Politics, Ideology, & Art: Understanding and Affirmation through Althusser’s Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (2011)

Politics,
Ideology, & Art: Understanding and Affirmation through Althusser’s Ideology
and the Ideological State Apparatuses 

          In
the documentary, South of the Border, film maker
Oliver Stone visits with one of the most polemic government leaders in the
Americas since Fidel Castro. The first scene of the film is of several Fox News
Correspondents discussing various South American leaders and their alleged
connection with drug use, manufacture, and distribution. The man of interest
throughout the whole film is none other than Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez.  After taking control of his government, Chavez quickly began to
fulfill promises he made to his electoral base; a base comprised mostly of the
indigenous and the poor (amounting to a demographic majority in the country).
The media in the country was nearly 90% privately owned by middle or upper
class members of Venezuela. They saw Chavez’s disruption in the country’s
policies and procedures as a negative influence on the status quo and the media
played a role in an attempted military coup assisted by the United States
against the Chavez Administration. The media in both Venezuela and the United
States manipulated film footage to present Chavez and his supporters as
violent, riot inciting, murderers. Immediately, a U.S. backed
Venezuelan businessman took the reigns as president and dissolved all
democratically elected branches of Chavez’s administration. There was only one
problem; the people of Venezuela were not buying it and this time they fully
intended to do something about it. The presidential palace saw a mass
demonstration against the newly established administration. The military, which
saw Chavez as a fellow soldier after his many years of service, played a
significant role in bringing Chavez back to power just one day after the
attempted coup.

Figure 1. South of the Border Promotional Poster

           
In the United States, a whole different problem was brewing; the financial
markets were on the brink of crashing once again. Big banks, their speculative practices,
and a lack of regulatory oversight resulted in the financial collapse known as
the great recession; the free market that disdained government interference now
sought a financial bailout from that very government and it was to be paid for
by American Tax-Payers. In a twisted version of the tale of Robin Hood, the
government essentially took from the coffers of middle and working class
families and gave it to the financial systems that had caused the collapse to
begin with. As Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur stated in an address to congress
in response to the Wall Street Bail Out:

“You have perpetrated the greatest financial
crimes ever on this American Republic. You think you can get by with it because
you are extraordinarily wealthy, and the largest contributors to both
presidential and congressional campaigns in both major parties.”

She blamed Secretary of the Treasury
Henry Paulson and his cronies of:

·        
Forcing congress to rush the decision.

·        
Disarming the public through fearControlling the
media
 enough to ensure that the public will not notice that this
bailout will indebt them for generations, taking from them trillions of dollars
they earned and deserved to keep.

·        
Controlling the playing field (hiding
information
 from the public and holding private meetings).

·        
Diverting attention and keeping people confused.

·        
Having the goal to privatize
gains and socialize losses
.

Figure 2. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur on the House Floor

Unfortunately, the congresswoman was
correct in all of her assumptions. The participants of the Wall Street Bailout
played all their cards right and did so through the manipulation of the rules
of ideology.

           
There was no doubt that Stone was presenting the viewer with a dose of
political propaganda and of course this is the least illuminating reading of
the film; liberals and conservatives have been engaged in ideological battle
for some time now. What was important in both the film and the address to
congress by Kaptur was that they both pointed at the manner in which power and
agency is attained through ideology and the process and mechanism of dispersion
of those ideologies; specifically the control over the media, presenting a
“perceived” threat to social stability, diverting the attention of society, and
the continual pursuit for one form of power or another. Hugo Chavez made it
clear that his quick return to power was owed to the people of Venezuela
growing tired of pervasive capitalist and imperialist policies and influence
over their nation. He continued by pointing out that after colonialism, the
indigenous populations of Venezuela had not had an independent identity and
that finally, through that rebellion, a true Venezuelan identity could finally
begin to reclaim its former glory. Other South American countries followed
suit, joining Chavez in the formation of the Bank of the South and the
Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America. The United States, the free
market, and capitalism lost significant influence and credibility amongst these
countries.

