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Joker as the reflection of the political cynicism of our times.

“Joker”. Warner Bros pictures. 2019

Todd Phillips’ and Scott Silver’s film “Joker” is probably one of the most controversial films of the last decade. The film’s controversy started as a concern for causing violence, referring to “The Dark Knight Rises” mass shootings in Aurora in 2012, resulting in 45 deaths. But it doesn’t take much time to realize that the polarized views about the film and its controversy stem from much deeper pathologies within our society. The Film might reflect a political dead, resulting from the post-1980s neoliberal political restructuring within our societies. A dead-end that results in a cynical political outburst within our contemporary political reality that is seen in Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism.

In the film, Arthur Fleck is a poor, working-class man that suffers from a neurological disease that causes him uncontrollable laughter when he becomes nervous. His idealistic and benevolent character at the beginning of the film is gradually turned into a cynical, amoral one as the movie approaches the end and as he gets more and more marginalized. Gotham City is an inhospitable, decadent, and corrupt place, run by “rich,” corrupt politicians, and “Wall Street” types. It is also characterized by a climate of sick rivalry, amorality (not immorality), and social isolation.

It is hard to notice that all the elements used in the portrayal of Gotham City by Todd Phillips and Scott Silverwork can also function as a metaphor for the contemporary neoliberal economic model adopted by the majority of the so-called western states. The case that the plot takes place in the 1980s, the decade characterized by many as the decade that the “neoliberal revolution” started, strengthen such speculations about the film functioning as a metaphor. In Gotham City, and our contemporary cities, public discourse is dismantled, political dialogue is about “saving the banks” (a reference to the extreme measure of bail-in that “troika” took in 2013 in Cyprus), and nearly everyone struggles in a working environment that is adapted to dynamics of rivalry, and a kind of sick antagonism. Through the adoption of neoliberal politics, public institutions, political institutions, schools, even universities became economically dependent on funding by corporations. In other words, the public either serves the interests of the few, or it becomes poor, weak and “useless.” It is no accident that where neoliberalism has been enforced the more, public institutions were the most characterized as useless, wasteful and forced to shut down. Here I refer to the shutting down of the Greek public radio and television, “ERT,” by the “troika.” It works as a kind of unsaid – occasionally outspoken – blackmail.

According to these policies, we “ought” to adopt neoliberal policies that would benefit the public through helping the corporate machinery to expand. Some would argue that the interests of corporations are identified with the interests of the people; besides, it is people who buy the services or the products provided by these corporations, and partly this is true. Except in cases where you need an active state to provide for non-negotiable social benefits and rights, such as the right for health, education, food, housing, work, etc. An absent (for the public, but present for the corporate world) state fosters a climate of rivalry because the fundamental civil rights become “negotiable.” And because it is through the structures of the state that the public has access to its rights, it is inevitable that the individuals internalize this rivalry on a psychological level as well as on a communicational level.  

In the face of a neoliberal state, you are a worthwhile individual when you adhere to some abstract criteria pointed by the “invisible hand” of the market. And the criteria are abstract, at least for the most of us (the public), because they are alienated from any real public interest, such as providing the abovementioned non-negotiable rights without getting something in return.

But, the most confusing aspect of the neoliberal ideology is that it turns the public to cynical outbursts when it is threatened. In the case of Fascism, for example, you had clear ideological propositions that you could reject, confront, and fight against them. In the case of neoliberal structures, the ideological proposition is not clear. Instead, the ideological proposition works as an underlying, abstract mechanism that takes the form of different, and at many times contradicting, ideological positions on the surface. On a superficial level, this is celebrated as an indication of polyphony and multiculturalism. But if you dig deep enough, it becomes clear that all the different, pseudo-ideological propositions evolved within the neoliberal framework serve the same telos, which is a nearly metaphysical need for “profit.” That forms a condition where any option or counter-option you express, is already given by the establishment. In other words, all doors lead to the same end. It is the ultimate form of cynicism. You cannot escape the system through any “positive” ideological propositions or statements. The only “authentic” reaction you are left with, is nihilism, apathy, and cynicism, and as such, a disregard towards any values; in other words, a political manifestation of amorality.

It is hard to ignore that the Film “Joker” works as a criticism not only against the neoliberal policies of our times, but also to the political, and existential dead-end that neoliberal politics has brought us in. Specific references in the script point to that conclusion. It is for this reason that for some it came as a surprise that the film was mostly criticized by some “progressive” cycles and organizations. In my opinion, this unmasks the systemic quality of many social bodies aligned with the so-called progressive political front that serves the most cynical role in preserving the status quo. These “progressive” cycles represent what I call the “conservative progressive” part of the establishment. They are the faculty of the system to maintain its established order through pseudo-progressive statements, rules, aesthetics, regulations, demonstrations, etc., but does it so from a position of power that is threatened to lose if, and when an actual change comes. They are the corporations, the politicians, artists, academics, and the media that adopt a “progressive persona” by promoting certain “progressive values” but they are, in fact caught up in the same neoliberal structure. That also seems to confirm the existence of the abovementioned ideological dead-end in our times.

