Are Creative Arts Supporting Oppression?


Paul Wallis, Sydney Media Jam CO2You’d think that the arts were purely humanistic, purely idealistic, or purely devoted to human wellbeing. Not necessarily so, in practice. Unintentionally or otherwise, the arts may provide the breeding grounds for oppression.

I’ve spent a lot of time criticising the sciences for not seeing the possible risks of new technologies and not creating safeguards for potentially high risk technologies. I think it’s only fair that I should also criticise my own line of work, for exactly the same reason.

Basic premise of creative arts supporting oppression

The problem is that whatever is put into a human mind can become a monster. Creative media of all kinds are fully plugged into human consciousness as never before. I’m not talking about visual propaganda, media propaganda, or other banal, mediocre forms of the arts. I’m talking about ideas. Creative arts, by nature, are based on a range of ideas, half arse or otherwise. Some of these ideas include direct depictions of ideologies, mentalities, insanities, and other human hobbies.

There is a long-standing theory in media psychology which is basically “monkey see, monkey do”. This means essentially that people will imitate anything and everything. Unfortunately, that also includes oppression.

If you take a look at the oppressive regimes in history, you will see that they all have direct antecedent dating back thousands of years. Even the Inquisition wasn’t a particularly original idea, it was based on ancient forms of oppression. The Holocaust, in turn, was based on ideas of racism, systematic oppression, and above all, a highly efficient, murderous method of controlling the public. Media was used as a primary form of control, involving all the arts in some form, from Wagner to posters and slogans.

Where do these ideas come from? Some of them come from history, but a lot of creative art is actually based on history and historical themes. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was based on actual history at the time, incorporating the rise of oligarchies and other obscenities in supposedly socialist states.

Orwell can be accused of nothing more than factual reporting, but Animal Farm is a particularly good example of mentalities. If you have also read The Gulag Archipelago, you may see some unsettling parallels between the two books. The problem is that one book was fiction, and the other was facts, and they have so much in common.

The psychological effects of creative media can be extremely powerful. They are even more powerful when aimed at semiliterate or illiterate people. For example, the whole idea of Western society as it is now is based largely on historical clichés. The society which produced those clichés no longer exists, but the stench lingers. Humanity is now habituated to what was really a series of depictions of daily life, originally intended to be fiction, but now turned into hideous fact.

The immortal Celts in EnglandOkay, so much for the basics. The question is whether or not a dramatic depiction of something or someone actively encourages oppression. On the same basis as “monkey see monkey do”, how many people have been inspired to become history’s leading bastards by creative media? How many people have wittingly or unwittingly written books which have become how-to manuals for oppression? How many musicians have created theme songs for tyrants?

Visual arts, in particular, are front and centre at the moment in terms of propaganda value. Whether it’s memes, photo shopped images, or “fake news” imagery, the visual arts are currently the heavy lifters for propaganda of all kinds. Some of it is intentional, some of it is unintentional, but the likely ramifications could be anything.

The problem is that they created that are now essentially carrying and supporting various types of oppression. This cannot be considered to be a harmless process. Actively supporting prejudice, injustice, and in some cases downright insanity doesn’t help anybody.

When criticising the sciences, I simply said that providing proven nut cases with advanced technologies isn’t and couldn’t be a good idea. The theory is that you can simply not provide the science to these raving lunatics. That may be more than a bit optimistic, but you can also see why that would be a good working solution.

In the case of the arts, the situation is a bit more complex. You can’t tell artists to stop producing art, any more than you can tell scientists to stop producing science. Unlike science, however, the arts are very portable, very easy to produce in any quantity in any form, and easily adapted to just about any situation. Arguably, the creative arts can potentially do much more damage to humanity than science.

Consider some of the all-too-familiar stereotypes of media:

  • The criminal genius
  • The mad scientist
  • The archetypal tyrant, real or imaginary
  • The criminal businessman
  • The fanatic(s) of all kinds
  • The psychotic manager
  • The basic sleazebag
  • The serial killer

It’s quite a list, but you can see how familiar all these characters are in real life. The question is, how many of these morons would have considered becoming these people without a bit of encouragement from creative media? Will they have had the slightest idea how to become what they became?

Answer those questions, and you will solve the problem of creative arts supporting oppression. Until then, be careful what you create, because it may come walking through the door one day.

Paul Wallis, Sydney Media Jam, Paul Wallis books