How important to the understanding of their work is an artist’s political and spiritual stance? Reading an article about Gilbert & George in that quality publication ES Magazine, I was reminded how easy it is to dislike someone on discovering their political views. Apparently they have always been staunch Tories, sticking it to ‘the man’, meaning the art world, with whom they assure us it’s impossible to discuss politics. Maybe they have a point, as Mark McGowan’s Facebook work at the election showed, in which a spat broke out between him and other artists who felt his (presumably insincere) support of Tory politics was one step too far.
Gilbert & George share their ‘rather deferential attitude to statesmen’ with another artist who has been claimed for the liberal left, despite the evidence to the contrary- Andy Warhol. His coke argument has been understood by some as socialist/ egalitarian, since if ‘the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest’ it means in some way we’re all equal: regardless of material wealth, the Queen and the bum on the street are the same in death, and Coke.
As he was reputedly a ‘good Catholic’ it could also be considered a spiritual position- didn’t Jesus stress that in the eyes of God all men are equal? But here’s an interview with Peter Gidal illustrating his (affected?) nonchalance towards social inequality:
AW: So how is everything in England?
PG: Everyone’s poor, things are real bad
AW: It would’ve been better if England had kept the colonies, then things would be ok.
PG: Are you kidding? The rich were even richer, and the poor poorer…
AW: Oh, but then England had all those colonies….
It’s as though, having made that realisation of a basic spiritual equality, we can all relax- if everyone is equal in the eyes of god, why bother changing anything? Improving your quality of life while on this earth isn’t going to make you a better human being or facilitate a smoother passage into Heaven. But that’s no excuse for accepting social divisions and uneven sharing of wealth and resources.
Another way of understanding some of Warhol’s quips could be through Buddhist thought: “If you didn’t have fantasies you wouldn’t have problems because you’d just take whatever was there” (attachment- to material goods as well as thought forms- and desire, lead to suffering). He also claimed not have a self and wanted a blank tombstone, echoing the Buddhist path towards dissolving the ego, whose lifeblood is desire and individuation.
This leads me onto Zizek’s take on Zen, which he sees as completely opposed to the pernicious doctrine of ‘Western Buddhism’. The latter, according to him, is best summed up by the title of a self-help book, ‘Self Matters’: a self-centered notion of an inner journey, towards a more authentic, integrated self, with the built-in promise that the pay off for taking the trip is a more ‘successful’ life. His main gripe is that it allows you to fully participate in capitalism, while maintaining a perception of being outside of it, being able to coolly see the worthlessness of the spectacle but remaining calm in the knowledge of the “peace of the inner Self”.
Also, the self-help movement often advocates the ‘we’re all freelance now’ attitude championed by neo-liberalism that assigns all the responsibility for living, working and surviving in the capitalist game to the individual. Social factors, plus the role of government and corporations are thus rendered incidental when compared to the ability of each person to rise above limitation if they really wanted to.
Anyway according to him, this ‘inner journey’ of self-discovery is almost the complete opposite of Zen proper: if anything it’s “a total voiding of the Self, no “inner truth” to be discovered. What Western Buddhism is not ready to accept is thus that the ultimate victim of the journey into one’s self is this self itself.”
If there’s no ‘inner’ depth in Zen, maybe all there is ‘outer’: surface, exterior, or no self at all. Following Zizek’s logic, Warhol’s blankness and self-proclaimed complete superficiality could therefore be considered strangely native to Zen and against the cult of individuality which capitalism thrives on.