Bowie in Brecht's Baal (Video)

Baal (1919) was the first play by Bertolt Brecht, written before he became a Marxist, at the height of his hedonistic sturm und drang (storm and stress). Sturm und drang was rooted in early German romanticism, and emphasized individual subjectivity and emotion; which in turn influenced 20th century German expressionism. While Baal was thoroughly anti-bourgeois, Brecht was not a Marxist. In his second major play, Drums in the Night, Brecht has a soldier ignore the German Revolution in favor of taking to bed with his girlfriend. Baal, however, hits several Romantic anti-bourgeois notes; not the least in its name, coming from an ancient Semitic word for lord, believed to refer to a storm and fertility god. Among some Christians and Muslims Baal was thought to be a demon. In the 1600s occultists considered him to be one of the seven princes of Hell. In Brecht’s play, however, Baal is a drunk poet. Were that all, and were it produced after WW2 (by which time such stories became the silly cliches of wannabe beatniks), the play would not be particularly interesting. But Baal is not an idealized boheme. He is, more or less, a monster (not totally unlike Mackie Messer, although not  as socially situated or likable). One almost wonders, at certain points, if Brecht is making fun of Baal; ridiculing his own pretensions and an extreme version of his own debauchery. In 1982 David Bowie appeared in a BBC production of Baal (as the titular character). The songs (written by Brecht) were retranslated and given new musical scores.

Adam Turl is an artist and writer currently living in St. Louis, Missouri where he is an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. He is an editor at Red Wedge Magazine where he writes the “Evicted Art Blog.” He also is a founding member of the November Artist Network. His most recent exhibitions are "13 Baristas" at the Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas, Nevada and "Kick the Cat" at Project 1612 in Peoria, Illinois.

"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

Forty years after the dematerialization of the art object

This article was originally posted three years ago on the old Red Wedge site. In the past three years my ideas on the following have continued to evolve, particularly on the question of narrative conceptualism and the role of the avant-garde. At the same time there are still things I agree with, and due to popular demand (okay one person asked about it who hadn't read it before) I am reposting it to the Evicted Art Blog.

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"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

12 "Good Things" from 2015

Last year was mostly shit. Remnants of the Arab Spring were consumed by the mutually reinforcing dyad of ISIS and U.S. imperialism. Black bodies lay in the streets of every major American city; murdered by racist police. Whatever you think of Bernie Sanders the life-blood of Occupy has been directed, again, into a bourgeois electoral process designed to demobilize activists. SYRIZA betrayed the Greek working-class and the international left (that had placed so much hope in it). Of course, there are glimmers of hope: the re-election of Kshama Sawant; Jeremy Corbyn’s (Trotskyist, Maoist or Stalinist, pick one) plot to “take over the Labour Party” that he was democratically elected to lead; Black Lives Matter activists are pressing forward… What follows here, however, is not some sort of socialist perspectives-in-disguise. Instead it is my reflection on some of the cultural, artistic and critical products/ideas of the past year (or so); each that I believe are good in their own right, but will also help orient cultural Marxists.  What blood-addled revenges and carnivals will we seek in the ruins to come?

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The Kidnapping of Punxsutawney Phil (Part I)

In 2028, five years after the last winter in the North American continental humid climate zone, Mary Hoagland, the sixteen year old daughter of laid-off Caterpillar workers from Peoria, Illinois, kidnapped Punxsutawney Phil in a bid to stop global warming. She wrote the following poem about the experience during her two year imprisonment in the Peoria County Juvenile Center.

Adam Turl, Kick the Cat at Project 1612 in Peoria, IL. "Remember Winter," acrylic and coffee on canvas.

Adam Turl, The Kidnapping of Punxsutawney Phil I,
acrylic and coffee on canvas (Kick the Cat)

Adam Turl, The Kidnapping of Punxsutawney Phil II, 
acrylic, glitter and coffee on canvas (Kick the Cat)

Adam Turl, Saint George of Peoria
acrylic and coffee on canvas (Kick the Cat)

I remember winter
Little Hoths consumed the yard
When it melted
microbes came back to life
hydras battled Hercules
and sloshed in the drainage ditch
running into corrugated pipe
under the drive
The kingdom of six inch trolls
presided over the final frost

I had an epiphany in Sarah’s garage
pulled from a 21 inch Graffix
If Punxsutawney Phil never again
failed to see his own shadow
then winter might return
We could put him in
absolute darkness
or immersive light
or decapitate him
like in those old-timey ISIS videos

The construction dividers
blurred into an orange wall
and I thought I saw a coyote
running alongside Sarah’s truck
on the passenger’s side
If I believed in spirit animals
maybe he could be mine
What if he misses winter too?
Maybe he will swing the machete
that kills the enemy groundhog.

By the time the dragons busted me
in the television warehouse
the groundhog was dead
and I had become Saint George
Or maybe they sent me to
the Maxwell Road snow globe
shook it a couple times
forgot about me
and I spent the next two years
catching plastic flakes on my tongue

Adam Turl is an artist, writer and socialist currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes the "Evicted Art Blog" at Red Wedge, which is dedicated to exploring visual and studio art.

"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

New Jerusalem in Chains

“Capitalism gives rise to independent individuals who can carry out socioeconomic functions; but when these individuals evolve into subjective individualities, exploring and developing their inner worlds and personal feelings, they enter into contradiction with a universe based on standardization and reification. And when they demand their imagination be given free play, they collide with the extreme mercantile platitude of the world produced by capitalist relations. In this respect, Romanticism represents the revolt of repressed, channeled, and deformed subjectivity and affectivity.” (Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity)

 “Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work.” (Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch.”)

André Breton, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky in Mexico City

As J. Matthew Camp argues in “New Jerusalem Unbound” the fact we are having an historical and theoretical debate on the Marxist understanding of Romanticism and art is a good thing. The infrequency of such debates has stymied the development of both cultural theory and art itself. In the resulting vacuum cynicism has reigned supreme.

The editors of Red Wedge have done a great service in creating a platform for the exploration of the relationship between Marxism, radical politics and art. It is also important to note these debates are in no way questions of principle when it comes to the main arenas of socialist struggle—working-class self-emancipation, abolishing oppressions and opposing imperialism.

Nevertheless, the conclusion of “New Jerusalem Unbound” leads me to believe that we are engaged not only in a debate about Romanticism but also, in this instance, the attitude of Marxism to art:

The best contemporary artists, in the horror genre and beyond, are—and will be—those that negotiate the best elements of Romanticism away from itself and bind them to a new militant, revolutionary consciousness.” [emphasis added]

Marxism and Art

In this case J. Matthew Camp appears to see art—and judge art movements—primarily in their relationship to the development of class-consciousness.

While I believe this is an important aspect of any Marxist analysis of art, it must be seen in relationship to two other (central) factors: the origins of what we now call art as a spiritual phenomenon and the dialectical relationship between the evolution of art and its situation in various class societies.

