It was really only a matter of time before the modern art world, which has long ridiculed conservatives and Christians with wink-wink in-jokes, would provide fodder for the far-right fake-news machine. Marina Abramović, whose shock art serves up masochistic self-display in the context of pseudo-occult ritual, has become just that: For some fake-news believers in this, the Year of Trump, she has become an actual witch who is leading godless progressives to drink the blood of infants.
Edgar Maddison Welch did not visit Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) before traveling to the nation’s capital from North Carolina on Sunday night. Instead, he allegedly went straight to Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong restaurant, rifle in hand, to personally “investigate” the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton has been hanging out with pedophiles and abducted children in satanic tunnels beneath the pizza place, owned by a former lover of the director of one of her super PACs.
The theory that so moved Welch starts with Abramović’s 1996 “Spirit Cooking” project, a set of drawings of “recipes,” some from actual occult rituals, and a performance involving tossing around buckets of animal blood and making Eucharist wafers out human bodily fluids, mixed with honey.
Whiffs of witchcraft wafted around American politics throughout Clinton’s candidacy. But until the John Podesta email, calling her a witch was only one of the milder forms of gender-oriented verbal abuse. Now it’s taken on a new fervor. From the Salem witch trials to the Amanda Knox case in Italy, when groups of people fervently believe in witchcraft and demons, weird things start to happen in those communities.
Abramović entered the fake-news cycle after WikiLeaks released the private emails of Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. His brother, Washington lobbyist and art collector Tony Podesta, once forwarded John an invitation to an Abramović “spirit cooking” dinner. To the conspiracy theorists, that email was all the proof needed that Washington progressives and lobbyists dine on satanic food watered with the blood of babies, not dry aged steak and French red.
The art world has enraged people before, but not like this. In 1999, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ pissed off one-time Catholic seminarian Rudy Giuliani so much that the New York mayor not only pronounced it “sick art” but tried to de-fund the Brooklyn Museum over it. Some artists have never gotten over the silly glee of provoking Christians (most artists don’t touch the other religions, and certainly steer far clear of Islam), and in-jokes about occult rituals are just part of Abramović’s stock-in-trade. She has a legion of fans—750,000 people lined up to sit across from her at MoMA a few years ago, for a performance piece in which she vowed not to get up from her chair for 700 hours. She later claimed she never even used a trap door under her chair for bathroom relief.
On Reddit three years ago, Abramović answered a question about why her art differs from occult ritual. “Everything depends on which context you are doing what you are doing,” she wrote. “If you are doing the occult magic in the context of art or in a gallery, then it is the art. If you are doing it in different context, in spiritual circles or private house or on TV shows, it is not art. The intention, the context for what is made, and where it is made defines what art is or not.”
For people whose only “context” of the devil is Sunday school, that statement makes no sense. A witch is a witch is a witch in Wichita.
For the culturati, though, Abramović is too literal. Normally mild-mannered New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner could barely restrain his contempt for her recent memoir, Walk Through Walls. “A tolerance for a certain amount of pomposity is a prerequisite for keeping up with serious art; otherwise, you’re always sitting at the short table and using the plastic cutlery,” he wrote. “Ms. Abramović pushes this tolerance to its limits. You will need to be able to withstand a great deal of conversation about clairvoyants and tarot cards and didgeridoos and kundalini life forces and monks and gurus and ‘how the soul can leave the body through the center of the fontanel of the head’ to make it very far in this memoir.”
The origins of the idea of a Podesta pedo-cult supposedly date back to a tweet by Andrew Breitbart in 2010. It is not clear what provoked it, and we might never know. Conspiracy theorists find it deeply significant that Breitbart died of a heart attack shortly after he tweeted: “How prog guru John Podesta isn’t household name as world-class underage sex slave op cover upper defending unspeakable dregs is beyond me.”
Comet Ping Pong is owned by a former lover of Hillary PAC strategist David Brock, and the focus on the pizza parlor could be seen as the evangelical right’s culture-war payback for the travails of an establishment called Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana. In April 2015, Memories received death threats and temporarily locked its doors—and then got $840,000 in donations—after the owner announced he wouldn’t cater a gay wedding.
It’s beyond ironic that the accusations of pedophilia taking place at Comet Ping Pong have been attached to Clinton, the most powerful and most investigated woman in American politics, while her presidential opponent’s behavior with young girls never warranted investigation. Billionaire and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein was a friend of both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Clinton fought off impeachment over sex with an intern and has been tarred for years with allegations of sexual assault, and Trump has never made a secret of his affinity for young female flesh. But the lumpen Trumpen is willing to believe that a Methodist grandmother drinks the blood of babies, while a man who ogles underage girls and says things like “grab them by the pussy” is deemed fit for the presidency.
The underpinnings of the baby’s blood allegations will be horrifyingly familiar to Jews who grew up hearing about it from family members who escaped European pogroms. “The ‘blood libel’ refers to a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians—especially Christian children—to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread),” according to the Anti-Defamation League. “It is also sometimes called the ‘ritual murder charge.’ The blood libel dates back to the Middle Ages and has persisted despite Jewish denials and official repudiations by the Catholic Church and many secular authorities. Blood libels have frequently led to mob violence and pogroms, and have occasionally led to the decimation of entire Jewish communities.”
Trumpen American laps this stuff up, just like European peasants did from the Middle Ages onward. Their credulity could be a testament to the failure of American public education and the absence of a mental health safety net. In the hive mind of the American conservative underworld, the old blood libel has found new, 21st-century targets—leftists, feminists and, yes, urban Jews.
Political sophisticates who should know better are feeding the theory. Roger Stone, a man with a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back and an admitted sex club habit, could play the role of warlock at any moonlit midnight ritual. Here’s what he tweeted four days ago:
Studied up on why they do what they do.
Like vampires, they FEED off of fear/stress energy.
They think it gives them power. #SpiritCooking
He also posted a picture of Abramović holding a pair of bloody goat horns, the universal symbol of Lucifer.
This would all be moderately funny if it wasn’t clear that it has caused deranged people—like Welch—to take action. Countless online “investigators” now spend hours in their mother’s basements—or at their offices—following clues. On Monday, for example, Brittany Pettibone, a self-described “Author, Patriot, Constitutionalist,” linked #Pizzagate to #hampstead, which appears to refer to a London tabloid scandal from last year in which actor Ricky Dearman was branded the leader of a satanic cult who trafficked children into the U.K. to be tortured and killed on video. Scotland Yard investigated and found they were “baseless” claims that had been made by his children after they were tortured by their own mother and her partner, who attacked them and fed them drugs. Dearman’s ex-wife has fled the country and has not been heard from since, leaving an open-ended mystery for an online sleuth like Pettibone to solve.
There is at least one sign that even the so-called alt-right wants to distance itself from Sunday night’s pizza place shooting. On Monday night, pop right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos, who lost his Twitter access earlier this year after one too many online insults against women and minorities, was on the campus of Miami University in Ohio, scheduled to talk about “PIZZAGATE: The deep Dish on Liberalism and Pedophilia.” Half an hour before the speech, he abruptly changed his topic to “On Stabby Muslims, Campus Censors and Daddy’s Transition.”
Read more at Newsweek.com: