by Richard King
“How we gonna make this shit okay to be a Nazi out here?” demands a guy in a red beanie, his bearded face filling half the shot. “That's bullshit, bro, it's not okay! He will not divide us!” He paces the street like a lion in a cage, circling back to the camera, angry. “He will not divide us!” he shouts and the small crowd responds, “He will not divide us!” A young woman steps into shot and takes up the chant to a different rhythm: “He will not divide us he will not divide us he will not divide us he will not divide us.” She holds up her palm: it has a love-heart on it. Meanwhile, in the background, the red beanie guy is quietly arrested by a team of cops. “Fuck you, you Nazis!” shouts a member of the crowd, as a stocky man walks forward, arms spread: “What the fuck just happened here?” Now it's two young women in the frame – Love-Heart and another one – repeating the line with a studied lack of affect, like cult members waiting in line for the Kool-Aid: “He will not divide us. He will not divide us. He will not divide us. He will not divide us.”
Powerful stuff. Or, indeed, not. For whatever else “He Will Not Divide Us” has done, it's certainly divided opinion. For some it is merely a glorified selfie, a tedious bit of virtue signalling combining millennial narcissism and dull groupthink. For others, it is a message of hope and solidarity, of resistance in a time of defeat. Some have called it a work of genius. Writing in The Week, Jeva Lange described it as “the first great artwork of the Trump era”.
Notwithstanding that “the Trump era” is only two months old, this strikes me as an extraordinary claim. I mean to say, what about Hipster in Chief or Sean Spicer's surreal installation, White House Press Secretary in the Era of Fake News – a searing indictment of post-truth politics? (Watch this guy Spicer: he's going to be huge.) But the problem I have with this protest artwork is not its lack of artistic merit. No, the problem I have with it is the kind of protest it seeks to channel, and of which it is itself an example. My problem with it is political.
But let's go back a bit … “He Will Not Divide Us” is the latest project from the art collective LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, which comprises the actor Shia LaBeouf (that was him in the red beanie and the cuffs) and the artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner. According to the trio's website, it is a “participatory performance” in which members of the public are invited to speak the words “He will not divide us” into a camera mounted (originally) outside the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Live-streamed all day every day, the artwork commenced on January 20 of this year – day one of the Trump era – and is intended to continue for the next four years, or until Trump is impeached, assassinated, or otherwise disappointed of his presidential duties.
In the event it ran for less than a month before MOMI decided to close the project, or to cease its collaboration with it, citing concerns for the safety of its visitors and staff, local residents, businesses etc., as well as participants in the artwork itself. Having attracted all manner of rightwing trolls, and some erratic behaviour from LaBeouf, whose arrest was related to an altercation with an (alleged) neo-Nazi, the installation had become “a flashpoint for violence”. Then, after a five-day relocation to the El Rey Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the artwork was again suspended after shots were heard in the area. Now the project is up once more, but the participatory element has been removed. Instead the camera is trained on a flag bearing the legend “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US”. Or so we're told: I've just checked in with the live stream, and, since there is no wind, I can't read a thing.
So, not a huge success, all in all. But the problems besetting the piece aside, what can we make of the artists' intentions? What were they trying to say/do, and what does that tell us about liberal politics more generally?
There is, of course, no mystery about the identity of the “He” in “He Will Not Divide Us”. “He” is the 45th President of the United States: Hair Force One, The Angry Creamsicle. But the “Us” is more ineffable. The most obvious candidate is simply “the people”, but in that case the message is dead on arrival, since the installation wouldn't exist at all if a mighty section of that amorphous constituency hadn't just voted for the Cheeto Jesus. In this sense, “He Will Not Divide Us” is rather like saying “Not My President”: it denies the reality of what just happened, and takes no account of just how split – on class lines, as on many others – the US is at this point in history. Indeed, it seems to me to evince a desire for a sort of liberal safe space from which the baseball-capped ones can be neatly excluded. It takes the wish for the reality.
