by Scott Fischbein
The way you feel after you go to see a Goya exhibit feels pretty similar to the way you feel after watching an Adam Curtis documentary; like some unspoken thing about the world has been said and now you wish it would be unsaid because you’re not sure what to do with the information. To have a Goya exhibit open at the Met the day before Adam Curtis released Can’t Get You Out of My Head, his first documentary work since 2016, almost seemed coordinated. Like many of the protagonists of Curtis’s documentary, I couldn’t be sure if I was being primed to see nonexistent patterns in reality.
Adam Curtis is a cult documentarian to the extent that such a thing is possible. Since the 1980s, he has made dozens of unique and disturbing documentaries for the BBC. Using their film archives and his idiosyncratic ability to find the threads of historical narratives not readily apparent from a cursory glance at the last century, Curtis has simultaneously entertained and horrified audiences with films about how the rise of American neoconservatism fueled and abetted the emergence of Islamism, or how capitalism and governments co-opted Freud’s theories of the subconscious to create the most powerful propaganda machines of all time. His documentaries make an impact on viewers not so much because of the novelty of what he says, so much as his ability to make suspiciousness sexy. In Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Curtis promises to explain how we ended up in 2020—a year defined by COVID-19, George Floyd’s murder, Brexit, Donald Trump, QAnon, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—but that in order to do so, he will have to start in post-World War II England, China, and the United States.
At one point in the six-part mini-series, Curtis tells the story of “The Family of Man,” Edward Steichen’s 1955 art exhibit at MoMA in New York. The exhibit featured 503 black-and-white photos of people from around the world. The photos had no captions or wall texts and visitors had to choose the order in which they saw them. Lacking descriptions and a prescribed route forced visitors to create their own narratives about what the exhibit “meant” to say about humanity. Much like the Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance, it forced the spectator to create their own story. Curtis claims this democratizing of narratives was the idealism at the heart of the creation of the internet. For once, people would have access to a vast field of information, out of which they could create their own stories, rather than being dependent on the authority of an ideology.
Curtis connects Steichen’s vision to the work of the neurologist Daniel Kahneman, whose experiments studied the unconscious movements of people’s eyes as they were shown images on a screen. As their eyes searched the images they were shown, the test subjects unwittingly created meaning out of them before they were even aware of it. Kahneman’s studies lent neurological proof to Freud’s theories of the unconscious, and its ability to structure our world into a narrative around a series of hidden desires that operate in every aspect of our lives. In this way, we create stories out of disparate elements before we are even conscious of what we perceive. Ironically, Curtis tells us, this same eye movement imaging would later go on to be used by Instagram to measure the efficacy of advertisements on their platform by accessing our phone’s forward facing cameras unbeknownst to us.
I used to see Goya as an artist with a double vision, a sort of schizoid figure. He was a court painter for the Spanish aristocracy and rising bourgeoisie who also published albums of cynical political cartoons, nightmarish dreamscapes, and haunting images of warfare. But to imply these are two separate careers, one official and another private or perverted, was wrong. To see the romanticized images of Spanish power as isolated from images of the sadism at the heart of warfare, or the treatment of prisoners, is to engage in an erroneous sorting of images.
It is sensible for curators and art historians to distinguish Goya’s works between his books of etchings and his royal portraits, as they are two different artistic modes. Although this distinction is logical, it tells a false narrative. The person who painted romanticized portraits of enlightened royalty leading the world into the 19th century and the illustrator who sketched a garroted man, or masses of people pouring into a bullfighting ring to engage in an act of group violence, are the same artist.
The appearance of dignity hides depravity, the creation of the nation creates the nationless, and on the tide of progress often comes degeneration: Goya’s two artistic modes are one. Pinturas negras makes this most clear. Goya painted the large-scale scenes on the wall of his Madrid home from 1819 to 1823, finally giving the thematic content of his horror at mankind the formal treatment of his large scale oil canvases. They depicted Satanic masses, old men turning into skeletons, a dog treading water in a well it can’t get out of as it plaintively stares up at the heavens, blurs of women who point and laugh at the spectator, and, most famously, the titan Saturn devouring his son. In Goya’s own mind, the two artistic practices of making royal portraits for Spain and making books of aquatints and etchings for himself that barely sold, were merely formally and not thematically different. This became clear as early as 1814, when he painted The Third of May, 1808, which shows Napoleon’s army mercilessly executing surrendered Spanish rebels.
If anyone had reason to be pessimistic and world-weary, it was Goya. His career began in a time of great optimism—the Enlightenment had reached Spain, ushering in an era of reform and liberalization. Class mobility became possible, and the new Bourbon royal family expanded civil liberties and sought to limit the power of the clergy. During this time, Goya achieved the highest possible rank for a court painter in Spain. But, fearing the threat of the French Revolution, Charles the IV of Spain imposed mass censorship in 1793, revoked many liberal reforms, and declared war with the new French Republic. Goya suffered a mental breakdown and an illness that left him deaf. When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, Charles IV abdicated, and Napoleon placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, bringing about an era of political repression and violence throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Goya fled to Bordeaux in 1824 and died there in self-imposed exile four years later.
