“When a couple of local people asked us where we were staying that evening we replied that we would just pull our car next to a park and catch some sleep. Horrified, our new friends told us bluntly that “The Los Angeles Police (LAPD) will pull you out of your car, kick the shit out of you and then arrest you.”
This grim assessment of the LAPD was corroborated in the wake of the 1992 LA riots by a local fifth-grade teacher who told historian Mike Davis that: “In the area where I work, the LAPD is a sadistic occupying army.”
The Anatomy of a Rebellion (Solidarity)
“…the social contract establishes corporate virtue as an asylum for individual sin, making a moral society out of immoral men; men whose natural inclination, according to Hobbes and Freud, is murder.”
Norman O. Brown
I was thinking about the artists I know personally. In this week of Grand Juries expressly vindicating, almost as a matter of formal announcement, a white supremacist vision for America. The artists I know range from officially non commercially successful, to moderately successful, to famous. I know painters and writers and theatre artists and even a dancer. Somehow, in this week in which black America has begun to find their collective voice and with them the poor in general, and the remaining few sane. But I don’t know if I see enough artists participating, but perhaps its early. Very few white people see this narrative for what it is; a white epic. This is the Epic story of America; slave trader, plantation owner, segregated and hierarchical. Black folk sat over there, white man sat here. There was always racist police in the U.S. In fact, they’re impossible to separate. Police=Racist. There is no police force, as we know it, if there were not clear racial hierarchies to enforce. No police without property, white people property, to protect. No better illustration of this than post Katrina New Orleans. What did the police do? Did they bring water to the dehydrated stuck on rooftops? No, they hurried to secure property from looting. American police have always done the same, and you can look at the LA/Watts riots (uprising or rebellion if you prefer — though I’m happy with the word RIOT…I have no bad associations with that word) of 1965. There was the Fred Hampton murder by Chicago police, and there was those cops beating on Rodney King, or there was Danzinger Bridge, or there were the ‘Rough Riders’ in Oakland in the 90s, and later Oscar Grant. There was Kimani Gray, and Assata Shakur, and there was Hurricane Carter, and going back to 1919, what James Weldon Johnson called *the red summer*, in which twenty cities had “race riots”; culminating in the summer conflict in Chicago. Worth noting that Irish immigrants were later named instigators for a good deal of the violence against blacks, and especially the Hamburg Athletic Club, among whose members was 17 year old future mayor Richard Daley. The narrative though, really, changed very little whether the city was Charleston, or Chicago, Oakland or St. Louis, Tulsa or Knoxville. The cosmetic decorations might change, but the storyline never varies.
Today the mainstream media manufactures varieties of white supremacist stories to flatter white consumers. It provides ample ideological support for the idea that white’s are not the aggressors in race conflicts, that white’s need to help more, and donate more, and the proof of progress is in the White House, but never do they see that this a story of a lethal white society with it’s boot heal on the black population.
But this is also all rather obvious. And I mean, look, if this ISN’T obvious today, right now, then it is no doubt too late to learn. Eric Garner, a man who was a threat to nobody. On tape. Choked to death. By a white cop. How hard is it to process this storyline? Grand Jury doesn’t indict. So, given the obvious, I want to perhaps look at what I take to be a bit less obvious, and to do so is to delve into the ways in which I believe culture and art matter. Why they are socially radicalizing, potentially.
But let me return to the artists I know personally. Those I know who had integrity, and were driven by a seriousness about art, have suffered enormously. Quite literally most are insane. At least they are highly dysfunctional today. And that is because they have not been recognized. The degree to which radical voices are made invisible is extraordinary. Not being seen, literally, makes people crazy. It is an unforgiving culture for those in the arts if they have not gained significant recognition by the age of forty. And to be granted that recognition costs one his or her soul. And this raises questions about how society sees art and those who make art. There has been a tendency that runs alongside the commodification of culture and that is the professionalizing of art, and the less talked about hobby-fication of art. If you don’t make it, in art or anywhere else in this predatory system, and you create things, the psychological safeguard mechanism is to treat it as a hobby. George Bush paints, now. How many actors (movie stars) ended their days as hobby painters? Many many many. But these were celebrities: and they were dabbling, staying *creative*. If you were an auto mechanic and decided at age fifty to paint, you might be seen as troubled and your wife or husband might show real fear. And if you painted weird abstract art or made minimalist sculpture, you would be seen as in need of an intervention.
