“Art shapes thought, and thought shapes life”: The Sputnik maxim speaks not just of the ‘fine’ arts such as painting and sculpture but also of all types of art; high and low, public and private, global and local alike.
From the images that dominate billboards to the tunes that hum out from the radio, our cultural furniture helps shape the way we think, both collectively and individually. It becomes our language, our words, and our means of understanding and interpreting life itself. This is by no means a purely negative phenomenon, without these systems of cultural significance and value judgements, we would have no readily available means by which we would measure worth.
All cultures have ideological circuits in which certain ideas and ideals are upheld, and other concepts are rejected. To use an example from within Christianity, certain church denominations will sing their own songs, build their own kind of buildings, publish their own brand of books, and ultimately uphold their own ideology. I became a Christian in a Pentecostal church and am attending a Pentecostal bible college: from the index of books in our library through to one of our lecturer’s own rendering of church history, our culture is saturated with this denominational stance.
The same would be true in wider culture. The books we read, the songs we sing, and the media we watch all contribute to the ideological circuit we are operating within.
Though ideological circuits are by no means ‘closed’, they certainly do legitimize their own orders, and therefore refrain from questioning their own authority. Though an abstract reality, the circuit is upheld through concrete and physical means; art, music, advertising, and so on.
Cildo Meireles’ Insertions into Ideological Circuits (1970) sought to insert ruptures into these systems of circulation. The Banknote Project printed politically volatile anti-US messages onto US dollars and Brazilian bank notes in both Portuguese and English such as ‘Yankees Go Home’ and ‘Straight Elections’. The mobile graffiti attached itself onto the symbols of cultural power, and were unknowingly circulated around, under the nose, and in the guise of the dominant order.
The Coca-Cola Project similarly printed such statements onto glass coca-cola bottles that were recycled back into production. These symbols of the American dream thus became vehicles of the subversive messages that sought to undermine their hegemonic control over cultural manufacture: a witty take on the ‘message in a bottle’. Meireles’ resistance art attempted to, in a brief moment, destabilize the ostensible reign of American capitalism oppressing the Brazilian artist’s homeland (the Coca-Cola bottle had become an image of US imperialism in Brazil.)
Ultimately Meireles points to the existence of these controlling circuits, and also to their passivity to the individual agent. There are cracks in the current order: the objects that embody unquestionable cultural authority temporarily became messengers of treason to their consumerist kings. In this, Meireles looks to an exchange of information independent of a centralized system of production. By transmitting an opposing message through hijacking the (literal) currency of cultural exchange, the artist is able to demystify the claims to absolute authority.
As implied above, Western Christians, with our sanctified radio stations, denominational publishing houses, and holy film industries tend to create our own ideological circuits that can be equally unforgiving to the external. And so, as Christians who engage in a culture with an alternative (dare we say, defiant) perspective, how are we to make inserts into the ideological circuits around us? We, with Meireles acknowledge, “the container always carries with it an ideology”, and so how are we to insert the ‘counter-information’ of the Kingdom? For example, the Kingdom principles of love and the absolute value of the human being in the face of a demoralizing system that further impoverishes and punishes the poor for being poor?
I do think that it is of interest that biblically, Yahweh is seen to wrestle with the circuits of language by modifying phrases in cultural circulation through the prophets (“the children’s teeth are set on edge” in Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31). Doesn’t Jesus deliberately re-assemble the law in the Sermon on the Mount as well (You have heard it was said… but I say to you…)?
As Christian artists who believe that we live in a world under the ideological influence of the “god of this world” (2nd Corinthians 4:4), is our response to create our own circuit in which we isolate ourselves, or are we to make insertions into dominant ideological circuits around us? If so, how are we to subvert the current system?
What I am speaking of here is not the poles of east and west, north and south, capitalism and communism, or even sacred and secular, but the divisive “the Kingdom is like…” that seems to cut through all of these binary opposites. The ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy simply is not part of the dialogue; rather it is ‘us and Him’.
Benjamin Harris considers himself a student of art and theology, but somehow gets paid to teach them both.