Beyond Zero Tolerance and Forever Now: A New Genealogy for Anti-Capitalist Art

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.

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Winning and Ruling: A Marxist Look at Game of Thrones

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. [1] 

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Selling the Farm: Textile Design in Early Soviet Society

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.

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Assata: Revolutionary Relatability (part 2)

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).

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Marx's Metaphor

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)”

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The Work and Legacy of Stieg Larsson

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.)

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Isaac Babel: “They Wouldn’t Let Me Finish”

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.

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Sartrean Themes in Joss Whedon’s Angel: A Marxist Interpretation

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.

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The Spirit Politic

“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.”

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