Art is simply unable play a leading role in the formation of class-consciousness.

The best political art tends to lag the development of class-consciousness historically—Constructivism, the short stories of Isaac Babel, the films of Sergei Eisenstein, the plays of Bertolt Brecht, Weimer-era photomontage and expressionism. This high point of conscious Marxism in art occurred in the aftermath of the Russian and German Revolutions. The high point of Marxism in art echoed the high point of Marxism itself.

 Isaac Babel, author of Red Calvary, after being arrested by the Soviet secret police

Since the inter-war years there have been many important Marxist contributions to art—but as Marxism was minimized by capitalist demonization and Stalinist distortion so too was its cultural influence.\

When conceptual art completed the project begun in 1917 by Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain—and the art world became conscious of itself as a lab of signification—artists tended to look to postmodernism.

More bluntly, artists of wildly divergent political and philosophical orientations produced the “best” contemporary art—both popular and “avant-garde”—in the post-war decades (and after). All this had political content (and context) and those things should be part of any critique. But art can’t be judged simply in relationship to the development of class-consciousness—because the development (or retardation) of that consciousness is not, ultimately, the primary function of art.

Marxists do not advocate so-called “pure art”—there is no such thing. All cultural artifacts are a product of their social origins—and all cultural artifacts exist in relationship to the ideological struggle between social classes. Regardless, Marxists do not advocate a defined political program for art.

Trotsky argued, in far more politically developed circumstances, that the revolutionary party should not direct the production of art towards revolutionary consciousness. Revolutionary ideas, he asserted, could only find genuine expression within art when the artist—as a subjective individual—genuinely felt and believed them.

These political concerns evolve in a dialectical interaction with the “spiritual” core of art.

This spiritual core is the web of “internal logics” in art (see Trotsky and Breton)—the seemingly “irrational” methods of signification influenced by a long and collective—but often subconscious—history of past sign systems, each formed in a dialectical relationship with various stages of social development—beginning in the long era of primitive communism and stretching into late capitalism—repeatedly filtered and reformed through individual as well as class subjectivities.

In this light, the bifurcation of consciousness that Matthew Camp refers to is not only characteristic of Romanticism. It is a characteristic of artists and art itself—as well as a characteristic of all mixed consciousness. The “bifurcation of consciousness” is, as a specific charge, an essentially tautological formulation.

“Irrational” signification is also intimately tied with those things that have not yet been answered by the rational—either due to false consciousness or the limits of current social development or the human condition itself—suffering, death, love, birth, loss, etc.

Art is ultimately about the creation of spiritual artifacts and experiences. How those artifacts are shaped, produced and distributed is determined by both the subjectivity of the artist (or art movements) as well as the objective social conditions of their formation.

Trotsky’s comparison to hunger is apt. Capitalism did not create the need to eat. Capital shapes how modern food production is organized. Capitalism did not create the need for art—but shapes how art is produced and organized in bourgeois society.

Romanticism is, essentially, the defense of art’s spiritual core from its status as a utilitarian appendage of capital. It is the art world’s version of a peasant uprising—and like a peasant uprising it looks backwards and forwards at the same time.

 Magura Cave, Bulgaria, circa 8,000 BCE

The Spiritual and Material Origins of Art

As far as we can tell, tens of thousands of years ago human beings started to carve in stone and paint on walls. Soon after they molded clay and carved musical instruments from bone. What we call art began with a spiritual impulse in societies that did not yet have a word for the “political.” These were primitive communist societies—egalitarian hunter-gatherers that knew nothing of social classes, exploitation or gender oppression.

With little separating early human beings from nature—from animals, disease and hunger—our ancestors sought through the creation of fetishes, familiars and totems to connect the immediacy of their material existence with a vast spiritual unknown. Early humans—through art and storytelling—populated the unknown with spirits.

The spirits created were not “good” or “evil.” They were both creators and destroyers, tricksters and helpful guides, representatives of flora gathered and fauna hunted, as well as the (usually) gendered (but balanced) forces of earth and sky, moon and sun—forces seen as central to the reproduction of life.

Art was a spiritual-humanist action. The specifics of that art varied widely from place to place—but the cosmologies of early art reflected both the egalitarian nature of society and its close proximity to nature. The spirits invented mirrored the vacillations of the natural world—providing abundance one moment only to remove it the next.

The First Artists

During this long pre-history the first artists appeared—the shamans—medicine men and women who served as storytellers, historians, healers, artists and magicians.

The shamans went into altered states of consciousness—through the aid of drugs or rituals—to the “spirit world”—to attain special knowledge for the benefit of a group. This might have been to heal a sick child or to divine what to paint on the wall of a cave.

“The Sorcerer,” cave painting from France, circa 12,000 BCE

The shamans, mimicking the ancient spirits, were tricksters. They passed down “magic” tricks from generation to generation—tricks that proved their connections to the spirit world.

Shamanism—along with animism—appears to have ruled the spiritual life of humanity for thousands of years. These were the “faiths” of primitive communism. The spirits were thought alive in all things. All things were magic.

The enchantment of daily life and “irrational” signification were part and parcel of art from its earliest inception—and through the shamans the immediate needs of early human beings—as a collective—became intertwined with the magical play of art.

Art expressed the early human need for a “harmonious and complete life” in an environment that alternated between paradise and oblivion.

The Overthrow of the Shamans

With the rise of class society priests replaced the shamans. Early agricultural societies even created mythological accounts of the “overthrow of the shamans.” Spirituality became the specialized domain of institutional religions—religions tied to new class orders.

The new ruling-classes understood the power and magic of art, of stories and myths—and that these forces could no longer be the playthings of artists in democratic dialogue with egalitarian groups.

Just as the rise of class society came in tandem with slavery and the oppression of women, it drove the first wedge between art and life. As kingdoms became empires the magic of art was directed toward the majesty of the ruling elites, high priests and hangers on.

The shamans became clowns. Totems became ziggurats. Fetishes became monuments. Art was divided into more and more specialized crafts—at all levels of the new class structure.

Even so, in pre-capitalist class societies, use value reigned supreme—and the primary use value of art was its spiritual function—however tied to the new ruling elites.

Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

Art offered transcendence and ascension—escape from suffering and death—and sometimes escape within worldly pleasures. It did so in images of the medieval plague crucifix, in whirling dervishes, in Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and in the schematics of chakras. There are thousands of examples, each specific but connected to a long historical arc.

Class struggle, of course, shaped the art of every society. New art and ideas challenged—and were metabolized by—ruling elites. Early Christian, Muslim, Sufi, Buddhist, Zen and Taoist art all challenged ruling-classes only to become, eventually, the official art.

