Fanatic for 15 minutes

The strange convergence of Western pop culture and ethnic fundamentalism.

Aidan Campbell

Topics Politics

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Since 11 September, heritage seems to have become flavour of the month – but how long will it last?

The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport has launched a paper called Force for our Future, prioritising the preservation of local monuments, encouraging local authorities to develop education programmes about the historical environment, and promoting traditional arts and crafts (1).

Young Tory turned young New Labourite Ivan Massow has resigned as chair of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), after being lambasted by his bosses for penning a diatribe against the kind of modern conceptual art that the ICA is famous for (2). Young British Artists like Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and co are being written off, and painting is said to be making a comeback (again).

In the world of pop, the late Beatle George Harrison’s hymn to Hinduism, ‘My Sweet Lord’, hit the number one spot in the UK in January. Meanwhile, hot on the heels of the success of the Russell Crowe film Gladiator and cult TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, Hollywood is reviving the swords-and-sandals genre to champion the illusion that myths from the past make present life more meaningful – with a star-studded blockbuster based on the Amazons, and a film retelling the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae.

According to Valerio Manfredi, author of historical novels about Alexander the Great, fear drives today’s nostalgia: ‘People are terrified of the future, but by going back to the classics they are rediscovering the youth of mankind’ (3). Today’s cultural emissaries hope (against hope) that some savage culture from the past will help salvage contemporary civilisation by cooling things down. Yet, like building houses on sand, replacing the nihilistically chic Cool Britannia with plodding traditional heritage only substitutes one set of flimsy imagery for another. No matter how substantial fundamental heritage claims to be, a handful of recycled myths are about as weighty as a Channel 5 documentary.

If you don’t think there are similarities between Western pop culture and ethnic fundamentalism, just read the subtext. Both are obsessed with branding and imagery, albeit with slightly different content in each case. So a recent preview in the UK Guardian of the lavish Andy Warhol exhibition at London’s Tate Modern describes the most important works of art of that charlatan as ‘acts of mourning’ (4) – insisting that Warhol was not the shallow celebrity-obsessed cipher some considered him to be, but a profoundly religious Byzantine Catholic who often attended Mass, could barely speak English, and never lost the Ruthenian ethnicity he derived from his all-Eastern European mom and dad.

Since 11 September, the pop art icon of New York has been reinvented as a tribal idol. Warhol apparently also ‘empathised with those considered beyond mercy by American society’. The silkscreens in question are Warhol’s 1964 series, the FBI’s Most Wanted Men. Today, with Osama bin Laden on the run from both the CIA and the FBI and with his Taliban supporters incarcerated in Camp X-Ray, the contemporary analogies are not that hard to see.

John Lennon once claimed that The Beatles were even more famous than Jesus. Post-11 September, bin Laden could creditably claim to be better known than the prophet Mohammed. Despite fundamental Islam’s antagonism towards iconography and personality cults, such fame has been achieved by bin Laden’s Warhol-like manipulation of TV to release his own video diaries. United by their joint faith in the supernatural power of symbolism, there seems to be a strange affinity between one pole of modernity-hating nihilism and the other.

Our world is not driven by imagery, no matter how spectacular, but by modernity. Both ancient heritage and sacred fundamentalism have become fads. They may briefly capture our attention, but after a while the dog barks and the caravan moves on. What’s the next craze?

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

A fashion for heritage, by Josie Appleton

(1) See A fashion for heritage, by Josie Appleton

(2) ‘Why I Hate Our Official Art’, Ivan Massow, New Statesman, 21 January 2002

(3) ‘Amazons Lead Hollywood Raid on Antiquity’, The Sunday Times, 20 January 2002

(4) American Beauty, Guardian, 19 January 2002

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Topics Politics


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