           The
theories outlined in Althusser’s Ideology and the Ideological
State Apparatus
, can facilitate an understanding of how ideologies
are formed and can be manipulated or leveraged to disseminate ideas and
information to people, which in turn has a direct effect on how they formulate
their identities. In analyzing this documentary, we can conclude that two
important ideological mechanisms were in synonymous play; the use of ideology
for the purpose of gaining power and the adoption of that ideology as a source
for the formation of a collective identity. By putting his political ideologies
into action, Chavez was able to mobilize a people. In shifting the distribution
of capital towards the poor, Chavez showed he identified with their plights,
cementing himself as the president of the people. His fight then became the
fight of the indigenous and the poor and they adopted the revolutionary
movement as part of their identity. This political example is only one
manifestation of Althusser’s theories in play and it can be argued that
commercial advertising has been in constant negotiation with the rules of
ideology in their formulation for ads and television commercials. If this is
true, then any form of dissemination of ideas functions under an ideological
apparatus, including those in roles of cultural producers such as artists,
writers, and film makers; this largely explains why totalitarian societies tend
to exhibit a disdain towards the creative class.

    
 Marx’s idea of the base and the
superstructure suggests that society is comprised of two levels. At the base is
the economic and production level of society, and the superstructure is comprised
of political and cultural institutions. He argued that the superstructure would
always be dependent on the base for its stability. Althusser not only suggests
that the two levels are functioning as separate forces, but he goes on to split
the superstructure into two further autonomous bodies consisting of the Repressive
State Apparatus (RSA) and the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). All three elements of the structure are in constant
influence over one another and all three are important to the stability of the
structure. The RSA is associated with the
politico-legal element of society and is considered to function singularly and
publicly. This would include heads of states, the government, the judicial
system, the armed forces, and law enforcements agencies. The RSA is almost always under the ruling class, since the
ruling class always has one form of control; they are either in direct power or
in a position of direct influence to those in power. The ISA is associated with the ideological element of
society and is considered to function pluralistically and privately. This would
include the family unit, religious institutions, cultural institutions, education
systems, and the media.

Figure 3.
Visual Model of Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus

           
If the RSA is almost always under the control of the ruling
class, then it can be automatically assumed that it is typically functioning to
assure that the ruling class remains the ruling class through the threat or use
of violence. While these mechanisms may be discreet at first, such as fines and
penalties for breaking minor laws, it escalates with higher levels of deviance
in people’s behavior to include the use of force, incarceration, martial law,
and death. The point of interest for Althusser is the ISA, where society maintains control over its subjects through
kinder, subtler, and more discrete methods of control.

Since the ISA functions within societal structures that begin at
the family unit, Althusser argues that individuals are already subjects of
ideology before one is born. Take into consideration a young mother who just
found out she is pregnant with a baby boy. Instantly the mother begins the
nesting process of the nursery, purchasing all the baby blue items she can get
her hands on. Meanwhile dad is in the toy department purchasing an assortment
of soldier figurines, building blocks, and all sorts of toy transportation
vehicles that any little boy would love. While selecting the name for their
baby, they think of names that are masculine and strong, keeping away from
names that may be too androgynous or feminine. At the instant they find out
their baby’s gender, the couple reacted by formulating their own version of an
ideal baby boy, that will like to play cops and robbers, will be captain of the
football team, become a soldier or a scholar, marry and have his own children
to raise; ideologically speaking, that child had no chance. This implanting and
implementation of ideas is what Althusser sees as the materialization of
ideology that then forms a perceived identity in the subject. It can be said
that an ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their
real condition of existence. The boy in question was presented with “truths” about
what it is to be a male at every facet of his life, where his duties lay, and
his responsibilities to fellow man. Because some of these ideas are presented
as absolute fact, it becomes easier for the individual to soon adopt them as
their own and leverage them in the continued formation of their identity.

 Althusser argues that the subject will always
have differing viewpoints about a certain ideological anchor, but what connects
them all is still the core ideology. So if the ruling class is in control of
the RSA and are a major portion of the base (there may
still be a minority of people without economic means that may still be
influential within the ISA), then they are
automatically also functioning within the ISA. So it can be
said that ISA assures that the ruling ideology will always be
the ideology of the ruling class. Former president George W. Bush can be used
as an example of how some individuals can come to political power (RSA) through economic means (base) to have influence over
the human psyche (ISA). George Bush comes from a wealthy
family of business men and politicians that have had influence over the
domestic and foreign policies of the United States. Since
people already identified the Bush family with power, George Bush had his
genealogy working for him as well. Then, by playing to the religious right by
invoking God, Christ, and his spirituality, he was strengthening his
ideological grip on the Republican base that would elect him. Once he came to
power, he implemented policies protecting the financial interests and political
agendas of the ruling class. September 11th triggered the fear necessary for
the complete ideological control of the American public and pushed us into indefinite
war in the Middle East. This is how ideology plays its role in the structure of
society.

