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Depictions of Paranoia in Art Exhibitions

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An essay relating a text from Art in Theory (ed. Harrison and Wood) to a current exhibition or work of art located in United Kingdom

In this essay I will look at a selection of art from the exhibition entitled “Paranoia” situated at the Freud Museum. The exhibition is intended as an investigation of “suspicion, fear, trauma and delusion in the post 9/11 world” and investigates the abuses of political power and the media in generating a public consensus of good and evil in the world. In particular, I will look at the work of Franko B., a London based artist who uses paintings and performance to challenge perceptions of our bodies and of how the political relates to the artistic and the individual. In this exhibition there are exhibits of a couple of his black acrylic paintings. These paintings are heavily wrought, naively painted and concerned with depth and texture rather than with notions of prettiness. Because they eschew certain relationships between what comprises art, and are coupled with Franko B’s place as a performance artist, whose blood-letting performances in 2003 at Tate Modern, they challenge the aestheticism and the inability for the artist to be a politically relevant individual. A number of video installations also attempt to directly politicise art in crude rather than subtle ways. Jackie Salloom’s Planet of the Arabs and other works is a 20 minute video that pieces together stills from films, magazines, newspapers, television and advertising media, and functions to expose how myths and prejudices are developed and disseminated across society. Because I am interested in the political effects of art, and whether art can be established effectively as a critiquing tool to place against society, I will be looking in particular at how this exhibition relates to Joseph Buoys theories on the democratization of art, and upon whether performance based “Action Art” by artists such as Franko B. can effectively empower the individual, making him or her an artist him or herself.

The 1960s signalled a movement away from the perception of the artist as a unique purveyor of singular genius towards a more inclusive, incorporative process that questioned the underlying mechanisms and mythologies of artistry. Andy Warhol in particular sought to fabricate the notion of the artist as a Promethean character; a sort-of demented idiot-savant, whose suffering brought light upon the world, by questioning the very foundations of the artist. Warhol’s techniques were designed to automate and remove any particular response from the art. Similar to the collage techniques of the futurists, the pop art movement could be seen as both an attempt to contemporize art and furthermore to erode or, at the very least, to change the perception of the artist and how he or she relates to the world around him. Politically this has important connotations. Because of Warhol’s techniques towards the mass dissemination of art and of factory produced Warhol pieces of art, the artist is no longer seen as objective and singular, and the “truth” offered by the artist is no longer situated above society, but alongside it. Politically, this means that the sweeping and grandiose ideologies signified by futurism, cubism, surrealism and other modernist movements no longer have the same currency. Therefore, politics have changed and art has become a fusion of high and low forms of entertainment and politics.

The video installation and performance-based art that looks to remanufacture the artifice of the artistic self is innately political in Joseph Beuy’s terminology because it seeks to confront and democratize the artistic world, making artists of everybody that interacts with it. “To impose forms on the world around us is the beginning of a process that continues into the political field. Discussion used to centre on the participation of the public and it became apparent that actionism as a sort of joint play was not enough; the participant must also have something to contribute from the resources of his own thought” (905). Therefore, in accordance with Buoys, the political field of art is in its struggle to empower and to transform others into artists. Buoys’ theory posits that, while there are people excluded from art, there can be no democracy. Thus, rather than art being a peripheral critique of society and politics, it forms a principle component of art itself. He continues by saying that “A total work of art is only possible in the context of the whole of society. Everyone will be a necessary co-creator of a social architecture, and, so long as anyone cannot participate, the ideal form of democracy has not been reached” (905). At the exhibition, techniques are adopted which serve to democratize art. Two books are present in the museum in which people draw things related to their dreams. Also, in a more abstract way, much of the art leaves gaps and ambiguities into which the artist can place his or her engagements. The use of video footage and stills from mass market publications in Salloom’s Planet of the Arabs suggests that the artist is attempting to democratize the art in question. The intentionally crude collage nature of the work which juxtaposes images sharply, quickly and crudely also serves to denounce the role of the artist as talented, serving instead to perceive the artist as a facilitator to bring about other artists. The use of footage that we are all familiar with; war torn countries, bombings, newspaper images and other forms of mass media serves to invoke a sense of feeling in the viewer, and the satirized nature of the piece helps the viewer confront one’s own prejudices, which in turn empowers the viewer and helps to denounce the controlling mechanisms of mass-media.

“Truth” and the specific role of artist are further interrogated by the artist Tim Blake and his piece The Big Secret. This simply features an interview with the prominent conspiracy theorist David Icke. Although widely denounced in scientific communities for his “crackpot” theories, here David Icke is allowed to speak in an unmediated way about his theory that extraterrestrial insects control and govern the planet. Here Tim Blake attempts to provoke the viewer into a reaction by filming Icke in an unelaborated way. In the accompanying pamphlet, he uses a quotation from Freud: “The psycho-analyst, in the light of his knowledge of the psychoneuroses, approaches the subject with a suspicion that even thought-structures so extraordinary as these and so remote from our common modes of thinking are nevertheless derived from the most general and comprehensible impulses of the human mind” (1). Thus, here there is an attempt made to democratize humanity and to assume that all emerges from a general principle. Coupled with the absence of any particularly artist-like pretensions in the film, the question of artist is interrogated and jeopardised, allowing for democracy, in Buoys’ sense, to occur: “In a true democracy there are no other differences than capability; democracy can only develop freely when all restrictive mechanisms are gone. One of the greatest of these restrictive mechanisms is the present-day school, because it does not develop people but channels them” (905-6).

In Franko B’s retrospective of his art, he posited that the best reaction to his work would be for somebody to mention themselves in relation to it. His work has always attempted to denigrate his own position as technical artist in favour of more openly politicised attempts to democratize his viewers. His work in multiple medias over the years, from performance art involving blood letting to mass-produced flags that he would stain with his own blood, to more “traditional” painting, suggests that he is attempting to transform the image of the artist and how it is conceived by the masses. As most people feel politically isolated from art, it is of especial importance that the artist relates to people outside of the artistic world. Franko B’s crude and naïve painting, his simple iconography, and his lacerating, self-sacrificing performance pieces attempts to achieve this by making his work both accessible and vague simultaneously. His massive black portraits echo Rothko in their minimalism, but are concerned with iconic and image based themes that Franko B. takes from his own life. Because these pieces don’t use any colour other than black, they appear more concerned about depth and line. Also, because they are made from blown up photographs, they also deny singular artistic talent in favour of a more inciting, democratic painterly technique.

Buoys argues that “The times educate people to think in terms of abstract concepts… most people think they have to comprehend art in intellectual terms – in many people the organs of sensory and emotional experience have atrophied” (905). Buoys attacks what he sees as “the prevailing scientific concepts”, which constrain and hamper the development of artistic imagination. According to Buoys, the concept of art must be widened to incorporate all things. The use of multimedia and various sources fragment the traditional role of artist as a singular paradigm of a truth that cannot be interacted with. Also, the conception of mass-produced art, which can be disseminated through video also serves a similar purpose – to allow for a larger audience to be incorporated into art, not as passive but as active components. The crudity of the art on offer at the museum, which directly and unambiguously interrogates the role mass media has to play in the formation of mechanisms of racial hate, terrorism and power, echoes the sentiments of Joseph Buoys.

Works Cited

Leaflet for Paranoia at the Freud Museum, 2007

Beuys, Joseph (1921-1986) ‘Not Just a Few Are Called, But Everyone’, Art in Theory, pp 903-6

Harrison, Charles & Wood, Paul (2003), Art in Theory: 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers


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