COMMENTARY: The Elitist Art World Is A Cargo Cult

Cargo cult

A Decoy For The Gods

The art world is run like a banana republic. It’s structured into highly stratified classes. On top, a few plutocratic overlords, catered to by bureaucracies of remora-like functionaries and lackeys, holding sway over struggling supplicant masses of creative hopefuls, all theoretically revolving around the production and presentation of the product Art.

The focus of the rulers is not on the art itself. Their purpose is assimilate status, influence and power. Art is just a vehicle for their self-importance. To gain the favor of their masters, opportunistic followers are made to understand to advance anywhere within this system, certain rules must be obeyed, or certain criteria met.

Artistic quality isn’t an issue. Under the permissiveness of relativism, anything goes-as long it falls under the approved formulas of the establishment. Any aesthetic concerns are irrelevant compared to adherence to the agenda.

Scorn must be directed at the appropriate targets: God, organized religion, patriotism, free expression, Western civilization in general. Claiming grievance confers virtue and enables claims for retribution. Hostility must be displayed towards anyone who does not accept the priorities of the elitists, or rejects the march towards collectivism.

The culture industries are just part of the larger problem. Our establishment is enforcing a tyranny of oikophobia, the disdain of our heritage and traditions. From their strongholds in the media, academia, administration and the arts, they are applying their unified efforts to clear the slate of society for the Great Leap Forward: a jump right back into feudalism, where the new aristocracy of the well-connected will be secure in their unaccountable power.

But since the language of morality is used to disguise their authoritarian ambitions, it creates some confusing contradictions. Today’s establishment is a sorry display of hypocrisy. They are bigots for Tolerance, Anarchists for Big Government. They are so open minded they demand any dissenting viewpoints must be censored out of existence. The perpetrators acknowledge no paradox though, as the self-regard gained by espousing and conforming to the correct views overwhelms self-awareness.


Being reduced to a tool for subversion has been very damaging to the relevance and achievements of the contemporary art world. With all this non-art related dogma assuming primacy in the culture industries, contemporary art is bereft of inspiration. Cut off from eternal sources of creativity by ideology, to compensate the art world has veered into a surprising dead end.

Much of establishment contemporary art has become an inverted cargo cult.

The phenomenon of the cargo cult originally was observed when the primitive tribal societies of the South Pacific encountered the advanced cultures of the West. It reached a pitch of religious fervor after World War II.

The industrial manufactured items of the newcomers amazed the remote villagers of islands like New Guinea and Tanna. The strangers from over the sea brought with them riches in the form of machines and goods-airplanes, tools, medicines, canned food, radios and the like-made from materials incomprehensible to what were practically Stone Age people. The tribes decided surely such wonderful items must be made by the gods.

As battles raged in the Pacific, the indigenous populations observed the soldiers at work: marching around in uniforms, clearing runways, talking on radios. In response the planes arrived, seemingly from heaven, bringing to the islands the massive quantities of materials needed for the war effort. To the natives who got to share some of the magical items, this treasure-the technological output of developed nations-came to be referred to collectively by the pidgin word cargo.

But when the war ended, the soldiers left. The flow of magic cargo ceased. The tribesmen had lost access to the gifts from the gods.

The abandoned natives developed a plan to get back into divine favor. Having no frame of reference for the ways of the modern world, they interpreted the activities of construction and communications the visitors performed as forms of ritual. The tribesmen would reenact the rites they had seen the foreigners perform, recreate their ceremonial objects. This would please the gods, who would start delivering the cargo again-but this time, to the natives.

The islanders designed outfits based on military uniforms. They drilled in cadence, carrying rifles of bamboo. They built wooden aerials, constructed mock radios, clearing landing strips in the jungle, placed decoy planes of straw on them. And waited.


Some are apparently waiting still for the gifts to start descending from the heavens. Educated by missionaries, the natives explain if the Christians can wait two thousand years for Jesus to return, the natives are willing to give the cargo gods a few decades to respond.

