“So on concrete canvas under cover of dark,
On a concrete canvas, I go making my mark,
Armed with the spray can soul…” – Nooneswa, gender equality graffiti collective of Cairo
Under capitalism street art is an expression of an essential desire to reclaim public space. Cities are both sites of collective experience and alienation. Art produced by those struggling within their borders, often represents the most societally marginalized voices. These voices share stories of trauma, defiance, and betrayal. Paint, wheat paste, fabrics, or found objects become the tools for challenging the privatization of the space they recognize as rightfully theirs- spaces that have been commercialized, and sanitized of a popular aesthetic. Read More
According to legend, the last words of Che Guevara before his execution were “I know you've come to kill me. Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.” What Che meant here was that the cause of revolution would live on despite his death. Whether or not the myth is true, the meaning behind it has inspired revolutionaries throughout the world. In certain ways, the myth surrounding Che Guevara has been just as important as the truth. In fact, myths provide a crucial underpinning to how ideology and society is able to function. Myths play a major role not only in society, but in radical political movements, as was recognized by the French syndicalist Georges Sorel and the Peruvian communist Jose Carlos Mariategui. And despite the scientific pretensions of much of the left, myths also supply inspiration, passion and faith to militants in the course of struggle. Read More
Hollywood and moviegoers seem infatuated with dystopian futures. To be sure this is not entirely new, dystopian fiction has been a staple of human imagination since we started telling stories. But the recent popularity of stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent and a plethora of other dark futuristic tales deserves notice. A look at any newspaper can tell you why: Environmental disasters and extreme weather events seem almost routine; an ongoing global economic crises has upended millions of lives and neoliberal economic policies offer only more austerity and hardship. In the U.S. and many other countries broken and utterly corrupt political systems only reinforce growing inequality, and serve to guard elites’ control of wealth and resources. Endless militarism and war have become the new normal as various elites fight for position and control of resources, bolstered by religious fanaticism and hollow but motivating patriotic fervor.
Director George Miller and company are veterans of the post apocalyptic genre. The fourth installment of the Mad Max franchise isn’t so much a reboot, as we’ve come to expect from an increasingly risk averse Hollywood establishment in search of sure fire hits based upon name recognition and audience familiarity. Instead it is an utterly refreshing reimagining of the universe inhabited by the previous Mad Max films, reiterating familiar themes but also transcending them. Therefore, though the left has already written a great deal on this movie (from high praise to critical panning), it is worth stepping back and looking at how its aesthetic accomplishments set it apart. Read More
For leftists, Le musee du Carnavalet, a free museum tucked away in the Parisian Marais, is a treasure trove. The museum presents the history of the city of Paris, depositing artifacts, paintings, and relics of the tortured history of this tortured city. Paris has long captivated the leftist imagination, not simply for its prominence in literature nor only for its demonstrated and longstanding left resistance, but precisely because of its history. Paris, the city of 100,000 novels as Balzac once called it, is singular in its revolutionary history — the site of the decapitation of the king, the streets barricaded during the commune, the vibrancy of the resistance movement during the Nazi occupation, the bravery of Algerian resistance fighters during the struggle for decolonization.
