January 20, 2021
IN FALL 2020, artist Matt Keegan produced an artist book called 1996, a compendium of ephemera, essays, and interviews circling around the year in question, which Keegan sees as a tipping point for the American left—the moment its capitulation to neoliberalism was complete. It also happens to be the first birth year for Gen Z, whose members have recently begun populating Keegan’s art-school classes. In trying to come to grips with shifts in American electoral politics, ensure that key histories are passed on to posterity, and chart changes in queer identity, the book provides a nonfatalistic, idiosyncratic musing that brings together materials as varied as a play about Roger Ailes, a ’90s cruising diary, crusty magazine clippings, and an old video-store membership card. Keegan joins me for a discussion of past’s effect on the present and the state of the union overall.
— Domenick Ammirati
Domenick Ammirati: In 2008 you made a book called AMERICAMERICA that looks at the giant 1986 “Hands Across America” fundraiser during the Reagan administration to examine the manufactured optimism of the time. Your new book is a kind of sibling to that one, but more about the birth of a well-founded pessimism.
Matt Keegan: The new book grew out of a question I kept asking myself in the lead-up to the 2016 election: How did we get to the point where some Democrats are basically centrist Republicans? I learned about the significant role played by the Democratic Leadership Council, which doesn’t exist any longer. In the wake of Carter not being reelected and Reagan’s two-term win, the party fractured, and the DLC took the position that the Democratic Party had to fundamentally change and become pro-business, pro–military intervention, and suppress social services, specifically welfare.
The real turning point was inviting Bill Clinton to head up the DLC and use their infrastructure as a springboard for launching his candidacy for president. New Deal–era social services had already been shredded by Nixon and Reagan. Clinton provided the final nail in the coffin with the Welfare Reform Act of ’96.
DA: Clinton is also a significant shift in terms of a president who was being marketed as “cool.” In 1992, there was the famous saxophone bit on Arsenio Hall when he was campaigning. At the same time, there was a kind of winking quality about Clinton, a built-in irony that’s so 1990s. He lied to people, but they still loved him. He got the nickname was “Slick Willie,” after all.
MK: In his essay for 1996, the artist Dave McKenzie points out that Clinton was also nicknamed “the first Black president.” Whereas with some distance, we understand how legislation signed during his presidency negatively impacted Black and brown populations. To a certain extent, we’re also starting to unpack Obama's two terms and recognize the conservative dimension of his legacy, including the mass deportations during his tenure.
DA: The thing people commonly blame for the erosion of memory is of course the internet, and technology more broadly. It’s a topic that’s done to death, so I won’t belabor it here. But in your book the writer Patrick McGraw makes a nice point when he cites not only the immediacy of public discourse today but also its infantilism.
MK: Patrick also highlights a meme that circulated the day after Trump was elected crediting his win to a 4chan prank. Of course, Donald Trump has no sense of humor and hosted a social media summit in July 2019 where he invited actual trolls to the White House to discuss ideas for his re-election bid.
DA: Meme magick! Some people think that 4chan really did have a role in getting Trump elected for the lulz. The recent documentary Feels Good Man, about the creator of Pepe the Frog, goes into this subject a little bit.
MK: Patrick’s essay does a great job contextualizing the libertarian legislation of ’96, Section 230 as it’s known, that’s at the foundation of the internet. It’s the legislation that allows Facebook, for example, to wash their hands of the misinformation that spreads on their platform. He writes: As innocent, euphoric, and even cringeworthy as early internet scholars may have been, we still live in the wake of their beliefs. Could we have avoided at least some of the political messes we find ourselves saddled with today?
DA: I just didn’t think I would see Idiocracy come true in my own lifetime.
MK: Did you see George W. Bush’s quote about the coup attempt on January 6? “The violent assault on the Capitol . . . was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.” And I thought, “Are we supposed to read this quote and not recall that this person started a war, that is still ongoing seventeen years later, by lying to the American public?”
DA: I have this pet theory that our situation is all George W. Bush’s fault. There’s the lying, which primed people to be suspicious of government and think conspiratorially (not that they weren’t suspicious of government already). He left the economy in the garbage. And the transformation of the US into a state terminally at war produced this cult of masculinity. You start this phony war, you send a lot of guys over there, and a lot of them get fucked up psychologically or physically. At the same time, this veneration crystallizes around valor. In the NFL, which never gave a shit about veterans, there’s jets flying over games and camouflage cleats. And other parts of society, it’s like, “You fought in Iraq? Here’s an extra tenth of a percentage on your savings account.”
MK: The birth of Fox News, also in 1996, can’t be overstated as a seismic shift that helped produce and maintain all the ills that you describe. The growth of that cult of hypermasculinity, interestingly enough, seems to sync up with people getting into self-care, which also coincides with a high percentage of people being uninsured.
DA: One of the most interesting moments in the book is when you give a questionnaire about politics, the media, and so on to a group of twenty-three people born in 1996. You tell them they can answer as many as they want. Out of a dozen questions, the one the fewest people selected to answer was “Regardless of whether you were born in the US, what does it mean to you to be an American?” It suggested that to them the idea of America as a project, or even as a viable idea, was at best boring, at worst cringe.
MK: Only eleven of the twenty-three answered any of the questions; the rest just sat for portraits, which appear in the book. But the question you highlight was definitely ignored, and it was one I had hoped to get a generational perspective on. The artist Astrid Terrazas gave a compelling answer: For me, being American means being antiracist and pro-Black, it means active divesting from white structures and institutions and investing in community-led mutual aid.
DA: To pull a classic interviewer move, I’m going to ask you the question you posed to your students, the one they didn’t want to answer. What does it mean to you to be an American in 2021?
MK: Ha! Going out on a light note. In 2016, I made a video called Generation that features my parents, siblings, nieces, and nephew all providing their definitions to a set of nineteen words, one of which is “American.” My father’s associations were “bullying, exaggeration, made up, there’s so many things all built up in a PR concoction.” I agree with him, especially in the wake of the white supremacist-led violence and theater of January 6.
At the same time, as an artist and educator, I have optimism about the collective work we have to do in opposition to the delusions of the right. It will take time to counter the damage of Trump’s presidency and the speed of online misinformation. This year feels like a breaking point, and there are a growing number of progressive and diverse voices entering public office and gaining traction in national debates on things like healthcare and a living wage. But in order to truly repair what’s been broken, the Democrats need to break with received wisdom of the last twenty-five years. Joe Biden has control of both the House and Senate, so let’s see what he and his party do with it.