The natives of the South Pacific were practicing a type of sympathetic magic. This concept of sympathetic magic was explained in Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: “From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it.”By going through the same motions witnessed in the people who received the cargo, the tribes believed they could summon the same effect: the bestowal of divine treasure.

To our rational minds this is preposterous. We understand the uselessness of evoking the facade of a machine without the necessary functionalities being incorporated into it. What matters is the inner workings, not the appearance.

And yet, a form of this magical thinking has infected contemporary art. The subservience of art to political issues derails the purpose of the artist. The prevalent dogma interferes with the discovery of a personal artistic vision. So contemporary artists attempt to imitate their way into a valid artistic experience.

In a stunning reversal, in our advanced technological society, artists uncomprehendingly recreate inferior approximations, parodying  the objects and gestures of the past and the primitive, trying in vain to summon the sense of awe and wholeness present in the art of bygone ages. By mimicking and mocking the outer forms of the originators, the artists hope the gods will arrive bearing their eternal gifts-that these snotty knock offs will also rise to the level of art.

david  koons-e1417559299973

The contemporary art world says both of these are works of art

The contemporary art world is a liar

The art market had been degraded to flim-flaming hucksters who hire teams of technicians to create overwrought and overpriced versions of cheap gags. This is still art, the so-called experts assure us. But who the hell are they? Just some more cult members, in on the take. They have destroyed their own credibility.

By embracing methods of pastiche, a tone of irony, and a poorly concealed lust for power, today’s establishment artist can have no more success in creating a legitimate art for this time than the Pacific Islander can succeed in summoning a fleet of airplanes using his hand carved radio.

The South Seas native can be forgiven for his mistaken views on cause and effect. After all, his people were incorporating an enormous dislocation imposed from the outside, and the sudden end of a timeless way of life.

Harder to explain is why our people, in an age of unprecedented resources and information, seem to have so little insight to add to the human condition. The twisted motivations of the ruling establishment, their pursuit of unmitigated control, has of course been a huge impediment to our development. The proselyting elitist art establishment needs to be cleared away, bypassed. A great future lies beyond the collapse of the corrupt syndicates that have plundered our culture to further their political aims.

The Remodernism Manifesto of Billy Childish and Charles Thomson eloquently described the way forward.

“A true art is the visible manifestation, evidence and facilitator of the soul’s journey. Spiritual art does not mean the painting of Madonnas or Buddhas. Spiritual art is the painting of things that touch the soul of the artist. Spiritual art does not often look very spiritual, it looks like everything else because spirituality includes everything.
“Why do we need a new spirituality in art? Because connecting in a meaningful way is what makes people happy. Being understood and understanding each other makes life enjoyable and worth living.”

Without the massive misdirection of focus of the preceding decades, what could artists be capable of these days?

Miracles await.




39 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: The Elitist Art World Is A Cargo Cult

  1. Hey I don’t like Jeff Koons either! but sheesh…just make the art you want to make! There’s art I like and art I don’t, but why does what sells for millions of dollars matter to what you do? Especially when you have such contempt for it. Are you angry that you yourself are not making that money? Do you need the adulation? If not, why even put any energy there? Invest it in what you want to do, not what you don’t want others to do. What is spiritual to you may not touch me at all, but so what? Many of the things I loved when I was 20 are meaningless to me now. I change, the world changes, what has meaning to me changes…
    You are being as rigid as those you reject. (K)

  2. Deborah; “You mention that ‘tone of irony’ in ‘contemporary art’. I wonder, maybe irony is the problem. Can you think of any ‘great art’ that is ironic?
    Richard; “I can’t either-irony is toxic.”

    Real irony is to sarcasm as Shakespeare is to Bubble Gum Pop music.

