The January 28 issue of The Nation is guest-edited by Antonio D'Ambrosio, an artist who's made films and written about Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer. The theme on the cover is "We Own the Future" but the theme in D'Ambrosio's own words is "creative response." He touts this concept as "the antidote to the individualism, consumerism and cynicism that now define our culture." Since "creative response" boils down to artistic expression, how does that counter individualism? The answer depends on what sort of individualism requires an antidote. D'Ambrosio is talking about the individualism of late-20th century Anglo-American conservatism, the doctrine of Reagan and Thatcher, the idea, in the latter's infamous words, that "there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families." D'Ambrosio argues that this ideological individualism was intended "to establish a thoughtless conformity that bred submissiveness and an ahistorical consciousness." Creative response takes its cue from D'Amrbosio's dad, whose motto was "You're automatically part of society." Society, in the D'Ambrosio family's sense of the word, basically means collaboration and sharing. Art, of course, can be seen as a form of "sharing," and politically or socially committed art is more consciously an act of sharing. It's a contribution to the "collective mind" that the younger D'Ambrosio describes as "an expression of the human spirit." Ideally, creative response in its own individuality "is both anti-ideological and universal as it rallies us around our common humanity."
If that sounds too good to be true, at least one of D'Ambrosio's respondents, the British novelist Hari Kunzru, rains on the parade a bit. He warns that "a 'creative response' to a political situation may fall some way short of actual politics," noting that "it's much safer for global elites if potentially fractious, self-willed, highly educated and motivated people are diverted by making radical artistic gestures instead of organizing to take power." D'Ambrosio asks for this sort of critique by making the Pussy Riot band one of his models of creative response, giving the imprisoned Russians credit for "shift[ing] how we think, how we see ... lead[ing] us to feel something different about our experience and the world." To be fair, D'Ambrosio expands the scope of creative response to include plain old political activism and socially-responsible entrepreneurship -- but his respondents in The Nation are almost all artists. They are an antidote to the malignant individualism D'Ambrosio deplores only insofar as they naturally go against "conformity" and "submissiveness," but whether their non-conformity and non-submissiveness really refute the Thatcherite theses remains an open question.
Is individualism really the problem? People are tempted to think so because the right wing marches with that word on its banners, but is individualism really the essence of 21st century rightism. It's easy to think so if we identify Republicanism or Toryism chiefly with selfishness and personal greed. But individualism isn't perfectly synonymous with selfishness or greed -- or needn't be. In the past, I've pointed out how Republicanism appears to betray individualism when it sacrifices individual workers -- their jobs, to be specific -- to the theoretically collective good of a more efficient or competitive economy. If your definition of individualism includes the idea that each individual has innate value, you may question the individualism of Republicans if they seem to treat some individuals as disposable. Rather than debate the potential meanings of individualism, let me suggest that D'Ambrosio is closer to the mark when he targets consumerism as a corrosive force in society. When we're encouraged to think of ourselves as consumers first, solidarity suffers if that means we'd rather have cheaper products every time, no matter where they come from or how they're produced. D'Ambrosio's real beef is with individualism conditioned by consumerism, concerned only with what each person can get out of society or indifferent to what each might contribute to it. "Creative response" is an obvious alternative to consumerist individualism, but it's only fair to say that people need to contribute more to society than they do by singing, making films or blogging. When D'Ambrosio's dad said "you're automatically part of society," I'm not sure he meant that as an imperative to make art. What it means to be automatically part of society is one of the big questions, always complicated by whether you're automatically part of a state and the potentially "conformist" implications of your answer. The people who put Pussy Riot in prison probably believe that people are automatically part of some sort of society as well as a self-evident state, and they probably feel that Pussy Riot betrayed both in some way. Was Pussy Riot's "creative response" to the dilemma to be imprisoned? It seems that way sometimes. Creative response sounds like a good idea, but we need to do better than that.