Within this long history the shamanistic origins of art continued to echo—even into the Renaissance and Baroque.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa features the saint—known for mystical visions—in what can only be described as sexual abandon—about to be pierced by the arrow of an angel. Here, against “Protestant rationalism,” Theresa is presented as medicine woman.

 The Rise of Capital

Art was a qualitative entity—to be judged on its merits as craft and in its success in communicating what often seemed beyond communication.

With capitalism all values were subordinated to exchange. Art became a commodity and its separation from daily life became complete. Nevertheless, capital allowed for the connection of the spiritual core of art to individual subjectivities. The individual—his and her emotions, bodily form, personality, position in the world—became part and parcel of art.

Michelangelo’s Pieta

Shakespearean tragedy and comedy would not have been possible without capitalism. In Renaissance art the archetypal forms of the past—death, the virgin birth—became vehicles for tragedy and hopes that relate to us as individual human beings.

In Michelangelo’s Pieta, for example, we do not see the ascension—although the hope of ascension is still there. Instead we see the inevitability of death as Mary cradles (impossibly so!) the dead Christ. It is sadness that is communicated—not for the human race (as in medieval pietas) but the loss of a specific individual.

It is the contradiction—built upon the history of art as spiritual phenomenon—between the rise of individual subjectivity (and specifically that of the artist) and that individual’s debasement before capital—that helps create the Romantic.

The Birth and Character of the Romantic

 Camp’s apparent avoidance of art’s spiritual nature shapes his misunderstanding of the Romantic. He emphasis its subjective character as a specific 18th and 19th century movement and de-emphasizes phenomenological commonalities with elements of modern cultural movements.

Without recognizing the spiritual core of art, its defense seems like an anachronism. If one recognizes the spiritual core of art, however, one sees how that core is imprisoned and retarded by capital and how the Romantic can be an ally to revolution. 

The argument that the Romantic must be taken first and foremost as a product of early capitalism—rather than, as I argue, both a product of the early capital and its subsequent development—is based on a presentist reading of the initial Romantics.

Far from being a clearly defined subjective movement many of the original Romantics did not identify as Romantic. They shared contrasting philosophical and political ideologies. This supports Löwy and Sayre’s argument that Romanticism was not a coherent ideology as much as it was a weltanshaung—a worldview—sharing a common signifying structure—characterized by opposition to quantification and the disenchantment of everyday life.

The Lake Poets—Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc.—only came to be known as Romantics some decades later. Löwy and Sayre argue, in fact, that elements of the Romantic began long before the Industrial and French Revolutions in tandem with the starts and stops of early capitalist development.

It is necessary here to delineate the origins of the term “Romantic”—and “Romanticism”—and its history as a cultural phenomenon.

The term “Romanticism” only came into use some five or six decades after the heyday of what is widely considered Romanticism. The term “Romantic” appeared long before.

Its earliest uses tended to be associated with certain novels from the Middle Ages in which primacy was given to emotion and imagination. These novels—in which, for example, the concept of romantic love was first widely introduced in Europe—presaged capitalism’s fostering of individual subjectivity.

Löwy and Sayre argue:

“[T]here is a prehistory of Romanticism that has its roots in the ancient development of business, money, cities and industry and that is manifested later, especially in the Renaissance, in reaction to the evolution and abrupt forward surges of progress and modernity. Like its antithesis, capitalism, Romanticism evolved over a prolonged historical period. But these two antagonists only come into being as fully developed structures—as Gesamtkomplexe—in the eighteenth century.”

This is crystallized in the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

“The ancient peoples are no longer a model for the moderns; they are too foreign in every respect. You, especially, Genevans, stay in your place… You are neither Romans nor Spartans; you are not even Athenians. Leave those names alone; they do not become you. You are merchants, artisans, bourgeois, always occupied with your private interests, your work, commerce, profits; you are a people for whom freedom itself is only a means toward untrammeled acquisition and secure possession.”

Here, from a central Enlightenment and republican figure, is a clear manifestation of the Romantic—nostalgia for a pre-capitalist past, qualitative vs. quantitative value, etc. 

This is the cultural counterpoint within capital established—the Romantic antithesis to capitalism’s constant assertion of the “end of history”—an appeal to historical evidence that something else existed before.

The Romantic-political moment—represented by Rousseau—is long gone. The Romantic in culture, however, continues. This is because the political antithesis of capital—proletarian class-consciousness—can’t play the role of cultural antithesis.

No one knows what proletarian culture (which is more or less impossible) looks like. Nor does anyone know what genuine communist culture (which has not yet existed) will look like. There are as of yet no “logics” to post-capitalist signification.

The (conscious or unconscious) anti-capitalist artist turns again and again to the Romantic frame, digging into the vast pool of past signs, searching for a way to express the inexpressible, escape reification, connect with the spiritual and humanist elements of art, or connect to proletarian aspirations.

To return to Löwy and Sayre on the advent of the Romantic:

“[I]n this generalization of the marketplace, culture, art and literature were by no means spared; in the second half of the eighteenth century, intellectuals, artists, and writers became, to a vastly greater extent than ever before, free agents in the various marketplaces for their cultural products. The system of patronage increasingly gave way to the sale of books and paintings. The producers of culture thus found themselves confronted with a contradiction between the use value and the exchange value of their products; the new socioeconomic system affected them in their innermost reaches.”

Writers, poets, monks and artists found themselves in a similar position to that of their predecessors—the shamans—adapt to a system that undermined the very nature of their role (as conduit to the spiritual-humanist realm of art) or be vanquished.

Commodification of culture completed the separation of art and daily life. From then on art would be alienated from the vast majority of the human race, filtered through structures of mass and bourgeois consumption.

With capitalism art was separated from both heaven and earth.

The Continuation of the Romantic

It is art’s rebellion at these separations that inform its modern history.

If we are to take the subjectivity of specific literary and art movements into account—and by all means we should—we have to grapple with the many divergences within early Romanticism as well as its expressions within later movements.

Moreover, I would not argue that there is a subjective coherence in all iterations of the Romantic. There is not. In each movement, with its own specific characteristics, artists (both as a group and as individuals) have interacted and reflected the broader social context filtered through the “spiritual core” of art.

Hugo Ball in Zurich

Some 20th century art movements—the Romantic surrealists and the unromantic minimalists for example—have had clear manifestos and organizations. Others—the sometimes Romantic Dada and Fluxus—have been chaotic nodes of artistic activity and served more as a clearinghouse for radical aesthetic and political impulses that had built up within art.

Dada is a great example of the sometimes-contradictory nature of the political and spiritual within art. In its short lifespan Dada included radically anti-political anarchists, the Romantic work of Hugo Ball’s “Verse Ohne Worte”—“Poetry Without Words”—and the explicitly Marxist photomontages of John Heartfield.

