When Art Fails to Teach

If I was in Elysium, I wouldn’t want to let those ratbags in either

Unnamed relative, circa 2013

It’s an enduring image of the Trump election campaign at the end 2020. In a year marked by Black Lives Matter protests – and in the middle of a pandemic – Trump supporters danced it up in the streets to the 1992 protest anthem, Killing in the Name Of. Waving Blue Lives Matters banners, the two colourful MAGA spawn screamed “MOTHERFUCKERS” to passersby as they rocked out to the angry provocative chorus, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me“.

The internet and the Twittersphere was quick in its mirth: the timeless 1992 Rage Against the Machine hit is of course about white supremacists infiltrating the police and using the badge to justify brutality against black Americans. It wasn’t the first time that Trump’s supporters had demonstrated that they neither listened to nor understand song lyrics. The campaign trail was littered with tone deaf misuses of songs such as Born in the USA and Fortunate Son.

The song is decrying the kind of person he is. He’s absolutely that person I wrote the song about

John Fogerty on why he sent Donald Trump cease and desist letters over his use of Fortunate Son

That Trumpists have not only misinterpreted these songs but have misappropriated them for an agenda that’s antithetical to their original intent, makes the whole thing a lot less funny.

In the same vein is my relative’s response to the 2013 science fiction film, Elysium, about a society riven into two: an idyllic gleaming paradise called Elysium and the giant slum beneath it on Earth. The film explored the way in which wealthy first world countries exploit others for their own benefit whilst simultaneously locking them out through strict border controls.

As a film, Elysium degenerates into a lacklustre shoot-em-up of machismo that gives it a generic, even banal, feel. But once you sift out its lightweight Hollywood plot, the core socioeconomic critique of global geopolitics remains. The state of Elysium wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t built itself on the entrenched poverty and exploitation of those left in a megaslum on Earth.

Elysium is a film about the third world being the third world only because the first world exists in its current form. And yet the person such a message is supposed to reach – someone who consistently votes for stronger border controls, reducing refugee intakes and lower aid budgets – identified instead so strongly with the denizens of Elysium that they enjoyed the film as a statement on why those outside the city should be excluded from it.

The contention of this post is that it’s not possible for art to teach in a vacuum. And that vacuum is the modern fascist state: a slick dystopia that has the appearance of a plurality of views while having a powerful media elite constructing single and simple narratives. Alternative viewpoints and critical media is allowed and even encouraged – but only because they are appropriated and subverted, mass-marketed either into banality like Elysium or deliberately misrepresented to obscure their message.

You could argue that a small bundle of Trumpist idiots and my unnamed relative are hardly sufficient for a larger statement about the role of speculative and protest fiction in our society. And you would be right. But there are larger, and more deliberate misreadings of popular fiction that could be said to support this hypothesis. This post will outline some of them and ask the question – What is the role of art in teaching if it can be so easily misrepresented and misappropriated by those whom it is meant to be critiquing?

When I mentally planned this post, I hadn’t intended to include the 1997 film, Starship Troopers. But in light of my previous references to a slick multimedia dystopia of simple narratives, this film is the one that immediately springs to mind. Loosely based on Robert Heinlein’s 1957 novel of the same name, the film portrays a fascistic society peopled by citizens who don’t know it’s fascistic.

On the surface, a blokey shoot-em-up film about human soldiers who fight bugs, the film was a truly brilliant critique of the elements in our own society that could effortlessly morph into fascism. Starship Troopers was not so much an adaptation of the original novel but a critique of its militarism, a warning that these aspects of US culture could easily underpin a neo-fascism.

Would you like to know more? was an almost prescient nod to modern internet algorithms: the lead characters taken down a narrative path that constructed the whole of their hyper-militaristic, Hitler Youth society. Tapping screens to get their news in short, simple sound bites of propaganda cross-referenced in a tight bundle of distorted reality, the main characters never question their society or their role in it.

The parallels between ourselves and the bugs that were our dehumanised enemy were numerous and disconcerting. We were the same and yet we had made ourselves the hero of our own story and them our evil antagonist. Starship Troopers was a powerful and prophetic statement about the insidiousness of our easy descent into modern fascism.

I borrowed from the films of Leni Riefenstahl to show that these soldiers were like something out of Nazi propaganda. I even put one in an SS uniform. But no one noticed.

Paul Verhoeven, director of Starship Troopers, quoted in the Guardian

In retrospect, the determination of audiences to read the text of Starship Troopers as a straightforward tale of good vs evil – a superhero story of our best and brightest taking on an otherwordly foe – shows that the film wasn’t as before its time as you would think. Sequels were made: half-hearted and cut rate knockoffs that continued the valorous tale of our fight against the bugs. First person shooter video games were marketed that allowed fans to slaughter our inhuman enemies. And while there have been attempts to reclaim the text for what it is – something that’s supposed to make your celebration of the protagonists’ successes uncomfortable – Starship Troopers has still been willfully misappropriated by the same militaristic culture it was trying to critique.

Starship Troopers is just one of a long list of cult hits from the late 1990s that were co-opted by the far right or – in the case of The Matrix and Fight Club – men’s rights groups and Incels. It is a irony possibly greater than the misinterpretation of Starship Troopers as celebrating militarism or of Fight Club being a manifesto for male violence rather than a critique of it that the Matrix of all texts has been repurposed by the violent misogyny of Incels.

A story about coming to terms with being transgender, the show’s Red Pill can be seen as embracing the truth of your own fluid reality rather than the binary fiction the world is trying to impose upon you. And yet that same imagery has been relentlessly co-opted by a cesspool of Incels and far right conspiracy theorists.

One sometimes wonders how artists like the Wachowski sisters can keep making art after watching it be grossly misused. And yet they still do. For that they can only be lauded. Nonetheless it does make you wonder what the purpose of art is if it can be so easily and so alarmingly misappropriated.

I guess we can just be grateful that they don’t give up. And do our best to make sure the intended meanings of these wonderful texts are celebrated as much as possible.

One thought on “When Art Fails to Teach

  1. A thought provoking post, Lee, that I could write about endlessly 😊 Elysium was for me, a huge disappointment, even more so, given the cast and what they normally stand for. In terms of dystopia along with the rising fascist incline and the “celebration” of the haves over the have nots, Metropolis is the standard for me.

    As for Starship Troopers – I loved it for a whole range of reasons, including thinly concealing how easy it is to develop fascist tendencies, the pop art feel and the “would you like to know more” taken straight out of the Nazi “propaganda” playbook. I know ST was also part of certain media studies curriculum in various places all those years ago. With Matrix, loved number one, but not so crash hot on the sequels. Not sure if I want to see No.4 without Mr Smith though (HW was awesome in V for Vendetta). 🚀 🚀 🚀

    Of course we can throw Enders Game into the mix. The film I liked. Orson Scott Card as a writer though, frustrates me. The issue is not the subject matter, but the way he writes. How about Enemy Mine? The way the changing perspectives rolled out through the movie left a lasting impression. Then there is Gattaca, a personal favourite. Perhaps redemption is possible afterall?

    The artists need their voice to continue to be heard. Duct tape, as we know can only do so much. What we really need for today’s world is a genuine “chill pill.” Or, would a “vaccine” against certain illogical, misconceived and misplaced values work better! 😂🤣😂

    Liked by 1 person

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