Those interested in the Carnavalet's Revolution collection usually come to marvel at Couthon's chair, displayed in the middle of the room, or to look at Saint Just's pistol, to have their hearts palpitate at Robespierre's membership card to the Cordelier club. These artifacts of history, these possessions of great men, they are no doubt inspiring. And standing in front of it, my partner and I even joked that one day, we could use the lock of Robespierre's hair to do a Jurassic Park style resurrection. There is a kind of awe and grandeur imbued in these objects that the revolutionary heart of mine aches for in longing. One feels inaugurated into the gravity and the force of Revolutionary history, with all its contentions, struggles, vanities, sacrifices, and torrid demises by standing before it. Read More
If any two exhibitions underline the attenuation of radical politics in contemporary visual art it is the Museum of Modern Art’s “Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” and MoMA’s PS1’s “Zero Tolerance.” The micro-aggressions against “good craft” in “Forever Now” hint, but only hint, that something is wrong in curator Laura Hoptmnan’s anti-teleological utopia. This is not Hoptman’s first anti-historical rodeo. Her fidelity to post-modern orthodoxy could be seen as early as the 1994 "Beyond Belief" survey of Central Eastern European art. Oddly enough, the assault on context is echoed in curator Klaus Biesenbach’s decision to exhibit almost everything in “Zero Tolerance,” a show that poses as the quintessential protest exhibition, as digital projection. By presenting ACT UP’s 1987 SILENCE=DEATH poster as a projection instead of an actual print, Biesenbach removes both the auric (distancing) power of the original artifact while simultaneously decontextualizing it from the historic struggle from which it was born. In “Zero Tolerance” we walk through a morass of protest images bombarding us a white noise; a dungeon of eternal struggle. In “Forever Now” we navigate the echoes of gestural abstraction, but without the defiant assertion of individual subjectivity that situated the New York School against post-war American consumerism. Read More
On April 12, 2015 the wildly popular Game of Thrones returned to HBO for a fifth season. No doubt, this season, like all the others, will break ratings records and encourage endless speculation and debate by fans. The television series, based on a projected seven novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, has a devoted following among viewers who are willing to wade through intricate plots, an enormous cast of characters and a world as rich as our own. The series is set in a fantasy world resembling feudal Europe and on the surface feels like many other “sword and sandal” epics, such as Lord of the Rings. However, the series is more than beach side reading – drawing extensively on history, mythology and literature.
Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones (especially for Marxists) is that, unlike Lord of the Rings, there are few clear cut heroes or villains; instead everyone is a shade of gray and presents a harsh view of the feudal world and its sharp class divisions, bourgeois revolutions from above, subordinate status of women, and brutal realpolitik.  Read More
Anita Berber was the physical embodiment of a historical moment. That moment was the Weimar Republic of Germany-whose intensity made up for its brevity. Like Anita, this moment is characterized by its “nearly unquenchable, lust for ineffable sensations.” This Republic, only living to be eleven years young, Berber herself only surviving until age twenty-nine, saw the rise of a fascist regime, and because of this, the intriguing Weimar period is often overshadowed. This moment was forged by the social forces at work, so to was Anita. This period was traumatized and still reeling from the Great War, and their own socialist revolution having failed. The establishment of the parliamentary republic saw a mixing and mingling of social and economic classes, greater flexibility in coming out with a queer identity and numerous progressive social reforms were successfully implemented. Read More
In 1984, it was “morning again in America.” More “men and women [went] to work than ever before in [the] country’s history”; “interest rates [stood at] half the record high of 1980”; there were droves of new home buyers and with inflation “at less than half of what it [had been] four years [prior,]” young families were finally able to look forward upon their future “with confidence.” Yes, “under the leadership of President Reagan our country [was] prouder, and stronger, and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?” a ruggedly husky voiced narrator inquires as shots of children, a firefighter, and an elderly white man raising flags seamlessly fade into one another. This specious description of America in the mid-1980s comes from Ronald Reagan’s famed 1984 “Morning in America” advertising campaign which sought to assure the voting public that his particular brand of neoconservativism had been the necessary catalyst to wrench the country out of the chaos of the previous decade, promising Americans that they could finally put the past behind them. Surely the polity found something within this rhetoric enchanting, as Reagan’s November trouncing of Democratic candidate Walter Mondale certainly illustrates. Read More
“How can I go on living? I’m trading bullets with the opposition
Definitely destined for prison or the grave
I need to get my life together
A new age slave, man I can’t live like this forever
And yeah it’s a shame because I know I can do better
Than holdin’ loaded Berettas ready for whatever to get the cheddar.” – Freddie Gibbs
New York City recently announced that the Bronx Defenders, a city-funded organization of lawyers who assist low-income defendants, would be delayed in receiving $1.7 million from the city until they “improve their standing”. Calls were made to defund them completely. Two attorneys for the organization resigned. Desperate clients will go undefended, people in need will not be helped, and politicians will score brownie points based on fear and loathing in our ever-gentrifying city. All because of a rap video. Read More
The ‘20s and ‘30s of post-revolutionary Russia was a dynamic time in which Soviets refashioned their entire socio-cultural program on a massive scale. Factory designers, workers, and consumers, engaged with state ideology to shape a design tradition that is historically unique and had a lasting impact. For a brief period after the October Revolution of 1917, dedicated and idealistic Soviet artists labored over designs and methodology in order to transform the material of the masses. They turned everyday cotton into the stuff that modern day designers dream of. The textiles they produced however only partially reflected the proletariat‘s needs and desires and in many cases fell short of what the new consumer class direly needed, which was functional clothing fabric. Consumer reception to design trends such as abstract patterns and thematic motifs varied significantly, teaching the industry new lessons in mass marketing.
