In early 1940, just before he attempted to escape to Spain from Vichy France, the Marxist theorist and art critic Walter Benjamin penned his Theses on the Concept of History. In twenty numbered paragraphs, Benjamin sketches his vision of the task of the materialist historian. In contrast to the historicist, whose method consists of merely adding “a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogeneous and empty time,” the materialist historian employs a “constructive” method (XVII), piecing together the “tradition of the oppressed” (VIII) from the rubble of the catastrophic past into a “constellation” (XVII) that most accurately reflects the fragmented character of modern reality.
In 1970, the famed “New Journalist” Tom Wolfe wrote an article, and later a book, lampooning a dinner party held by the progressive composer Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panther Party. Fresh off of decontextualizing the Merry Pranksters and Bay Area counterculture in Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Wolfe, a cheeky, fresh-faced conservative, now was on a mission to show the silliness of what was not yet called “identity politics.” Poking fun at the very idea that a member of the BPP would enjoy hors-d’oeuvres; painting one dimensional figures of the Panthers and liberal intelligentsia in one swoop...
In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King was assassinated. In the immediate aftermath, a wave of riots broke across America. Known as the Holy Week Uprising, this was a largely spontaneous outpouring of rage and sorrow. Far from the Movement collapsing, it marched forward with renewed fury and determination. To paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, what the crowds had started saying was “Black Power”, and they were to keep on saying it. In the midst of this ferment, black artists and activists searched for new answers to the questions that cut across the African-American experience.
Masterful cinema usually leaves little to accident. With the film world completely oversaturated by works that are intellectually lazy and yet somehow overwrought with production costs, this is easy to forget. Many would say that the age of the auteur is behind us. It’s overly glib, but also understandable.
Throw in a film that cuts against this, where everything is well-placed and intentionally so, and a film-going public hungry for something that hits the sweet-spot between smart and emotionally satisfying will not be able to stop talking about it. Enter, like an unexpected guest who has been hiding in your basement, Get Out.
To rise to and consolidate power 20th century fascism invoked crude race and national origin myths. This is part of what led Breton to pose the problem of counter-mythology, a different set of stories; stories that would animate resistance – that would bring the weight of the past crashing down on the enemies of socialism and the working-class. As Walter Benjamin wrote, the hatred and sacrifice needed for revolution is nourished “on the picture of enslaved forebears.” For Breton this was bound together with Surrealism and its intersections of chance and plan, individual and collective psychology, dream and consciousness, individual and collective action. As our contemporary far-right movements have gained ground they have brought back the “belligerent gods.” And among the neo-fascist “alt-right” there is a return of esoteric occult fascism in the “Cult of Kek” and its Pepe the Frog fascinations. So, just as before, we need our own animating counter-mythologies – our own stories for living and fighting in this world – for ridding it of the “myths of Odin."
We desperately need to explore a new genealogy for radical art – one that does not focus on obsessive materiality or abstracted gestures (isolated from social catastrophe); that does not avoid the brilliant moments of resistance that sustain us, but is not simply propaganda (although we need propaganda). Soulèvements – curated by philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman (winner of the 2015 Adorno Prize) – on display at the Jeu de Paume in Paris –provides an important contribution to exploring an alternative tradition for radical art.
There have been key moments when forms and modes of perception and expression shift in a profound manner. Such shifts may be met with skepticism, even hostility. Eventually, a new paradigm seems to emerge, although the malleable nature of art is such that the new paradigm can co-exist with its forerunners – yet not always peacefully so. The predictable and easily danceable swing tunes of Benny Goodman-era jazz developed into the more amorphous, multi-dimensional bebop. The realism of 18th century paintings gave way to the new imageries of “modernism” and later to “postmodernism” (a term simultaneously impossible to prescriptively define and curiously passé).
The uses and abuses of Rosa Luxemburg as a revolutionary icon are many, and they tend to focus excessively on the tragedy of her death or on her intellectual relationship with Lenin. Old Stalinists display great alabaster busts that disfigure her as a mute, empty eyed martyr to the cause of the mass murderer with whom she shares a bookshelf. Far worse than irrelevant or instrumental, the left has managed to render one of the most magnetic, vivacious and daring of its intellectuals as boring. Consequently the most exciting thing about, Red Rosa, Kate Evans’ graphic biography of the Polish-born German revolutionary is that when she undertook this extremely ambitious project, she scarcely knew anything about her.
What’s the best thing about Gary Ross’s The Free State of Jones? It is clearly a film that will rile the “All Lives Matter” crowd. For conscious white-supremacists and “color blind” racists alike, the portrayal on screen of a white Southerner – an army deserter – in league with runaway slaves in defiance of the tax man, the war machine, and the system of human bondage, amounts to a giant slap in the face. And it should be. But The Free State of Jones is much more than that. Here we have a mainstream film about a band of rebels in conscious opposition to economic inequality and horrendous racial injustices. What's more, they are led by a proponent of a utopian, agrarian-socialist vision of society.
A collection of anti-racist activist and photographer Syd Shelton’s work from Rock Against Racism has been collected together for the first time. Is this book a nostalgic trip to the bad old days of 1970s racial conflict or does it have something to offer a new generation fighting the changing face of racism in the 21st century? Maybe both?
Shelton’s starkly black and white photographs portray the sharp contrasts in 1970s Britain. National Front marchers and anti-racist crowds, the police and the youth on the street, the punks and Rastas, Sikh pensioners and black and white kids, the bands and the audiences.