The Romantic is not the “conjuring stone” of all anti-capitalist art movements. It is a phenomenon of capitalist culture. Futurism, Constructivism, naturalism, minimalism and pop art eschewed the Romantic—for progressive, apolitical or reactionary reasons. Regardless, the Romantic has always returned, because it represents the aspirations of art imprisoned by capital.

To borrow shamelessly from Victor Serge, I have no objection to the idea that the germ of nihilism was present in Romanticism from the beginning. However, there are many germs within Romanticism, as there are in any oppositional tendency within capital. Any movement, idea, tendency or ideology that fails to deal with the actuality of revolution is prone to become the politics or aesthetics of despair.

The germ of nihilism metastasizes in the absence of hope.

The Romantic, however, is not an ideology proper, it is, as mentioned earlier, a worldview, an approach to signification. It is entirely possible to be both a Romantic and a Marxist—and therefore to deal with the actuality of revolution without jettisoning the spiritual core of art (of which the Romantic is the standard-bearer).

Che Fare?

Mario Merz, “Che Fare?” 1968

In 1968—the year of the student revolts and the French General Strike—the artist Mario Merz scrawled in huge letters on a garage wall the words, “Che Fare?”—echoing in Italian Lenin’s What is to Be Done?

Merz—who was imprisoned as a young man for antifascist activity—was one of the more overtly political artists associated with the Arte Povera—“Poor Art”—movement. His installation did not mindlessly echo the words of Lenin—or seek to undermine them like a common bourgeois.

In front of the words, “Che Fare,” Merz built an igloo—which he saw as a perfectly balanced pre-modern structure—out of pre-industrial materials. Beneath the scrawled text he rigged water to drip into a bucket, overflow on the floor and run into a drain.

The primary example of socialist subjectivity—often misleadingly so—is coupled here with the utterly objective phenomenon of gravity’s effects on water and the balanced form of the igloo.

Art does not have to choose between its spiritual past and the socialist future. On the contrary—it is art where those two things intermix—where the illogical signification of art can be a “conjuring stone” for our imaginations, imaginations that can project an emancipated future.

It is impossible—from the Marxist point of view—to know what art should do between now and its eventual jubilee. What art can do, however, is act as a “mystical” bridge between the past, present and future.

Art can be a social totem—however constrained by this world—echoing the worlds that came before, telegraphing the “New Jerusalem” to come.


  • Bowlt, James, Russian Art of the Avant Garde, Thames and Hudson: New York and London, 1957
  • Campbell, Joseph, Masks of God Volume 1, Penguin: New York, 1991
  • Engels, Frederick, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Penguin: New York, 2010)
  • Hopkins, David, After Modern Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Kunzeli, Rudolph, Dada (Themes and Movements), Phaidon: London, 2011
  • Löwy, Michael and Sayre, Robert, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001
  • Lukacs, Georg, History and Class Consciousness, Boston: MIT Press, 1972
  • Eds. Marlch, Mayer-Stoll, Pro, Che Fare? Arte Povera: The Historic Years, Luxembourg: Kehrer Verlag, 2011
  • Stiles, Kristine, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996
  • Trotsky, Leon, Art and Revolution, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970
  • Trotsky, Leon, Literature and Revolution, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005
  • Walsh, Roger, The World of Shamanism, Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2007

"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

Zombie Western of the Post-Mortem South

I am reposting some of my old articles, lost when Red Wedge updated our website. Here is a review from two years ago of The Walking Dead. Some of the criticisms, particularly around gender, might no longer make as much sense due to some improvements in the show. Other criticisms, for example regarding the show's libertarian survivalism, might be too subdued.

The Walking Dead is now the most popular show on cable television. Over the past two Sundays millions gathered around their televisions to watch the first two episodes of the current season. The University of California-Irvine even offers an online course, “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead.” Tens of thousands of students have enrolled. AMC has announced plans for a spin-off show. 

Zombies are everyone—and The Walking Dead is the epicenter of their cultural hegemony. While much of the above is rather silly, The Walking Dead is an excellent work of television that has tapped into deep cultural and social veins of American life—while at the same time being very problematic.

The Walking Dead is based on Robert Kirkman’s eponymous comic book series. Kirkman intentionally sees himself standing in the tradition of George Romero. Romero invented the contemporary zombie genre by fusing elements of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend (1954), classic Hollywood horror and the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s in films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). 

Kirkman sees his comic—and the show—as a Romero film that never ends. Kirkman’s zombies follow all of Romero’s classic rules. They are slow and shambolic. The “virus” or whatever it is that has animated the dead is never really explained. All the dead rise up and consume the flesh of the living. The manner of their death is irrelevant.

Judging by the ratings millions of people share Kirkman’s vision of never-ending horror. It is a macabre fascination that has only grown in recent years. As the Canadian Marxist David McNally argued on Jacobin:

“Driving the success of The Walking Dead is a doomsday fascination with zombie apocalypse. In the face of crumbling cities, soaring job loss, decaying social services and ecological destruction, impending doom can seem not only inevitable, but even preferable to the slow death march of late capitalism.”

“But the global economic slump that began in 2008 sent the popular infatuation with the undead truly viral. As millions entered the night of the living dead of mass unemployment, zombies invaded popular culture, prompting Time magazine to declare them ‘the official monster of the recession.’”

McNally criticizes The Walking Dead as representing a break from earlier more explicitly left-wing iterations of the zombie narrative. In particular he traces a break from the zombie-laborer of films like White Zombie (1932) and the consumerist zombies (who eat everything in their path) in Night of the Living Dead. But the zombie-consumers of Romero’s films were present in a moment of cultural and political criticism. The political and historical meanings of Night of the Dead or Dawn of the Dead are (and were) immediately clear. The Walking Dead, however, seems to stand outside that historical razor’s edge. It is like a child’s dream or the slow movement of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

George Romero’s films were, in a sense, prophetic warnings. Romero warned of the dangers of militarism, violence, consumerism, Reagan’s reheated Cold War (in Day of the Dead [1985]), of class polarization and war (in Land of the Dead [2005]), and of the contradictions of mass media (in Diary of the Dead [2007]). If Romero was the author of Revelations, than Robert Kirkman is the Beast.

In this sense, The Walking Dead is about life after the prophetic doom has come to pass. I do not simply mean that it takes place “after the zombie apocalypse” (although it does). I mean that The Walking Dead is produced by a world that long ago failed to heed Romero’s warnings. 

A few weeks ago in Philadelphia a twelve year-old African American girl died of an asthma attack because the school had no nurse. In Georgia—where The Walking Dead takes place—police recently shot a Black man to death after his family called 911 worried he had taken too much diabetes medicine. Racism, economic crisis and environmental catastrophe are closing in. Wars seem to go on endlessly. Neo-confederates shut down the U.S. government. America eats its young; and its old and its middle-aged. Just like a character in one of his movies Romero has fled to Canada. The barbarism of the United States seems unfettered.

