In my quest to learn more about the origins of fascism and modern liberalism in North America, I came across Fred Turner’s books. The Democratic Surround describes how a group of artists and anthropologists during the 40s and shortly after WWII set the ground for the multimedia-rich, consumer-driven world we live in today. Why is multimedia significant? At the time, fascist and communist authoritarian leaders used broadcasting technologies such as Radio and Television to bring about repression and conformity to their societies, and multimedia was an alternative method of offering a more democratic, inclusive, and open social order.
The author shares stories from Bauhaus, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and Black Mountain College in North Carolina. This group of artists and intellectuals organized art and multimedia events such as the Happenings and Family of Man, which were interactive, used rich multimedia, and were also heavily fused by propaganda to promote social freedoms combined with consumerism and capitalism. These events eventually set the stage for the psychedelic counterculture and later cyberculture which Turner covers in his next book, From counterculture to cyberculture.
Remember that these multimedia events predate Burning Man or the Internet itself. The Happenings, for example, were mainly organized by white men and offered little to no gender or racial diversity. While nude women were part of the interactive art performances, women, people of diverse sexual orientations, and Black and indigenous people often had little to no involvement in organizing and planning the events.
I still wonder whether a few art events could shift the mindset of a nation from fascism towards some variation of liberalism. Still, I’ve also learned that subcultures and countercultures often have more influence on the mainstream mindset than we realize.