How to overthrow oppressive Governments – a guidebook for the Artist

by Geoff Hall on October 12, 2011

Part One: The background to this present Simulation.

I’m going to be developing this thread over the next few weeks, not from a political perspective, but in the light of society, art and spirituality.  I’ll be looking at an artistic response based on a christian spirituality. Not the spirituality of the Institution, but of the ‘spiritual community’.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Spiritual community is primarily a quality of heart that enables us to unmask the illusions of our competitive society and look straight at reality…Because it is a quality of the heart, community cannot be identified with any particular institutional form. Community is a gift of the Spirit that may present itself in many different ways: in silence as well as in words,; in listening as well as in speaking; in living together as well as in a solitary life… [‘Spiritual formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit’. Published by SPCK, 2011. pXXVII]

It is in the context of such a community that we can work as artists and ‘unmask the illusions of a competitive society’. This unmasking helps people see reality for what it is, but it also helps us see who the creators and maintainers of those illusions are. Redemption comes through community, transformation happens through community.


Marx and Engels Out in the Cold Copyright Geoff Hall, 2008.

Coup ‘d’état’s are an inhumane way of bringing about socio-political change, just tally up the lives lost in the last century to Communism and National Socialism, or even further back to the beginning of the Enlightenment. (All in the name of Humanism!) It seems that to ‘Enlighten’ others one had to have one hand on the guillotine! This says something about what is required to impose the ‘Will’ doesn’t it? It is not interpretation of the text which should be perceived as violent, but the explicit violence within the text which expresses itself in brutal acts. Living it, embodying the violence of the text is the real violence and not interpretation as Baudrillard would have us believe. [1] The contemporary model appears to fall into two camps of street activity: rioting (UK) and demonstrations (USA).


You may be aware that despotic governments have a very negative view of the arts. (Think of Hitler’s Degenerate Arts Exhibition in 1937) Whilst the present clamour on the streets is impressive in scale, it is misplaced, especially if what you actually want to do is bring about a change in your current living conditions. Revolutions are costly, change imposed at an unnatural rate as in a coup d’état, where the top 5% is guillotined in the flash of a blade only satisfies blood lust and not justice.


Reformation is  s   l  o  w  e  r, viewed over time and not an instant; it is organic, developmental and carries people along with it. Revolutions have anniversaries, Reformations are continual. Revolutions are the imposing of an adolescent Will on society, Reformation works through cultivation and allows for personal change and growth.


Be the change you want to see! Why? Because when you are out on the streets, you are visible, measurable and ultimately controllable! It’s not called ‘crowd control’ for nothing y’know!


When you try and use social power to oust the powerful, generally you come off worse and the tighter the grip of oppression grows. It’s a form of socio-political control, pepped up with a little media control for good measure.


Riots are a form of self-indulgence. Looting has been justified as a call for ‘economic justice’ and the ‘realignment of wealth’, wherein justice is seen to be done by purloining a 48 inch screen plasma TV! However, you end up in court, because surveillance these days is done by Happy Snaps and rioters do like to pose it seems. “Vanity, Vanity saith Qoheleth!” Rioting has become the ultimate form of vanity in the West. Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame and some even treat it is a matter of human rights!


Here’s the good news. The cultural and spiritual aspects of our lives can undermine the foundations of oppressive governments because they work in the realm of the imagination, they change perceptions and evoke a response the powers-that-be can’t get from manipulating media as a form of propaganda; by tightening their grip on social, legislative control.


Why am I saying this? Because art needs to be restored, it needs to move away from self-infatuation and move towards self-denial; to serve society by showing that a different future is indeed possible. What Postmodernism has done is to neuter art and make it socially and culturally impotent, by its incredulity towards life.


Conceptual Art has become the expression of the aforementioned self-infatuation, the language of Institutionalised Art, disconnected from the spiritual community.


It is not that the Church is the only place to find naff art, you can go along to your local galleries and find an equal incredulity towards good taste! The problem with art these days is that it has become institutionalised and as such is divorced from the communities it should be serving. Artists form a dependency on Institutions and wonder why it is hard to earn a living from what they do. Whether dependency on galleries and Arts Council funding (that is, Government Funding! Think about it!!), or the Church and patronage, the artist leads a piecemeal existence working from one small pot of money to the next whilst told this is the best way to develop their professional practice. Well they are I suppose in much the same way a junky knows when they need their next fix and who can deliver it!! Let’s hear it for professional practice and artistic portfolios. However, whatever is produced is the art of conformity, it will not challenge the status quo because this bureaucratic approach to art projects is unlikely to undermine its own power.