Kirkman, unlike Romero, is coy about what he thinks about the disasters of contemporary society. The Walking Dead has befuddled conservative, liberal, feminist and Marxist critics. This is because The Walking Dead is a fairly seamless fusion of two key American narratives and mythologies: the zombie apocalypse and the western. As Dan Hassler-Forest argues of Kirkman in Study of Comics

Dead conflates the western with the zombie genre. This combination of genres is all the more thought-provoking as the western genre traditionally stages the Grand Narrative of patriarchal power from within the historical context of colonialist imperialism, whereas the zombie genre is associated with the destablization of such forms of power.”

This inbuilt contradiction helps explain why critics have found it difficult to get a bead on the “deeper” meanings of The Walking Dead. In addition to these two key genre elements the show also evokes the mythologies of the “fallen South” during and after the Civil War, aspects of the Holocaust and fairly traditional (however well written) psychological studies of human beings under severe stress. According to The Atlantic, every Walking Dead writer was “required to read Vicktor Frankl’s account of concentration camp-survival” during World War Two.

This prismatic consciousness, reflected in the show and its viewers, explains why some conservatives can hail the show while others—like the morons at Fox News—can proclaim, “America’s obsession with The Walking Dead is hurting our society.” It is why some liberal commentators see The Walking Dead as a horrific object lesson in humanism while others can see it as a cesspool of patriarchy. It is, in a way, both.

The Post-Mortem South

While the Southern and racial motifs of The Walking Dead are less central to the daily narratives of the show they are hard-wired into its premise and location. The hero of the show, Rick Grimes, is a southern sheriff only a few decades removed from the days of Bull Connor (although one would never know this from the show itself). His “post-racial” bona-fides are established early on as he befriends a Black man and his son (in both the comic and the television show). In the television show Rick defends T-Dog, another African American character, from the stupid “red-neck” racism of Merle. But nowhere is race or racism explored in any great depth. 

The fact that Rick is a police officer does not in and of itself make the show racist. Two of the four main characters in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead were riot policemen. They fled the city not so much because of the zombies but because of the racism of their own police force. They were ordered to clear out a housing project of mostly Black and Puerto Rican residents, killing countless people in the process. They recoiled in horror. Rick does not recoil from his position. His entry to the zombie apocalypse comes as he wakes up from a coma—a coma he suffers after being shot in the line of duty.

Upon finding his wife and son—with a band of survivors outside Atlanta—Rick reprises his pre-apocalypse role rather than attempt to escape it. He leads the group in its attempts to find refuge from the chaos. He is the Southern Sheriff defending the community from the others. Ultimately he leads them to take refuge in a prison—the West Georgia Correctional Facility—the panopticon meets the ultimate gated community—and seizes dictatorial control of the group. In the comic he goes even farther, murdering to maintain his power and beating people to death to show his dominance.

A kind of democracy returns to the group—in the fourth season—in the form of a council. But it is already clear that Rick will have to assert himself once more to protect the living. More importantly, while the comic and show contain many characters of color (more in the current than past seasons), Black men in particular are not allowed to rise to the point in which they might challenge Rick for control. It is a world in which white men still rule. It is the undead version of the New South (the real life notion of the “New South” is all but forgotten): Do not mention the racism in polite company. But please do what the white sheriff says.

It is not hard to think of the last time Georgia was “destroyed”—as slaves rose up in defiance of their masters and joined General Sherman’s March to the Sea. One has to wonder what the end of civilization means to the thirty to forty percent of white Americans who are incorrigibly racist? When those crackers think of cannibalistic hordes do they think of war and inequality—or do they imagine the ghost of Nat Turner?

The Wild Bunch

The Zombie Western

The western was arguably the most important cultural narrative of the 20th century United States. It celebrated both the individuality of the cowboy and the taming of the “savage” west by civilization. Its central figure was the patriarchal hero who saved the idyllic settlement from “Indian savages” or “criminals” while carving out his own little kingdom from the frontier.

The inherently racist and imperialistic western could not survive the anti-war and civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The revisionist westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s—Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch (1969) and Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1982) for example—used the language of the western to roll back its racist and expansionist mythology. By the 1980s the western had died its well-deserved death.

That does not mean, of course, that the imprint the western left on the culture died with it. The genius of The Walking Dead is its fusion of the dead western genre with the living genre of the zombie apocalypse. 

It is an impossible (yet perfect) fusion. When the narrative logic of one genre threatens to bring the story to a conclusion the other genre can reset the story. When the patriarchal hero—the cowboy, the sheriff, the gunslinger—kills the savages or the criminals and should, therefore, be rewarded as the man who saved the town, the undead ensure that the story continues. When the undead threaten a gastronomic denouement the patriarchal hero saves the day.

It would be wrong to see this as a cynical fusion of genres. It is much deeper. The cowboy narrative is one of individual triumph and sacrifice against “savagery.” Order defeats chaos. But as Hassler-Forest argues:

“The zombie narrative on the other hand represents the exact opposite: this genre presents a world in which all forms of order and traditional patriarchal power have beendestroyed, leaving the small groups of survivors to reassemble themselves into new types of communities.”

Rick Grimes may be a southern sheriff, but more importantly he is a western sheriff. He rides a horse into Atlanta, with a satchel of guns on his back, wearing a cowboy hat. He is the archetypal cowboy coming into town. But he does not clean up the city. He is utterly defeated by Atlanta. He loses his weapons. His horse is eaten by the undead. He hides until he is saved by a young Asian-American man named Glenn. Rick redeems himself and helps Glenn’s group escape Atlanta. But it is not a heroic escape. They disguise themselves by covering their bodies with human remains.

Rick embodies the constant achievement and deferment of patriarchal power—he embodies the contradiction between the western and zombie narratives. In this way The Walking Dead is about (a particular version of) American culture facing oblivion. Rick continually tries to establish a new community—and those communities always must fail, succumbing to the savage others/zombies that surround them.

In classic westerns the city usually represented, as Hassler-Forest puts it, “dens of decadence and perversion.” In The Walking Dead the cities are full of zombies. They have become just as “savage” as the mythological frontier. There us no longer a civilization to counterpose to the wild. The entire world is a frontier. Every character is traveling up a river toward their own personal heart of darkness. In this sense the character of the “Governor” is Colonel Kurtz. It is only when confronting the Governor that Rick tries to salvage his humanity and turns power back over to his group.

But even with the governor defeated Rick can’t establish a new idyllic community. As the fourth season begins we see Rick as a farmer tending crops and tending to pigs. This is not Little House on the Prairie—it is the beginning of Unforgiven (1992). Rick is Clint Eastwood. He is a killer pretending to be a farmer. By the end of this season’s second episode Rick has strapped on his gun belt. He is ready, once more, to kill. He will win. But then he will also lose—more of his people, more of his humanity, more of his sanity. His patriarchal victory will be endlessly deferred.

