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The Kadist Foundation in Paris is hosting what looks like a fascinating exhibition as part of Matteo Lucchetti’s Enacting Populism project.  Inspired by the likes of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, and drawing on changes in the nature of politics over the past couple of decades (namely the rise of the ‘populist’ right and the consequent effect on the entire political spectrum), the project explores ways in which the visual arts might engage in populist strategies of media engagement.  Lucchetti’s reasoning for this is that populism is in the current ‘zeitgeist’ (a term I’m afraid I long ago learnt to be very wary of), enabled by all sorts of new technologies and thus a valid ‘mediascape’ to be investigated.   The popular media seem to have opened up a new political space that the arts – still wedded all too often to a stultifying ‘seriousness’ – are not yet properly exploring.

This chimes interestingly with a couple of things I read recently promoting the idea that the arts, including Art, can still ‘entertain’.  Thus, from Michael Chabon’s highly entertaining collection of essays, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands:

“Entertainment has a bad name.  Serious people learn to mistruct and even to revile it.  The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights.  It gives a whiff of coppertone and dripping Creamsicle, the fake butter miasma of a movie-house lobby, of karaoke and Jagermeister, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, a Street Fighter machine grunting solipsistically in a corner of an ice ring arcade. […]  Entertainment, in short, means junk, and too much junk is bad for you – bad for your heart, your arteries, your mind, your soul.”

(Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story: p.1)

Needless to say, Chabon, as an unashamed populist as well as a very skilled novelist, does not agree with this position.  This opinion also chimes with the thesis of a book I have only just started reading (it arrived an hour ago) by Robert Scholes exploring what he calls the Paradoxy of Modernism.  For Scholes, the paradoxy lies in the extremes that modernism has tended to draw between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘poetry’ and ‘rhetoric’, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ in the arts.  It rather less effusive terms than Chabon, his point is much the same;

“The one thing that distinguishes the arts from other kinds of texts is that their aim is pleasure.  They can please by representing pain and ugliness, but please they must – or they are not art but something else.  We do not take pleasure seriously enough, I believe, and Modernism, with its emphasis on the connection between greatness and difficulty, is to some extent responsible for this.”

(Paradoxy of Modernism, Preface: xiii)

I have a great deal of sympathy with this point of view, having espoused it myself increasingly over the years both in my own writings (which get less and less ‘serious’ as time goes on, and all the better for it – in my view, anyway) and even more so in teaching.  I have spent years urging my students to have fun in exploring the academic world, and a very hard message it is to get across once the poor things have been through the dreay mill of particularly British education right now.

That said, I am still wary of ‘populism’ as such, particularly in the domain of politics.  Accessibility, entertainment and engagement seem to me to be entirely laudable goals – and in the populist spirit – but without following the trail blazed by the political right.  Populism in those terms can all to easily become simply reactionary – responding slavishly to the whim of the electorate (or ‘mob’) without a particular agenda or aim.  In that sense populism seesm to me to be potentially very dangerous.  One only need look at the ways that the ‘popular’ revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring are producing highly conservative governments, to see where populism can lead.  Just because ‘the people’ are engaged, doesn’t mean that the outcome is emancipatory.