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Adam Curtis on the danger of self-expression


Art is a good thing; Self-expression is great. But it is by no means a substitute for political action to change the world and to challenge existing power relations.

Art is a great way to describe the world; to filter out a zeitgeist. Based on the works of the painters who portrayed the wives and families of the robber barons of the 19th century, we know today what the world looked like back then.

Then there was a change in the early 1970s when self-expression suddenly became a political tool. Self-presentation as a new way of denouncing grievances in the world. But it doesn't work that way, because the whole world is based on self-expression.

Maybe this is a new, radical view of the world. A new, exciting, fresh perspective that we did not know before because it contradicts our perception of the world. In every age there is something that people blindly believe in that is then dismissed as conformist 50 years later. Look at photos of men in bars in the 1930s: they are all wearing the exact same suits and hats.

Perhaps at some point we will look back and see self-portrayal as the dulling conformity of our time. But it doesn't have to be bad or fake because of that. We're at a point today where self-expression is common - so why talk about it at all? We all practice self-expression every day.

We represent ourselves. That is the conformism of our time. At some point you will look back on our time and say: “Oh God! It's a bit like the uniforms in the 30s. This is what her self-portrayal looked like back then.

That's what we don't want to admit. That is not to say that you shouldn't make art. But as an artist you are not a radical outsider, not even the cool hipster outsider. It's all pure conformism.


The history of modern self-expression goes back to the hippie movement. Especially with the failure of the new left of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it comes more and more into focus. Patti Smith wrote a very interesting book called Just Kids. In these memoirs, she describes her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and makes a clear statement: Smith and her ilk are tired of giving up on themselves just to march in a group, for what good is that? To nothing!

Instead, you should portray yourself, express your anger at the system in the most imaginative way possible - an alternative to the failed left. It's a new beginning, an exciting time; you can literally feel the excitement in her book.

One of my series is called "The Century of the Self". It describes the great changes in capitalism in the 1970s. At that time, people moved away from the idea of ​​wanting to sell uniform goods so that everyone looked the same and wore the same things. Capitalism recreated itself and began to offer the consumer a much broader range of products - to enable them to present themselves.

What initially struck the artists as rebellious was actually a reflection of a change deep within the power structure against which they rebelled: capitalism imitated them.

The interesting thing about our time is that - however rebellious the message of your art style may be - when you as an artist criticize yourself through self-expression, you are actually working into the hands of the very power structure that you want to overthrow. This power structure that you are criticizing has also made self-expression its ultimate goal.

Capitalism is about self-expression and art is about self-expression. So art is far from being a radical outsider movement. Rather, it is at the heart of modern compliance. And that's why nothing will ever change, because the radicals have turned to a form of expression that is also practiced in the center of the very power structure against which they rebel. You have been neutered.


If you want to change the world, you must first become aware of where power is being exercised from. That is not easy. We live in a world where we feel like independent individuals. As an independent individual, you don't necessarily think of a power system as such. You think more about how you as an individual can influence world events.

What remains hidden from you is something that people used to be able to see much more clearly: As a group, you have a lot of influence. You can change things. When things go wrong, there is still hope for the future as a group; However, this is not the case when you are on your own. For this reason the entire concept of power is atrophied today, for we are encouraged to speak only about ourselves; about our feelings towards others. We are not encouraged to see ourselves as part of anything.

Computers, on the other hand, know where to go. They see us as groups. We're actually pretty much alike. We all have the same desires, ambitions and fears. Computers can detect this through correlation and behavioral patterns.

Computers are able to divide us into groups, but they are so clumsy that they can only divide us into large main groups with the aim of selling us something. Indeed, through the use of computers, we could see the power that we could gain from common identities within different groups; but this insight is not used by anyone. Computers have the potential to identify new groups, new common identities.


Today collective self-expression has replaced political means. You express your bond with other people by being completely in this unity. An example of this in recent US history is the civil rights movement.

In the 1950s, young white activists went to the southern United States to work with young black activists, often for years. Many of them experienced brutal violence, some even died. They have given themselves completely to something and have changed the world with the power it has given them.

“Freedom” can be interpreted in different ways. Today's idea of ​​freedom is very individualistic: I - as an individual - want to be free to do whatever I want.

Then there is another kind of freedom - total freedom in the service of God. Total self-surrender in His service frees us from the tight cage of our desires and selfishness. You grow beyond that. You grow as a person and become part of a larger whole.

If you look at the idea of ​​self-expression (with the associated feeling of limitlessness, because the ideology of our time is individualism) from a different point of view, this is quite limited, because you only have yourself and your own wishes. There are other things that could get us out of it. It's a different kind of freedom.


I recently read a book by the sociologist Max Weber. Weber prophesied in the 1920s that we would all be overwhelmed by a bureaucratized age. This could just as easily come from the right as from the left. He called it the "iron cage of rationality". A wonderful world where everything would be organized, everything would be done rationally. However, we would then lose the ability to be “enchanted”. We would live in a thoroughly disaffected age. We would lose the sense of the mysterious, the wonderful. According to Weber, the price for a life in this iron cage would be “disenchantment”. Sometimes I wonder if conspiracy theories aren't ultimately a desperate attempt to "charm" the world anew.

Almost like religion was trying to get back into our lives through the back door. A mystery that goes beyond our understanding of the world. That's the feeling you get when talking to a conspiracy theorist. An almost romantic feeling of awe of this dark, mysterious something that could never be seen through by a rational something. It almost has religious traits.

Maybe it's this magic that finds its way back into our lives, and maybe it only works through the back door. The rational, technocratic disillusionment became the pitfall of capitalism. The famous iron cage. The cage we're trapped in. A new magic, a new myth is needed.

A myth that at least tries to explain to us the things we don't understand; that gives us a sense of comfort beyond our own existence. I think this is really a good thing. We need that. Take a mystical force, like religion, and you can talk about things like power; you can't do that with normal journalism, it's too boring and too limited; too rational and technocratic. It lacks the dramatic touch.

And then the melodrama. A heightened awareness to escape from the rational, technocratic cage in which we are supposed to do one thing for financial reasons and the other for ascetic reasons. It's so limited. It's so boring.

The trick is that you should still feel like an independent individual. There is no turning back to the hyper-individualism of our time. Here you have to try the impossible: people should still have the feeling of being independent individuals, but still surrender to something, something big, something enormous, that will accompany them into the future; beyond their own existence. This is exactly what people crave.

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