In the comics Rick is both a hero and villain—saving lives but willing to murder those who stand in his way. He is willing to beat a man to death to prove his alpha status. In the television show is both a hero and a man collapsing under the weight of his sins. He wonders if he will ever be able to return from the things he has done. He won’t. There is no future or past in The Walking Dead. There is only the ruthless homicidal present.

Walking Dead lottery tickets

Libertarian Utopia vs. Undead Humanism

Oddly enough, the show’s western elements have allowed certain conservatives and libertarians to embrace it—not as a morality tale in a dystopian nightmare—but as a utopian paradise.’s Kurt Schlichter writes, in an article actually titled “Walking Dead summons American spirit of independence, grit,” that:

The Walking Dead is a western, a show about life on the frontier, about the trappings of civilization being stripped away. This is uniquely American--the frontier is in our cultural DNA. In the world of TWD, it’s just a man and his gun against the savage hordes. Just substitute cowboys and townspeople for the characters and Indians for the zombies…

“Americans, prosperous, comfortable and (except for the .5 percent off at war) living in peace, wonder if at some level if they still have what it takes to do what the pioneers did. Americans’ fierce defense of their right to keep and bear arms comes from the same place. Unlike Europeans, liberals and other submissives, they believe it is their personal duty to act to protect their community and country in time of crisis—with an AR-15 if need be.”

Schlichter also waxes poetically about Dale—a somewhat liberal elderly character—being killed off in season two. He also seems way too excited about the death of several female characters. But for him the zombie apocalypse is merely a chance to prove how manly a survivor you can be. He is oblivious to the fact that Rick lost his mind.

In other words Schlichter looks at aspects of the show inspired from the narratives of Holocaust survivors and says, “neat.” The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is shut down. “Excellent. This is my chance to be a self-made man.” This is the lunacy of the present political moment. But it also explains why the show is so popular among people of all political stripes—among those who fear we are already living in a nightmare, and among those who welcome the monsters.

The flip-side of this has been commentary by moderate and liberal critics that see The Walking Dead mainly about the struggle to remain human: Can you come back from the things (the horrible things) you have done? One critic, writing in an Atlantic roundtable on the Walking Dead, argued: “I’m … more inclined to see its ‘world suddenly dominated by radical inhumanity’ as (and admittedly gory) playground to discuss human nature in general.”

While this is an aspect of the show it is not nearly as important as the contradiction of the zombie and western motifs—and their associated “moralities.” Moreover, it is a weakness of the show that this “study of humanity” is treated so apolitically and outside of historical context. Human nature, as Marxists have correctly argued, is not static. It evolves and changes in various circumstances. 

In terms of the show itself, The Walking Dead’s power and impact does not arise from trite clichés about the human spirit attributed by milquetoast liberals. The power comes from that humanity being crushed between the cataclysm of the zombie apocalypse and the ideals of power and patriarchy. It is not, ultimately, the zombies that are destroying humanity. It is Kurt Schlichter.

The Zombie Flower of Southern Womanhood

Of the most criticized elements of The Walking Dead has been its treatment of women. While it is correct to say that the representation of sexism in literature, television and film does not mean the artworks are themselves sexist, in the case of The Walking Dead it is easy to make a case that the treatment of female characters is clumsy and relies on worn out (and sexist) clichés and stereotypes. This problem is highlighted by the fact the writing is otherwise of a higher caliber.

The most glaring stupidity was the second season confusion of emergency contraception and pharmaceutical abortion—as Lori decided whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. Leaving aside the question of abortion itself the lazy and stupid writing makes one wonder if there was ever a woman within 10,000 feet of The Walking Dead writers’ room. On the question of abortion itself Kirkman issued an ambiguously pro-choice statement, but the arc of the storyline left the question even murkier.

The love triangle between Lori, Rick and Shane—and Lori’s manipulation of Shane and Rick—has been pointed to as another indication of the show’s sexism. I have no problem with this storyline in and of itself.  People, male and female, manipulate each other. The problem is that the role of women in the show is starkly limited to such interactions. 

Moreover, women are repeatedly seen and described as objects that must be protected. In the show—in the first few seasons—women who tried to escape their roles as domestics and lovers were brutally punished—notably Andrea. In the comic, the Governor brutally and repeatedly raped the sword wielding Michonne.

There is no Fran (from Dawn of the Dead) or Dr. Sarah Bowman (Day of the Dead) to pose an alternative to pre-apocalyptic gender roles. The Walking Dead is Rick’s story. It is the story of the failure of the small patriarch—the male breadwinner, the small businessman, the blue collar (but white skinned) man of days long gone. We watch him win and then lose it all—over and over and over again. The women are just one more thing to win or lose.

An Endless Romero Movie?

And so it goes on—this endless Romero movie (with all the impact but without the racial, class, social and gender consciousness of an actual Romero movie). Whenever the story goes into a narrative cul-du-sac it shifts from one genre to the other, nothing is resolved or transcended. It is like the death rattle of a lung. Here is the victorious cowboy. Here is the end of everything. Here is the sad victorious cowboy. Here is the end of all things. 

"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

“New Jerusalem” in Ruins: Romanticism, Nihilism & Art

A couple years ago there was a debate on Red Wedge about romanticism. I am reposting here my contributions to that debate. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the other contributions. In addition I think it is important to note the likelihood that all of us might now disagree with what we wrote a few years ago in the early days of Red Wedge.

There is undoubtedly a major element of nihilism in contemporary culture—not just in horror movies but also in science fiction, the visual arts, literature and even prime time television.

The twin factors of imperial decline and the mushrooming crisis facing the working-class majority has produced a population—across the political spectrum—that is more than eager to unwind after a hard day and watch people trudge through an apocalyptic wasteland populated by hostile militias, aliens or zombies.

Things have gone so far awry that dystopian futures are no longer just cautionary tales but can actually be seen as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Now, with the end of all the old crap, a progressive or reactionary “New Jerusalem”—to borrow from William Blake—might built on top of the ruins of our failing civilization.

One of the most important iteration of expressionism in 21st century European art has probably been the eponymous documentary—by Sophie Fiennes—of the work of Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.

Sophie Fiennes, still from Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, showing sculptures by Anselm Kiefer

Brit Schulte and J. Matthew Camp have rightly identified this nihilistic streak—bound up in dialectic with contemporary capitalism and its brutal history.

In the recent Red Wedge article, “Bloodlines II: The Rise of Modern Horror,” they rightfully argue:

“How horror is organized via the popular imagination leads to an examination of alienation and exploitation, both hallmarks of capitalist production, and how these fixtures translate into the fictive realm of horror. This leads us to the zombification of wage slaves: labor and the undead. Just as the rapid proleterianization and industrialization of the European economy fueled Mary Shelley’s drafting of her creature, so too does the loss of autonomy and dead time as universally experienced themes under capitalism provide a tractive force driving contemporary horror. In capturing these themes in the capitalist world, zombies and vampires reign supreme.”

