The Allure of Conspiracy Theories
The Met Breuer’s excellent Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy seductively walks viewers through depictions of government conspiracies, and conspiracy theories, but fails to provide enough distinction between fact and fiction.
As a child growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1960s my mother witnessed an unidentified flying object appear, hover briefly above the family car that was sitting in their driveway illuminated with spotlights as a repairman worked on it, then, as if unimpressed, shoot up and away into the night sky. Throughout my own childhood, this story was recounted numerous times, corroborated by my aunt and grandfather who also witnessed it, and it never changed. They often wondered if what they’d seen was something extraterrestrial, or perhaps a top secret government aircraft.
Conspiracy theories — and more generally misconceptions about public policy — are seductive, and they have been part of American culture and politics since the colonial era. But there is a relationship and distinction between government conspiracies and conspiracy theories about the government, and it is important to understand how the latter feeds off of the former. Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, an exhibit currently on view at the Met Breuer, walks viewers through both types of conspiracies, without providing much insight into this relationship and distinction.
My family’s UFO experience occurred in a cultural span during which a United States Army Air Forces weather balloon famously crash-landed near Roswell, NM — an incident that would later prompt ufologists to begin promoting a variety of increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories about an alien spacecraft and a military cover-up. It was also a span during which the Unites States successfully conducted the first of five manned lunar landings via NASA’s Apollo program, prompting conspiracy theorists to claim that the moon landings were hoaxes staged by NASA; and during which the public was faced with the brutal assassination of beloved President John F. Kennedy, resulting in conspiracies about the nature of the assassination, and credibility of official investigations.
Beyond having a personal, perhaps conspiratorial experience to share, my mother is the the product of an era rife with prevailing conspiracy theories and has always taken an interest in them. “I’m primed to believe some of [the most recent conspiracy theories],” she admitted to me over the phone one afternoon as we discussed Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, referring to conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines and autism, to Hillary Clinton’s health. I would wager that she’s not alone — precisely why clearly drawing the distinction between what is fact and what is opinion, and how (and why) they are related, is so important.
The exhibit, itself, is seductive. Stepping off the elevator, viewers are immediately faced with Wayne Gonzales’ larger-than-life, all-pink portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing next to a portrait of his own assassin, Jack Ruby, as if he’s the keeper of a secret we will never know. From here, the exhibit is divided into two parts. The first section is devoted to uncovering deceit, and responses to abuses of power, while the second focuses more on the fantastical and dystopian side of conspiracy theories. But there’s little distinction between fact and fiction, and the purely fantastical comes abruptly, leaving both easily conflated. This is most apparent in the last room, where the emotionally engrossing and stunning House on Fire is displayed — created by Sarah Anne Johnson, whose grandmother was unwittingly part of the Project MKUltra CIA mind control program — next to an installation by Jim Shaw that critiques capitalism through garden gnomes performing a money-conjuring ritual.
House on Fire is a three-dimensional dollhouse with architecture skewed in the way a tampered-with mind would read the world. Each room represents another terrifying response to altered reality, creating the nightmare that her grandmother — and by extension, her family — lived. The work stands alone in the room as a striking reminder that not all conspiracy theories are the fodder of supermarket tabloids and underground rabbit holes.
It makes most sense that Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy is intended to be taken as entertainment, rather than an attempt to tackle the societal implications of conspiracy theories. But considering the real and lasting effects that meme warfare, and doozies like QAnon, Pizzagate, and antisemitic conspiracy theories about globalism and George Soros have had on our society as recently as October, some distinction between fact and fiction, and insight into the broader mechanisms of conspiracy theories couldn’t hurt.