Social media asserts a massive multi-subjectivity. This is a conundrum for those who aimed to speak to/on behalf of the masses (for good or ill). It is a disaster for those who thought that without overdetermined capitalist media the masses would embrace their own emancipation, beauty and pathos. Storming Bastilles and unknowable poems were expected; instead there are incels and leftbook. (1) Of course, the Internet is also home to social genius and brilliant artworks. But these tend to be exceptions. This is because social media does not help the masses assert their actual subjectivities but leads the masses to create reified performances; it produces subjectivities as simulacra. Just like every other media phase in capital’s history, the majority of the content is mediocre and reinforces bourgeois “common sense.” (2) The difference is that this time we appear to be in control. It is an illusion. We have the apparent form of democratization without social content. We have the unique subject (in theory) without that subject’s emancipation. (3)
Marxism is many things. Whether or not one agrees with the likes of Michael Heinrich that it is not a worldview (I believe it most certainly is), it denotes a varying set of processes of collective and individual human practice and cognition. Whether or not you want to call that a worldview, well, you do you, boo. To define it is thus, in a sense, to engage in it. Marxism of course is not limited to being operationalized, as it were as a “discourse” or a set of written procedures. As is apocryphally told, the great American revolutionary socialist Big Bill Haywood once remarked that he neve read Marx’s Capital but his body was covered with “marks from capital”. Yet accepting the absolute primacy of sensual creative human practice, what Marx calls “form giving fire” of human labour, there is still the word and the set of words, the discourse, better yet, the rhetoric, or even better yet the poetic.
The origins of this piece came out of a discussion about neoliberalism and music in the context of the legacy of the 1960s counter culture. The debate revolved around two lines – whether punk was an ending or continuation of the 60s, and whether neoliberalism has subsumed and commodified counter-cultural themes, making them null and void.
While there have been strides to widen discussions in art history to include issues like gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity, the corporate marketing of pricey art-history textbooks to American college students produces materials that glaringly omit and/or deemphasize Marxism as an analytical catalyst. In addition, examples of historical experiments with self-described "real-existing socialism" tend to be so grotesquely abbreviated as to distort context and content and preclude understanding.
“Outsider Art” positions art and artists in or outside the art world. “Art Brut” and “Outsider Art” were terms coined during the reign of the modernist avant-garde, in the 1940s and 1970s respectively. In this, whatever problems these concepts had, they initially positioned artists in and outside a conscious stream on ongoing aesthetic innovation, a stream in which a significant minority of artists had political sympathetic with anarchist, socialist, and Marxist politics. But, as Boris Groys observes, the modern avant-garde became, in the late 20th century, a weak avant-garde, avoiding the strong politics of modern art, as well as the strong images of classical and popular culture. There are number of reasons for this transition.
There are concepts whose time has passed, and each usage now betrays or strays from the initial power of the term. “Transgression,” when deployed by such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille in the1930’s-to-late 20th century was a radical concept articulated with change and resistance. That is not to say that transgression wasn’t often a means for the homogeneous order to absorb elements marked outside of it and/or or at its limits.
According to Franco Moretti, the fear of bourgeois society can be summed up in two names: Frankenstein and Dracula. He notes how both were born in 1816 on a rainy evening near Geneva, at a time when industrial development was just beginning to get underway (1997, 83). His argument is that Frankenstein and Dracula are dramatic, totalizing monsters. Unlike the feudal or aristocratic ghosts who were confined to a castle, these figures go international, expressing the motions of capital and labour. While originally published in 1983, his argument resonates most strongly in the late neoliberal period.
Glenn Branca made it to my hometown relatively late in his career; as I recall, he stormed the stage rasping approval after a performance of the first movement of his fourteenth, then most recent, symphony — an overture of ambient menace, moving through the harmonic series in cascading waves. Wild-haired and foul-mouthed, long since an institution, Branca took his time in praise of the neo-romantic program in which he appeared, spitting anachronistic condemnation of musical systematizers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez. I recall thinking this attempted relitigation of musical modernism extremely telling; no one is a context unto their own, and more often than not an adaptive grudge outlives its object as a useless negativity, festering resentfully.
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).