Perhaps the narrative is cliched at this point: the young artist’s dreams for a better future are perverted into a present that is even worse than the past. But even if the Met wasn’t priming me to indulge in such a metanarrative, I did. It’s hard not to. One of the first etchings in the exhibit, from 1778, depicts a blind guitarist surrounded by the merchants and pedestrians of Madrid, roused from their mundane activities by the melody calling to them. 1824’s Blind Singer, made by an exiled Goya progressively losing his eyesight, shows a guitarist in the same smock and hat, but now, the crowd of Spaniards is blackness, a faceless mass of shadows. It seems to be sucking the music out of the black holes of the musician’s mouth and the guitar’s center, leaving his face sallow and sunken. One sees the difference that 46 years have made on Goya’s musician. It's hard not to interpret the piece as a story of disappointment that borders on horror at the irrational chaos that is history.
We write the history of the present using the past. When we take up the events that once existed in the present for long-gone generations, we see in them our own moment. This is how storytelling begins. In Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the protagonists are historical figures like Michael X, Jiang Qing and Eduard Limonov, people who realized the narratives mankind uses to construct a sense of history and of self no longer work. To Curtis, every political movement of the 20th century was not an ideology in the sense of a set of political positions and goals, so much as a story about the world with a set of characters and narrative arcs.
The most effective and powerful of these movements were the ones that told the best stories. Politics is an ad campaign, backed by guns and money, where power is determined by whether or not one can effectively sell their story to the masses. The fascists told a story of a lost golden age, of an ethno-national heritage that could be reborn through extreme militarism and cultural purification. American liberals and capitalists told a story about individualistic freedom that would allow people to support each other through a form of constructive selfishness while remaining independent of each other. The conservatives spoke about a need to preserve the values that hold societies together. The communists narrated a tale of oppression by productive forces that were co-opted by the upper economic classes, and of realizing an egalitarian world through the reclamation of those forces by the oppressed.
In every narrative, those in power control the fates of individuals and collectives through inaccurate stories in the form of propaganda and manufactured consent. Toppling the elites accomplishes the narrative vision of these political ideologies. But in addition to these storytellers, Curtis introduces us to people like Kerry Thornley, an American libertarian writer from the ‘60s who hoped to deprive mankind of their need to be sold a story once and for all. Thornley created Operation Mindfuck, a political protest art project to dream up a conspiracy theory so wild it would force people to realize the delusionary nature of the frameworks that structured reality. He had a deep belief that reality was pure chaos, rather than contrasting states of order and disorder, and that the possibility of human liberation from the state lay in recognizing this.
His publications birthed the modern theory of the Illuminati. He wanted the theory to be so ridiculous that people would finally see the giant screen of lies and propaganda that stood between them and reality, that rendered them docile, compliant and governable. Then, like a spectator at The Family of Man, individuals would see that reality is theirs to make. But in a cruel twist of fate, Thornley fell victim to his own conspiracy theory. Lee Harvey Oswald, an associate of his from the early days of Operation Mindfuck, changed history. After the JFK assassination, Thornley wondered if the CIA had manipulated him for years into creating his disinformation campaign. The coincidences were too much; paranoia and suspicion overcame him. The only story he could tell himself to make sense of the irrationality of the world was the lie he originally made up. He came to believe in the Illuminati.
Thornley’s demise shows how we—a generation with the most access to information in the history of humanity through the internet—came to succumb to doubt and irrational rationality. There is a limit to how much complexity one can tolerate before they return to patterns for guidance.
Instead of searching for the meaning of reality, we have outsourced the task to computers and technology that can process vast amounts of chaotic data and render it complex rather than incoherent. Through “data capitalism,” government propaganda and misinformation, the internet was retrofitted to accommodate a desire for algorithmic governance, the comfort of control that we find in stories. When we became aware the internet was spying on us and selling our information, and realized different media agencies had their own biases, a new narrative of fake news and fact-checking emerged to guarantee users they weren’t being corralled or controlled while consuming information, allowing people of various political persuasions to continue to use the internet in the same manner as they had before. Different kinds of media literacy emerged amongst different political ideologies not as a way of seeing through propaganda, but as a means of guiltlessly continuing to consume propaganda. The label of objectivity made propaganda even more satisfying to ingest.