Schulte and Camp are right to connect the current cultural nihilism—and preferred monsters—to the attenuation of capitalism. They are also correct to connect the birth of horror to the Romantic cultural tradition in Mary Shelley’s Frankestein.

At the same time Schulte and Camp’s examination of the evolution of Romanticism is too narrow. By reducing this examination to the two figures of Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft—although their reading of these two figures is excellent—a central dynamic of capitalist culture is flattened. In this reading nihilism—which is one of many possible features of Romanticism—becomes a central feature of Romanticism. Historically, and not just at its inception, Romanticism has been an exceptionally diverse phenomenon.

Romanticism as phenomenon

While Romanticism was a late 18th and 19th century artistic and literary movement—centered around figures as diverse as Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Mary Shelley, the Romantic landscape painters, as well as reactionaries like Edmund Burke, etc.—Romanticism was (and is) more phenomenon than movement.

Romanticism is characterized most of all by a rejection of the quantification of life—a quantification that came hand in hand with the rise of capitalism. It is also identified with the longing for more meaningful, often “spiritual,” interactions between human beings and between human beings and their environment (both natural and cultural). This longing is often expressed in nostalgia (either total or partial) for (real or imagined) pre-capitalist or pre-class social and cultural forms.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who borrowed much from early Romantic social critics, carried this aspect of Romanticism into scientific socialism with their analysis (and popularization) of the concept and phenomenon of primitive communism.

Romanticism continues to this day.

It was expressed in 20th century art movements such as expressionism, Dada, surrealism, aspects of abstract expressionism, Fluxus, Arte Povera, the work of Joseph Beuys, the films of Luis Buñuel, and the sculptures of Eva Hesse and Doris Salcedo.

The Romantic was initially a byproduct of the pressures put on the pre-capitalist (or early capitalist) intelligentsia by the industrial revolution.

Artists, writers, actors, theologians, monks, priests and poets who were conditioned to see the aesthetic and moral world in qualitative terms chaffed at the transition to quantitative (exchange) value and capitalism’s utilitarian view of people and the natural world.

Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. Performance/Installation.

Some looked back to an idealized medieval life. Some looked with hope on the revolutionary waves that swept Europe beginning with the French Revolution. Some looked to an idealized nature (as was the case with many of the Romantic painters). Many looked to all the above.

At the same time Romanticism can’t be reduced to a particular moment in social history. It is not merely a product of a crisis in agency—when capitalism’s ills had become clear but the modern working-class was not yet coherently formed.

Because capitalism continued to need an intelligentsia—and an artificially created “art world” that serves in part as a lab of signification, in part as business—the social basis for Romanticism continued. This intelligentsia, much like the family, is both maintained and constantly attacked by capital. The initial conditions that gave rise to Romanticism are therefore recreated on a continual basis.

All art movements are—by definition—petit-bourgeois. Most artists (within capitalism) occupy a space in between capital and labor. Working-class artists who are successful become, by virtue of their success, petit-bourgeois. The proletarianized culture workers (to borrow from Adorno and Benjamin) have little control over content and meaning. Filmmakers quite clearly—except in the rarest of circumstances—exist squeezed between capital and labor.

rt is largely a product of the petit-bourgeois. This explains its tendency toward rebellion (both far right and far left rebellion) as well as its inability to offer a solution to its own crises.

Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962)

At the same time art is not a product of the middle-class as a class but of a particular segment with particular characteristics. The most important of these is the continued structural fidelity (of some kind) to qualitative value.

Likewise, Romanticism is not an expression of the petit-bourgeois generally but of a particular layer of the middle-class—artists and certain elements of the threatened intelligentsia.

It can be reactionary or progressive, nihilistic or revolutionary.

It is not a coherent ideology or movement. It is a phenomenon of capitalist culture.

Romanticism Left and Right

At each moment of its existence Romanticism has produced left and right wings. The domination of one wing or the other often has more to do with the general political trajectory, balance of class forces and consciousness.

Therefore early Romanticism produces progressives like Mary Shelley and William Blake as well as arch-reactionary Edmund Burke. The early 20th century gives us the racist reactionary H.P. Lovecraft and the revolutionary surrealist André Breton.

Lovecraft is not the reactionary cap on the history of the Romantic. Both progressive and reactionary Romanticisms continue throughout the 19th and 20th century—in both popular and “avant-garde” culture.

Romanticism takes on left-wing political colors most of all at certain moments of mass struggles—often just before an explosion of struggle, during periods of liberal or social-democratic “class peace.”

The influence of Romantic conceptual artist and sculptor—and founder of the Green Party—Joseph Beuys grew throughout the economic boom of 1960s Germany. His critique of both West German capitalism and East German “socialism” resonated with artists who chaffed under the de facto and de jour censorship on either side of the “iron curtain.” Beuys argued that the problem with both sides was their ruthless rationality. Obviously this differs from a clear Marxist analysis of state capitalism. Nevertheless Beuys’ Romantic framework—which can’t be discussed fully here—were central to the artistic breakthroughs he made elaborating on the contributions of Marcel Duchamp.

Many of the artists of the 1960s Italian movement Arte Povera—Poor Art—combined a thoroughly Romantic approach to art with radical support for striking Fiat workers during the Hot Autumn of 1969. Some supported the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War and even protested the occupation of Palestine after the 1968 war.

Following the disaster of left-wing terrorism in Italy in the 1970s these artists retreated to a more apolitical Romanticism—albeit one that was far from nihilistic. The key factor here, however, was not simply the characteristics of Romanticism, but the dynamics of class struggle.

Similarly, the politics of horror movies can differ wildly even as they might formally resemble one another. The zombie movies of George Romero—initially forged in the crucible of the 1960s rebellions—are quite different than a Friday the 13th slasher film. Everyone might die—but how the horror unfolds says a great deal about the political and social orientation of the directors, writers or producers.

Arte Povera: Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of Rags, 1967. Pistoleto contrasts the common rags of the poor with a recreation of a classical Venus statue

Romanticism is a large contradictory cultural phenomenon. It can’t be easily reduced either conceptually or historically. It is produced by the tensions within capital itself. Of course, the general argument in universities is that the Romantic was a counter-Enlightenment philosophy and was usually nationalistic.

Michel Lowy and Robert Sayre refute this extensively in their book Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity.  As Schulte and Camp argue, many of the initial Romantics were Enlightenment figures. Many of the earliest German Romantics were even internationalists.

Romanticism and the French Revolution

The relationship of the Romantics to revolution was also complicated.

Romantics (running the gamut from Blake to Beethoven) often embraced the early French Revolution (reactionaries like Edmund Burke aside).