    Like many words with layered, complex meanings irony has lost it’s depth in our time.
    Shakespeare is loaded with irony, Rembrandt’s late self portraits are masterpieces of irony, as are Van Gogh’s (actually a lot of Van Gogh’s work is ironic within the context of his life), some of Mary Cassat, anyhow I could go on and on.
    The problem is that irony has come to mean sarcasm. Heck many dictionaries define it as such, which is frankly, profoundly ridiculous. Irony, the real thing not the childish imitation, can be deeply profound and thought provoking while still being somewhat humorous. It is an almost undefinable, un-capturable (ok maybe that isn’t a word but it should be) emotion evoked in some great art. It’s so difficult to achieve that it’s almost like balancing a bulldozer on a stick pin. But in many great works of art, it’s there.

  3. I suppose I’m so used to the current mode of irony I believed that was all there was to it. Could there be another word that could capture the comic/tragic vibe you are referencing? Because I’m afraid the word is tainted and debased from its current applications.

  4. Really, how hard is it to do the art you want? I’m a very timid person, but I have no problem not being Jeff Koons. The living culture is the one you live…so live the one you want and pass it on. It’s going to keep changing anyway, if it doesn’t it’s dead and of no use.

  5. Tom Wolfe saw this decades ago. The plastic arts are dead, theatre is dead, music is dead, and literature and cinema are nearly dead. Unless we throw off the parasites, Western civilisation is lost.

  6. Good luck with this. I single-handedly resurrected the dead and noble art of fugue writing while doing my MM and DMA studies, and received just the kind of rejection from the musical elites as I would have from the elites of the art world you describe. But it wasn’t anything I could stop doing – a real artistic quest is like that – and so I’ve taken fugue places Bach and other earlier practitioners could never have imagined, inventing multi-themed perpetual canons I call Musical Escher Morphs in the process. Now, in my late fifties, I have collected several fugues that should just completely wipe out any educated listener, but there’s the rub: Nobody even knows how to listen to what I compose any more. Even among the well-intentioned connoisseurs of music, everybody – and I have yet to encounter a single exception to this – has lost the ability to recognize anything NEW as profound and sublime art. But I don’t care, as a practical matter, because I’m healthy, happy, and still marveling over the deep sense of satisfaction one gets from creating masterworks. That’s my payoff: The awe and wonder of being a part of creating something sublime. And as you may be gathering, my efforts would not have produced anything without my entire life being primarily a spiritual quest for understanding.

    I fear that great painting or sculpture might face the same kind of audience ignorance in today’s world that my music has, and I will admit that I’m not at all confident that I would be an exception to that. My lifetime’s accumulation of musical understanding is not directly applicable to the visual arts, and frankly, I’m jaded as #&!!. So much garbage has been thrown in my face while being called art that I’m just immune to it all now. Just like everybody’s ears have been assaulted by garbage incorrectly labelled music for the past century, and so people have lost the ability to clear their minds and come to terms with new music. And there’s no blame with the audience either, as the rational reaction to years of abuse and disappointment is to just tune it all out.

  7. It amazes me how people turn themselves into pretzels to avoid the obvious you so ably pointed out.

  8. This discussion is incomplete. I believe the comparison between the red ballon dog and the statue of David is not fair.

    It’s used as example of art skill deteriorating, valid points throughout but not quite fair.

    Perhaps a trivialization would be helpful to make the point: Been there, done that.

    Were an artist to produce a mind- blowing lifelike statue today it must be different. Hey, artists have! We do have modern super realistic art, and it is fantastic, draws huge crowds. We have art so real and with skin peeling back showing the insides of human body so graphically it blows Da Vinci’s mind. Been there, done that, still do all that. Still carve things from marble.

    Portraits landscapes still life oils were fine, along with every flower being religious symbol, they had to be fine. Then came cameras and oils for those things no longer needed and even better portraits, landscapes and still life art is produced.

    This is post modernism where everything is already done and all that is left is individual stylings and where the eye is turned back to appreciate raw primitive art, children’s art writ large as pure primary human art appreciated as valid. This applies to everything seen even more clearly in the phases of architecture.

    The word “irony ” is inapt.

