‘I have spoken of the operation of a certain type of fashionable photography that makes misery into a consumer good. When I turn to the New Objectivity as a literary movement, I must go a step further and say that it has made the struggle against poverty into a consumer product. In fact, in many cases its political meaning has been exhausted with the transposition of revolutionary impulses – insofar as these appeared among the bourgeoisie – into objects of distraction and amusement that were integrated, without difficulty, into the entertainment industries of the big cities. The metamorphosis of the political struggle from a drive to make a political commitment into an object of contemplative pleasure, from a means of production into an object of consumption, is the defining characteristic of this literature.’
– Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer (1934)
1. The Art of Catharsis
Who profits from the housing crisis? The immediate answer is obvious: property developers, housing associations, estate agents, consultants, architects, builders, the people who knock down council housing and replace it with new-build properties, half of which currently stand empty in London.
But there are other people who profit too. First in line, spotting a market in sob-stories for the middle classes, are the journalists, whose thin prose and even thinner research doesn’t stop them from bundling a few articles together and calling it a book. Behind them, ponderous as ever but champing at the bit of the next government grant, are the academics, who have responded to the burgeoning market in well-footnoted (to other academics), badly framed (‘gentrification’) and totally apolitical books about the housing crisis, which they transform into just another object in their musty archive.
But a new profiteer has emerged. As the public’s interest even in the fluff on the bookshelves wanes, enter the artist. In verbatim theatre productions, in performance poetry, in documentary films, in protest songs and in books of glossy photographs, the artist is the new self-appointed spokesperson for the masses, and their great claim to this role is – not the political and representational agency of their work – but something much more important: their sincerity.
The English have a strong claim to being the most artistically illiterate nation in Europe, and generally prefer a nice swing at Tate Modern to anything that makes them think. But this week, thinking about the latest piece of artistic ‘activism’ to come off the shelves, full of sincerity and endorsements from every hack, academic and luvvie in town, I was reminded of what the German critic, Walter Benjamin, said about fascism in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction. Fascism, remember, was a kitsch, saccharine aesthetic that sugar-coated the violence it glorified for the masses in images of noble sacrifice; and it has more than a few parallels with the photographs of homeless Britains, protesting Palestinians and starving Yemenis that decorate our Sunday supplements or perch in glossy tomes atop many an Islington coffee table. Trying to understand this aestheticisation of the violence of the political, Benjamin concluded: ‘Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’
Poverty porn is nothing new, and has been the staple of reality TV for some time, preparing the way for the political assault on the working class it has served. Somewhat belatedly, the liberals who have colonised the arts in this country have now come up with their own use for the working class. Springing from the Methodism that defines the aesthetic and political sensibilities of the so-called Left in this country, this goes something along the lines of: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ In the political vacuum of liberalism, art is the opium of the middle classes, its aesthetic pleasures the last refuge from their willing embrace of the violence of capitalism.
It’s not by chance that the favoured, most sought after and most highly valued aesthetic response of the middle classes is tears. Tears stop the middle-class film-goer from seeing what’s in front of his face when he leaves the auditorium. Tears, whatever the middle-class book-buyer may think when leafing through its moving photographs, are always shed for herself. And the feel of tears running down their cheeks, the salty taste of them in their mouths, makes them feel that somehow they are sharing in the suffering they tell as many people as possible is their cause. Identification (preferably with a distant and grateful victim) is the cathartic object of the immersive art ‘experience’. ‘Heartbreaking!’ is the ultimate accolade for the liberal work of art. So what role does art play for its liberal audience in search of catharsis?
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