If you painted fluffy dogs, or landscapes…well, ok, still strange, but not dire. The point is that the second half of the 20th century has turned the very idea of an artist into a cliche.
The culture of the West, primarily in the U.S. and western Europe, the idea of a commitment to art, irrespective of financial success, is as obsolete as making buggy whips. Or learning to repair typewriters. Today you develop a brand. But this is obvious in a sense, and what is far less obvious is what has replaced the hole in society where artists used to be? The question is not where art used to be, for we still have art. But I am less sure we still have artists. Marx said there is a progressive and regressive side to everything. The regressive aspect to artists resides in the cult of genius, the petulance and primma dona like narcissism. This rise in the idea of a single creative genius is a large topic, but more or less it coincided with the development of the bourgeois burgher, the great businessman, who could buy a portrait, and in this was born today’s idea of individuality. The tortured genius, alone, driven in a search for revelation was the cultural myth applied to the arts. The erosion of this was only in the sense that revelation was abandoned and replaced with brand. What was lost was the sense of radicalism itself, and of conscience. For artists at their best entail a sense, or carry a sense of conscience along with them. Beethoven, Goya, Melville, Tolstoy, or Paul Celan, or even Shakespeare. The work then is unable to separate itself from the material world around it. The culture was defined by this expression, an expression that was oppositional. Even within the status quo, a certain understanding existed, often betrayed, but still, an understanding that the artist was apt to bite the hand that fed it. Material reality was confronted by the historical weight of the artist, and artwork. As Adorno said, “Their enchantment is disenchantment”.The artwork entailed a double character.
“It was plausible that socially progressive critics should have accused the program of *l’art pour l;art*, which has often been in league with political reaction, of promoting a fetish with the concept of a pure, exclusively self-sufficient artwork.”
Artworks, Adorno goes on, posit something spiritual as being independent of the material conditions of production. The artist then, carries with him or herself a sense of guilt and failure, and it is this guilt of being a fetish that is shared by the audience, or viewer, for it is shared by everyone in a society of untruth — and this reaches toward the necessity of fetishes. For in this recognition of guilt, of failure, the artwork (and artist) stand in a dynamic tension with exchange value. Marx noted the fact that Milton’s poems made him little or no money, and to this could be added Moby Dick, a book so vilified by critics and readers that Melville considered never writing again. These works had no market value. No socially useful labor. Art was the hedge against utility, and rationalization.
This is one of the densest sections of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. And there is a crucial sentence here that I want to quote:
“Artworks that want to divest themselves of fetishism by real and extremely dubious political commitment regularly enmesh themselves in false consciousness as the result of inevitable and vainly praised simplification. In the shortsighted praxis to which they blindly subscribe, their own blindness is prolonged.”
This relates to, as Adorno says, the division of labor. The false perception that fetishism is only objectivation. In other words, the societal reception to the artwork is secondary to production of the artwork — interpretation or decipherment of the artwork is firstly an understanding of production, not the hierarchical assessment of its effects, message, or socially agreed upon meaning or appearance. Art is always mediated. If this is looked at in flash forward sixty years (since Adorno wrote) the mediation is complete now, and on a socially total scale. Adorno said that ‘every authentic artwork’ was revolutionary, at least internally. It is a schematic for internal change. Today, the tendency toward integration, by means of this absolute mediation, results in the erosion of what is radical in the artwork. Popularity can kill even the greatest work, and trivialize the artist.
“In the administered world neutralization is universal.”
