Anger is a Gift

Kurt Cobain’s guitar, circa 1994

This polemic was written in 2014. Since then, a whole slew of new forms of anger have been unleashed, from the righteous fury of #MeToo, to the increasingly polemical debate over trans rights, to the multiple sites of conflict in our divided political sphere. So, in 4 years, has this short piece aged well, or has it become irrelevant? Are you angry, or are you boring?

When did we stop getting angry?

We’ve become a culture so battle-weary, so beleaguered, so beset by the petty injustices of our own lives, that anger is a luxury we can no longer afford. We’ve bottled it. We’ve accepted that art will always be predominantly created by the middle and upper classes, who have no reason to get mad about the state of the world, or at least not in their art.

Two principles now dominate public artistic discourse. The first is the principle that art should, above all, be entertainment. Art that is transgressive can be aesthetically so, but polemic is frowned upon. Satire has been diluted to snide, sub Charlie Brooker meta-analysis.

To be opposed to the mainstream is also to be defined by it, even obsessed with it. Think of how many hours of Big Brother that Brooker has watched. In order to justify his anger and direct it, Brooker must address only the mainstream. He offers no alternative, save ironic detachment and distance.

(Since I first wrote this essay, he has retreated into the depthless telepresent otherworld of Black Mirror, seemingly aware of the futility of satirising in real time a world which has long since surpassed in actuality the absurdity of his reductio ad absurdum satires of the news cycle.)

Then there is decency, political correctness. To express anger on behalf of the wronged or discriminated against is still acceptable, because we have fully accepted our cultural dominance. Hence we can defend the weak, the different, the other, with our indignation. We want utopia. Every minority accepted and championed. Nothing less will do. Injustice is now a matter of exclusion from the mainstream, a form of condescending cultural identification that portrays itself as outrage but is really pity. “Poor souls, they whisper at their own distress.”

We live in an era of unquestioned doublethink, where Michael Portillo can claim on TV that the fact that all political parties now occupy a broad centre right position means less argument, more consensus, and therefore, more “choice” for voters. The ideological battles, the entrenched moral and ethical frameworks of socialism and liberalism are gone now, replaced instead with a ruthless opportunism masquerading as pragmatism.

We stopped getting angry because we gave up on the idea of changing the world. All we believe possible now is that we can ameliorate it’s cruelty, tweak it, modify it. Nobody believes in revolution any more and revolutionary sentiment has become uncouth, unmentionable.

Have you noticed the lack of working class voices in art nowadays? They haven’t just been priced out of the industry. They’ve been sidelined, silenced. Their rage at the injustice of the dismantling of infrastructure, services and communities has been ignored in favour of matters which are of greater concern to the bourgeoisie. Identity politics. The squeezed middle. Imperial guilt.

Meanwhile, as feudalism replaces democracy and corporations erode and commodify public space and common wealth, from Monsanto trademarked seeds to Glasgow tenements demolished to build athlete’s villages, we cheer. Because we, the privileged, no longer need artists to imagine a better world, or open our eyes to the horrors of this one.

We want art that reflects us, or lets us escape, not art that challenges us. We know that things will get worse for the majority of our species. But we have embraced our powerlessness in the face of coming collapse.

Meanwhile, on the margins, all the silenced voices, the marginalised, ignored, angry artists who dare not even apply the word ‘artist’ to themselves any more, are growing restless. Angry at being ignored, angry at your lack of anger, they are beginning to plot your downfall. They are beginning to imagine a world without you in it. They are sharpening their metaphorical pitchforks.

Anger is coming back, and this time you will not be able to merely pay it lip service, or patronise it. You ignored the angry, the poor, the wronged. You are enjoying this moment in the sun, enjoying finally being RIGHT, in your splendid isolation. All the culture you took from them and commodified, diluted, will be reclaimed. Not peacefully. Not through art. Because you have locked that off.

When they return, they will “come back as fire, burn all the liars, leave a blanket of ash on the ground.”

Originally published in The High Flight zine (now defunct), 2014