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Adam Curtis on the dangers of self-expression


Adam Curtis, whose newest documentary film, HyperNormalisation, premiered on the BBC last fall, talks to the Creative Independent about power, individualism, and the perils of self-expression. His comments are characteristically incisive and bleak. Check out an excerpt of the interview below, or read the full text here.

Maybe there is a new radical way of looking at the world. A new exciting, fresh way which we haven’t seen yet because it doesn’t fit with our preconceptions. Every age has a thing that it deeply believes in that 50 years later people will look back and say, “My God, look how conformist they all were.” You look at photographs of men in bars in the 1930s. They’re all wearing exactly the same clothes and same hats.

We may look back at self-expression as the terrible deadening conformity of our time. It doesn’t mean it’s bad and it doesn’t mean it’s a fake thing. It’s gotten so that everyone does it—so what’s the point? Everyone expresses themselves every day.

We’re all self-expressing. It’s the conformity of our time. They’ll look back and say, “My God! It’s a bit like they all wore the same hats in the ’30s. They were all self-expressing.”

That’s the thing we can’t see. It’s not to say you can’t make art if you want to do it, but it’s not the radical outsider. It’s not the hipster cool outsider. It’s everything. It’s conformity.

Image via YouTube.


This resonates with some thoughts I recently had about coming to terms with what my understanding on my role of an artist can be right now.

A first idea was to take an artistic background and being a generalist of sorts, as the frame to contribute to a community or location as a person immersing oneself in social, political, intellectual (or other) topics from this generalist perspective; bringing them up outside the art-bubble, outside institutions or academia and not in the “attire” (if you can say so) of art, intellectual debate and exclusiveness, but stemming from artistic experience, mindset and skills. Involving others and especially those not “having the luxury” to engage in such unproductive work, but having the urge to participate, philosophize, create or transform. Putting the above mentioned first and further emancipate oneself from the “urge” to express oneself and tellling one’s take on the story.

It would be great to have a place like this here to share and elaborate on this, as concise as Curtis does in this piece, in order to develop practicable methods or maybe rather a heuristic that serves as an orientation …A recurrent topic, but one never settled.

Guy Debord in Critique de la séperation (as translated by Ken Knabb):

“The events that occur in our individual existence as it is now organized, the events that really concern us and require our participation, generally merit nothing more than our indifference as distant and bored spectators. In contrast, the situations presented in artistic works are often attractive, situations that would merit our active participation. This is a paradox to reverse, to put back on its feet. This is what must be realized in practice. As for this idiotic spectacle of the filtered and fragmented past, full of sound and fury, it is not a question now of transforming or “adapting” it into another neatly ordered spectacle that would play the game of neatly ordered comprehension and participation. No. A coherent artistic expression expresses nothing but the coherence of the past, nothing but passivity.”

Maynard James Keenan in A Perfect Union of Contrary Things (as quoted by Sarah Jensen):

“The new era of art is an egoless collaboration. We’re a huge patch of algae, single cells in a larger organism in sync. One person might coordinate it all, but they can’t make it happen unless all the other elements are working together.”


You might want to consider how Duchamp worked with Readymades. There is a very interesting link between his system of escaping personal taste via choosing objects that had no resonance positively or negatively for him, and the way Jung used the early psychology tests of word associations.

In Jung’s case he zoned in during association tests not on the responses, but on the TIME that the subjects spent on certain words. He intuited that there was some “transpersonal” aspect to word associations that took longer than usual. This led him to the idea of psychoid archetypes that lie outside the individual’s ken. People get “hung up” when they are infused with the transpersonal.

Re Duchamp, his idea to escape from personal taste leads away from the retinal or surface, and personal expression. This opens a territory of inquiry that is like-wise transpersonal. His test for successful art: does it create a Delay, does it hold the viewer? the hang time, the delay points outside of the self, we are in the same realm Jung investigated.

The weird thing is that the gateway to this realm IS subjective, both Jung and Duchamp were working with the manifestations of the transpersonal within personal psychic space but those manifestations referred to depths greater that self-expression.

As Jung says we life immersed in psyche so there is some slight of hand, a sort of magic to it. For a key to that look at Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, they switch on via the viewers volition. We all have to act “as if” art matters, we must perform acts of volition. We must peer into Etant donnes or the thing does nothing.

So I don’t go along with Curtis’ impugning of Patti Smith. She gave voice to something. Artists can be duty free if they like. If they step outside their self they become a medium of something deeper than their detachment. This is the insight shared by Duchamp and Jung: we carry more than we can know in our subjectivity.


Oh I’ll send you a telegram
Oh I have some information for you
Oh I’ll send you a telegram
Send it deep in the heart of you
Deep in the heart of your brain is a lever
Oh deep in the heart of your brain is a switch
Oh deep in the heart of your flesh you are clever
Oh honey you met your match in a bitch

Can we see Duchamp’s Etant donnes here? The bitch is transpersonal, the anima, the other… there’s no ego in that. Adam Curtis is arguing for more depth, more complexity. He is in step with Patti Smith. I think he oversteps in linking her to Trump. Not the fault of the artists that the social upheaval stopped in 1975 or so. Might as well blame Disco for Reagan then. We can’t put that on Donna Summer, can we?