Watergate, Irangate, Pizzagate. Political scandals and conspiracies abound with disturbing frequency of late and they often become legendary beyond the history books. Their intrusion into art, music and theater drags these plots through the filter of creative criticism and thrusts them back again into mainstream pop-culture in the form of t-shirts and viral memes. In the end, the result can serve to accentuate or obfuscate the underlying truths. The outcomes can help us learn and move past scandal or they can be a painful reminder of our failure to deal with them in the first place.
In the exhibition “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” The Met Breuer delivers a wide-ranging review of scandal inspired artworks from 1969-2016, an intriguing “archaeology of our troubled times.” Thirty artists present their own unique fact finding missions through photography, paintings, drawings and videos. Whether through Jenny Holzer’s infamous symbolic narrative, Hans Haacke’s weaponization of alternative facts or the truth telling of the Black Panthers Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas, these artists show their disdain for the public corporatist propaganda machine and demonstrate their ability to battle corruption, bureaucracy, and the media with a touch of their own medicine.
Particularly compelling are the works of Trevor Paglen, whose mid-career survey last year at the National Portrait Gallery was an incredible show of force, shining a bright light on government secrecy within the hallowed halls of the very public institution dedicated to revering the Presidents and most powerful of lawmakers.
A lasting legacy of this exhibition, and perhaps its most urgent call to action, is that truth is not always self-evident. To move beyond scandal and conspiracy, we must look squarely at the competing visions of the past and future and attempt to learn from them in the present. If we do not, our museums, galleries and pop-culture will be filled with red M.A.G.A hats, yellow shocks of hair and “fake news” conspiracies for years to come – a scandalous prospect to say the least.