There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”
Red Wedge was founded in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Despite any number of heroic struggles, most notably (in the U.S.) Black Lives Matter (BLM), things are far grimmer today. The weakness of the workers’ movement and the radical left is mirrored in the weakness of the artistic and cultural avant-garde. This two-sided problem, of course, has a major impact on Red Wedge, rooted in our belief both in the independence of art and the possibility of a revolutionary socialist project.
A defeated and marginalized left bears little fruit. A false dichotomy between theory and activism pervades the left. There are the academics who look down on concrete activism. Then there are the oddly anti-intellectual activists who have internalized diminished horizons. The latter are those who might say the “workers don’t want to read/think/look” at that – obviously an odd thing to say for those who believe that the intellect and creativity of workers might be at the world’s helm one day.
This is largely a result of the neoliberal moment, the dissolution of the spaces where workers, artists and independent intellectuals could congregate, at least with partial autonomy: the union hall, the independent newspaper, the small record shop or label, the genuinely independent art space, etc. As everything is fragmented it is re-socialized and mediated by capital, through the logic of the internet, finance and NGOs. That is the neoliberal way.
For those of us who still believe in the self-emancipation of the working-class, we do not accept this as permanent. Nor do we look back with nostalgia. We have lost sites of resistance but it should be remembered that the class enemy – enemy of both culture and the working-class – has always been vicious and ultimately philistine. The character of that viciousness and crudity evolves with development and crises. But it is a constant.
Therefore, our mission remains: to play a role in the re-orientation of an artistic avant-garde allied with a revitalized, militant working-class movement. Even now, as we admit the terrain has proven difficult, the end point of the journey maintains its place at the center of what we do.
The hope of the Arab Spring has been subsumed by the barbaric farce of “ISIS vs. the West.” The far right is on the ascendancy in many countries across the globe. And despite some real and important victories, BLM is facing off against the state itself, against “special bodies” of armed men and women who are as central to U.S. capital as Wall Street itself. This is not to mention the ongoing refugee, climate, and other crises.
But we remain faithful to our class and the human species.
We continue to believe that the wall between the intellectual and the activist ought to be broken down; that the distinction between those who work and those who think must be abolished; that long before the revolution the Left must find itself composed of those Brecht called “workers who read,” that Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.” There can be no room among cultural Marxists for snobbery (against workers or, conversely, “difficult ideas.”)
In recent months it has become clear to us that we need to rethink Red Wedge’s approach to the present moment. This has come to a head both during our participation both in the recent Left Forum in New York City this past May and in the Historical Materialism conference in London in November.
In order to grow in harsh terrain we need to tend our garden.
We will be opening up a five month long special discussion. This discussion will be organized among our editors, contributing editors, writers, and readers. It includes (but is not limited to):
- The question of the popular avant-garde – what does it mean to engage in cultural production and criticism that is about “popular” concerns and seeks a more “popular” audience, while at the same time embracing cultural experimentation, etc.? (see Renée M. Silverman’s The Popular Avant-Garde)
- What methods of distribution should radicals engaged in the popular avant-garde use? Can we use traditional art galleries? What about mechanically reproducible strategies in the internet age? Comics? Films? Video? Music? What does the present moment mean for theater or dance?
- Ideas percolating in regard to contemporary left-wing cultural production: activist and street art, critical irrealism in literature, narrative conceptualism in visual art, Afrofuturism in music, literature and visual art, etc.
- How do we make working-class narratives central to art again? How do we respond to the growing immiseration of the working-class, and in the U.S. the ramped up scapegoating and racism that is being used to cover up working-class deaths, via police bullets, alcoholism, bitterness and suicide?
- How do we take socialist feminist cultural criticism forward?
- Is a radical cosmopolitanism possible?
- How do we grapple with the way sexual desire – a key theme in all artistic media – has been shaped and twisted by neoliberalism? In what way does this impact attempts to create art that reaches toward genuine sexual liberation? How does it impact our advocacy for the rights of sex workers and performance artists?
- What is the role of speculative fiction? For example, see China Miéville’s essay, “Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory,” in Red Planets.
- What can we build on from the legacy of Brecht’s Epic Theater and Benjamin’s “Gothic Marxism”?
- Can the left take a more nuanced view of mythology in radical culture?
- What is the role of poetry in the present moment? How do we escape the limits of the autobiographical or conceptual poem? Is a Marxist speculative poetry possible?
- What are the prospects for radical and experimental musicians in the current climate? Is a popular avant-garde in music possible? Has the internet made such a milieu more possible? Or has the music industry mooted any such space that might potentially exist? Can music – an aestheticization of time – still present us with alternate ways of experiencing the passage of time.
- How can Marxist and radical artists come to understand and respond to gentrification? In what way does the manipulation of urban space by developers and big real estate impact the creation of artistic expression?
- How does the universal combined and uneven development of contemporary capitalism impact art and culture? How do radical culture producers and critics respond to the global apartheid of neoliberalism? How do we navigate and oppose its byzantine segregation, nation to nation, city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood?
- What else can Red Wedge do to practically help radical artists and social struggles? How can we better be a platform for artists to share their work and ideas? How can we tether that work to the organic debates in the social movements? Etc.
- Continuing to piece together the genealogies of radical art and culture: left-wing Romantics, Naturalism, Russian Futurists, Dada, Surrealism, Epic Theater, Popular Front influenced Noir, the Black communist literature of the mid 20th century, Arte Povera, the art of the Black Panthers, Rock Against Racism, left-wing Punk and Hip Hop, etc.
We have ideas about some of the above, and more, but we do not have all the answers (or all the questions). Therefore, we are opening up a special five month long discussion to re-orient ourselves. We encourage you to participate by submitting ideas, articles, questions, artwork, stories and poetry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Most of all we want to know what you are working on, both in terms of art and action, because knowing that will help clarify the above questions.
At the same time we will, temporarily, slow down our pace. That means we will be postponing our next print issue until the spring and reducing the rate of articles posted online. During this time we will be re-organizing our editorial duties, working on applying for non-profit status, writing articles that unpack the above questions, preparing for Historical Materialism in Toronto, soliciting contributions that help clarify the above, and putting in place long needed publicity and fundraising structures.
We want to assure our readers and supporters that Red Wedge is here to stay. If you have a subscription you will receive all the issues you are owed (albeit delayed). If you donated to the fund drive you will receive your awards for doing so. Red Wedge will continue to post articles, perhaps fewer, but better, on radical art and culture in the post-crisis neoliberal age.
We are not abandoning our project. As Benjamin argues in “On the Concept of History”:
The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turn, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history.
For the next few months we will be planting a few more of those flowers and tending to them in the ruins. We will also be going to our day jobs and showing up at the organizing meetings and the picket lines. See you there.