    I think today’s art can be accessed through Picasso with front view, side view, top view all at once, soft and sharp personality at once, seeing and understanding and appreciating a subject’s, past, present, and future, it’s top and bottom, its inside and outside dimensions all at once. All that and childish. The object appears absurd but all that is understood and appreciated simultaneously. Everything else is already done, repetition of style and end product is trite, it’s already been done over and over and and can be done and done better anywhere, so that a giant rubber bath duck suddenly becomes art, becomes interesting and out of place anachronistic out of balance elements in architecture charm because they are so well understood they’re actually internalized even part of the psyche, so elements pulled from collective psyche floating around randomly and dropped into modern life by different means. That is today’s art. I urge you, please try to appreciate it. I must say, and I say this for understanding, I appreciate the art of today more than I appreciate the criticism of it. I skipped all the paragraphs explaining cargo cult, your art, boring, because been there, done that. Although a fresh analogy is good art, Smithsonian beat you to it decades ago so not needed again. See?

  9. Remodernism is the renewal of art as a means of communal communication and connection, and the stake through the heart of undead Post Modern BS. Our art is as alive as we can make it with our love and freedom.

  10. Keep up your good work! The people need genuine beauty and experiences. I have faith it’s not too late yet for the renewal of art which equals the renewal of life. We may be a little bit ahead of our times, but isn’t that how the important artists have often been? 🙂

  11. They have been indoctrinated, and many are willing accomplices because it feeds their misdirected feelings of superiority. We are coming to smash their cozy little cocoons to pieces.

  12. @bour3 I think you’re kind of missing the point. David is great because it’s plainly generated from the white heat of a person’s soul. It is so almost by logical necessity, because it’s a highly refined craftsmanship that’s both rule-governed and rule transcendent at the same time, and because it’s lasted – it’s rare for art to last, especially to last across cultures through time – unless it has that je ne sais quoi.

    The red balloon thing is shit because it’s just from someone’s head, playing a game.

    IOW, I don’t think Richard is saying that people have to do figurative art. Modern art was hardly figurative was it? But it was passionate. Only the trouble is, with any great thing, you have imitators, and imitators of imitators, and academics teaching imitation, then other people teaching how to ironically invert imitation, etc., etc,. till it all becomes a game.

    That’s the problem: ART HAS BECOME A GAME. It was never a game, even right up to say the 60s. But at some point through the 60s and 70s (perhaps with conceptualism) and onwards, some fuzzy line was crossed, art started becoming THE GAME OF BEING AN ARTIST, the game of being involved in the art world and making a living out of it. The focus became on one-upmanship instead of just making some damn thing that stops people in their tracks and makes them feel the miracle of existence, just for a moment.

  13. Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing. Allow me to suggest an extension or two.

    Does good art have to be about something that matters? If so, I would suggest that the problems you point out lie with an ignorant society in general and not with the art world in particular. How much time is spent in the media that surrounds us discussing the tsunami of social pathologies unleashed by moral relativism and the destruction of the traditional family? Oh sure, we lament all the people in prison, but how many know that the vast majority of them were raised in “alternative” families?

    Maybe the art you are using as a foil is trivial and silly because it lives cocooned in a world that is trivial and silly. The real world is not trivial and silly, but our wealth keeps the real world at bay so we can live in a Starbucks iPhone Social Justice Hashtag world. I would bet that the artists who produce dog balloons, if they hung out with my buddies who work in the prison ministry and they (the artists) read something like Dalrymple’s “Life at the Bottom,” they might start producing Madonnas again.

    The art world before us was serious because the people were serious. They understood the connection between the sublime divine and the world around them. They lived it every day and couldn’t get away from it. They had no tools to keep consequences at a distance like we do. Now that those of us in the pampered, elite classes have a myriad of ways to indulge our limbic selves without serious side effects, we’ve lost touch with reality.

    Maybe that is what has made our art so shallow. God bless and thanks again for sharing. You have a real gift.

  14. Thanks! Now what visionary artist William Blake said was “Empire follows art and not vice versa…” He would say it was the bad turn the arts took that dragged society down. I’m taking this thought to heart-to heal our culture, it starts in the art. May God help us all.

