Art as Manipulation

Art always aims at manipulation. An artwork that fails to manipulate you fails as a work of art. Unlike an argument, art tries to get you to believe or do something without making explicit this purpose. Manipulation can be straightforward: skillfully generated perspectives, natural colors and light effects helped to make the painted look real. True manipulation, of course, wants more. You are not just to mistake the painted for the real thing, you are supposed to believe certain things, feel certain things, do certain things about it.

Modern art, seemingly attempting to break out of this, fails to end manipulations and continues to be art. It is an often radical change in means, but not in end. A desperate attempt to make such a break can be seen, for example, in Brecht. Brecht tries to break out of manipulation using what he called “Verfremdungseffekt” – an interruption of the play in order to remind his audience that they were of course watching a play. Whenever the political agenda becomes all too apparent, his plays start failing as works of art, the manipulation breaks down. And where his art succeeds, even the attempt to distance us from it serves manipulative purposes: we can now think of ourselves as distant observers, when we in effect have already bought into the key points.

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