‘That’s all well and good, but is it really subversive?’

On the much-heard reaction to Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony

A friend of mine recently spoke of how capitalism makes the artist impotent. Using Damien Hirst as an example, he spoke of how “people think [he] is clever because he mocks the market with his art whist simultaneously becoming rich out of it”, but suggested that “it is actually the other way around”: that by millionaires buying his work it “disarms the work; makes the art impotent, from where it becomes a dead artefact in large gallery/museum institutions which have become Art Graveyards”. So thus any subversive message about capitalism (that Hirst’s’ work may have gestured towards) is thus rendered a dud and is “the transformation of culture into museum pieces…where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some predator spacecraft”(Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2009).

This got me thinking in context of a recent event that has generated much public debate: the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, which was orchestrated by the film director Danny Boyle. Danny Boyle is best known as the director of many (supposedly) controversial films such as Trainspotting (2006), about a social-circle of heroin-addicts in Scotland; he is always known for being quite a ‘Leftfield’ producer. Thus, due to being a household name, it could be argued that Boyle himself is subversive. However, I would suggest that the opposite of this is likely true: that he himself fits the model of the one who is brought into the establishment from a larger group of individuals with anti-establishment sentiment, given a respectable voice, but a voice that has been softened, thus softening the whole of the unheard (supposedly) kindred spirits, and (thus) disarming them.

Although I haven’t got around to watching the opening ceremony yet (my excuse being that I was setting up an exhibition that evening), I have a pretty good impression of what the visual content of it looked like from the amount of descriptions I have heard from people seemingly in awe of it; but I understand this isn’t enough: one cannot be critical with their eyes closed.  But the premise of this argument isn’t based on the content of the spectacle: it is based on the effect that the popularity of it appears to be having on many people who had previously opposed the 2012 Olympics, due to the amount the event is costing the state, whilst money is being drained from many of the people’s most highly valued national institutions (such as the NHS), which the event content highlighted in this supposedly subversive manner.  It appears that the ceremony, more than the rest of the publicity for the games put together, has made people be interested in the event, and made them forget about the many suspensions of democracy, which would cause severe concern, if we didn’t live in a time when reality wasn’t so displaced be hyperreality.  I haven’t heard one utterance of concern, or even disinterest in the games since the ceremony. Subversive you say?

From what I have gathered the event was a spectacular display of Britain coming into being what it is today; and not just Britain, but the rest of world; being as Britain was the  birthplace of industrial capitalism, which led to a seismic transformation of the world. Apparently the moment when the event focussed on the rise of the factories from out of the green fields was one the highlights of the event; one of the moments I have heard spoken of as making one “feel proud to be British”. But it was the aspects of the opening ceremony that many a mouth have said were subversive, which reveal most clearly why this event registers as a ‘disarmament’ of the potentialities of art through its absorption into the establishment.

To begin with, the sections of the ceremony that I have been told contained the historically important feminist movement the Suffragettes, and the (initially) anarchistic, anti-establishment punk rock scene, made me pretty depressed to think that this ceremony had conveyed that movements now tamed into anaemic artefacts, and sucked dry of political agency still had a positive cultural message to give the world (one of the reasons why I still haven’t watched the ceremony). No subversive message could ever be registered from such a fancy- dress performance as this; the consequent commodification of them into mere tastes to drape ourselves in creates a white noise that drowns out such messages.

But it was Boyle’s inclusion of the National Health Service (NHS) into this display of what he thought Britain could show off to the world about that created the largest amount of debate about possible subversion here. The Placing of the NHS within this ceremonial procession was centred on the celebration of it being the first health system in the world to offer free health care to every citizen (through taxation); the probable subversive message being a reminder to everybody that it is currently under mortal threat from market forces which wish to privatise health care, an incredibly socially regressive move (under the disguise of progression, using the similarly sounding word modernisation) that would kill (are already killing) the NHS off.  “Too right” say all of us who recognise the importance of the NHS. The right wing attacks on this NHS celebration by pundits in the likes of the Daily Mail (http://www.freezepage.com/1343493744VDGIBPHPUW) aren’t important here (we expect such a reaction from such sources). What is important here is that this celebration of the NHS is being done within an event which (alongside the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee earlier this year) comes to reify the populace to the current will of the state.

One of the main functions of such large, unavoidable, events in our postmodern age becomes that we place faith in them to deliver something to us, something that equates to a better world. Referring to the coming of the Millennium event in the late 1990’s, Jean Baudrillard had suggested that it served as “numerical fix”, a magical event; as a “longing for an event that could arrive in the rarest of ways, unexpectedly and unpredictably from another history” (Baudrillard and the Millennium, Chris Horrocks, 1999), instantaneously healing our wounds. We have lost faith in historical progression, as the grand narratives are no longer legitimate and the crisis of historicity allows for an upcoming event to accumulate hype that holds all our hopes/beliefs until it is over and we have to find a new event. Frederic Jameson states that “…the postmodern looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds [modernism], for the tell-tale instant after which it is no longer the same” (Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1992). We are deluded, not because we are stupid, but because we are coaxed into stupidity because we need something to give us hope and faith, having been left washed up on the shores of the 21st century with no map to guide us. Thus such events can become a psychological coup-d’état, as the hype can make us like something through an anxiety that it ‘must surely mean something’, reifying us the will of the nation state.


2012 has thus far been a wonderful year of counterrevolutions for the hegemonic ideology. One only need look at the previous year 2011, which Slavoj Žižek described as “the year of dreaming dangerously” in both directions with “the emancipatory dreams mobilising protestors around the world” (think of the Occupy movement) and “the obscure destruct [ion]” (think of the August 2011 London riots), to realise that “the primary task of the hegemonic ideology” would hence be “to neutralize the true dimension of these events” (Žižek, Zagreb, Croatia, spring 2012). Despite this ‘dangerous dreaming’, Žižek goes on to explain his problem with contemporary demonstrations. Although he asserts over and again that in principle he is totally supportive of the likes of Occupy, he explains that the current crisis in keeping the momentum going, due to not having an idea of what would replace the current system, means that the modern demonstration becomes a carnivalesque event, where once the night is over, everything just carries on the way it did before.  

This did make me question whether the Facebook-event like nature of protest in a postmodern (or late capitalist) society can any more of a lasting subversive impact than the subversive messages (about the killing off of the welfare state) in the likes of Danny Boyle’s spectacles. Is it possible to approach protests against the system in any other way than that of the hyped-up event, meaning that they created the same pre-event affect as the events they are fighting with for the public’s attention? But if we see 2012 as the year that the dominant ideology used its media apparatus to its greatest capacities to smother the unrest of 2011, when the Olympics is done and dusted – with the Jubilee and the Euro 2012 tournament behind us – there may be good reason to expect both ‘emancipatory’ and ‘destructive’ forces to flare up again; louder and with less reason to likelihood of them simmering down.

About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

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