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The truth behind 'post-truth'

The recent appointment of eminent Art historian Victoria Coates to President Trump’s National Security Council, is a move that seems to have gone totally under the radar. This is the body that advises the president over military matters both at home and abroad and on the surface, looks like one of the more left field appointments of what is already a seriously left field administration. Really? An Art historian advising the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military machine the world has ever seen?

But it may not be as random as it seems. Not only did she work with Donald Rumsfeld in the late 2000s, but she recently advised Ted Cruz on his foreign policy during the presidential campaign. But crucially, as an Art historian, she is arguably better placed to understand the new politics of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ than most.

The Art world has been using the term ‘post-meaning’ for a generation now, though its roots go further back to the beginning of Modern Art itself. Briefly, it is a term used to describe Art works that may have multiple readings which may not have been determined by the artist at the time of creation, requiring human insight to unravel our own personal understanding. It feels remarkably similar to ‘post-truth’, a concept that allows the electorate to override facts and figures in preference for emotional response and gut reaction. 
Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916


We see ‘post-meaning’ take shape with the Dada movement which emerged at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. The works lay in bizarre performances of nonsensical poetry and proto-abstract painting and sculpture, taking an absurdist and irrational stance to counterpoise the horrific reality of the First World War. It was as if the Dadaists were ignoring the appalling events going on around them, not as a denial of reality but an insouciance to it. Their gallows humour is where ‘post-meaning’ takes root, out of a blasé reaction to the horrors of Man’s inhumanity to Man. It was as if the facts didn’t really matter anymore. Life had lost its point, its meaning, and all there was left to do was laugh at it.

In 1917, the French Artist Marcel Duchamp, a founding member of Dada, turned a white porcelain urinal 90 degrees onto its back, titled it Fountain, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and presented it at the Society of Independent Artists in New York. The organisers were so enraged that they only agreed to exhibit the work behind a curtain, whereupon Duchamp’s friend and patron Walter Arensberg bought it unseen, handing over a blank cheque for the Artist to fill in.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, ceramic, 1916

Fountain crystallizes what we understand to be ‘post-meaning’. There are multiple ways to try and understand it but what is certain is that his usage of a public toilet is clearly meant to cock a rude snook at the Establishment, and by claiming he had transformed such a vulgar object into a rarefied work of Art, was to confront the autonomous elite head-on. Not only did he challenge their position as arbiters of what is and what isn’t Art, he went further and challenged their right to decide what we should and shouldn’t think. The ramifications of this extraordinary Art work are still being felt today, almost 100 years later, not just in the Art world but in wider society as well.


We see a similar reaction in the aftermath of the Second World War. Artists took to abstraction as a way to obfuscate the horrors of Nazi atrocities, again not in denial but a blurring of them.

Fluxus, a group of Artists that emerged in the late 1950s, took this further. Focusing on Performance Art as their preferred medium, they took up the absurdist mantle of their Dadaist forebears, resulting in a strange concoction of nonsense fused with reality. Classically-trained Charlotte Moorman played her bow with her cello, Nam Jun Paik built sculptures out of TV sets sputtering out white noise, whilst Yoko Ono offered us a pair of scissors to cut her clothes off. 
Yoko Ono, A Cut Piece, performance, 1964 (re-created in 2003)

Fluxus painted a picture of the world that was upside down, inside out, back to front. It showed us things that we knew to be false, but in a context that we knew to be true, and ‘post-meaning’ was the only way to understand it. It helped the audience apply ‘meaning’ to a situation that didn’t necessarily have one.

Last year, 52% of the UK and 46% of America had their Duchampian moment and voted against the perceived consensus of their political elites. But the awful dichotomy is that in the Art world, ‘post-meaning’ is a force for sensory liberation and artistic exploration; whereas in the real world, ‘post-truth’ is a force for gross ignorance, divisive beliefs and potential worldwide conflict. The problem is that life and Art are too very different things, and whilst its fine for Art to imitate life, it’s very dangerous when it’s the other way around.

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