Most of these Romantics—William Blake most notably—grew disillusioned following Thermidor—the internal counter-revolution known by its month in the revolutionary French calendar.

Some embraced Napoleon turning in horror from the mass executions.

Many, however, (especially outside of England and France) came to hate Napoleon due to the Napoleonic wars that decimated pats of Europe.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823

Beethoven initially supported Napoleon and dedicated his Third Symphony to him. After Napoleon declared himself Emperor he angrily withdrew that dedication.

The painter Goya made some of his best paintings—many of them in a Romantic mode—as a protest against the memory of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.

Regardless, the Romantic reaction to Napoleon was complex and its contradictoriness was bound up with the blood of Thermidor—not merely a philosophically idealist dedication to the realization of the “unbound cosmic-self.”

here is a tension in the Romantic between action and utopianism. The Romantic aims to see the realization of paradise but tends to recoil at the blood that might need to be shed to achieve it. This is because Romanticism is not a political movement. It is the expression of artistic temperament in conflict with capital.

Blake wrote many poems celebrating the irrational—or more accurately condemning the rational—out of his disillusionment with the French Revolution. Illya Kabakov—the expat Russian artist—made amazing installation pieces using the remnants of official Soviet culture that he shaped into magical realist environments.

Both proletarian success and failure feeds the different wings of the Romantic.

“The unbound cosmic-self”

My largest point of clarification with Schulte and Camp’s otherwise excellent article is on the question of the “spiritual” aspect of Romanticism. Schulte and Camp seem to mistake a common Romantic idea—that there is a “spiritual” cosmology of some kind—for its particular iteration in Goethe’s Faust.

Goethe’s Faust is an examination of the realization of the “unbound self.” Faust’s pursuit of mystical knowledge (in his “Faustian bargain with the devil”) fails to lead to his damnation (as it did in the classical versions of the story).

The Romantic poetry of William Blake, however, presents a very different cosmological view. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell human beings can’t master the mysteries of the universe. Angels can’t even master them.

Casper David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809. Far from dominating the mysteries of the universe the monk is dwarfed by them

A central Romantic idea in 19th century landscape painting—taken from Immanuel Kant and the otherwise worthless Edmund Burke—was the idea of the sublime: the attempt in art to depict the fantastic and profound moments or images that could not be depicted and understood. In this case the self is actually prostrated before the cosmos instead of the cosmos being mastered by the unbound self.

his act was connected—in German and American Romantic painting—to opposition to the industrial revolution’s impact on the natural world. This was a project in aesthetic and cosmic humility—the opposite of a Faustian “will to power.”

Most Romantics believed there was a spiritual cosmology—but only some Romantics believed this cosmology could be mastered.

It is interesting to note that this, too, is contradictory. H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmology, as noted in “Bloodlines” was entirely nihilistic whereas Goethe’s was not—although it was largely reactionary.

Andre Breton did not believe the “spiritual” could be mastered, but he believed it could be more fully experienced, through the interactions between the conscious and sub-conscious mind. He believed this realization of the spiritual self was undermined by capitalism.

Art of the Future

Andre Breton in 1930. Photograph by Man Ray

If we flatten the differences within Romanticism we fail to recognize the differences within its children—like the modern horror genre—the substantial political and social differences between Friday the 13th and Night of the Living Dead, between Saw and 28 Days Later or between Zombie Honeymoon and The Exorcist.

These films differ in their conception of horror itself. Some stand in a reactionary tradition that sees human nature—or supernatural evil—as the enemy. Others see social constructions as the primary problem. It is not all one homogenous bloodbath.

The propensity for imagination and creating entire worlds—of horror or wonder—is a central aspect of the Romantic. It is an aspect of the Romantic that can be traced to the beginning of what we know can art—a phenomenon that began tens of thousands of years before social classes even existed.

It began with an impulse—a spiritual impulse—before there was a “political”—to connect the material world with that which was (and often still is) beyond our full understanding (love, death, birth, etc.).

Human beings painted on rocks and carved from stone and molded with clay the fetishes and familiars and totems that connected them and their material concerns to the vast and mysterious unknown.

Today that unknown is more often than not full of monsters. The reason it is full of monsters is because real life is full of monsters. Only struggle—and eventually revolution—will rebalance the magical worlds created by art.

The goal of revolution (in terms of art) is be to return art to the state of its origins: A democratic-cosmological state in which art belongs to all—a state in which art is able once again to explore the “magic” of existence itself.

The desire for “magic” and enchantment in art and life is at the core of Romanticism—not Lovecraftian cosmology per se, which is simply the reactionary wing of a diverse phenomenon. Romanticism is a wildly contradictory worldview that runs the gamut from far right to far left.

Romanticism often expresses a desire for magic and poetry in a world in which capital has destroyed the sense of poetry and magic we felt as children (see Breton) or imagine once existed on the Earth (see Blake).

The day the revolution is complete will be the day these aspects of the Romantic will be vindicated and redeemed.

"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

Tariq Ali + Stephen Parker on Bertolt Brecht (Video)

"Tariq Ali talks to Stephen Parker, author of Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, about the life and work of one of the most important and controversial poet/dramatists of the 20th century. Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life will be published in German next year on the 60th anniversary of Brecht’s death."

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"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

Emory Douglas: The Epic Art of the Black Panthers

A new video short produced and directed by Dress CodeEmory Douglas: The Art of the Black Panthers; produced by Tara Rose Stromberg; cinematography by Andre Andreev; editing and color by Mike Cook. Emory Douglas was the Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. Through archival footage and conversations with Emory we share his story, alongside the rise and fall of the Panthers. He used his art as a weapon in the Black Panther Party’s struggle for civil rights and today Emory continues to give a voice to the voiceless.

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"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

November Anti-Capitalist Art Show (in July)

The November Anti-Capitalist Art Show (in July) will feature artwork by Adam TurlKelly GallagherIan MatchettSarah LevyDanica RadoshevichAnna Maria Tucker and Craig E. Ross, and music by Thee Mistakes and Marathon, and will host a fundraiser for the re-election of Seattle socialist city council member Kshama Sawant on July 18 (Black Bear Bakery, St. Louis, MO).

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"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.

A Thousand Lost Worlds: Notes on Gothic Marxism

This article was posted on the old Red Wedge in early summer/late spring 2014. The original was lost when Red Wedge updated its site. It is being reposted on the "Evicted Art Blog" as it relate to recent articles, particularly about the atemporal bourgeois vs. the constrained proletarian subject. In other words, the individual bourgeois subject has never been more free, while the rest of us remained imprisoned by material limits. The working-class subject, therefore, has a gothic relationship to history. The ruling-class subject approaches history as if it were a buffet to sample (however superficially).

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The Revenge of the 13th Barista

Her suspicions became anger. Her anger reshaped her. She resolved to become an avenging angel. And all the joys and hatred of the world flowed from that. 

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"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.