The Aesthetics of Power: The Art of the Press Conference
Michael Shurkin

I've been looking high and low for great art in my adopted city, Washington, DC. Notwithstanding the Smithsonian's fabulous collections I have seen little in Washington's galleries and theaters that is new, exciting, or provocative. New York has a monopoly on all that. But there is art here. Indeed, there is art so great that it reveals the high art of the New York scene for what it really is: narcissistic and irrelevant child's play for the decadent and self-absorbed. The art that goes on in Washington, DC, the art that this city produces countless times every single day, is an art of power. More specifically, it is a representation and affirmation of American hegemony. In function it is akin to monumental government architecture everywhere, or to David's tableaux of the Revolution and Napoléon, or, better still, the court ritual of Louis XIV. Yet in form it is distinctly modern and eminently American. It is the government press conference.

Louis XIV created Versailles as an instrument of power. Besides impressing its visitors with the visible opulence of the French monarchy, his court brought thousands of Europe's most influential people-rulers, ministers, princes, clergymen, diplomats, artists, courtesans, friends and foes-to participate in a rigid routine of rituals of power. These rituals consisted of and in themselves constituted a complex political language. Above all they communicated and established the supremacy of the Sun King. But they also articulated a complex hierarchy in which everything and everyone had a defined orbit around His Majesty. Even the act of getting out of bed in the morning was an exercise in political theater: those honored with the privilege of attending the king's rising collaborated in his domination of them by assuming prescribed places and roles in the morning rite. The meaning would have been lost to the uninitiated observer, but for those involved the significance of every gesture, step, and nuance, even the placement of each person in the king's bed room, was as legible as a printed text. What that text taught them was both their subordination to the monarch and than their stature relative to one another.

Not long ago I was invited to attend a State Department press conference. I had been trying to get an interview with the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in order to write an article about America's African policies. The young woman in charge of arranging such things at the State Department refused my request because I possess no real credentials, but said that maybe if I attended the Assistant Secretary's press conference I might ask him questions and obtain at least some of the information I was looking for. I did in fact ask him a few questions, which he answered fully, but nothing he had to say was as revealing as the event itself.

The press conference was part theater, part religious ritual, and entirely political. Setting counts for a lot in these matters, and in this case the State Department did not disappoint. The obvious elements stood at the far end of the room: a wooden podium heavy with the august seal of the United States Department of State, flags, and a rich blue velvet backdrop. Both glowed in the white glare of overhead lamps. In addition to these props there was an astonishing collection of high-tech gadgets; sound mixers, recorders, and cameras assembled by the State Department. A swarm of State Department technicians hurriedly tested the equipment. The size and numbers of the machinery as well as its evident technological sophistication seemed far out of proportion to the simple task of recording what was in fact a minor press conference that would be broadcast to no one. The multitude of shiny gadgets bespoke wealth and power and lent gravity to what was about to happen. It was there to impress us. Moreover, the busy activity of the personnel preparing and manning the machines added a note of anxiety and expectation. Something special was about to happen.

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September 2002

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