Neutralization emphasizes again the double character of art. The fact that abstract art is hung in the lobbies of multinational oil company headquarters suggests that what is being tacitly praised by Exxon or Mobil is the titillation of oppositional work which provides the owner with a certain access to that unconscious danger they so steadfastly repress. This is the conflicted area of art’s social role, again. Art is always going to be bad art if it’s intention is to form opinion (per Adorno). The society of domination loves nothing better than to bestow qualities of beauty and nobility upon the very people they terrorize and oppress.
“Real denunciation is probably only a capacity of form, which is overlooked by a social aesthetic that believes in themes.”
This truth suggests the pointlessness of agit prop and protest art. It is destined for a bourgeois identification, but this fact is not unique to it, for the false consciousness of all overtly political art is shared by the reception one finds in ironic appreciation of George Bush’s fluffy dogs. There is today, it seems to me, a de facto partiality to all mimetic process. By which I mean, if we take narrative, in fiction, or in film or T.V., the ascension of genre, its spread to almost all corners of human discourse, has assaulted the previously assumed goal of coherence and completion. This partiality or fragmented expression encloses or contains the primary contradictions of Capital. This is why the critique that dismisses, for example, everything that contains violence as harmful, is itself hewing too closely to Puritanical censorship. This is not to say that the wholesale selling of non-stop violence is not a direct goal of a state bent on normalizing the violence it inflicts on its own population, or what the ruling class sees as a surplus population, but that this sort of complaint is simply far too simplistic, and is in formal agreement with the bourgeois structure of policing ideas.
Take for example the TV series Sons of Anarchy. It is easy to see the profligate excess in depictions of violence and sadism, to see its sexism and florid machismo. All this is true and undeniable. But, this is also perhaps the single show I can think of in which the lumpen class, the lowest rung of the working class in America, is honestly depicted. Is this is an accurate representation of biker gangs? Of course not. But after I believe season two, the addition of Kem Nunn as executive producer, and part time writer, signaled a sea change in the sensibility of the narratives and it did become, partially, an honest representation of minimum wage life. This became a show in which everyone, every single character (save the biker gang) was marked by the work they *have* to do, by the soul deadening monotony of wage slavery. The bikers themselves are the only characters (conspicuously) who flaunt their refusal to take day jobs. That is their perceived heroism in a sense. And they pay the societal price for it. This is a landscape of cheap apartments, cheaper bars, garages, discount furniture stores, and strip malls — all are dismal, suffocating and deteriorating. The racial prejudice is presented as self evident, as it is in society. Everyone is sacrificed because nobody has a choice. A world in which routine custody or prison terms is expected, an incorporated part of the system in which the poor must live. Corruption is systemic, and honor is carved out of the debris that is all that remains for the poor. Truck drivers, waitresses, porn actors and transgender hustlers are allowed moments of actual dignity. Nowhere else is class presented quite so clearly in mainstream product. There is also (and I’m sure this is Nunn’s influence) a tragic resignation to the entire arc of the show. It is surprisingly unsentimental. This is a comic book Sophocles in a sense. Lurid, excessive, and exhibitionistic, yes. But one should not discount the genuine awareness displayed on the subject of working class suffering. Nowhere does anyone *win* anything not utterly transient. I suspect those who grew up in this world, or on the edges of it, anyone who can spent time in prison or jail, will not, at least privately, find something resonant in the stories.
The point is that this is not the rabid fascistic political fantasy of Madame Secratary or States of Affair, or Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom. The content is here encloses a social truth, one in which there is no universalizing totalism, no generic bromides save perhaps the virtue of honor, however disfigured. This culture of scientific classification and ironic regressivness, a strange fragmenting of genre takes place in which the residue of all ‘Everyman Plays’ is being, perhaps even unintentionally, worked out. Trauerspiels on Harleys.
