We don’t need to listen all that closely to hear the voice of right-wing reaction lately. But over the past few days its questions have been particularly and flagrantly silly. “How dare these brown women swear? How dare they dance? How dare they dress in ways that go against our expectations? And how dare they think they can now walk the halls of Congress? Who do these socialists think they are?”
For sure, all aesthetic standpoints are political, and especially in the United States. This is after all a country where the far-right gained a level of influence it hadn’t seen in sixty years through the election of a reality TV star.
Karl Marx writes in Estranged Labour* that, accepting the presuppositions underlying political economy as it existed at the time of writing, one can see that there is a hell of a lot missing. There is something to it – but it is insufficient. As Marx writes, political economy “expresses in general, abstract formulas the material process through which private property actually passes, and these formulas it then takes for laws. It does not comprehend these laws – i.e., it does not demonstrate how they arise from the very nature of private property.”
One can say the same thing about the dominant form of writing about popular music. It can provide you with consumer knowledge with perhaps a tad more (but only a tad) than an algorithm.
The pooling of artists in global cities has become a destructive anachronism; destructive to artists, working-class communities in those cities, and destructive to art itself.
The formation of art enclaves in industrial capitalism, during a century of accelerating aesthetic and conceptual innovation (1850-1950) had a progressive logic. Artists’ innovations fed off their physical proximity to each other. Moreover, these aesthetic and conceptual interventions were often in political sympathy to the industrial working-class concentrated in cities like London, New York, Paris and Berlin. Artists found a radical, and oftentimes working-class, cosmopolitanism in these artistic enclaves. Gentrification had not yet evolved to exploit artists as it does today.
Plato insisted that slaves, allowed full access to musical and artistic expression, might bring down Athens. Though it was clearly a turn of frenzied hyperbole on his part, he also appears to have seen a genuine danger, not just in the underclass’ possession of music, but in its ability to change it.
“Musical innovation is full of danger for the state,” he wrote, “for when the modes of music change, the laws of the state always change with them.” Or, in its catchier, vulgarized version, “when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”
An apocryphal moment has Sid Vicious walking by Freddie Mercury in a recording studio, circa 1978. The Sex Pistols were likely recording their vastly overrated Nevermind the Bollocks LP while Queen were likely recording their pop-metal classic Jazz. Ever the charmer, Vicious is said to have approached Mercury and baited that he was the person bringing ballet to the masses. Mercury, dynamite with a laser beam, riposted to Vicious, who he saw as a poseur, “We’re doing our best, Simon Ferocious!” Malcolm McLaren’s boy band may well have been the talk of the town but for the proletariat, it was with Queen. Declasse youth could be punks, but as Neil Davidson pointed out at one of Red Wedge’s panels at Historical Materialism London, to a large extent, it was a trend…
As night falls on London, the urban landscape becomes a no-woman’s land. To go out alone after dark is to take a journey through my own nervous system, assessing at every street corner the hospitability of the streets ahead of me. I do it all the time – I have to – but every journey from bar to bar, from workplace to the train or from home to the shops comes with a mild sense of risk, which increases tenfold whenever I pass a particularly sinister lone lurker or a group of men congregating together.
Imagine it is 2016. Clinton is still ahead in the polls, she has every hope of gaining the White House. One night she dreams she has won, and, just as she steps into the Oval Office she glances in a mirror to find, glaring back at her, none other than Trump.
Trump’s presence in the White House is the eruption of what I shall go on to explore as the uncanny; a rupture of form; an intrusion of something monstrous into the heart of the body politic.
“Polysemy (from Greek: πολυ-, poly-, "many" and σῆμα, sêma, "sign"), the capacity for a sign, such as a word, phrase, or symbol, to have multiple meanings, usually related by contiguity of meaning within a semantic field.” – definition adapted from Wikipedia
“If you cannot convince a fascist, acquaint his head with the pavement.” – Gritty (probably)
Now is the time of monsters, the well-worn phrase tells us. But monsters, if they are interesting, are unpredictable. They come out of nowhere and evince their nowhere-ness, their improbability creating fascination, fear, revulsion, sympathy.
The dream of utopia is difficult to find. Not always a “good dream”, it can just as well be a nightmare. More properly, the dream of utopia is a dream we cannot categorize according to the binary of nightmare and “sunshine daydream”. Yet, like a mole burrowing away, utopia can be found in the strangest of places, which once apparent become obvious. Like the hidden erotica on a Camel cigarette pack, utopian impulses cannot be unseen – or unheard, its mark indelible like ink that will never wash away.
In the first part of this article I discussed Lukács and his theory of Realism. I now want to turn to Clement Greenberg, “the major theoretical figure of the late modern age and indeed that theoretician who more than any other can be credited as having invented the ideology of modernism full-blown and out of whole cloth.” At his best, Greenberg deserved his reputation as a critic quite as much as Lukács for his clarity of description, refusal of jargon and, above all, focus on the materiality of the work of art. The most productive phase in his career spanned the 20 years between his first major article, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) and the codification of his mature views in “Modernist Painting” (1960).