November is a recently formed and democratically run network of anti-capitalist visual artists, formed for “mutual assistance; to promote work; to share ideas for anti-capitalist strategies in contemporary art; to cultivate the working-class audience for such art; to counter the echoes of post-modern cynicism; and to build practical solidarity with today's struggles.”
The group is currently planning an exhibition to be held in July in St. Louis, Missouri.
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What does it mean to make radical or anti-capitalist visual art in the 21st century?
It can obviously mean many different things. We can no longer pretend there is a magic conceptual or aesthetic bullet to the question of a radical or Marxist art practice. At the same time we cannot be agnostic on the question, internalizing the dominant art world narrative that “anything can be art,” while in practice the gatekeepers of the art market and the academic avant-garde drastically limit what is considered “serious” visual art. We have to inaugurate a patient and humble discussion. So I will say, for me, it means the following.
First of all I think we need to recognize the inherent contradiction in which politically radical visual artists find themselves. We are constrained by systems over which we have little to no control, systems that tend to condition artwork to be “safe” for capital. We can (and should) make political work (or work informed by politics), but artwork alone cannot cause structural change. That takes social movements of the exploited and oppressed organizing themselves. We can play a role in that, especially as individual human beings, but on its own art cannot create systemic existential threats. Political artists face an unbearable lightness of being and an unbearable weight in becoming. The art world is stacked against us at the same time we are told that art can be “anything.”
I would argue that for art to aid (or identify with) social struggle, it should aspire to create experiences and compelling narratives (of a particular kind). Post-modernism rejected the essentialism of modern art (that a painting should aim toward the essence of painting, that theater aim toward the essence of theater, etc.) but likewise rejected totalizing narratives of emancipation (Marxism, socialism, much of feminism, etc.). Artists were straightjacketed. The expressive gesture and the meaningful political gesture alike were exiled by post-modernism — which is really, as others have argued, the “cultural ideology” of neoliberal capitalism. Global capital has no need for the “unique” individual mark or the collective demand. Global capital wants interchangeable units. Do not demand things. Do not express the essence of who you are (for you have no essence). Take your place in the infinite utopia of the market. To respond to this we are pointed beyond the hermeneutics of the art world.
This is why I believe in re-asserting the proletarian subject and narrative in art. This is nothing new (although it is not the norm in recent art). Artists have presented the working-class subject for some time — from Gustav Courbet to Emory Douglas, Ilya Kabakov, William Kentridge, Kerry James Marshall (and many others). The way in which this is done must change, of course, with changing context, etc. For me, it is important to understand the constraint of that subject’s individuality. The working-class may be the gravedigger of capitalism. But that is not what makes a working-class person interesting or worthwhile. The subject has dreams. In art our dreams can be avenged.
Anna Maria Tucker
My work revolves around personal narratives which in turn becomes political and a voyeuristic representation of struggle. My work is not made to be propagandistic or explicitly exclaim a political agenda. Instead, my work aims to evoke the emotion of struggle within the viewer. Of course I do not think everyone needs to follow my approach. But I see it as my strength.
Craig E. Ross
For me, to answer this question, I need to go back to how Marx defined “radical”. “To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter.” What is the root of art? For me there is no platonic or absolute definition of art. At the same time, the root of art, for me, comes down to labor. Through labor the world around us is transformed: the creation and manipulation of the senses through the transmutation of the material world. Artists are workers. Art is the product of labor and anything produced by labor should belong to labor. Art within capitalism is a fetish; it is a commodity, worshipped by those who afford to worship it. It is the transmutation of gold into paper money; the transmutation of paper money into paintings and other art objects.
As a radical or anti-capitalist visual artist in the 21st century, I use my work as weapon against the alchemic forces of the capitalist vampires. I recognize that art production itself is not a revolutionary act and art will never overthrow capitalism. Capitalism can only crumble through the united struggle of the international working class and as a revolutionary artist I dedicate my art production to this struggle. Although I recognize my art as only one piece of a very large division of labor in which I can contribute. I think perhaps, one day, art will really be anything, but that day will not come with the current capitalist division of labor. One day we will be able to paint, to print, to dance, to build, to farm, to love, to fuck, without ever having to only be painters, printers, dancers, builders, farmers, lovers, or fuckers.
