The responses of museums to the impact of COVID – or, more properly to the lockdown and authoritarian measures related to the pandemic – revealed something about the future of the public art sector in the technocracy. The terrible truth is that in the West, especially in the post-political technocracy of the UK, the museum has been absorbed into the state. This is not a state based on nationhood (a people or ethnos), religion or even nationality; it is a state a quadrant of the global economy under a managerial elite which cannot permit expression of ethnos, creed or national history. In such a situation, the museum becomes not a pillar of tradition but a node of subversion.
The therapeutic state
As notions of the state and its role regarding the populace have developed since the Enlightenment, so expectations have adjusted. Originally, men owed their fealty to their local lord and church. Their horizons were limited but also they had control over their family and their labour, albeit in limited ways. They were bonded to the land, family, religion and local community. As the state became stronger, so it needed to exert more power over subjects and become more intrusive by exacting taxes (usually indirectly) as these were paid to churches or lords. The advances of democracy, education and relocation (especially during the era of industrialisation) detached men from their local roots and they saw themselves in relation to the monarch (through law, tax, money, military service) and the state.
As the state grows ever more powerful, so it offers more as it extracts more, but only on its own terms. It offers the welfare state, socialised healthcare, work within nationalised industries, state pensions, employment insurance but in return expects less independence and autonomy of it subjects. In the Communist or Socialist state this extends to speech and thought. Traditional, religious or local standards relations were (nominally) abolished, to be replaced my scientism and the materialist state remaking man in the shape of the liberated, fully realised human in the state structured to raise him to his full potential. The myth of the individual man is abolished by the reality of New Man but only through the subject’s full trust and co-operation. The state takes over from the lord, king and church, to act in loco parentis in a rational materialist state that replaces the family with organised activity and shared values.
The total state evolved into the therapeutic state through the adoption of the new sciences of psychology, psychoanalysis and sociology, operating through new mass channels of advertising, state schooling, state culture, propaganda. The state harnessed new technologies of radio, film, television, newspapers and books to reshape men into rational, compliant, non-anxious, fully actualised consumer-citizens. Writers such Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays sought to make the psyche accessible to the educated observant outsider and for that subject to be directed productively.
Since then, study of individuals and groups has allowed even more refined techniques to be developed. Behavioural psychologists measured such phenomena as mass formation psychosis. Eric Hoffer’s classic book The True Believer (1951) posited that when a population became detached from its roots, anxious and emotionally labile, it could be turned against nominated enemies by leaders directly (using force and law) and indirectly (using propaganda). Post-war social scientists saw how the state could both cause and offer to cure populations through modern means, becoming a therapeutic state.
Culture as narcoleptic
By 2022 we are many decades into a period when the modern state (and its commercial partners and “stakeholder” consultants) can destabilise a person through psychological pressure, diagnose that dysfunction, direct the person through nudge policy, treat the person with therapy, narcotise them through drugs and (ultimately) criminalise, imprison, chemically lobotomise and execute the subject. All of this is done with increasing refinement and thoroughness, facing little moral or practical resistance, not least because the religious idea of man as conceived of in the image of God and thus divine and to be treated as undefileable. The principle of man as imperfect and a vessel for the soul, a being who owes no allegiance to anyone other than his god and his family, has been abolished by the Enlightenment. No secular leader would dare (or would try) to reinstate a divine dimension to public discourse; no deep state of materialist scientists, educators and civil servants would countenance such a deviation.
Museums are part of this materialist nexus of control and diminishment. Museum directors and culture ministers treat culture as a commodity. Culture brings tourism; it regenerates post-industrial districts; it provides an international hub; it demonstrates soft diplomatic power; it contributes to community cohesion; it can be used to integrate refugees (or to persuade native populations that they are xenophobic for fearing mass migration). Museum directors qua venue managers have actively embraced these lines of thinking, supported by academics and professional bodies that see the arts in instrumentalist terms.
Art is promoted now as a means of relaxing and reducing anxiety. During COVID-19 lockdown a Monet painting was loaned to Ferens Art Gallery, Hull. The press release explained:
The practice of mindfulness and the importance of mental health really came to the fore during the lockdowns, so I’m delighted to see that this exhibition and its accompanying events programme has been designed to encourage conversation about these issues, especially amongst young people - says Councillor Brabazon, Hull City Council.
Claude Monet, Antibes, 1888
oil on canvas, The Courtauld Gallery, Londyn
The National Gallery, London sent a flower painting by Jan Van Huysum to "the walled garden mental health and wellbeing hub in Perth [in Scotland]”. Art is treated in a utilitarian manner, as a means of stress relief. Yet, what goes unmentioned, is that fact that the state itself generated the stress by imposing unnecessary lockdowns.
Control through fear
The state with one hand causes a problem and then (with the other hand) seems to alleviate that problem. What this does – when carefully balanced and shifting between different stressors – is to put the population in a permanent state of instability and insecurity. It becomes a central aspect of a person’s existence. The state (through education, mass media, social services and socialised medicine) takes the role of problem-creator and problem-solver, abuser and guardian, poisoner and curer. The mixture of anxiety and reliance upon the state makes a population compliant and weak. This is ideal for the globalist state as panopticon. The globalist state (founded upon materialism, pragmatism and secularism) works to sever ties between people, as found through family, community, religion, locality, so that the only important link for a citizen is with the protector-abuser state. The atomised population is unable to organise or resist the technocratic state.