This double-bind mechanism works as a useless release of potentiality for actual change. It operates through a superficial identification of the “progressiveness” with specific identities, or “lifestyles” that work as the end instead of the means. “I am an environmentalist,” “I demonstrate for inequality,” and that is… enough for today. Political discourse becomes an empty vessel filled with superficial “progressive” lifestyles that not only maintain the status quo but also alienate us from the true meaning of actual “change,” or actual politics.

The political public domain becomes a platform for lifestyle disagreements that include or exclude political opinions on the base of superficial appearances, instead of a creative space where collective political knowledge is evolved.

Joker is the individual caught in the middle of these dynamics. He is identified with the lower strata of the socio-economic framework. He desires change, but he doesn’t believe in it. The only “authentic” action he can take is to become the very cynicism of the system itself.  This Oedipal identification with the system is seen everywhere in our times; people vote for clown presidents, clown prime ministers, the American alt-right, the European populists. Their vote represents a collective cynicism as a result of the dismantled political public domain. When public discourse is mediated by the oppressor what remains as “truth” is an amoral, outburst of populism.  It represents the cynicism of this double-bind, schizophrenic, post-modern that lower strata of the socioeconomic structures are struggling with. The very “dual nature” of the character, he is sad, yet he feels compelled to laugh, he is child-like, yet evil, point to the same double-bind, cynical nature of our contemporary neoliberal ideological framework. People want change, but the collective dialogue and action is dismantled. All that remains is an amoral revolution of clowns.

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Photojournalism, form follows discourse.

Artist: Alfred Stieglitz
Title: “The Steerage”
Medium: Photogravure, 33.4 × 26.4 cm.

In Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “The Steerage” (1907), we see a scene shot from a passenger ship carrying migrants from New York to Germany. For many theorists, this photograph represents a documentation of migration in a historical era that was characterized by mass migration from Europe to America.  

However, given the fact that the photograph depicts the transition of people from America to Germany, for other theoristsis it is a comment on social discrimination. This is because the represented passengers of the ship are in fact migrants from Europe that were deported from America because they didn’t meet certain admission criteria.

Stylistically, the photograph has a distinctive pioneering feature that also supports the aforementioned conception of the photograph. Until that time, photography in general as a medium attempted to imitate the compositions depicted in classical paintings as an attempt by photographers to “prove” their validity as artists. It was only through the immitation of painting that photographers could acquire the status of “artists”. 

The pioneering element of Stieglitz’s photograph however, is that he goes beyond that conception of photography by using the distinctive features of the photographic medium. For example by using the angle, the space, and the shapes arround, he shoots in a way that the resulted form is linked to the thematic content of the photograph.

Forexample, in the photograph “The Steerage”, we are confronted with two “spaces”; one above and one below, that represent two different “classes” of people; the rich and the poor.

Besides that, the photograph is divided by the diagonal passageway in the center of the photograph, as if the two “worlds” are distinct and estranged to each other. Another interesting fact is that the staircase on the right side of the image is cut off the frame just before it reaches the “upper” class, as if the “last” chance of reaching the upper side of the picture is finally also prevented.



Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, Photogravure, 33.4 × 26.4 cm
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Place de la Concorde, empty space

Artist: Edgar Degas

Title: “Place de la Concorde” (1876)

Characteristics: Oil on Canvas. (78.6 cm x 117.5 mm)

Keywords: alienation, realism, urban, existential

The work “Place de la Concorde” or “Viscount Lepic and his Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde”, is an oil painting by Edgar Degas. The work depicts Ludovic-napoleon Lepic (a patron of the arts at the time) with his daughters and his with an unknown man on the left. The painting is almost unconventional for its time as it seems to leave a big proportion of “empty” space in the center of the painting. The figures look away from one another, and the “main” figure, that is Ludovic-napoleon Lepic, looks outside of the painting to the right. The whole image seems to be influenced by photographic “snapshots” that capture the flow of moments, as well as influenced by the style of Realism and Impressionism.

The image, could be considered as a reflection of the changing world of the late 19th century. As it happens with most of Degas’ works, Edgar Degas points out the crisis of the modern world that is gradually dominated by machines, speed, and the isolated individuals of the emerging mega-cities of Europe. The empty space in the center, seems to suggest a lack of coordination, or cohesion in the composition, or a lack of central subject; a meaning within the painting. This meaninglessness, an existential crisis is a modern phenomenon that characterizes the individuals living in the modern, industrialized cities. Artists and poets of the era, such as Baudelaire also describe this phenomenon in their works.

