Conspiracy Theories: Artist Exposés of Society

Throughout history, artists have been an integral part of public discourse, using their artwork not only to depict contemporary events, but also to partake in them.

Throughout history, artists have been an integral part of public discourse, using their artwork not only to depict contemporary events, but also to partake in them. Today, the way in which we perceive and consume information has been twisted by the rise of a "post-truth" society, in which others' perceptions of reality are becoming less believable because of misinformation. People have sought to adapt to this by developing their own versions of the truth through, notably, conspiracy. In the art world, artists have used their work both to speculate on their own definitions of the truth and to comment on the feelings of insecurity and confusion caused by lack of faith in society's system of information transmission.

The art show Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, exhibited at The Met Breuer in 2018, highlighted the intersections of the two worlds. In the first half, the exhibition catalogued how some artists have used their work to create exposés on the world surrounding them. One of the pieces was a collection of photos and documents collected by artist Hans Haacke that catalogued abuses committed by Manhattan's largest and most powerful slumlord. The collection consisted of photographs of Manhattan apartment buildings, charts that document specific transactions, and details about ownership structure. The unending rows of public records tower over the viewer, illustrating his belief of how little people truly knew about the mechanics governing their own city. The collection generated enough response from both powerful individuals and the general public to result in the cancellation of Haacke's show at the Guggenheim.

Similarly, throughout the 1990s, neo-conceptual artist Mark Lombardi released a series of cavernous flow charts linking powerful business, political, and criminal figures, including U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as the C.I.A. The long, thin, connecting lines between the subjects make one lose himself or herself within the networks that connect some of the world’s most important individuals. The connections were so substantive that the exhibit was brought to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) and further investigations were carried out. This exhibition format perfectly embodies the secretive webs of influence Lombardi reveals to have controlled our lives. By combining their editorial independence and wide reach, artists have been able to use their platforms to publicly expose what they believe to be conspiracies hidden by powerful figures and interests.

Not all conspiracy theories, however, have the same factual backing behind them. After being plunged into suspicion by thorough, researched revelations, people sometimes take their suspicions even further, producing phenomena such as the Flat Earth Society. The second half of Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy satirizes conspiracies like these and uses various works to document the feelings of a society that has lost faith in informational transparency and accuracy. The show features Jim Shaw's UFO Photos: Zapruder Film, (1978-82), a series of photographs that document aliens in ordinary settings, including a UFO sighting at U.S. President John F. Kennedy's assassination. The photos are blurry and monochromatic, evoking feelings of mystery and fear. Through his work, Shaw depicts the condition of the American public—fearful that recent events were influenced by external forces. While this piece parodied that sentiment by featuring aliens, the subject could have just as easily been something far more sinister and real.

By looking at the interactions of art and conspiracy, we can see how artists have become some of the most powerful voices in public discourse, using their works to help the public better understand both their own feelings and the events occurring around them. Art is not only a valuable source of entertainment, but also a reflection of our own lives exemplified by these pieces that leave behind records of our current society for generations to come.

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