Democracy Dies in Darkness

Museums | Perspective

Art can help distinguish between conspiracy and reality, and this exhibition proves it

November 4, 2018 at 7:02 PM

One of Mark Lombardi’s “Narrative Structure” drawings on view at the Met Breuer: “Bill Clinton, the Lippo Group, and Jackson Stephens of Little Rock, Arkansas (5th version),” from 1999. (Collection of Mickey Cartin/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

NEW YORK —Earlier this year, a complex map of “hidden history,” from biblical times to the days of Donald Trump, began circulating among conspiracy theorists, including those who follow the right-wing underworld of QAnon websites. The map weaves words, arrows, symbols and shapes, implying a web of connections between events, people and organizations such as freemasonry, the Rothschild family, George Soros, the Saudis, “Nazi UFOs” and Pizzagate. The artist who claims to have drawn the map says it is part of a “Deep State Mapping Project,” and it has earned him respect and acclaim among people who believe everything is connected.

“Everything Is Connected” also is the title of an exhibition about art and conspiracy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer gallery, a potent and intriguing show that includes several works that are similar in style and technique to the hidden history map. Mark Lombardi’s “Narrative Structure” drawings are more elegantly arranged than the rather amateurish and clotted conspiracy map, but they are similar in their use of arrows and webs of connection. They differ, however, in one fundamental way: They’re based on research and facts, not implication, speculation and fantasy.

The idea that “everything is connected” is a powerful one, and two understandings of it seem to run parallel. The conspiracy theorist believes it literally and spends every waking hour adding to the chain of connections. But ordinary minds, uninfected by conspiracy madness, also believe that there are deeper connections in the world and that our job as thinking creatures is to discover those links. This is fundamental to basic rationality. We don’t just treat symptoms, but look for the deeper causes of what ails us. And it is fundamental to good citizenship, too, in that we must also search for the covert ways that power operates, the influence of money behind the scenes, and the backroom alliances and wheeling and dealing that keep the powerful in power and enrich the rich.

John Miller’s “ZOG,” from 1998. The letters Z, O and G on the game board are shorthand for the anti-Semitic phrase Zionist Occupied Government. (Collection of Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of John Miller and Metro Pictures, New York)

So how do we tell the two kinds of suspicion apart? It would be a relief if the answer seemed as obvious as the phantasmagoria seen in a 1998 painting by John Miller called “ZOG.” The image is one of the artist’s “Game Show Paintings,” which critique the banality and consumerism of American culture, in this case by showing us “Wheel of Fortune” hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White with the letters Z, O and G on the game board, shorthand for the anti-Semitic phrase Zionist Occupied Government.

The world would be a safer place if conspiracies were so patently absurd as this painting, but of course, the absurdity of the belief doesn’t matter to those who believe it. The man accused of killing 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 tweeted a cartoon that used the word ZOG as a punchline about how Americans are supposedly manipulated by Jewish powers.

Absurdity isn’t a good guide to the facticity of claims about our government and leaders, either. Yes, when the Weekly World News headline screams “Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby,” most sane people will dismiss it out of hand. But what about Operation Northwoods, a secret U.S. government plan to attack U.S. cities, planes and boats and blame the violence on Cuba, to create a justification for attacking the communist regime in the 1960s? That, in fact, is true, although the plan was rejected by President John F. Kennedy.

When right-wing extremists immediately suggested that the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue was a “false flag” operation, decent people were sickened by the claims. But the false-flag claims circulate in part because there have been false-flag acts, perpetrated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The work of Hans Haacke on display. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/)

The curators of the Met exhibition, Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer, say they made a deliberate decision not to include work after 2016, when the election of Donald Trump invigorated conspiracy thinking around the world. The show is divided into two halves, the first featuring artists whose work has a journalistic component, who base it mostly on fact and pursue the urge to make the hidden visible. Along with Lombardi’s elegant drawings, we have Hans Haacke’s 1971 typescript pages and photographs detailing the shell companies and hidden ownership of real estate in New York City. This work was so explosive that the Guggenheim canceled Haacke’s first solo museum exhibition three weeks before it was to open.

The second part of the show deals more with conspiracy as a mind-set and recurring trope of American thought, with the artists capturing the dark mood of the country, its suspicions and paranoia. This division of the show is smart. Despite the curators’ decision not to deal with the age of Trump, the contrast of substance (research-based work) and style (visual riffs on the bizarre undercurrents of American life) offers a useful insight for thinking about lies and truth in our current degraded political moment. To resist and expose conspiracy thinking, we must be aware of how it depends not just on the distortion of truth, but also on a style of thought, and how it expresses repressed fantasies and genuine feelings of disempowerment. We must respond to it rather as we respond to art: with all of our receptors alert, at all levels — rational, emotional and aesthetic.

After the Pittsburgh massacre, pundits asked whether President Trump was in some way responsible for stoking the fears and hatred that apparently inspired the accused shooter. The best answer was nuanced: Trump didn’t pull the trigger, and perhaps he isn’t personally anti-Semitic, but the style of his politics closely parallels the style of anti-Semitic thinking. When the president bases malicious claims on hearsay or invents them wholesale, when he suggests that powerful forces are harming America, that Jewish figures such as Soros may be funding the migrant pilgrimage out of war-torn Central America, he is adopting the fundamental rhetorical framework of anti-Semitism. The style is the message.

“Everything Is Connected” is a dark show, and the right show for a dark moment in our history. By the end of it, one is tempted to invert the usual relation between conspiracy thinking and rational thinking, with the former now understood as the dominant thought pattern in America and the latter the aberration. Our politics, our literature, our popular culture and our social media are saturated with it. There is probably no cure. It is, at best, our chronic condition, and perhaps our terminal one.

Everything Is Connected Through Jan. 6 at the Met Breuer in New York.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at The Post since 1999, first as classical music critic, then as culture critic.

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