The above-mentioned concepts are made clearer, when we realize that indeed, the individuals’ looks never meet. It is as if, each of them lives in his or her own world, even the dog; everyone is “lost in translation”. As such the painting points out a feeling of isolation, incomprehension, emptiness and consequently, an existential crisis, a crisis that prevails in modern industrialized cities since the 19th century.

 

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Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde, 1876, Oil on Canvas. (78.6 cm x 117.5 mm).

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“Home”, an artistic exploration of the estranged familiarity.

Artist: Mona Hatoum

Title: “Home” (1999)

Characteristics: Wooden table, 15 steel kitchen utensils, electric wire, 3 light bulbs, software and audio (displayed: 6000 x 3500 mm)

Keywords: alienation, unheimlich, estragement

 

Mona Hatoum’s work, explores the different aspects of psychological and physical space we inhabit. Many of her works, are influenced by conflict and war, refugee crises and displacement. Her installations create spaces that are filled with household items, in an attempt to transform the space of the gallery into a psychological space of “familiarity” and sense of “homeness”. At the same time, the use of certain objects breaks down abruptly the sense of familiarity and subverts the meaning of the space, transforming the familiar into its abject twin.

The creation of this uncanny feeling seems to result to a disorientation for the observer, a sense of alienation from what is supposed to be “familiar”. This seems to be an allure to the way a crisis works. For example, during grand scale conflicts such as wars and social upheavals, as well as during family conflicts, the home that supposed to be a safe place, is transformed to a threatening space.

                        “Having always had an ambiguous relationship with notions of home, family, and the nurturing that is expected out of this situation, I often like to introduce a physical or psychological disturbance to contradict those expectations”.

Her work “Home” (1999) is consisted of a table covered with metal kitchen appliances and objects. Also, a lighting equipment controlled by a computer software emits light periodically on the objects on the table. The whole space is protected by wires that prevent the beholder to access the table mainly for safety reasons as the lighting equipment works with high voltage.

With a first look, these objects give off a quality of familiarity by a reference to the kitchen. For example, it may evoke memories of family moments in home, or memories about cooking before a family dinner.

Its polished wooden surface though, the metallic legs of the table, as well as the fluorescent light above and the clean white background, subverts this feeling and transforms it to something threatening. The kitchen knife is transformed to a medical scalpel, and the kitchen table to a surgical table. Meanwhile the exposed electrical current, transforms the warm light emitted on the objects to a dangerous threat.

This kind of estranged familiarity is explored substantially in the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan.

The “unheimlich” as Freud names it, comes as a rupture within what feels stable, familiar and predictable. According to psychoanalysts, when we enter the “symbolic stage” – the plane of language and symbols – we move our mental experience from a direct contact with our surroundings that is fully “good” or fully “bad”, to a linguistic or “discursive” level.

On that level, the pleasurable and the non-pleasurable; the good or bad, become part of the linguistic realm of signs and signifiers. As such, an object is not fully benevolent and good, and not fully hateful and evil but rather, it is in proximity a holistic and unified mental image of the object; a signifier.

Our contact with a paradoxical aspect of what we expect mentally from an object, disrupts the continuity of the mental space we inhabit, and enables a contact with another probability of that space. A space that is occupied with the evil twin of what is “familiar”.

It is in this space that we feel an eerie, otherworldly sense of estranged familiarity.

 

Home 1999 by Mona Hatoum born 1952

Mona Hatoum, Home, 1999, installation 6000 x 3500 mm, Tate collection. Photo: Tate Gallery.

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“Basketball”, a Mediterranean modernist artwork.

Artist: Christoforos Savva

Title: “Basketball” (1959)

Characteristics: mixed media on cloth, 198 × 111 cm

Keywords: hybridity, anti-colonialist, diversity, spatial fluidity

 

            The work “basketball” by the Cypriot artist Christoforos Savva (1959) it is a mixed media work that depicts two men playing basketball. It is one of the first works of Savva to be made of unconventional techniques. It is a work which led him to work further with fabric, creating a kind of “textile art” that is considered his major contribution to Cypriot and Mediterranean modernism in general.

What is particularly interesting about the artwork, as with many artworks of Savva, is the interweaving (literally as well as figuratively) of the different – otherwise isolated – elements within the composition, into a wider synthesis.

            The work is characterized by a lack of a central element around which the composition unfolds. On the contrary, it is characterized by the construct of a web of interconnected elements that are interdependent; his choice to work with fabric maybe an allure to the interconnection of elements within the spider web.

            This aesthetic technique is regarded as an attempt of Christoforos Savva to mix different elements and different materials together, in order to create a hybrid composition that transcends the subject and makes it part of a whole, instead of treating it as a point of emphasis.