Now, this is a question of mediation. For the processes of neutralization that take place are today nearly total. If I had to select a film in the last three or four years that I think most highly of, it would be, probably, Mister John. And here it is important to discern the register in which the viewer is mimetically engaged with a film such as this, and the way in which one can tweeze apart something rare but diminished in Sons of Anarchy. It is a question of navigating the ineffabile and of stepping back from a bourgeois insistence on coherence on the part of the audience. Adorno, again, says in art ideology and truth cannot be so easily distinguished from each other. Today, even within ideology can be found grains of genuine negation. Mister John is so masterful in form, in execution, that mimesis is foregrounded and Utopian promise, even if necessarily broken eventually, is there as aesthetic awakening. In the FX television series, this is not so. One clings to an appreciation of something amid the larger fraud. It is a memory trace, a recognition of a contour that reminds us of something lost, but it also can only do this by an aesthetic action that negates from within the form. And this is discovered in the lobby of Exxon, and to what degree artworks survive that lobby and the implications of this survival. But this form, a corporate produced mainstream TV show, is now of such monumental hegemonic totalizing power that it remains an open question how diminished might be even these few grains.
Brian O’Connor in his essay on Adorno and epistemology says; “…the criterion can be adjusted if it seems no longer compatabile with the object” Experience contains a moment of nonidentical intimation of the specificity of the object. Or, a non-conceptual moment. This is really the place where one starts to talk about the spiritual in art. But it is always linked to a physical material concrete object. For without that concreteness, there is only new age mush. There is only conceptual games of intellect. And that is always reactionary. And this leads into why artists like David Lynch are so tiresome. The production of effects (the *weird* effect in his case) is regressive if not linked to the material world, and I think, by extension to history. Subjectivity is not a receptacle for data. It also does not just invent the world. The individual is making sense of the world and in that way is shaping some part of this experience of the object. The relevant aspect of this for aesthetics is linked up with ideology, and of course with mediation by a society of domination. The vast never ending 24 hour a day onslaught of image and narrative manufactured by a very few generators of information, has raised questions, as stated above, about how diminished cultural life has become. Society is *in* artworks and as such, today, is part of the apparatus of mystification. The shape of the artwork, internally, is reliant, most of time and maybe all of the time to the society in which it is produced. In other words, everything is dependent to some degree on the system of domination. And there is no escape. Its only which avenue one wants to travel. Or which is imposed at any particular moment. In art, in that which aspires in some fashion to negate the status quo, the forces of production are separated in a fashion from their previous role in domination. This becomes about how to unravel the reified commodity artwork, and to what extend obedience is understood, for everything in the marketplace, even if not intended for it, is in service to those who hold power. If the CIA tried to use Abstract Expressionism, it probably failed, but not entirely. Anti commercial art is often more compromised than that which accepts partial mediation (everything, again, is mediated) because (per Adorno) the antithesis is abstract and facile. In a Lynch, there is only the decorative fatuity of a valentine to social domination. But in the same way, agit prop or overtly radically political art is often betrayed by the philistinism of its form.
The very idea of beauty is now so threadbare and compromised that it exists only as Hallmark Greeting card kitsch. And here enters the comforting notion of irony. That velvet painting of Elvis is ironically amusing, maybe even by some pirouettes of logic subversive, but it’s also still a velvet painting of Elvis.
Today, the installation or site specific art project, or conceptual (sic) project is a burlesque of sovereignty — for what it is selling is only a pre-shaped reception, complete with free extra attitude thrown in. The very definition of vulgarity is the artist’s insistence on novelty and originality. It is here, too, that genre has arrived in a transformed role. For genre now includes varieties of shopping experience, of marketing, and of its role in relationship to the hegemonic structures that grant visibility to mass product. The affirming of bad taste by mass product, the creation of permission to luxuriate in bad taste is now a stalwart marketing strategy.