“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (the sleep of reason produces monsters),” Goya tells us on the etching that is the frontispiece to his 1799 Los Caprichos album. Here Goya depicts himself asleep at his working desk, and out of his sleep emerge creeping and flying beasts, poised to pounce. It’s tempting to interpret the frontispiece as a warning against irrationality. But it is not reason’s absence that produces monsters; it is reason’s dreams. The Enlightenment’s promise to show the rational order of the universe to the individual, and in doing so, to free man from all unjust hierarchies and the tyranny of scarcity and nature, produced a subservience of man to reason as the end to which everything must be sacrificed. Man makes a monster out of reason when it is detached from all notions of humanity or justice. When reason is rendered merely as a means to an end, human life eventually becomes an instrument of reason’s ends too. Irrational rationality operates like an isolated future laboratory where robots repeat experiments long after the last human has perished.
In Goya’s “A way of flying” plate from his 1815 book of etchings, Disparates or Follies, he shows us his designs for a flying machine. However, unlike Da Vinci’s startlingly accurate and seriously undertaken helicopter designs, Goya’s device has the wings of a giant bat, which the operator has cloaked over their entire body, along with a bird mask for better streamlining. Instrumental reason, or thought whose only goal is accomplishing tasks, has created laughable but simultaneously horrifying monsters out of men. In Goya’s etching, technological progress is accompanied by psychological atavism and metaphysical depravity. What is supposed to show the ability of mankind to master nature actually shows the unmasterable animality inside of us. We don’t transcend nature through the use of reason, we merely make a mockery of it.
“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” The title card to Curtis’ documentary is followed by this quotation from the American anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber. In it lies both Goya’s and Curtis’s pessimism about the future. Their cynicism of history stems from the feeling that all historical narratives are ultimately untenable. The most successful narratives are the most malleable and can adapt to the constant protean permutations of reality; such is Putin’s vision for Russia.
Storytelling is ultimately a creative endeavor, one that can be done for us or by us. The fall from idealism to disillusionment for Goya, Thornley, Michael X and Jiang Qing is the realization that even when we dethrone the tales that are made for us, the new ones of our invention are vulnerable. They can either be conquered or perverted and forced onto individuals for domination and control rather than liberation. But Goya, in his disenchantment from the narrative of progress, did not fall into the narrative of suspicion of Thornley’s conspiracy theories or murder like Michael X. Instead, he let go of the idea of cohesion and patterns entirely.
For Goya, the world is not made up of complex structures hidden amidst the flux, or identity disguised as difference, but pure incoherence. When Goya looks back on the idealism of his youth, instead of the blind guitarist galvanizing unity through song, he sees the hopeful consumed in a profound darkness that they are not even aware of because they cannot see. They recite patterns into the nothing that surrounds them, incapable of seeing that the world they formulate with their words is actually no world at all. The blind singer imagines an audience outside of himself to which the melodic patterns he produces have meaning, but he is surrounded by something that is unreceptive to meaning.
For Curtis, though, this revelation is also a source of optimism. If our stories are truly like boxes built around blank space, then they are both powerless and all powerful. They can be demolished at any second if they no longer benefit humanity. At the same time, they are the tools by which we can shape our world into a more equitable structure. If reality is something we can only know through making it, then we are empowered to make our world. The desire for truth then can often stand in the way of progress.
While Goya is left debilitated by the inscrutability of reality, Curtis tries to see a positive element in David Graeber’s message. He believes that if he can clear away all the propaganda and sickly narratives and lay the facts in front of us in all their complexity, naked without a formal element to corral them, we will instead live in the narrativeless narrative of “here’s what really happened.” He hopes that if he can show us what happened in China, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia after World War II, we will sit with the dissatisfaction that comes with the lack of a metanarrative, and can be as comfortable with chaos as we are with complexity. Ultimately, Curtis wants to show how the world could be a more humane, just and equitable place for humanity as a whole without wading into the mires of the paradigms of progress. That we can make progress possible once we liberate it from progress narratives.
But this, too, is a narrative. Stories are the medium between us and reality, and they often become a wall between us and the task of making life more liveable for each other. In the end, Curtis becomes the main protagonist of his documentary: he wants to tell a new story about our past and present to make space for a new kind of future. The issue is that this future is over-determined. In order to explain the world to us, he must function as a complexity theory computer, one designed to absorb the vast quantities of data in the BBC archives to find the hidden patterns that govern history. But the only pattern he can find is the collective finding of patterns that people have engaged in throughout history.
Like his literal protagonists, he tries to assemble a history out of chaos, and he ultimately fails. In this way, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is perhaps his most nihilistic documentary because we see how much Curtis struggles to maintain coherence in his handling of history. Reason is overly active, but, unlike the rationality of the modern world, it is awake and self-aware. Thus, its product is ultimately underwhelming. Reason does not satisfy us like its dreams do.
Scott Fischbein is a writer living in New York and co-edits of Laid Off NYC's Visuals section. Get to know him better: @fermishtklumnik
*Thumbnail image: Spanish Entertainment by Francisco Goya, 1816