Adam Curtis on Why Self-Expression Is Tearing Society Apart

Great interview to Adam Curtis in ArtSpace online magazine.

“The problem with individualism is that, whilst it is liberating and exciting and beautiful, when things get difficult you are very weak. If you go into the woods at night, by yourself, it’s frightening, isn’t it? You get scared by the slightest noise, the slightest snap of a twig. If you go into the woods with your friends in a group, it’s incredibly exciting and thrilling because you somehow feel stronger. It’s as simple as that. That’s one point.”

On Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe in Just Kids: “the very idea of self-expression might not have had the radical potential they thought”

[…] “the other essential component in that wave of consumerism was the idea of self-expression. People were encouraged to buy all kinds of stuff, not to be like each other as they had in the past, but instead to express themselves as individuals. In this way the very idea of self-expression became central to the modern structure of power.”

[…] “I sometimes wonder whether the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is, that have little to do with our present day fetishization of the self. The problem with today’s art is that far from revealing those new ideas to us, it may be actually stopping us from seeing them.

This might be quite a difficult one to get over, but I think this is really important: however radical your message is as an artist, you are doing it through self-expression—the central dominant ideology of modern capitalism. And by doing that, you’re actually far from questioning the monster and pulling the monster down. You’re feeding the monster. Because the more people come to believe that self-expression is the end of everything, is the ultimate goal, the more the modern system of power becomes stronger, not weaker.”

“How can I make art without feeding the monster?

I was trying to say in the film that the way to question power is to stand up against it. And to do that, you have to go into the woods at night together. You have to be powerful and confident as a group. And you have to do this thing that I think a lot of modern artists and modern people in general would find very difficult to do: give yourself up to something that is bigger than yourself.
There are other forgotten ideas of freedom. For instance, the religious idea of freedom—I think the phrase is “in His service is perfect freedom.” An example I always give is from the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s in America. A lot of young white activists in the middle classes went down to the South, joined with the young black activists, and for years worked anonymously, giving themselves up to what they believed in. Many of them were beaten up, some of them were killed, but they actually changed the world and they did it by giving themselves up to something.

I’m sorry I’m being rude here, but at this point radical art involves going off on one demonstration, or doing an installation that says something angry, and then going home. And that’s it. You’ve felt you’ve expressed yourself, but if you do want to change the world you have to give yourself up to it.
In my country, the classic example of this was the march against the Iraq invasion in 2003. Three million people marched through London. It was a really impressive march. And they had this slogan that I thought was very much of its time: “Not in my name.” That is the ultimate individual protest. So what then happened is they all went home feeling that they had all protested against the war and it was no longer their war, and then they did nothing else.
They really did nothing else. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and American and British soldiers were killed. For what? You could have stopped it, but to do it you would have had to have given up the next three years of your life, to marching every day, to working against it, to try and change the mood. You’d have had to give yourself up to it. That doesn’t fit with the idea of the self, or of self-expression.”


“What I was trying to suggest was that by focusing on the rights of individuals—and the groups of which they are a part—the radicals possibly lost sight of something: that the only way to really challenge deeply entrenched power is through mass collective action, not through a radicalism that is rooted in individualism.”