Whilst the Body Politic convulses due to the Shock Treatment applied by Governments and Multi-National Corporations and wonderfully highlighted by Naomi Klein in ‘The Shock Doctrine’, all rioting and protesting achieves is an increase in the voltage. What we need to develop is a shock-resistant society and what we need for this is the artist to step up and raise awareness of the issues of freedom and humanity as well as to critique the injustices  in our world. This is not to say that art needs to be politicised to be effective, it does not. If you sensationalise or politicise issues then art again loses out, for it becomes subservient to ideology.

Jacques Ellul puts it this way,


…ideology determines a given propaganda merely because it provides the themes and contents. Ideology serves propaganda as a peg, as a pretext. Propaganda seizes what springs up spontaneously and gives it new form, a structure, an effective channel.  [‘Propaganda’. Published by Vintage Books, 1973. p117.]


The counter to propaganda is not counter-propaganda, but spiritual community; a group of like-minded people who shun the passivity established by those who collaborate with propaganda. (The reason why much church-based artistry is impotent in a wider society is that it is merely ideological, (counter)propaganda). The disintegration of society only leads to propaganda increasing its power over us. So when National Economic growth is the priority, cohesiveness of family units is sacrificed, because we know how hard it is to keep a family together when a Government is only concerned with economic growth and cutting services. We are the justifiable collateral of idolatry!

Ellul suggests that,


An individual can only be influenced by forces such as propaganda only when [they are] cut off from membership in local groups. (Op. cit. p91)


For Ellul, the ‘individual’ is someone isolated from the group and as such is prone to the influence of propaganda. If you are not willing to sacrifice the illusion of self-autonomy then you will most undoubtedly be the ‘victim’ of ideological control.


Passivity is the key. Noam Chomsky points out that Edward Bernays during his work with the Creel Commission learnt how to develop the idea of ‘engineering consent’ which he called the ‘essence of democracy’. Of course the biggest export drive in the world today is not Apple Products, but democracy – and who gains from this?


The Shock Treatment has been exported from the small-scale control of environment to the large-scale of democratic societies.


The IG report states that “additional avenues

to the control of human behavior had been designated . . . as

appropriate to investigation under the MKULTRA charter, including

radiation, electroshock, various fields of psychology, sociology,

and anthropology, graphology, harassment substances, and

paramilitary devices and materials.” (1963 CIA Inspector

General’s (IG) report on Project MKULTRA)


It sounds to me like the detention cell now covers our homes, apartments, places of work and recreation. The largest problems we have in society today focus around radiation, narcotics, psychological stress in-and-out of the workplace, shock treatments applied by the Banks and Governments, sociological problems of isolation and fragmentation along with paramilitary devices (suicides or IED’s).


What has this got to do with an artist and their work?

The next generation of avant-garde artist has an interesting audience to face! How can an artist stop the ‘engineering of consent’, how do we undermine the power of ideological communication? Is that at all possible?

The answer in short is yes, for it is the spiritual battle of our day. However it is not through the talents of isolated artists – remember the Ellul quote above,


An individual can only be influenced by forces such as propaganda only when [they are] cut off from membership in local groups.


For the artist to be subversive and undermine the encroaching darkness, they need to be part of a group; or in our terms a spiritual community. The claw of institutionalism is to control and manipulate media for its own ends through propaganda. Thus expressed, media is deformed under another ideology; the idol of power looms over the artist to suppress imagination and the free-play of materials. In this regime the bureaucrat process replaces the imagination and art becomes sterile, formulaic, a tool to use on those who are isolated and disempowered. This is the art of collaboration.


The seeds of the ‘overthrow’ of Governments is not Revolutionary, but prophetic, as evinced in the calling of Jeremiah.  ‘See, I call you today to…uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”


We will continue our journey over the coming weeks and investigate what this means for ‘being’ an artist and creating a subversive, aesthetically-charged art that undermines the seductive power of oppressive Governments which are predisposed to dehumanising their citizens in the name of Economic Growth; like Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ workers who were sacrificed to the fires of Moloch.




[1] Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Published by Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2006. p160.


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