  15. Richard, you’re a talented fellow. Use that to produce art that does what great art should – inspire, provoke, teach. I recently discovered Christian pop music and while I’m sure that the art-educated would tell me it’s not sophisticated, I absolutely love it and share it all around. Here’s a great juxtaposition for you.

    God has helped us, amigo. He gave us His only Son. He gave us teachings that make life more fun, more successful, more full of beauty. It’s up to us to use them. Remember what C. S. Lewis said in “Mere Christianity” – we’re soldiers behind enemy lines awaiting the landing forces of the True King. It’s our job to disrupt the enemy and cause as much havoc as we can with the modern culture. That’s true in every era because the “modern culture” always has significant problems whether that’s Dickensian sweatshops of the 1800s or the porn era of today. Get out there and make some great, subversive art, dude!

    Anyway, it’s a lot more fun to be the counter-cultural agitator. 🙂

  16. At least the Cargo Cult was hoping for a known and observed good, and working hard at what they thought was a means to achieve it.

    Indeed, you are correct–this new Cult (and they are not just in the Arts) is an inverse Cargo Cult, however, I’m not sure they even know, nor have observed, what it is they hope to achieve. It will end up in some form of anarchy, statism, or theocracy (or I guess anarchy followed by statism or a theocracy) but as with the original Cargo Cult, it’s not going to result in what they were hoping for.

  17. “Everything else is already done, repetition of style and end product is trite, it’s already been done over and over and and can be done and done better anywhere, so that a giant rubber bath duck suddenly becomes art, becomes interesting and out of place anachronistic out of balance elements in architecture charm because they are so well understood they’re actually internalized even part of the psyche, so elements pulled from collective psyche floating around randomly and dropped into modern life by different means.”

    That’s a long run-on sentence.

    bad syntax = bad thinking

  18. Not to be a contrarian, but… it seems to me that just like the devil, today’s art is ALL spirit and no flesh.
    Similar to the way a Protestant’s cross is all wood and no ravaged and suffering body.
    Similar to the way people will fight and even die for great causes while not caring about old grandpa.
    Similar to the way today’s politicians are worried about the globe, but not their more circumscribed gardens.
    Similar to the way facebook connects the distant and disconnects the close.
    And I could go on forever.

    Ideals galore

    Do you know what the last, almost universally respected art is?

    Gastronomy. That’s ’cause you gotta eat it. Can’t get away with the equivalent of a green dot on a white canvass or mad splashes of color, or a monkey on LSD banging on a pianola.

    That’s how bad things are. The lowest art, food preparation has become the only one that still demands sense: freshness, preparation, tradition.

    It’s got a built-in dogma. No matter how deconstructed, the test is not the mind, but the body. In everything else poison is permitted.

  19. Bless you for your kind words and encouragement! Thanks for sharing. I must agree I’m having lots of fun speaking out-and I know at my best I am merely a conduit for the true source of all love and beauty.

  20. I think what they hope is it will make them powerful-but what it is doing is making it impossible for themselves to function outside of their narrow preferences. Reality will be harsh to them.

  21. Very interesting perspective here. If it’s a spirit set loose it’s very much an evil one. Definitely food for thought! Thanks. Reminds me of a William Burroughs quote: “You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”

  22. Some good points here…..Speaking as an artist, I think a big part of the problem is artists themselves handing over too much power to the establishment via the competitive process; allowing the so called ‘gatekeepers’ supreme authority over art. Artists need to take responsibility for their own authority about their work, then invite constructive interaction with both the public and art establishment….that would make for a better art culture based on what artists want to create, not what the ‘establishment’ wants them to create.

  23. Thank you Richard..appreciate that, and your site……regards, Mark, form Australia…..
    btw good on you for your feature on Sid Nolan….huge part of our art history here

  24. Wow I must admit, in my 30s I was planning to try to get to Australia for graduate school for art-The Victoria College of Art in Melbourne. But I fell so in love with Phoenix, Arizona, I never left. Love Sidney Nolan, what wild techniques he had.

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