            As the art historian Antonis Danos1 suggests, this element could be regarded as a core aspect in what he regards as an “alternative” (Mediterranean) modernism, because it reflects the “corruption” of dichotomies, as well as the deconstruction of the impression of a distinction between a “center” and a “periphery”; between high art and low art, between the “European Modernism” and the “Peripheral Modernism”, and consequently the “high culture” and the “low culture” as well as all the political and social consequences of similar distinctions.

In a way, it is the difference between the Gridthat is structure, and the Web that is inter-connectivity.

            As such, we can see Christoforos Savvas’ artwork as also a political critique towards dichotomies and hierarchical thinking.

            Stylistically, within the work “basketball” (depicted below) we cannot easily perceive a central – dominant – subject within the composition, but rather we perceive many different interconnected subjects that interact as part of a wider “composition” characterized by movement and an open ended inter-connectivity.

This echoes the post-colonial critique on the way a dominant, “central” power that is the colonizer constructs the identity of a “subordinate” peripheral “other”, that is the colonized. Given the fact that Savva’s work coincides historically with the anti-colonial sentiment of Cyprus during the 1950s, we can see how through his artwork suggest an anti-hegemonic, anti-colonial, “un-hierarchical” society without a colonizer and a colonized, without a subject and an “object”, without center and periphery, and without high culture and low culture. Another element that suggest his anti-hegemonic motives, is the fact that he uses fabric, a material associated with “applied arts” (textile manufacture), as well as womanhood.

Therefore, Christoforos Savvas’ work, could be used for another definition of “modernism”, and modern culture. A modernism that is defined outside of the European “center”, and outside of a “central” grid or hegemonic discourse in general.

A modernism without hegemonic Narratives under which everything must be adjusted,  but instead a modernism that works as a “network” without centrality, characterized by interconnection and interaction, that is fluid and hybrid.

1 Elhariry, Yasser, and Edwige T. Talbayev. Critically Mediterranean : temporalities, aesthetics, and deployments of a sea in crisis. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Print.

2 Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids.” October, vol. 9, 1979, pp. 51–64. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/778321.

 

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Christoforos Savva, Basketball, 1959, mixed media on cloth, 198 x 111 cm, private collection.

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Western Graveyards, Nancy Holt

Artist: Nancy Holt

Title: “Western Graveyards”

Characteristics: Photography

Keywords: death, fear, community

             In the photographic work of Nancy Holt, named “Western Graveyards”, the artist represents 60 photographs depicting graveyards found in deserts in Nevada and California. The work, influenced by Land Art tries to understand the relationship between space, time and human condition. Graveyards are often fenced and delimited spaces in the vastness of the desert. That suggests that people needed to delimitate a space, to grasp an understanding of the vastness of the surrounding space.

                        “how people thought about space out West; their last desire was to delineate a little plot of their own because there was so much vastness.”

            This could also be applied to historical, philosophical and political human endeavors, as attempts to delimitate and understand the vastness of existence through the construction of “limits” in our thoughts, ideas, emotions. For example, political identities, nationalist discourses, historiography, ideologies, scientific categorization of nature, personal neuroses and obsessions about how something “must be”, all try to make sense of chaos by delimitating our thought in a constrained yet “meaningful” way. Also, death works here as a symbol of the ultimate fear of the chaotic and the unknown.

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Nancy Holt, Western Graveyards, 1968

 

 

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Sun Tunnels, an artwork by Nancy Holt

Artist: Nancy Holt

Title: “Sun Tunnels” (1976)

Characteristics: Land Art, Concrete tubes

Keywords: Death, unknown, fear, community

            The Land Art installation made by Nancy Holt, is consisted of four concrete pipes placed in cross arrangement in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Utah. Holt worked with engineers and astronomers, to arrange the pipes in a way that the sun rises and sets in the center of each tubes during Summer and Winter solstices. Meanwhile, holes on the top of the tubes arranged in a certain way, enable sunlight to project the images of constellations inside the tubes.

            In her own words her motives were to “bring the vast space of the desert back down to human scale”, as well as to meaningfully indicate the “cyclical time” of the solar year. As it happens with her project “Western Graveyards” she tries to understand the way humans orientate themselves in time and space by delimitating them meaningfully, in history, science, art, politics, borders etc.

          The political nature of the seemingly apolitical Land Art by Nancy Holt, lies to the fact that by “delimiting” the vastness of space, she suggests that humans, by delimiting space and time, they may feel safe in a vastly chaotic and infinite universe, yet at the same time they risk locking themselves within the limits they construct all by themselves. Meanwhile, the symbolism of “sun” as “truth” and the “light” as “knowledge” beyond the “limits” might referring to the truth that is beyond the arbitrary, “logical” meanings we ascribe to space and time.

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‘Sun Tunnels: Sunset,’ 1976. (Courtesy Nancy Holt/Tufts University). Photo through observer.com/