“I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on.”
The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is here trying to account for how he came to be opposed to the white-washing of an anti-Semitic mural. The piece in question, Freedom for Humanity, was painted in east London’s Brick Lane in 2012. The muralist was Kalen Ockerman, an artist from Los Angeles who otherwise goes under the silly Katana Laces Laces Katana Yellow nom de guerre of “Mear One.” But how many people, including the artist himself, did look closely at this mural? And if they did not, then what did they see instead?
In a time-lapse video on his Facebook page, Mear One shows the mural going up. Londoners are milling around, admiring the work and interacting with the artist. “I started noting that the people were giving me some strange looks,” he recounts. “I was feeling some serious heat and anger.” It transpires, however, that the community was offended by the Masonic symbol the Eye of Providence, which was the first part of the mural to hove into view. Once the artist had made it clear that his mural was not somehow commemorating the Illuminati, the community began to rally behind him. There was a “street fest” and the emergence of that most coveted phenomenon for everyone in the arts today: community engagement. A debate was duly stimulated on the streets, and a conversation sparked, about capitalism and American foreign policy. Or at least, this is Mear One’s version of events.
The first thing to be said about Freedom for Humanity is that it is, on a practical level, flatly terrible. Six bankers, who bear a decided resemblance to those international moneylenders who inhabit Nazi propaganda, are seated around a game of Monopoly. They are made to all sit facing the viewer, awkwardly squashed together around one side of the table. There are twelve game tokens, so half of the players must have helpfully departed the scene in order to allow us an unobstructed view across the board. The board is twice the normal size and none of the players would be able to reach its tokens without standing.
But it is, of course, only a metaphor. These old men are playing Monopoly to signify that they are bankers and they have dressed in 1930s period dress in case we are still struggling with the hackneyed analogy. The board has been set up on what looks like two rows of uninflated sex dolls. These are meant, it seems, to represent the working class, a class that is naked, limp, and being currently used as a makeshift table.
This arrangement is so flimsy that you might have the uneasy impression that if you stopped looking at it, and turned away, it would promptly collapse. Since Mear One was insensible to the technical ineptness of this image, did he fail to spot the antisemitism as well? Judging from his bewildered defensiveness, it might be so. He is continuing to maintain that only some of the bankers are Jewish or that they were “a characterisation of different bankers I looked up from the Robber Baron era… these guys are twisted, gnarly-looking old men.” He later revealed that one of the men is intended as a portrait of Aleister Crowley, a likeness so obscure that I don’t think anybody has made it out until now.
Mear One’s footage from Brick Lane is so unnerving because it makes you wonder whether you are watching a scene of unfolding mass hysteria. The bystanders who are egging on the artist seem to be blind to the reality of what is gradually appearing in front of them. Meanwhile the artist toils up on his ladder, oblivious to the meaning of his own picture. This footage certainly has the WTF factor. This is modern London! – how could it be happening? – what the hell is going on?
George Orwell observed in 1945 that, “What vitiates nearly all that is written about antisemitism is the assumption in the writer’s mind that he himself is immune to it… [he] fails to start his investigation in the one place where he could get hold of some reliable evidence – that is, in his own mind.” Orwell’s interrogation of antisemitism had probably contributed to the invention of doublethink for his subsequent novel 1984: “people can remain antisemitic, or at least anti-Jewish, while being fully aware that their outlook is indefensible.”
The double-consciousness that Orwell describes has led in the case of Mear One’s mural to the paradox of antisemitism without the Jews. Mear One believes that “Everyday is Happy Sheeple Mangement Day!” and that “the greedy elite” are “playing a game of monopoly on the backs of the working class.” He has recently gravitated towards David Icke. His mural reiterates the medieval superstition that there is a dark stateless minority out there who are exploiting and manipulating society. It is just that it is no longer necessary for this minority to be openly or wholly Jewish.
When it is pointed out to Mear One that his characters continue to wear the tell-tale noses, or the traditional costumes, he is hurt and frustrated because these features are an obsolete aspect of his aesthetic, as vestigial as the wings on a flightless bird. After all, his mural would mean the same for him if the bankers were unambiguously Anglo-Saxon. His bankers are only manifested as Jewish ghosts from the 1930s because such an elite are still easiest to process in this garb. Elsewhere in his artwork they are android riot police or, in one unfortunate instance, a reptile-robot hybrid that is called the Ill-Luma-Naughty Overlord.
It is a dubious sort of progress that the Jews have been themselves expunged from an ideology that is dedicated to reviling them. Yet this doublethink remains a psychological fact. Mear One is able to literally paint a Nazi mural on the streets of modern-day London, brazenly and in front of the whole world, because he is not personally a racist. He is able to approach Jeremy Corbyn in this self-deluding mindset and come across as so harmless that Corbyn will buy it.
A characteristic that is common to both Nazi antisemitism and today’s somewhat less Jewish version is that the working class is depicted as being fundamentally passive. Hitler’s Volk did not amount to much against the international conspiracy whilst the post-9/11 sheeple are inevitably manipulated by shadowy forces. In his second stroke of doublethink, Mear One can appeal to ordinary Londoners to validate his mural at the same time as he depicts them as floppy naked slaves.
The Londoners in his video react with enthusiasm to how they are insultingly reflected in the mural’s mirror. And just as Mear One cannot regard the elite as being anything other than scheming, all-powerful manipulators, he correspondingly refuses to credit working people with any agency. Democracy is naturally “rigged.” When the working class do overturn the Monopoly board, by defying the establishment and, say, voting for Brexit, such empowerment will never register anywhere within his worldview.
Antisemitism is not rampant across modern London. Mear One’s mural, although disturbing, is ultimately a freakish anomaly, an embarrassing miscalculation by a poorly educated artist. Nevertheless the afterlife of Nazi antisemitism mostly comprises such acts of carelessness. The correct response is not to hysterically screen every work of art for Nazi imagery. Rather, we need to hold democracy in greater esteem, and then this irrational fantasy of the masses being controlled and betrayed, a fantasy in which ordinary people are stupid and foolish, will simply wither away.