I do not feel human when I am at work at my job, but I do feel human when I am working on art. For me, being an anti-capitalist and radical artist in the 21st century means using my work to partake in the class struggle; creating work for the purpose of communication and expression of my thought and feelings to my comrades and fellow workers. Whether or not the gatekeepers of the art market view what I do as “art” is irrelevant to me. I make art for myself, and my fellow workers who are struggling with me.
Creating political work has become an ubiquitous feature of the art world. Yet, as everything has become political, we have lost much of the political utility of art. It is true that, even beyond the ubiquitous category of political art, there are some artists who strive to make their work overtly political. Artists who seek not just to create artwork, but to speak to important political ideas and events of their time. However these artists rarely become effective political agents within the public. Their art infrequently reaches into the realm of power struggles and the battles over public opinion, but rather remains insulated within its sphere of galleries and conceptual obscurity.
So what takes art from the realm of the political to that of the anti-capitalist and the revolutionary? As we have seen in the 20th century, it certainly isn’t defined by some adherence to prescribed subjects or histrionics. These easy shortcuts to truth have proven to be both creatively unsustainable and perhaps as alienating as the esoteric art world of today.
I see revolutionary art as work that not only investigates the political sphere but also critiques it and seeks to explore or suggest solutions. If political artwork tends to ask the question of, “What is going on?” then revolutionary artwork asks the question, “What is to be done?” This is understood by the work’s content, its context, and as by its engagement with the political sphere.
Thus a revolutionary painting could incorporate a visual message of struggle, or an image that challenges an institution of power because of how and where it is displayed or shared; or it could act as a symbol that strengthens a radical political movement. Most works will likely act as a combination. The basic guiding idea of this category is its ability to contribute to active opposition to the hegemony of the ruling classes.
As artists we must also recognize that our contribution to the struggle is supportive; and while this supportive role may help it will never be decisive. We record and valorize, lend weight, and accentuate beauty, but we do not create it. Nor does creating revolutionary art fulfill the social responsibility of participating in the larger struggles happening outside the walls of our studios and galleries.
To tackle this question specifically through the lens of my own art practice, I think something that is continually important for me is thinking about ways in which I can visualize resistance within my film and animation work. When I'm asked questions similar to this, I always recall the first time I saw the radical cult classic film by Lizzie Borden, Born in Flames. When I first saw it, I remember being so struck by seeing women working together collectively to fight back violently and aggressively against sexual harassers. It was viscerally encouraging to see such militant resistance in action. Film as confrontation and visualized resistance is imperative for me in my work because by creating visualized representations of a world in which our impact actually ruptures capitalism and systemic patriarchy and racism, we are given the realization that such a world can even exist and that our political efforts are not in vain, but are in fact imperative.
Another aspect of my own personal attempts at radical art production includes thinking through questions of accessibility. Creating films and animations with materials accessible to most people, making my work accessible online, conducting community workshops in attempts to demystify and share my animation processes so that others may take up cultural production too. Inspired immensely by revolutionary artist and former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas, I believe that art should be accessible and reachable within the everyday life of the masses. This is why I am adamant about always having my works accessible and available for free online at all times.
In Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin states: “The technique of reproduction (made possible with the invention of film), detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.” Agreeing with Benjamin, I strongly believe that film’s inherent ability to be reproduced and shared so easily and readily among the masses is explicitly why I choose film/video as my artistic medium for radical art production
I am struck by the extent to which we, as artists, just as all other laborers -- persons who use their hands and minds and tools to work with material (be it physical, textual etc.), or who work with other people within and outside various industries, are increasingly asked to “professionalize,” which comes to mean a narrowed praxis. This concurrent narrowing and professionalization is driven by, and functionally serves a late capitalist impulse, wherein persons and their relation with their work becomes increasingly singular, and thus disconnected from their own lives and other working persons and their praxes. This disconnect lends art and artists a false sense of autonomy and non-complicity in capitalism. This mirrors the ways in which "professionalization" in the non-profit industry symbolically distances this sphere and its workers from the fraught social structures it is invariably sutured to, namely, the concentrations of wealth that underwrite it.