The erasure of distance between high and low art has left genre to fill into void. There is really nothing regressive in seeing Shakespeare as a sit com. Not inherently. Not today. The problem is that this usually entails adapting the presentation of Shakespeare to a tradition of formula kitsch, and thereby validating the oppressive state of the audience. So the question of Sons of Anarchy revolves around whether the honesty found in a depiction of working class poverty and suffering is not simply reinforcing an acceptance of this suffering by layering it over with a mock heroism. I suspect this is certainly the case with any number of recent Hollywood films featuring celebrity movie stars slumming it as lumpen characters in cartoon versions of daily oppression. Where once the clown and servant (Losey’s film version of Pinter’s script for The Servant comes to mind) held a place as figures of liberation, today they are simply clowns and servants (Downton Abby). The sentimentality incrusted on comedic or romantic romps featuring Pygmalion like prostitutes or homeless men is the extreme bad faith of this dynamic. Part of this is the erasing of history in such characters. The centuries of sevitude and humiliation that is wiped away by the smile of a rich CEO (Prince) who promises a happy ever after future. In Shakespeare the nobility and royality are aware of there complicity, as are the soldiers or sheriffs in Cormac McCarthy, or Faulkner, or in the criminals of so many film noirs from the 40s. Today’s mass audience, predominately white and educated and reactionary, for film and TV and theatre is one in which contradiction is acute. They survey their cultural market shelf in search of the most flattering forms of titillation, or at least the most normalizing narrative reinforcing their privilege. The catastrophe of Capitalism can only be expressed in a form that echos that catastrophe in form, not in a message that says ‘capitalism is catastrophic’ while humming along in seamless ease. The liberal educated audience today is strikingly reactionary in fact.
The left seems more and more intent on self branding Puritanism, solidifying their hold of micro positions of cool. The buzz kill asceticism of many leftists is only thinly veiled authoritarianism. Attacking Russel Brand for who he dates, or for his good looks or something, rather than seriously examining the fact that his radicalism, however mediated (and god knows its mediated in the extreme) has reached tens of thousands more than those tiresome Trotskyists hawking their tiresome newspapers on street corners. Maybe working with a voice that reaches so many is just common sense. Noam Chomsky has a large stock portfolio, and Naomi Klein is reasonably affluent. This is not a race to the bottom.
So, there is then, running alongside this discussion the recent Ferguson protests, and now Eric Garner. And it is here that in the form of a black community pushed to the absolute brink of endurance, that serious voices of change can be found. For the sense of increasing blindness, or impaired vision, in the white society today, is seen reflected back at them by mainstream cultural product. The overwhelming mono-culture represented not just in news, but in entertainments and art (sic) has a mirror expression in the Grand Jury decisions, absolutely foreordained, in the cases of Michael Brown, and perhaps even more in Eric Garner. The absence of a narrative that actually existed on film in the case of Garner is suggestive of the absence of heterogeneity in all mainstream culture. Garner is invisible except as mannequin/plot point in the never ending saga of white surpremacy. The new story is the same story only told in ever flatter language, in a depthless arid prose and performed by ever more wooden voices; the voices of the both the kindergarten teacher and maitre’d. The district attorney speaking to the assumed superiority of the white audience, a gentlemen’s club wink, a self conscious exaggerated performance of patience at having to endure the bad manners of the crowd, voices of white guidance, and example. For even in the snide ironic narcissism of Lena Dunham or Bill Maher is found the barely hidden stern school marm that will punish after class. All entertainment now is white jingoism, but couched in a narrative sculpted from jailers bent on a bed count once curfew is called. This is entertainment 99% of the time today. And this saturation of sameness is akin today to mental illness. It is also self loathing. Perhaps one reason societies of relative sanity value culture is that atrophied imagination defaults to brutality.
And in a sense this leads me back to my thoughts about the artists I know. But also, two painters I somehow feel worth mentioning here. One was Theodoros Stamos. One of the younger Abstract Expressionists, Stamos had worked odd jobs, florist, hat blocker, and while studying on scholarship at the American Artists School, he visited Steiglitz’ American Place Gallary. This was a seminal moment for Stamos, as was meeting Ashile Gorky when Gorky came into a frame shop at which Stamos was working. Stamos was from a Greek born family, but was himself born in New York. He gravitated to the immigrant painters of the New York School, and his work was keenly influenced by Gorky and Still, as well as by Baziotes. Stamos traveled most of his life. He was a restless inquisitive man, and later became executor for his friend Mark Rothko’s estate. In between travels he taught for a couple years at Black Mountain College. The involvement with the Rothko estate was to doom his career and reputation, rather unfairly in retrospect. The details are well documented (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-grant/theodoros-stamos_b_1327696.html) and the shadow that hung over Stamos work never allowed him the recognition he no doubt deserved.