The modern state has undermined the power of church, aristocracy and monarchy incrementally since the Enlightenment. Even private business has been suppressed, with small businesses regulated and lockdown, in favour of mega-corporations with which the state enters stakeholder partnerships. As the independence and wealth of these groups grows less, so the state becomes more powerful. We find this reflected in art. In every state in the industrialised West, the national government, its federal states, local regions and partner NGOs comprise the largest patron of the public arts. As is well documented, art is used by the commissioners to project the elite’s values at home, function as “soft power” abroad and apportion resources to client groups. This is not a recent phenomenon, as study of history will show that kings commissioned art and architecture that projected their power and glory, religions built magnificent edifices and wealthy merchants donated paintings to churches and paid for private portraits. One of the few valid and relevant points of Marxist New Criticism was that it identified how art functions on one level as a marker of status and wealth and is used to project the values of the patron.
Culture as power
Now that the state has the power as primary patron, controls the most prominent venues for the arts and clearly sets out its belief that art is utilitarian, the way is open for the liberal democratic state to operate cultural levers the way totalitarian states of Communist and Fascist characters did. Nominally, the Western state is a plurality, open to a wide range of views, not restricted by the state and designed to serve the sovereign individual person. Yet we know that certain views are not funded by the elite and are deemed dubious, false or harmful. In a public museum in the UK we could never encounter an exhibition opposing abortion, mass migration, egalitarianism, transgenderism and secularism, or supporting capital punishment, Christianity as the sole dominant religion and ethnic homogeneity. The state would consider some of these to be “hate speech”. Publicly funded venues and creators never even suggest such material, knowing it will be rejected, fearing that they could be blacklisted, understanding they might face prosecution.
So, we have a de facto situation where the state arbitrates what is acceptable artistic content and will use its patronage to support such material. It will use direct or indirect means to suppress opposing viewpoints. Art that commends people form strong bonds with groups outside of state control is effectively illegal in some forms. Advocate for a state based on ethnos, without migrants, and a writer faces prosecution on equality and anti-discrimination grounds. The therapeutic state causes the problem of ethnic division and religious conflict by permitting mass migration of foreigners and allowing them to form enclaves and retain their cultures. Its cure is the mantra of multiculturalism, incomplete integration and “cultural enrichment” – a phrase so derided in the UK, that is seen used by opponents as a euphemism for gang warfare, ethnic separatism and mass rape. A nationalist alternative cure is expulsion of migrants or partition, both options that are considered unspeakable by globalist materialists intent on erasing local identities and forming an atomised blended population. The therapeutic state presents only one solution, which actually solves nothing but sustains and maintains the problem. As long as the problem persists, the need for the therapeutic state’s interventions also persists.
Culture under the therapeutic state
What does this mean in cultural terms? Firstly, it means the therapeutic state is forever protected from full scrutiny and criticism. The core of the problems that the state admits are never addressed. The core, of course, the state which permitted (or engineered) the original problem. So, mass immigration of foreigners who cannot or will not integrate, is presented as an emergent phenomenon. It “just happens”. It is “the result of a globalised economy”. It is “the wave of the future”. It is a situation which must be accepted. The solution of ending mass migration and arranging deportation or incentives for migrants to leave is never presented. Sometimes discussion of this is criminalised. In terms of culture, this means public museums accept the situation and “celebrate diversity”, specifically because many people dislike diversity, are troubled by the loss of the heritage, are frightened by the rise in crime and are angered by the difficulties in housing, schooling, employment and so forth. Public culture is used to conceal these truths. Culture and history is altered to “gaslight” the population. Gaslighting is the process of rewriting and reframing past events to make a person’s memories of the past seem untrustworthy. It is used to destabilise populations. A prominent example is the idea that a country has “always been multi-ethnic”. “Black people have always lived in country X, you were just never taught about them.” The truth is that tiny numbers of non-European-heritage people did live in the West before 1945. This is, however, not comparable to the 10%, 15%, 20% and higher percentages of non-European-heritage (first generation immigrant) people now existing in the West. The gaslighting is to suggest that today’s state of affairs always existed, it was just never discussed because of racist bias; this is despite the clear historical data to the contrary.
So, in the UK we get exhibitions and books “celebrating the hidden historical diversity of Britain’s multi-ethnic past” that – in statistically meaningful terms – never existed. This is the state’s treatment for the migrant problem it introduced – to blame the population for its racial bias and historical ignorance. Museums devote resources to buying old paintings of non-white portrait subjects to rectify supposed omissions in their permanent collections, regardless of the aesthetic accomplishment of the art works. On every British arts website, black people are prominently featured in photographs of visitors and art works selected, in order to normalise a small percentage of the population for people wishing to engage with culture. A more cynical (and depressing) interpretation is that such displays of ethnic minorities are a “power play”. Such imagery shows that elite has disdain for the indigenous population and does not care that this favouritism is seen. In fact, it is a deliberate provocation. It says that the majority population is no longer the client group, that it is unwanted, that it is being replaced. It says that the elite has absolute power over the public narrative and that it knows the majority population cannot resist or rebel. After all, the state – through its patronage, influence and anti-discrimination legislation – has taken away the ability of any resisting individuals to express their values through culture in public venues.
It is our duty to oppose the creation of the therapeutic state and its instrumentalist use of culture. We must start small, build trusted networks, engage in private patronage and – most of all – be brave enough to reject the elite’s narrative and values publicly. It may be too late but we must act, even of for our own dignity.
Alexander Adams is a British artist, critic and poet. His art criticism has appeared in Apollo, British Art Journal, Burlington Magazine, The Critic and The Jackdaw. His art has been exhibited worldwide and his books of poems and drawings have been published in the UK, the USA and Malta. His book Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism was published in 2022 by Imprint Academic.