The American Effect

Why are US writers and artists so down on the American dream?

Alan Miller

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The Whitney Museum’s annual exhibition The American Effect certainly achieved one of its main goals – to shock.

What was most shocking to me, however, was not the works of art from 47 artists across 30 different countries – which ranged from humorous depictions of America to rather more scathing attacks – but the general sense of self-loathing that came through in the audience’s response to the exhibition.

On the Whitney website, visitors were asked: ‘What are some words you would use to describe America?’ While I find these ‘interactive’ experiences somewhat limited, it is worth considering some of the responses, which appear indicative of a contemporary sense of despair and malaise at the heart of the American project:

‘Naively self-confident, oblivious, self-centred, egocentric, garish, ostentatious, wasteful…. superpower, controlling, arrogant, generous, self-righteous, creative and hardworking…. McDonald’s, Bush, big, fat, money, suburbs, mortgage, credit cards, 9-5…. Hegemonic, oppressive, parochial, tyrannical….’ (1)

The following two sections asked for responses to the ‘myth’ of America and then to the question of American identity. The curator, Lawrence Ridner, seems to share many of the assumptions of America as a detrimental force in our time. He informs us that: ‘The American Effect is about the ways in which America’s real and imagined effects intertwine to become a compelling source of themes, images, and ideas for artists around the world.’ (2)

But these real and imagined effects are certainly becoming increasingly blurred in today’s world. More than anything, it seems that America is associated with success and achievement and pursuing a path towards improvement – all ideas that are thoroughly contentious nowadays. In fact, the Culture Wars debates and the attack on rationality and reason – first embarked upon by the interwar intelligentsia and then popularised in the Sixties by radical groups, leading on to the relativists of the Eighties and Nineties – have resulted, alongside the collapse of the Soviet bloc and Cold War vernacular, in a cynicism and crisis of belief at the heart of the Western imagination.

Contrary to a confident and unbridled march forward of capitalism and American values, what we seem to have today is a meandering, reluctant groping forward, led by focus groups. In business, it seems few want to take the big risks so vital to pushing the boundaries of human achievement ahead – whether in aeronautics or telecommunications. Investors wait to see what is successful before clambering to consolidate (3).

Perhaps more appropriately, the American effect today is one where many ‘identities’ are promoted in the postmodern context. True, there is the very real American impact of militarism on Iraq and other regions. But what is notable today is how anxious and uncertain the establishment really is. Unfortunately, establishment figures seem to share the view of their so-called opposition, who lament the arrogance of believing in any universals.

Gore Vidal, the highly respected American author and commentator, takes us on the journey of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To Be So Hated, debunking President Bush’s continual reference to ‘evil-doers’, and suggesting there are substantial motivations for attacks on America. Vidal cites the cases of 9/11 and Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 ‘Oklahoma bomber’.

While Vidal is a witty and intelligent writer, he, like many others, believes that America represents just a cynical and tyrannical rule internationally. Run by corporations, this ‘powerless Mikado ruled by a shogun vice president and his Pentagon warrior counsellors’ is a buffoon. (4) Vidal lists the several hundred military attacks globally since Pearl Harbor, and suggests we use UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to resolve the problems. Like many in Europe, he would rather see the more comforting United Nations impose sanctions backed up by military attack, rather than the USA. This is an irony that Vidal, in spite of his intelligence, fails to appreciate.

Not wanting to miss out on the moment of anxiety, Norman Mailer also presents us with a list of international incursions by America over the years. However, his Why Are We At War? gives us nothing new to digest, rather just a rerun of broader concerns about arrogance and intervention.

Meanwhile Why Do People Hate America? plies a much more rigorous account of bad behaviour by America both domestically and internationally – sharing the views of Naomi Klein’s No Logo before it and a general, though somewhat sophisticated, multicultural attack on the ‘myth’ of America (5).

Some of the contributors to this book are long-time critics of militarism. John Pilger, for example, is a rigorous exposer of hypocrisy and inconsistency in the media, and a welcome counterpoint to much of the debate on the role of Western governments around the world. But he too conflates the idea of militarism with the ‘single ideology….business state’ (5). He suggests that the notion of civilisation is a racket that is there to promote corporate interests and state terror. While he presents strong examples of the barbaric nature of militarism, he mistakenly seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is as though commentators have a consensus about the mission of America to ‘McDonaldise’ the world – yet the most interesting factor regarding recent events is the loss of any sense of direction or collective project for society. The capitalists don’t seem to promote capitalism, and democracy is guffawed at with no alternatives presented.

In the absence of an ideological alternative, the prevailing mood seems to be one of apologetic self-hatred. The aims and aspirations of a nation dedicated to improving itself through the American Dream, is now seen as arrogant folly. The very notion of universally recognised standards of good, better and best is being emptied out in an endorsement of backwardness.

Not true of Spellbound, however. This Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Jeff Blitz presents a slice of American life that is captivating. It follows eight students in the run-up to the annual National Spelling Bee and then at the actual event in Washington DC. We are delighted as the students from a variety of social backgrounds and states diligently study and then compete with one another. Just as interesting are the opinions of their parents, providing a broad backdrop of real American lives. The film is a refreshing alternative to the continually negative self-loathing that is so prevalent.

These are strange times indeed, where the very idea of human progress is rejected as vacuous. Wherever one looks, there seems to be someone deriding ‘stupid white men’ (7) and the evil-doers in our corporate-dominated world (8). Even the corporations have appropriated these values, with a ‘small is beautiful’ view and codes of ‘socially responsible investment’ and ethics. Meanwhile, the tendency is to drop large-scale development plans in the developing world for fear of upsetting indigenous communities (or at least the NGOs that claim to speak for them) and a general loss of belief in large-scale projects.

It seems peculiar that when artists and critics believe they are being so radical, there is a bland consensus underpinning much of their dialogue and work. Perhaps the most radical thing today, considering the American effect, would be to outline the advances in medical research and biotechnology, in GM foods and communications. Or how the standard of living has improved year on year and how we live longer and healthier lives than ever before.

My argument is that we just haven’t gone far enough and these positive developments should be universal. How sad that we are living through times where those who think they are the most cutting edge are in many ways the most entrenched and conservative. For they have given up believing in the history-making potential of humans – or even that we can strive to make things better.

(1) Whitney Museum of American Art

(2) Whitney Museum of American Art

(3) The Future in 3G, by James Woudhuysen

(4) Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, by Gore Vidal, page 149 (buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA)

(5) Why do People Hate America, by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies (buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA)

(6) The New Rulers of The World, by John Pilger (buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA)

(7) Stupid White Men… and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! by Michael Moore (buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA)

(8) The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization and High-Finance Fraudsters, by Greg Palast (buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA)

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