a topic I’ve thought a lot about: how does one truly make an impact on culture without obsessing over building platform, managing one’s personal “brand” and constantly doing and saying things specifically to rile up and expand an audience? How can artists, writers, and other cultural creators who truly care about ideas and art avoid the pitfalls of ego and hubris while also wanting their work to have a wide reach?

I wrote the essay “Ego & Influence” to think through these questions, inspired in large part by an article I read recently in The Atlantic discussing Lady Gaga and Banksy. In my reflections I note the work of everyone from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to Emily Dickinson and Terrence Malick. Here’s an excerpt:

The Atlantic published an insightful essay by James Bowen in November 2013 on this very topic. Bowen discusses the recent Warhol-esque mergers between pop stardom and fine art: Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Jeff Koons and Jay-Z getting jiggy with performance artist Marina Abramović. Rightly observing that both Gaga and Jay-Z “seem more interested in aligning themselves with art for its cultural cachet, rather than out of much appreciation for the work itself,” Bowen goes on to say that what’s even more significant “is the way that musicians such as Gaga and Jay-Z, artists like Abramović, and aspiring creative polymaths such as James Franco have put the projection of their own image and experience to the fore of their endeavors: They’re known more for being who they are than for what they create.”

Indeed, in our age of selfie-obsessed Insta-fame and TMZ celebreality, where “Kardashian” is code for the fame-for-its-own-sake celebrity industrial complex, it seems true that being famous is now infinitely more desirable than being excellent at something.

“If a tree falls in a forest…” applies here: If an actor delivers a dynamic performance in an art film that is ignored by critics, audiences and awards shows, is there any value to it? If a singer-songwriter records a masterpiece album and plays transcendently beautiful shows in small clubs, but never makes it to the Saturday Night Live stage or crosses over into the worlds of film and fragrances, are they to feel like a failure in the vein of, say, the title character from Inside Llewyn Davis?

In bygone eras celebrity was mostly an occasional byproduct of success; today it’s the standard by which success is measured. How many Twitter followers do you have? YouTube channel subscribers? What is the traffic on your blog? These questions are now more pressing to cultural creators than the process of cultural creation itself. But does it have to be this way? Must one secure their firstandlastname.com domain and obsess about their “brand” and “platform” in order to have a fighting chance at cultural relevance? Must we all be egocentrics in order to make a difference?

You can read the rest of the article here.