In reality, it took over a decade for the post-war textile industry and its designers to consider designing for the tastes rather than solely the needs of the proletariat. This lack is partially responsible for a gap in the discourse on Soviet consumers’ response to design. The designers were not writing critically about consumerism and the media was not assessing the merits of the designs upon the consumer. Designers and manufacturers own words help us here to understand the industry’s motivations in relation to the needs of the proletariat. Significantly, the textile industry was among the most successful Soviet socialist economy enterprises in that it more successfully wed the design process to manufacturing. Read More
Following the collapse of the avant-garde model, all art became, in part, a desperate attempt to answer the question of what art should now be: art’s ontological being after post-modernism and after the collapse of so-called “socialism.” For (a romantic or humanist) Marxism the question is one of interrupting cynical disbelief through the re-establishment of distance and aura, but anchored to concerns beyond the rarefied art world—anchored in the proletarian reality and the fantastic hidden within the mundane and banal. Such an approach cannot hope to spur the spectator into action (in the way of Brechtian theater) but neither can it remain an intellectual game. Instead, it aims to “buy time” until the imagination of revolutionary actuality returns.
It might seem odd that Ilya Kabakov could be a paradigmatic figure for such a project. His work is bound up with the supposed failures of utopian modernism, but Kabakov’s reproduction of social and artistic tensions within his work (totality/subjectivity, the mundane/the cosmic, the narrative/the conceptual, the proletarian individual/the collective utopia, modernity/post-modernity) provide clues for potential strategies to grapple with art’s weakening totality. Read More
Editors’ note: This is the second part of a two-part article first published at Socialism and Democracy. Part one can be viewed here.
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“I was a puppet, and I didn’t even know who was pulling the strings.”
Assata’s long line of social self-criticism starts in the living room, with a discussion of Television, and how watching it as a child led her to internalize dominant images of beauty, domesticity, and (white) middle class normativity, so pervasive and insidious in 1950s America. Shakur harshly recounts her unsympathetic and judgmental attitude towards her own mother for “failing” to recreate the middle-class consumer ideal as depicted on TV. “Why didn’t my mother have freshly baked cookies ready when i came home from school?” she writes, “Why didn’t we live in a house with a backyard and a front yard instead of an ole apartment? I remember looking at my mother as she cleaned the house in her old raggedy housecoat with her hair in curlers. ‘How disgusting,’ i would think. Why didn’t she clean the house in high heels and shirtwaist dresses like they did on television” (37). She shows her younger self to be an ingrate and a complainer, an unfair judge of her working-class, single mother. “I was a puppet,” Shakur reflects later, “and i didn’t even know who was pulling the strings” (38). Read More
Editors’ note: This is the first part of an essay included in Socialism and Democracy‘s forthcoming print issue on mass incarceration, to be released later this month. The second part will appear at Red Wedge in early December.