The more separate and autonomous our lives and praxes appear from other lives and praxes, the less we acknowledge or even register our embeddedness in broader systems; and the less viable opportunities for solidarity seem to become. I feel strongly that the fracturing and distancing between American leftists, for example, mirrors the ways in which American capitalists, including the U.S. government and all its mechanisms, have so effectively squashed civil disobedience for centuries, by rendering solidarity impossible, even amongst leftists, let alone persons with shared economic status, etc. I do not by any means think artists are even remotely equipped to resolve these issues, but for me, a radical, anti-capitalist art practice must at least strive to reject these disconnections. A radical artist looks outside themselves and all the traditional arenas and measures of success.
I feel I must reject the spaces and industries that assert art's distance from other things, while maintaining a praxis that is not limited to (though it can certainly include) painting, for example. I am not suggesting that we perform dissent and add it to our portfolio. I am suggesting, however, that we conceive of our art practices as one aspect of our broader lives, and allow our art practices to be integrated within larger personal praxes, and constantly address and cope with our relation to various structures of power.
What comprises the personal praxis might mean standing in solidarity with striking workers, or writing, or publicly decrying various bourgeois art spaces as they gentrify neighborhoods. It might mean making art about ones own labor (whatever its connection to one's art practice) one's inadequate wages, one's own endeavors to live within the constraints of their material lives. Art is not, nor has it ever been autonomous from anything else, and all those traditions that suggest otherwise sustain a capitalist false-consciousness. As an anti-capitalist artist, I reject the impulses and conventions that imply my work exists in a contextless void. Ignoring the context of an artwork's existence and exhibition (as we are encouraged to do when we enter galleries and museums) allows us to look over the ways in which museums abuse their workers, for example, and the ways in which the wealthiest members of our society quietly underwrite our entire professional sphere in the name of charity.
I am wholly committed to the project so cogently articulated by the Red Wedge, “Rekindling the Revolutionary Imagination,” but my art is not necessarily equipped to do so alone. For me to make any claims to an anti-capitalist art practice, I must allow it to coalesce with all other aspects of my life, as long as I constantly strive to live my life connected to others, and remain in (and proactively promote) symbolic and material solidarity with other leftists, workers etc. Though this is a quite broad and perhaps powerless definition, I feel strongly about it because it is inclusive of the gesture of forming and contributing to this group in and of itself. Further, it embraces and makes meaning of the constraints and difficulties we must navigate in order to live and make our work. It also allows us to perhaps see art making as one arm of understanding our historical, material position.
These ideas have come about as I struggled with the politics of my own work. As a fairly young artist and very inexperienced leftist, I've struggled to find ways to make "political work" (many attempts to do so have been ineffective and bad) and have only recently realized that the world-view that precipitates my practice is wholly related to the world-view that informs my politics, and simply recognizing this interconnection has strengthened both.
If you are interested in joining November, or want more information, e-mail email@example.com
Kelly Gallagher is an experimental animator and filmmaker currently based in Iowa City. She is primarily interested in handcrafted filmmaking and exploring the ways in which experimental and handcrafted animations make labor visible.
Ian Matchett is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. His paintings explore the connections between radical movements and individuals of the past and present.
Danica Radoshevich is an artist and MFA candidate at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Art and Design in St Louis. Her painting, photography, installations and writing are the primary vehicles through which she attempts to map out the spatial realm. She hopes to one day reconcile the phenomenological project with a Marxist materialist history but she takes it day by day.
Craig E. Ross, an editor at Red Wedge, is a printmaker and cartoonist currently living in Southern Illinois who works mainly in woodblock prints. They received a BFA in Printmaking from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Craig has self-published various comics and zines and also runs the "Red Wedge Comix" blog at Red Wedge.
Anna Maria Tucker is an artist whose work includes painting, installation and performance. She received her BFA from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale Illinois and is an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St Louis.
Adam Turl is an artist, writer and socialist currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and is 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.