Marxist cultural criticism, by its nature, walks the tight rope between the Scylla of purely instrumental and didactic analysis and the Charybdis of descriptivism and romanticism. Yet there are times in which Marxist cultural critics must make directly political interventions, emphasizing that indeed we are, in Ash Sarkar’s inimitable phrase, literally communists. This was what gave rise, for example, to Red Wedge statements in support of many of the struggles of the last few years.
The concept of outsider art, or self-taught art, is a lie. It conceals the actual artistic arguments and content articulated by the artists who are described in this way. While the history of the concept is more complicated, its present usage is bound up with a racial, class and geographic othering, which centers the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois institutional art world (located in New York City first and foremost) as the norm (when it is itself the outlier).
Sitting at a piano, decked out in Ray Bans and a black suit, Nicolas Cage sings his heart out about “Pachinko”. A sort of cross between a slot machine and pinball, Pachinko is, like your favorite late seventies rock band, big in Japan, indeed it is part of the fabric of modern Japanese capitalism. Gambling is illegal in Japan, yet Pachinko is tolerated. Instead of winning money at Pachinko parlours, players are awarded golden tickets which are thus exchangeable for cash at other locations affiliated with the parlours themselves. The industry, targeting poor and working-class people not unlike video terminal gambling in North America, is primarily staffed by ex-police.
In August 2018, Labour’s John McDonnell called on Twitter and then in a press release for the relaunch of the Anti-Nazi League. Citing the success of Tommy Robinson and Boris Johnson’s Islamophobic likening of Muslim women to letterboxes, the shadow chancellor said, "Maybe it’s time for an Anti-Nazi League type cultural and political campaign... The ANL pioneered highly influential cultural movements like the Rock Against Racism, which attracted tens of thousands of people of all ages to anti-racist festivals and protests.” The response was predictably partisan: the New Socialist was in favour, Dan Hodges against. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, complained that McDonell was plotting against parliament. ‘McDonnell believes – and says so – that true democracy is on the streets. This seemingly well-meaning tweet needs to be seen in that context. In government, ‘the street’ would be a key weapon in the hard left armoury.’
The internet has caught the Kon-Mari virus. While the book was already a huge best-seller, nothing is really big these days until it hits Netflix, and the TV series of the Mari Kondo getting people to carefully curate their possessions has got everyone talking, and her name has become a verb: kon-mari. Is it reactionary garbage? While Kondo’s brand of de-hoarding is super specific and not even necessarily minimalist, its certainly caught up in the same trends of #minimalism, tiny houses, and getting rid of all your material possessions so you can put them in a backpack, travel the world and work on your laptop trends. Is this stuff actually a bunch of reactionary nonsense? Is it the aesthetic of the condominium industry? Can poor and working class people afford to get rid of their stuff?
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…