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“If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what is happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.” — Assata, page 207
Thirty-four years ago this November 2, in 1980, Black revolutionary Assata Shakur escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, with the help of comrades wielding .45 caliber pistols. Successfully avoiding a national “manhunt,” Shakur ultimately fled to Cuba, resurfacing there in 1984. Condemned by US authorities and mainstream media as a “cop killer” for her alleged role in a 1973 shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, Assata was granted political asylum by the socialist Castro government, in light of extensive evidence that the former Black Panther Party member (like many activists in the age of COINTELPRO) faced unjust and racist persecution in the United States, and was being targeted for her revolutionary politics. Assata remains in Cuba to this day, where she has long maintained her innocence of any crime but that of seeking to overthrow the racist, imperialist, patriarchal capitalist system. For that “crime,” Shakur proudly pleads guilty. Read More
In The Poetics, Aristotle’s treatise on the art of literature, he says: “…most important by far is it to have a command of metaphor. This is the one thing the poet cannot learn from others. It is the mark of genius; for to coin good metaphors involves an insight into the resemblances between things…(p. 74)”
Another classic of literary criticism, Katherine Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery, examines this command of metaphor in Shakespeare’s plays. The author explains “…I believe we can draw from the material of a poet’s images definite information about his personality…a poet will…naturally tend to draw the large proportion of his images from the objects he knows best, or thinks most about…each writer has a certain range of images which are characteristic of him…with Shakespeare, nature…animals…and what we may call (the) every day and domestic…easily comes first…(p. 12, 13)” Read More
The world knows of Stieg Larsson through his immensely successful Millennium trilogy, a work that became a blockbuster in every sense of the word upon its release in the middle of the previous decade. Translated into dozens of languages around the world and the subject of numerous adaptations for television and film, the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander has resonated with reading audiences in a way that few detective thrillers have, perhaps even since the glory days of the big American crime novelists of the 1930s and 1940s.
All the more tragic, then, that Larsson never got to enjoy the fruits of his labors. He died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack ten years ago this month, even as his trilogy — completed over several years during his free time — was gathering steam internationally in preparation for publication of the first volume. (And, perhaps, a loss for us as well, as he had told his publisher that he planned to write several more books in the series.) Read More
Isaac Babel is a bit of a conundrum. It’s not an easy task to trace his scattered trajectory from Jewish youth navigating the quotas in the Russian education system, cutting his literary teeth at the feet of his beloved mentor Maxim Gorky in Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), rising to renown as a champion of Soviet literature, and being imprisoned for allegedly spying for France and Austria. No stranger to prejudice, Babel wrote with revolution and religious persecution at his backdoor. His own time on the warfront further ignited his incendiary prose and became the basis for his most celebrated story cycle, Red Cavalry. Babel’s loosely autobiographical style coupled with his modernist sensibility lent his writing a personal yet subliminal quality. His stories sometimes read like morality tales, sometimes like diaries, sometimes like journalistic dispatches. One thing they all have in common is his staggering ability to convey with succinct confidence the far and ridiculous reaches of human suffering. Read More
It has been ten years since Joss Whedon’s Angel went off the air. Yet the enduring themes of the show remain with us. It has outgrown its origins as a spin-off to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Angel is about more than a vampire with a soul struggling to atone for past crimes as he battles demons, but showcases a world we can relate to: where not there is not only good and evil, but shades of gray where the heroes don’t always make the right choices and even if they do, they are fighting against powerful institutions and overwhelming odds. Yet more than being just a good television show, Angel, is also radical (dare I say revolutionary?) in its advocacy of revolt against oppressive institutions. This can be explained in part by Whedon’s embrace of the philosophical categories of Jean-Paul Sartre (such as existentialism). However, Angel inherits the various contradictions of Sartrean existentialism which while supportive of struggle against oppression also believe that no lasting victory is possible. Read More
“All the buildings are saying the same things. The foundation runs below them all, fractured and made from the dead, and it is saying the same things.