                    Figure 4. George Bush on
the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003

           
How does this influence the formation of identity? Althusser argues that the
subject as a self-aware individual is only a fabrication of our minds. Instead,
he says that differences in the diverse ideas relating back to a core ideology
creates ideological tensions. It’s these tensions that people confuse with
individuality, when in reality everyone is still being ruled by the core
ideology. In determining that identity is formulated by ideas presented to us
about a variety of core ideologies, then it becomes clear that our
identities are in constant negotiation with our perceptions of reality. If this
is true than we can take these theories and apply them to the works of artists
that are working around the issue of identity. On one hand, the argument can be
made that early practitioners of identity focused art failed to solve problems
around the issue of identity in regards to their subject matter and how that
subject matter was being accessed by diverse audiences. On the opposite side of
the same conceptual framework, it can also be argued that it triggered a trend
among artists working with the concept of identity to start filtering the
concepts for their work through ideology and shifting from illustrating a
perception to sharing in an experience.

           
The first argument can be addressed by evaluating some of the work made by
participants of the Chicano Art Movement that in itself was a response to the
Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. These artists worked in all
mediums available at the time, from traditional modes of representation and art
making, to more experimental processes such as installation work,
conceptualism, and new media. If we take Althusser’s argument that identity is
formed through ideology, and if an ideology results from the imagined relations
one has to our real experiences, then two arguments can be made. Early in its
development Chicano identity art failed because it was simply presenting
perceptions about specific ideologies that were already in place for the viewer,
in one way or another, from other external sources in society. Secondly, the
presentation of said perceptions only perpetuated the stereotype for the ‘other’
and strengthened those stereotypes as points of identity for Latino audiences.

                                                          
Figure 5. Car Show,
2001 by John Valadez

           
In John Valadez’s painting, Car Show, we see
several examples of this tendency. The dress, poses, and overall depictions in
this work all relate back to the lived existence of one subgroup of Latino
Urban Youth participating in a car show. The women are scantily dressed, depicted
as submissive Barbie dolls for the grabby men dressed in stereotypical cholo
attire. The omnipresent symbol of the cholo subculture, the low rider, sits in
the background as the pride and joy of the individuals that inhabit the
composition. Whether the intent of the artist was to depict this image as commentary
on Chicano culture or not is not readily clear upon viewing the piece
objectively. In the Death of the Author, Roland Barthes makes the argument that
the author is simply the writer of the book, but is secondary as a source of
meaning to the writing. He goes on to argue that the reader of a book (in
this case the viewer of a work of art) is the primary source for the
formulation of meaning in regards to the signs they perceive while reading a
book or image. In the case of Car Show, an
outsider’s potential reaction may be one of indifference or it can also be an affirmation
about a stereotypical perception they may have already had about Latinos. There’s
a great potential that an ‘other’ viewing the work will make the association
between subject and artist, and if the artist who depicted this image about
Latinos is also Latino, then the depiction and their reading of the image must
be true. The ‘other’, who may have not had any prior stereotypical images of
Latino’s before, has now been unintentionally presented with one by an artist
who may be engaging in a depiction of cultural pride; the intention of the
artist in creating the image doesn’t always guarantee that it will be received
and read as intended.

This realization about the
formulation of ideology has informed the work of artists that work within the
parameters of identity art. In some instances, artists have worked around
alienating features of the image by finding allegorical stand-ins for identity.
In others, they have leveraged specific access points about their own lived
experiences in an effort to share in that experience with a potential viewer or
audience.

