The Art of Milkshaking
Milkshaking as it is being called is causing quite a stir. The act of throwing milkshake over a person of which you politically disagree has now become a tactic being used against the right wing activists and campaigners in the run up to the European elections. Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon) once a member of the BNP, cofounder of the English Defence League and now political advisor to UKIP; Nigel Farage formally leader of UKIP now currently the leader of the Brexit Party; and Carl Benjamin, youtuber and self proclaimed anti-feminist now UKIP candidate for the European Parliament South West - have all been millkshaked, Tommy Robinson and Carl Benjamin on more than one occasion.
The police even asked a local Mc Donalds resteraunt near to where Nigel Farge was campaigning not to sell milkshakes, to which they obliged, with Burger King then tweeting that they were selling milkshakes all weekend.
While some have laughed and cheered at the milkshake attacks, others have cried hypocrisy in regards to a lack of tolerance to those who have a lack of tolerance.
Right or wrong aside, what I find interesting is the rise of a new symbol. The milkshake. It must be said that in the digital age the left are quite lost. We lack the symbols and arguments to galvanise a movement and defeat our opponents. As the alt-right say “the left can’t meme”. Any attempt by the left to do so is quickly subverted by the Rights’ adoption of the very same symbol or language. An example of this is when a group of hard right and arguably Fascist men followed the Conservative MP Anna Soubry on her way to and from Parliament shouting (without a sense of irony) the word “Fascist” at her while wearing the same yellow vests adopted from the recent left wing workers protest movement in Paris. For now the milkshake is a symbol for the left in the UKs resistance to the rising tide of populism. Some might feel it not a symbol worthy of our cause, and that is in my opinion a fair position. Unlike most symbols which are simply graphic icons such as the peace dove or remembrance poppy, milkshaking, is an action; and as we will see has connotations and I would argue a place in art history.
Originally milkshakes were an alcoholic beverage but around the 1950s it became popular to drink them virgin (non-alcoholic) by young people at lunch counters and diners in the US. In film milkshakes have been used to symbolise youth, virginity, naivity, sweetness and goodness. I would assume this connection comes from not only the fact that milkshakes do not contain alcohol but also because milk is drunk by young offspring of mammals by suckling on their mothers teat.
In Woody Allen’s Manhattan the age difference between the 42 yr old and his teenage girlfriend is made by him having her drink a milkshake. In Lolita a young girl drinks a milkshake while in the company of a much older man who is attracted to her. And in All About Eve a woman sees her younger assistant being chatted up by a man (of which she disagrees) and so orders an alcoholic Martini while suggesting her assistant have a milkshake so as to affirm womanhood over girlhood. It is not only the innocent that drink milkshakes in movies though. The youthful and at best troublesome gang members in Clockwork Orange go to a milk bar and drink ‘Milk Plus’, a dairy based drink of which stimulants and hallucinogens are mixed. In fact milkshaking is a common occurrence in film, such as in Grease when Rizzo covers her boyfriend Kenicke in a strawberry shake; or in TV Weatherman where Nicholas Cage cant seem to go anywhere without a milkshake being thrown at him.
The slow dripping thick liquid of milkshaking leaves a clear mark where other drinks would merely disappear. It is this fact plus the milkshakes associations with youth and virginity that create this quite specific humiliating effect, or one might even be as bold to say, aesthetic.
Jackson Pollock’s action paintings challenged traditional notions of western art in which one uses easel and brush. He would splash and drip paint over canvas stretched on the floor creating abstract forms with no fixed background or foreground moving away from any representation of objects in the world. There is an immediacy to Pollock’s technique. The whole body (of which he has control) is used to fling, pour, drip and splatter paint in a balancing act with the uncontrollable flow of liquid and force of gravity. One can draw parallels with the abstract expressionist work of Jackson Pollock and milkshaking in that they can both be described as action paintings and that they both require a similar application.
Like Pollock’s paintings the marks made by milkshaking are abstract and formless and are applied to a formal fabric; in the case of Pollock it is canvas, in the case of milkshaking it is a suit. Interestingly enough, milkshaking is not the only art form to be used as a political weapon. It has been argued that Pollock’s exhibitions were sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (backed by the CIA) and was used as a weapon in the cold war against Socialist Realism on the global art stage.
Body painting whether permanent or temporary has it’s roots in traditional tribal cultures. In the western world body painting had a revival during the 1960’s as a product and symbol of sexual and social liberations that were occurring. With this in mind, especially in the case of self proclaimed anti-feminist Carl Benjamin who said of Labour MP Jess Phillps “I wouldn’t even rape you”, body painting is turned on its head. From one that aims to liberate the female body into one that aims to demonstrate what it is like to have a body that is treated as Barbara Kruger so famously put is used as a “battleground” for political purposes.
Milkshaking has a clear visual resemblance with what is known in the UK as gunging (slime in the US). Made popular by TV shows gunging is the act of pouring often green sticky liquid or food products such as baked beans over a persons head and body. Contestants are usually gunged for answering questions incorrectly.
Gunging first appeared in the 1960s BBC show Not Only… But Also, a game show in which contestants would be gunged for hesitating when reciting poetry. Although gunging appeared on other more adult orientated programmes such as Noel’s House Party in which the public voted for the celebrity contestant they would like to see gunged, today gunging is largely associated with children’s TV shows. It’s not hard to see a direct line between gunging and the medieval practice of punishing and humiliating people in public by locking them to wooden stocks so rotten food and objects can be thrown at them. I would argue that milkshaking borrows from both gunging and it’s medieval counterpart. Similar to wooden stocks the milkshaking takes place in public spaces and the projectiles/food are also thrown by the public as a form of humiliation and punishment; and similar to gunging shows milkshaking acts are viewed on screens around the nation by an audience for entertainment.
This is all very much a form of spectacle, of which political activists and politicians trade in. The disruption of the spectacle with that of another is of course the purpose of milkshaking. Not only has the original spectacle been derailed but it is now manifested visually in the form of an artwork. Protest art, performance and a Pollockesque body painting.
Foucalt said power is everywhere. The power of those promoting division (although they play the powerless card) is an arduous and time consuming force to counter. Although not necessarily a long term strategy or even helpful to the cause, milkshaking uses an act of transgression as a fast lane to undermine systems of power, much like the act of graffiti or vandalism against buildings. It quickly changes power dynamics so all can see how fragile
the illusion is.
Unlike the borders that define nations, or the straight-edged suits worn by the men who make these borders their business, milkshake has no fixed shape, it’s fluidity symbolises an ability to find a way around or a gap to slip through in direct contrast to that of which it opposes. Similar to an alien in a sci-fi movie it can take the form of whatever it comes into contact with. This alien metaphor can be furthered when we consider that the men who have been milkshaked made their careers from opposing immigrants otherwise known as aliens; only now they not only fear the immigrant but also the milkshake.