–we are hungry. we are alone. we are hot. we are full but hungry
–you built us, and you built on us, and below us is only sand” — China Mieville, “Foundation”
The past several years have seen a sharp rise in our culture’s interest in the undead. Zombies and vampires are unavoidable on television, film and popular literature. There’s naturally been no shortage of of social commentary ascribed to this revival, and plenty of thinkers and critics — including radicals — willing to hold forth on what lies beneath this trend. If, per the quote misattributed to Fredric Jameson, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” then there’s little wonder why the living dead have provided such a source of fascination.
By comparison, ghosts may seem mundane, prosaic even. And yet through the annals of capitalism there is no more ubiquitous supernatural being. For all of Karl Marx’s fantastical imagery, it was the ghost — not the shuffling flesh-eater or bloodsucker — that he and collaborator Friedrich Engels chose to open their most important document: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” Read More
For the many who stare perplexed at the phenomenon of giant monster movies, the driving question is: what’s the appeal? For those of us who belong to the fandom, the old answers are necessary in response: we should not be compelled to justify what we enjoy; the genre hits a note of nostalgia for some of us; there is something inherently enjoyable about watching giant creatures level a cityscape; the lost art of rubber suits and detailed miniatures is something we ought to respect in and of itself; and so on. But is there something more going on here, something underneath the text?
At the outset we must dispense with the idea that there is such a thing as “pure entertainment.” Many respond to these kinds of inquiries with the old adage, “You are reading too much into it, it is just meant to be entertaining!” There is a lot to unpack in this statement, suffice it to say that something is entertaining as a consequence of its ability to communicate to a population of people in a specific context, making said entertainment product inherently ripe with social commentary as a consequence of its conditions of production. This is to say, playing to an audience’s simple entertainment factor implies that we are communicating with them about things they know, and in the last estimate all we know is derived from the social context from which our very identities have been developed. Read More
As a youngster growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Emory Douglas was always in and out of youth detention centers. The counselors knew him and knew that he liked to draw. Douglas’s mother ran a state-run concession stand for the disabled at one of these and knew a lot of the probation officers to whom she would talk about Douglas’s talents.  Douglas was raised by his mother, who was legally blind and worked hard as a single parent. Downstairs from Douglas lived an artist named Charles Bible who would mass-produce multiple paintings of the same image of Malcolm X every year for anniversary celebrations of Malcolm X’s life. Through talking to Bible, Douglas learned about Bible’s assembly-line production process as well as Bible’s painting technique. This information became very helpful to Douglas when he began doing portrait paintings over the years. Growing up Douglas found artistic influence from the work Charles White whose art Douglas had seen on a calendar as a child at his aunt’s house.  While Douglas was in the Youth Authority system, he worked in the print shop at the Youth Training Center. They asked Douglas to design the logo they would use to label materials to be shipped out. This was essentially Douglas’s first commission. 
In the youth detention center Douglas worked on mostly landscape art, without social meaning. A year or so after his release, Douglas decided to attend the City College of San Francisco. The counselor at the detention center heard about Douglas’ plan and suggested that he take up art. When Douglas enrolled, a college counselor suggested Douglas major in Commercial Arts. After this, Douglas’ whole idea of going to school became to break into the commercial art field. He developed his graphic design skills to a professional level, and was sent out on various job assignments. He worked at a silk-screen factory where he learned the silk-screen printing process. He also worked a fine wine goblet and silverware store in downtown San Francisco doing layouts as well as cutting and pasting advertisements and preparing signs for store window displays. He attended City College off and on from around 1964 to 1966. City College introduced him to basic graphic design elements such as figure drawing, sketching, illustration drawing, lettering, layout and design, pre-press production, the offset printing process, and the basic animation process. This educational practice also taught Douglas how to critique and evaluate his own work. City College was Douglas’ only academic graphic design training prior to actual on-the-job training. Read More