In the face of profound social, political and economic tragedy, it has often been the case that popular musicians, out of a sense of solidarity, put out a song to capture the moment and inspire the movement. It is often the case, by virtue of historic specificity, that these songs don’t date well, their universality caught in the particularity of a given moment. There are a few songs, however, that have outlasted their origins and continue to resonate. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” and, most recently, in the face of the spate of police murder of Black youth, and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Prince’s “Baltimore.”
Reminiscent of mid-period Prince and the Revolution, it combines a funkish shuffle in a minor key with vaguely country/western sounding acoustic and electric guitars. The lyrics, while angry, are more sad and resigned than anything else...
I came upon a stinking field of muck
and saw, within its depths, a golden cup.
Nothing for it. I hitched my trousers up
and waded in, heartsick when my feet stuck.
It took three hours for me to pull them out.
By then I'd learned to coast upon the slime.
The strong images of the dominant culture offer no way out for the proletarian subject. Likewise the weak images of much of the academic avant-garde offer very little. The solution, for the class-conscious artist, is to connect weakened art and a weakened working-class to universal and totalizing aspirations. In my opinion the strong-weak image is the mode of the popular avant-garde. And historically it has come from outside the art world as often as within it – and sometimes both, in the work of the Wild-Style graffiti innovators of the 1970s and the punk rock DIY posters and zines of the 1970s and 1980s. Raymond Pettibon, highly influenced by William Blake and Goya, was central to the early punk visual aesthetic, producing art for his brother’s band, Black Flag. The tension between “weak” and “strong” inherent to his work was summarized by Pettibon himself when he argued, “I am really asking is for you to look at Gumby with the same kind of respect that you would if it was some historical figure or Greek statue.”
It is sad to see Brit Schulte – a founding editor – part ways with Red Wedge. If there is one constant, however, it is change. Over the past year there have been an increasing number of challenges in maintaining Red Wedge as we had been previously organized – especially as a few editors, including Brit, have been finishing up graduate degrees. More importantly, our ideas evolved in different directions. While we are sad to see Brit go, an open discussion is preferable to papering over differences. There will, we hope, be further opportunities to collaborate – and they will be more productive if we all know exactly where we stand.
I was frustrated. Like I oft am, I admit. None of the contributions from the conference floor seemed to carry with them a nuanced understanding of aesthetic criticism, of art, of culture (let alone how Marxists or more broadly how the Left could participate in these things). I wasn't alone: there existed a small, equally frustrated community, with an even larger periphery of curiosity and cultural interest.
We endeavored to establish a dialogue, debate, body of writing and eventually a performance circuit that saw itself in the many traditions of: surrealism, constructivism, Marxist cultural criticism, DAdA, the propaganda of Bolshevism, the W.P.A. art campaigns,
The Paris Commune was in essence the first large scale experiment in socialist governance. On March 18th of 1871, radical workers and artisans organized in the National Guard decisively took control of the city as the regular French army fled. Days later, the Commune was elected, immediately declaring that workers could take over and run workshops and businesses, as well as abolishing the death penalty and military conscription, mandating the separation of church and state, and the beginnings of a social safety net and pensions. Both revolutionary and democratic, every day saw new ways of running the city advanced by ordinary laborers.
Star Wars stands out as perhaps the most popular franchise in the history of science fiction and fantasy. George Lucas' original trilogy did what even Stanley Kubrick's 2001 failed to accomplish: it made Hollywood executives look to speculative fiction as a genre worthy of investment and promotion.
One can easily date the origin of Hollywood's current reliance on the genre for the profitability of the industry itself to the original film. With the rebirth of the franchise at the hands of director J.J. Abrams the cycle has come full circle. Abrams’ The Force Awakens is a direct homage to the original film, boasting an almost identical narrative structure keeping with the saga's “rhyming” tendency.
Paul Kantner was not the leader of Jefferson Airplane, the sixties band that came to epitomize the counterculture. Leadership rotated, original leader Marty Balin once joked, to whichever member was currently involved with Grace Slick. Neither was Kantner Jefferson Airplane or 70s Jefferson Starship’s lead vocalist, being only one of four singers, his warm, understated vocals often eclipsed by Slick and Balin’s more attention-grabbing turns. Nor was Kantner his bands’ primary songwriter – one of the Airplane’s four primary songwriters, he was just one hand on the Jefferson Starship overcrowded deck. All this is not however to bury Kantner – that occurred, literally, in January 2016, at age 74 – it is absolutely to praise him. Indeed to praise him in the most comradely fashion: as a key component in a countercultural collective, the very antithesis of the individualist diva.
The robots have arrived – sort of. It’s only a matter of where one looks. If one were paying attention to the Oscars this year, it would have been hard to miss the most famous robot trio of all time as they arrived on the opulent stage of the Dolby Theater. Ahead strutted in the pleasingly neurotic, bronze figure of the linguist, C-3PO, with his short, stout, and sassy mechanic mate R2-D2 close behind, and bringing up the rear the white-orange ball of a droid named BB-8, who made its debut in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, released this past December. When R2-D2 beeps that C-3PO forgot the tickets to the ceremony, the latter retorts: “The ticket was your job, nitwit.” When told that he looked somewhat like the Oscar statue behind them, C-3PO declared that it looked like him. “How do you think we made it this far?”
We have reached the Hegelian endgame; the fusion of art and philosophy. Not quite, as Arthur Danto notes, a negation of art by philosophy but the fusion of both. The art object has become, it is claimed, a philosophical argument in itself. But it is a pyrrhic victory – a Twilight Zone ending for art history, modernism and the avant-garde.
Anything can be made into art. But there is a small army of theorists dedicated to parsing out what is and isn’t art. Anyone can be an artist – if they aren’t too attached to the idea of eating dinner. Art and philosophy have fused but in the absence of the social revolution that was meant to accompany that fusion. The result is a philosophical-art object that is profoundly weak. If the present model of serious contemporary art is a weak avant-garde, the solution is a popular avant-garde: a rapprochement between artistic experimentation (as art) and mass emancipatory politics.
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