Then again, the “Us” may refer to the people who didn't vote for Trump and are now committed to his removal, in 2020, or even before. But here, again, there is a profound confusion – one that points to just how weak and “post-material” liberal politics has become. For it is precisely because the old configuration of Democratic voters has broken down that disaster struck on November 8. Having been abandoned by the Clintonites, whole sections of the working class are now abandoning the Democrats. What they leave in their wake is an ideological shemozzle of strength-through-diversity politics in which issues of racial or gender justice are invariably viewed through the Vaseline lens of bourgeois individualism – a politics so lacking in social democratic conviction that an entitled, secretive, milquetoast neoliberal and multimillionaire can cast herself as the embodiment of diverse populations' desires. It is a politics in which messages of community progress and individual identity are constantly being mixed, as indeed they are in LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner's description of “He Will Not Divide Us” as “a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant or the community” (my italics). Or here is LaBeouf, responding to a question from a reporter about the meaning of the work:
“We are all committed. We're in the streets. [We're] trying to keep the conversation going, trying to keep the fire stoked. We're trying to stay connected. We're anti-division out here; everyone is connected. I hope everyone comes out: pro-this, pro-that, anti-this, anti-that. I hope everyone comes out here. Just be nice – let's just be nice to each other. You can be about whatever you're about. Easy.”
“Pro-this, pro-that, anti-this, anti-that.” And that's your problem, brother, right there. That's. Why. You. Lost. Because your solidarity is an empty space into which anyone can project their own idea of life-as-it-should-be. (“Easy.”) In this way, I submit, “He Will Not Divide Us” is the distillation of contemporary liberalism.
So shallow is this politics, so in thrall is it to spectacle and surface, that it is bound to attract the celebrity, and, indeed, to become itself a species of entertainment or showbiz. LaBeouf is himself a celebrity – a star of the small and silver screen – and his involvement in “He Will Not Divide Us” has ensured its high profile on social media. (As, indeed, has the participation of LaBeouf's friend and advocate, Jaden Smith – rapper, actor and son of Will – who turned up at the installation when it was still in Queens and put in a lengthy shift.) In the past, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have attempted to use LaBeouf's celebrity to interrogate the nature of authenticity and fame, and they've done so in some interesting ways, from the masochistic irony of #IAMSORRY to the endurance project #ALLMYMOVIES. But “He Will Not Divide Us” is not like that. It isn't about celebrity; it just uses it to get media traction.
Now far be it from me to criticise celebrities for taking an interest in politics. If Matt Damon wants to advocate for better pay for teachers or Clint Eastwood wants to chat to an empty chair at a Republican rally, then who am I to call them insincere? You'll get no jabs from me, dear reader, about how politics is now show business for ugly people and show business politics for beautiful people. (Well, one or two, perhaps …) But liberals and progressives should ask themselves what it is about their politics that allows so many celebrities to make such an easy show of support when their bank accounts put them decisively beyond the experience of most working people. The avoidance of class as an issue is part of it. (Would Ashley Judd have recited “Nasty Woman” at the Women's March with such conspicuous passion if it had mentioned vast discrepancies of wealth?) But it's also indicative of just how receptive liberals now are to such interventions, what a premium they put on “awareness-raising” and “advocacy” and “conversations” and “debate” – preoccupations that reflect their overrepresentation in the media and information industries. “The Fightback against Trump Begins with Meryl Streep's Golden Globes Speech” wrote Suzanne Moore in The Guardian. Really? I mean really? This is what passes for opinion journalism in C. P. Scott's once mighty organ? At least Moore has the wit to worry that Streep's speech might be a double-edged sword; might it come to be regarded, she wonders, as just more liberal virtue-signalling? Suzanne, you see that speck over there? That's the horse's arse, mate. And that sound you can hear is the stable door, banging in the wind …
Oh yes, I think we can say with confidence that Trumpite America is unimpressed with cashed-up A-listers telling us all how terrible racism is, or how women won't be free until the juicy roles are shared equally between the guys and the gals. And yes, “He Will Not Divide Us” will be similarly dismissed as liberal posturing, confirming the right's prejudices about modern progressives in the same way that the rightwing trolls who targeted the installation will confirm progressive prejudices about Trump voters. Lord knows, if you wanted to design an artwork that divided the community, or entrenched divisions already in it, “He Will Not Divide Us” would be hard to beat. It's almost perfectly self-defeating, like Frank Costanza on the verge of an aneurysm, screaming “Serenity Now!” at the top of his lungs.
Not that there's anything wrong with division. Division is what's required right now, not soothing bromides about unity and respect and “Love Trumps Hate” and all that the rest of it. But liberals are fighting a culture war against an economic insurgency, and until they realise that the current crisis has as much to do with wage stagnation and criminal inequality as it does with Trump's misogyny and Islamophobia, and that the latter are the bacteria that breed in the swamp created by the former, they will continue to make themselves irrelevant. You wanna make this shit okay? Then ask yourselves the big guy's question: “What the fuck just happened here?”
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