           Figure 6. Untitled, a portrait of Ross in L.A., 1991 by Felix Gonzalez -
Torres

Felix Gonzalez Torres has made use
of the first technique in several of his pieces. A self-identified homosexual,
Felix Gonzalez Torres’ work related back to the relationship he had with his
lover. Rather than inserting visual signs that dealt with homosexuality, he
instead focuses his work on the concept of love and loss of a partner. By doing
this, Torres is negating the viewer the opportunity to make connections to
homosexuality that may offend or alienate the viewer. In Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), Torres
presents the viewer with a mound of 175 pounds of multicolored candy. There are
no prompts on how the viewer should engage with the work of art and audience
members are even allowed to pick up a piece of candy if they wish. The viewer
is not disarmed by the image of two men kissing or a rainbow flag, but instead
is drawn in by the allure of the candy. Ultimately, the rainbow is very much present
in the candy wrappers and the work is very much about the homosexual love (or
loss of it) between two men. The weight of the candy is the same weight of the
artist’s lover when he was stricken with AIDS. The gradual
removal of candy by the viewer is a metaphor for the waning in weight and
volume associated with symptoms of the disease during the 1980’s. That’s one
aspect of the work. It also presents an opportunity in which the viewer’s
ideological guards are down and one can get insight into that viewer’s ideology
by their very behavior. For example, one can assume that if a viewer takes a
candy he or she probably doesn’t know it may well represent the body of
someone’s former lover. So the assumption can be made that this person does not
know very much about the work itself, the artist, or maybe anything about art
at all. On the other hand, one can also assume that the viewer does in fact
know about the work and is either indifferent about the connection to the AIDS
pandemic of the 80’s, simply has a sweet tooth, or has arrived at the
conclusion that if they don’t take the candy someone else will. This allows us
to access and unravel various ideological frameworks: the ideological state of
the artist in creating the work, the ideological state of the audience member
who engages with the work, the ideological state of knowledgeable observers
during the run of the exhibition, and ultimately, my own reading of the work in
this very essay.

                               Figure 7. Cornered, 1988 by Adrian Piper

         Adrian
Piper’s, Cornered is an example of a work of art that is not only functioning
and utilizing elements usually associated with identity art but is also launching
these elements to create both the ideological tensions that are responsible for
the formulation of identity and a shared experience with the viewer. The
installation of the different objects in this composition is a visual metaphor with
regards to the conceptual and formal intent of the work. Piper placed a
television on a pedestal in the corner of the gallery walls, forcing the viewer
to confront the video in a cornered position that can be associated with the
victimization of a person. The table below the screen is turned up with the
legs pointing at the seats on which the viewers are expected to sit; a literal
turning of the tables, if you will. The chairs set in place for the audience
are set up in a triangular form with the point directed at Piper’s image in the
video. One can interpret this pointing or singling out of Piper as another way to
places herself as a placeholder for victim-hood. The second element of the work
is the dialogue that Piper is confronting the viewer with. She is confronting
the viewer with her assumptions about their perception of her as a bi-racial
black woman. She is assuming that the audience viewing her work is not black or
is specifically white. By bringing up assumptions or stereotypes made of black
people on her own accord as a black woman she is placing the problem of racism
on the laps of the audience and clears her name of any responsibility. The
viewer is then placed in a position where assumptions are made about their own
perceptions based solely on their skin color. The objects included in this
installation, the location in which it was installed, and the video composed by
the artist are deliberately placing the audience member in the position of
oppressor. Whether the viewers identified as oppressors or not is irrelevant
and secondary to the fact that they had no agency, in that moment, of choosing
this as a part of their identity; Piper made that decision for them. Piper then
goes on to explain that a majority of white people actually have African
ancestry in their DNA, throwing their sense of identity into question; a state
of mind that racial minorities grapple with and are keenly aware of as they
exist in the othering nature of the United States.

           I’ll
conclude by noting, if not clear already, that ideology is not anchored in
truth, but rather, in the perception of those things which we believe to be
true. By presenting a set of theories from which one could better understand
how ideology works, Althusser and other Post-Structuralists opened up the
possibilities to function within the rules of a system in which there is no
apparent escape from. For artists that deal with identity issues in their work,
it provides the necessary framework for the exploration of technical and
conceptual strategies that can meander their ways through this system by shifting
the focus away from representations of perceived experiences to the actual sharing
of these lived experiences. With every new generation comes a whole new understanding
of our world; this fluidity, when leveraged correctly, allows us to reassess
the way that we build narratives around our collective existence, opening up
the possibility of revisiting past failures in an effort to continue to make
our world new again. While our ideological state may be inescapable, it is very
much legible. The future belongs to those who learn how to ‘read’ and traverse
these ideological mechanisms as they work their way across our shared
realities.

Bernardo Diaz | #bdOther ©bernardodiaz2021
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