Now, you might think, “Oh, come on. It’s an earnest but empty gesture in a culture known for an overabundance of sentimental platitudes, full of kitsch and banality, signifying nothing. It’s a garbage can, ferchristsakes.”
Two words for you, my friend: Ceal Floyer. Go argue with her £30,000 of prize money. At least the work that I stumbled across doesn’t hide behind disingenuous attempts to make superficiality appear as some kind of all-inclusive, everything-at-once deep meaning. No, our anonymous artist has a very sharp point to make. It is meant to draw blood. When that becomes clear to the observer, it is readily understandable why she or he has a desire for anonymity. We do not live in tolerant times.
But enough gloomy history. Let’s focus on the message of this piece and take heart in our artist’s raised fist to an unjust world.
At first, I thought perhaps the artist had been reading Geoffrey Stone’s Perilous Times, and that this work was a skewering of the Patriot Act. We have deliberately trashed our freedom in a moment of panic, in exchange for cheap sparklers and trite clichés on the Fourth of July. Dystopian slogans arose in my head. “Deposit Freedom Here” suggested itself to me. “Freedom is Untidy. Don’t Let Stuff Happen – Keep the Fatherland Clean”. I imagined days of infamy being memorialized in state-sponsored patriotic marches (oh, wait, that actually did happen. Shit.) The straightforward blue plastic background, reminiscent of clear summer skies from my youth, seemed to speak to me of innocence and lack of guile, and the jarring incongruence between that and the sinister malevolence of creeping, star-spangled fascism (represented by the streaks of mud) caused a poignant ache in my heart, a sense of anomie. I thought of the noble, Enlightenment-inspired intentions behind our ideas of free speech and democracy, betrayed by the usual cowardly culprits, fear, greed, and heartlessness, and my blood began to boil.
Then a more ironic interpretation occurred to me. Maybe this artist was making a satirical comment on our gluttonous consumer society, in the tradition of Adbusters. A society that consumes worldly resources far out of proportion to its population. A society where an individual getting their news from cnn.com could see this story and this story less than a year apart. After all, close to 40% of eligible voters didn’t participate in last year’s Presidential elections, one of the most significant events of our time, but we always seem to find time to take in more useless celebrity gossip. Maybe “freedom” means nothing more to the average American than the freedom to buy stuff, which can then be conveniently disposed of once the novelty wears off, never to trouble our beautiful minds again. Stick me behind a barbed-wire enclosure a mile away from where the President is speaking, but you’ll never prevent me from expressing my spirit! Give me liberty or give me ersatz!
And maybe both are correct. Or maybe the point is just to provoke thought in the first place, which in itself is a victory over the forces of reaction. So I salute you, brave artist. Your effort did not go unappreciated.