Conservative Prankster James O’Keefe: Political Activist, Journalist, or Artist?

Recently the 26 year old Rutgers graduate and prankster “journalist” James O’Keefe has been in the news for masterminding a damning hidden camera taping of Ron Schiller, the now former director of NPR. The sting operation, and subsequent manipulation of the tape, produced a video document which made Schiller look like yet another corrupt man at the helm of a large organization. The renegade exposure forced Schiller’s resignation, along with a wave of curiosity about the man behind the boldly executed entrapment. It seems no one cares much for James O’Keefe’s tactics. Even Glenn Beck’s people – whom we would assume would be totally in love with anyone working to expose liberal figureheads as total hypocrites, have questioned O’Keefe’s modus operandi on Beck’s news website, The Blaze. O’Keefe has done similar hidden camera exposees of ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and The New Jersey Teacher’s union. When he executes these recordings, he uses actors (sometimes himself) to play characters that interact with professionals with the goal of extracting something notably undignified or unexpected from his targets. It’s certainly as deceptive as can be, and very bold. But despite the means I think we all agree that if it’s making national headlines and forcing resignations and organization restructuring, well, then it’s also extremely effective.

And here is where I want to suggest something else about why O’Keefe has been able to gain so much traction in the media. Because more than being a conservative or a journalist or a low-down dirty liar, O’Keefe is actually a pretty dynamic artist. That’s right. He’s a creative force to be reckoned with.  Dare I say that contemporary artists–especially, perhaps, performance artists–would do well to pay attention to what he’s doing. While on the surface it may be easier for the public to define him as just some sort of demented activist, the argument for him as an artist is an entirely different picture to paint. Here are a few reasons why I would defend him as such:

His work, which isn’t so dissimilar from actions by people like Michael Moore or The Yes Men (though I would argue it’s more grave and less humorous), really engages the world as a stage, right down to the characters he creates and the characters he targets. He creates situations where fiction collides head-on with real life, and the interplay of the two produces something truly fascinating to the public.  It seizes strongly upon that ever-growing ultra-current tension between the real (the “true”) and the artificial (the “fake”).

Many artists take politics as their subject, yet they use it only to make work which reiterates some political idea we’ve already seen or heard a million times over. Artwork about redundant political issues is a yawnfest. O’Keefe, on the other hand, uses political positioning and political interaction first-hand as a sort of canvas, as a medium to produce a new, raw, dangerously revelatory material. This, it would seem, is the goal of any artist who wishes to be effective, to make an impact.

A few other interesting facts related to O’Keefe, from Wikipedia.

  • His sister is a painter and a sculptor.
  • He graduated from Westwood High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, where he showed an early interest in the arts, theater, and journalism. He played the leading role in his high school’s 2002 production of the musical Crazy for You.
  • One of his former Bosses, Morton Blackwell of The Leadership institute, said O’Keefe’s longstanding ambition was to catch his subjects in videos “breaking the law.” O’Keefe, however, told the Los Angeles Times that his videos “are not supposed to necessarily show people breaking laws. They are supposed to change hearts and minds.” Somehow I believe this sentiment, despite the deceptive tactics he uses in his projects.
  • In 2010 O’Keefe formed his own organization, Project Veritas, whose stated mission is “to investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.” Now if that doesn’t sound like the highest goal of an ambitious and effective art, I don’t know what does.

Together we can acknowledge that no one ever expected great artists to adhere to the weak moral codes created by man-made laws and manners. Countless numbers of artists have made their good works–and their good points–by breaking laws. To use an easy and over-popular example, look at the well known graffiti master Banksy. One of the best things about art is the boundless possibilities it presents, part of which means an ability to transcend the commonly accepted social mores that make us supposedly civil. O’Keefe realized that was bullshit a long time ago, and moved on in the name of making some unusual things happen.

Last, I give O’Keefe credit for a certain fearlessness, a sheer will, an intensity of vision, and an incredible ability to follow through–all qualities which any truly successful artist must possess in order for his/her work to have heart. O’Keefe is uncompromising in the face of enormous rejection and ridicule, no matter who tells him what an asshole he is, or how foolish. There’s just something about that which I can’t but think is artful. The irony in all of this is pretty simple: sometimes the biggest lies are part of the bigger truths. Whatever you may feel about him personally, it’s definitely something to think about.

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