Thursday, February 14, 2008


Art Lesson for Revolutionaries


THESIS: The art-making process can be a practical approach to initiating a revolutionary change.




I accept Marx's historical materialism, but depart from Marx's conception of revolution. He lived at a time when not much could be said about the revolution, but what he did say tied the revolution to the proletariat class, spontaneous mass uprising, and a simplified utopian end result. Lenin, Stalin, Mao and other orthodox communists followed in these footsteps and compounded this error by creating a revolution in pre-capitalist states. These conceptions of a revolutionary class and a new economic mode of production were not radical enough. By initiating the revolution politically, all they did was establish a freakish form of capitalism in China and the USSR. The basic characteristic of capitalism (appropriation of surplus labor) was installed in Marx's name, the proletariat was romanticized and exploited, the communist party replaced the bourgeoisie as the ruling class, and a strange new set of mythologies were formed in the place of the capitalist mythologies.

            We can come to a better idea of the revolutionary process because we are living in a time when the inevitable revolution is beginning to actually happen. It can be observed, correlated to previous historical revolutions, described and applied. This is what I seek to do in this work.

            My description of the present revolution starts with a more thorough conception of historical revolutionary periods. The capitalist revolution was not characterized by the oppressed class (peasantry) rising up and appropriating the means of production (land ownership). Capitalism resulted from the rise of a third, radically different class, the bourgeoisie. This class gained power by applying a new labor relationship (exploitation) to a new type of product (commodity) and developing a new distribution (the market). The feudal class attempted to co-opt the wealth the bourgeoisie created and also limited their growth with government controls, specifically control of land ownership. Eventually this situation reached a breaking point and the bourgeoisie transformed their economic gains into a political struggle, recruited the peasantry, and violently dispelled the obsolete and arbitrary government restraints that held them back. They then transferred the new more efficient systems they had developed in commodity production to other sectors of the economy, often with assistance from the new governmental controls they established to replace feudal law. This all happened simultaneously with massive technological progress and major societal and religious shifts.

            Today, a similar process has begun. The rise of the creative class indicates that artists can take the role of the new revolutionary class. Art contains all the necessary components of a radical new mode of production, the capitalist class is both co-opting the creative class and restraining them with arbitrary legal limitations, for example, intellectual property rights. This situation will reach a breaking point when the creative class develops class consciousness, recognizes the obsolescence of the capitalist structures, recruits the proletariat and throws off the capitalist system.

            I do not indulge in the fantasy that this will create a utopia, but there will be a radical change to all parts of our society, similar in scope to the democratic and industrial revolutions that accompanied the rise of capitalism. Also, this system, as I imagine it, will have greater tendencies for environmental stability and general equality than the capitalist system.

            I've used the feudalism-to-capitalism transition as an example here rather than the roman empire-to-feudalism transition, because I'd like to see the birth of a new improved system, rather than a decline into a new dark ages. Both of these are possible, one of them is inevitable, and the actions and choices we make today determine which of the two it will be.


Manifesto for Artists


THESIS: Political action is the new arts frontier.




            The definition of the word 'art' has been exploded. Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, the absurdists and dadaists broke art. They have made further innovation in the world of art impossible, and repetition of their own actions pointless. They destroyed institutions and left artists needing a new definition and a new role in society. If we look at this process from a Marxist perspective, the dadaists were artistic revolutionaries. Before dada, art held a mystical status and even today, many people ignore dadaism and continue to believe that art feeds the soul, that it's something only a privileged few are able to create and/or appreciate. For some reason, capitalism has stripped the feudal mysticism and patronage off every part of modern life, except art.

            I'll argue that capitalism allowing art to remain mystical perpetuates the capitalist system, by preventing artists from developing into a practical, revolutionary class. Today, arts and entertainment products have a two-tiered status. Those which can easily be commodified, like recorded music, photography, and film are considered "low" art and those which do not fit into the capitalist mode of production are labeled "high" art and restrained to a backwards system of patronage. There is a complicated mythology at play here.

            One way to escape the capitalist mythological system surrounding art processes and objects is to look at the Communist States. The Soviet Union, East Germany and China are useful historical examples because they instituted a quasi-capitalist economic system with a totalitarian communist ideology. They were capitalist states that did not participate in capitalist myth-making. The lives and work of Vladimir Mayakovski and Bertolt Brecht are examples of what new forms of art are possible outside of the capitalist mythological framework. Unfortunately, these art proponents were restrained by socialist realism, state propaganda and the censorship boards.

            As a result, during the modern period, artists had three options: create "low" capitalist art and have your work be commodified, create "high" capitalist art and have your work be installed in an inaccessible tower of patronage and elitism, or create politicized soviet art and work within the limits of totalitarianism. None of these choices is very satisfactory to a responsible, innovative artist. So, naturally with dada artists broke those boundaries, and destroyed "art". Many artists in the post-dada artworld try to ignore the challenge dada created, but many others have confronted those challenges.

            Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys overcame dada by working in combined and recreated paradigms. For example, Andy Warhol commodified fine art and Jospeh Beuys combined artistic happenings acts and political processes themselves. Both of these artists developed the medium of manipulating people and society as a form of artistic creation. This politicization of art is a step toward artists becoming a distinct intentional social and economic class.

            Recent research in urban planning and political economy has documented a rising economic power in the creative class. If we combine this power, with the development of a class consciousness that starts with Beuys and Warhol, we can develop artists into a radical unified and revolutionary class.       New technologies and historical forces are aligned as they were near the end of the feudal period. The capitalist system is simultaneously attempting to co-opt the profits and innovations of the creative class and stifle their progress through arbitrary governmental controls. The arts and entertainment industry is growing rapidly, and internet and computer technologies are making the capitalist system of commodity production obsolete. We have an historic opportunity to not only find a new form of art, but also to use that form of art to create a new world where art and creative processes are more highly valued, prevalent, and where more people have greater freedom to unlock their creative potential.

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