Stamos was a minor painter in that movement, but the best of the lesser artists to be sure (only Marca Relli looks as good). Looking at his work now, in comparison to Baziotes or Brooks or Jimmy Ernst, there is a tensile strength lacking in the others, as well as the influences of Asian aesthetics, a connection he cultivated, that provide something enigmatic. Never a great colorist, it was more in the sense of distance he provided the viewer, suggested to the viewer, the idea of something suppressed or restrained, something that eventually had to be relieved, but was out of view. He died dishonored in 1997. The reason to mention Stamos here is that his itinerant sensibility, his carelessness about commercial return, probably gave his late work a sense of fatalism that is very much worth revisiting. It is odd perhaps to link him to Jean Antoine Watteau, but I’ve always sort of loved Watteau, and found in him a similar fatalism. To love Watteau means to indulge in a sort of guilty pleasure. His quick brush strokes, his lack of formal gifts are compensated for by a wanton louche eroticism. It is always late summer in Watteau, at least for me. It is always afternoon, even when it’s not. Watteau died young at age 36. He was always frail and sickly, according to accounts, and maybe that is what gives his paintings such poignance. He is the forerunner for Fragonard, and probably others, at least in his creation of Rococo summer idylls, what has been labeled ‘fête galante’. The son of a roofer in the provinces, he rose to some renown at the Regency of the duc d’Orléans, in Paris society. But he was an outsider there, a thin somewhat timid man who learned to paint by being employed to paint copies of famous works by the likes of Rubens, to be sold to tourists. Watteau’s world is bittersweet and also fatalistic. Those summers are seductive but never seem realized somehow. They elicit regret in the viewer, a kind of melancholic nostalgia. It is in the work of such artists that one hears those usually unheard voices of history. They are hushed, perhaps, but not mute. Like Stamos, there was the promise of much more that was never realized. But to reach the level of promise is no small thing.
I find with the writers and painters I know, the theatre artists, that it is very hard to see oneself, after a certain age, as an artist. In this society, the parameters for acceptable success are very narrow. One is allowed to be an auto mechanic, one can do that for one’s entire life and be stamped as unimportant, but not deranged or dangerous. In the U.S. there is even a counterfeit kitsch heroism in certain proletarian jobs. Never actual dignity, for mostly the ruling class has a palpable loathing for the poor.
Many artists I know stop their creative work. They stop writing, stop painting, or they do it privately. The situating of an artwork today includes certain presumptions, certain pre-conditions. One is to have official sanction. A gallery or a residency at a theatre, or regular publications. Without that, your work cannot be seen even when it is seen.
Artworks are not the repository of the creator’s feelings or ideas, they are too altered by what Adorno called “the autonomous nexus of the artwork”. The mimetic process is itself creative in a sense, and it is in this meeting place that the viewer or listener or audience is allowed to lose his or her or their identity. Perhaps this is also, partly, what artists do in creating something. That mimetic process is an intrusive moment of objectivity. For this is the world with the screens pulled away, it is something that approaches an instant of non-mediation. One cannot escape, as an artist, the trauma of the social. In a society today, in the U.S. certainly, in which state authority is now wantonly fascistic, and stunningly sadistic, the possibility of *light* entertainment is feeling increasingly depraved. And this moral stain is not easily laundered, and witness the rise in pitch coming from the giant corporate manufacturers of pop culture. It is a kind of shrieking, that is coupled to a form so eroded and emotionally oxidized, that no amount of bought attention or marketing can make it digestible. Only the elite white class, a certain affluent ownership class now even pretends to normalcy. There is an increased awareness, even if the most prostituted of artists or audience that the fictions of the state are unreal. But hence the doubling down on these fictions. In that three a.m. insomniac gaze at the ceiling the voices of unrest are being heard, however. The last words of Eric Garner are heard. I cant breathe.