Laura Poitras at the Whitney: The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

Daniel Bell coined the expression "the cultural contradictions of capitalism" in the 1970s but here I wish to point out a slightly different contradiction.

On a visit to New York City, a place I like and frequently come to, I decided to see the new much ballyhooed Whitney museum about which I had read many articles, mostly about its architecture--which is assuredly stunning and creates a pleasant feeling when seen from outside or navigating the galleries inside.

The first unpleasant surprise though was the cost of the ticket: $22 for a visit which gives access to a few floors and not very many paintings. The postmodern architecture goes with a postmodern pricing policy: more is less. The museum was not crowded and there were very few non-white faces, except for some Japanese tourists. There were also quite a few Europeans. So while it is indeed pleasant to look at paintings without being jostled by crowds it is also a privilege of the wealthy.

On the top floor there was a series of exhibitions by Laura Poitras, under the title Astro Noise. I have been following the Snowden affair in many media, including the Guardian and many alternative sites so I was eager to see the exhibit. I admired the smartness and courage of Laura Poitras and appreciated the subtle way in which her movies and commentaries were presented. With Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, Poitras has done important information work about the power of the surveillance state.

After watching this Astro Noise exhibition I could not help feeling a bit schizoid. At the museum restaurant or cafeteria prices are as steep and postmodern as for the entrance to the museum. Each green brindle in a nicely prepared salad must cost one dollar. So in a very exclusive privileged environment there was one of the most stringent critiques of US foreign policy. Why should it bother me?

At a time when the primary season is in full swing, when Donald Trump makes global headlines with his brutality, racism, xenophobia and appeal to those disparagingly called "red necks" this criticism for the cultural elite seems strange. I am in no way criticizing Laura Poitras's work, which I value a lot, but I feel the context of its presentation blunts or erases its impact.

If progressive candidates showed this exhibition it would probably have much more influence. Progressive does not include Hillary Clinton who is part of the military-industrial-surveillance complex but Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein could run away with such a stellar indictment of misguided policies.

Radical critique often ends up being an academic or elite activity with no connection with the people who suffer most from economic or foreign policies cooked up by what Mike Lofgren calls "the deep state". In a very expensive museum where wealthy people and foreign tourists are likely to go Laura Poitras's articulate critique becomes just another artifact or high culture venue which the mainstream can contain, digest and defang.

Usually radical left scholars and reporters complain that they do not make it into the mainstream. Here it seems to be the reverse and, no doubt, some museum-goers may discover something new and shocking. Yet it's more likely that a tiny fringe already knows about the surveillance state from their readings and media consumption and that the other visitors watch the denunciation with a distant artistic eye.

Of course it would be better all round if, as in some other countries, museums were free or very cheap so open to everyone and had therefore a really diverse public in terms of economic backgrounds. Or if the Whitney had the same pricing policy as the Met. Then political messages would not be addressed only to elites.

The term "bobo" might be problematic but still it captures a certain reality. If only upper class or upper middle class people access the challenging work of radical artists then this art is aestheticized and protest can be reduced to a pose or posture by its consumers.

We all know that capitalism can digest and neutralize almost any form of protest and that radical contestation may slide into radical chic. With Laura Poitras the chic comes not from the artist herself but from the conditions of the viewing by the public.

The food in the Whitney museum restaurant is organic, well-cooked and well-prepared and it is presented in a stylish way. Yet all these positives also amount to a sign of social exclusion. The ghettoization of high culture can be read in the kitchens of its locations. The ghettoization of protest makes it yet another object to consume in the high class consumer society. It goes with the commodification of everything, including one's ideological preferences or what Christopher Lasch called The Culture of Narcissism. Think of saucers or mats with a political protest message.

Surveillance then becomes a game you can play safely in the galleries of a fantastically beautiful and well-designed museum. Still I must say I was moved by the exhibition and it reinforced the impressions I had when reading about the NSA. So the game might be worth it after all, even if for me it was like preaching to the choir.