Cultural Communism & the Inegalitarian Basis of All Genuine ArtJonathan Bowden
Edited by Alex Kurtagić
The Following is an excerpt from Blood, written between April and May 1992. It is part of a much longer discussion about art, where Bowden explores one of his favorite themes: the art of the radical Left versus the art of the radical Right.
Here he outlines the idea—ignored or denied nowadays—that, since all genuine artistic activity is predicated on human inequality, the pursuit of radical equality in the arts means the destruction of all possible art. The text has been only lightly edited for punctuation, spelling, and capitalization.
According to Stewart Home and other denizens of Smile magazine, a communist-nihilist publication, the Situationists, whom he calls the ‘specto’-Situationists to differentiate them from the artists who followed in their wake, were guilty of bourgeois abstraction. They were guilty of the cardinal sin—in such circles—of idealism, of not basing their thought on a materialist grounding, a perspective of limiting matter and limitless class struggle.
The view of Home and his acolytes (if there are any) is that [Guy] Debord and [Raoul] Vaneighem were guilty of theoretical deviation, an ideological detour around the bourgeois houses. This was an ideological faux pas that led them to endorse art, hierarchy, and bourgeois values at the moment when they proclaimed their destruction.
In a sense, when Home itemized the fringe and necessarily inadequate achievements of these artists, certainly in terms of artistic creation—Metzger’s auto-destructive art, for instance—he wishes to counter-point the poverty of Situationist theory. What he actually did was to point out the inadequacies—intellectual and technical—of the reductio ad absurdum, ‘sin bin’ avantgarde.
His main point was that a Utopian tradition of anarchy, ecstasy, and plebeian fury had animated a string of counter-cultural authors and artists—Coppe, Blake, Sade, Lautremont, the Surrealists, etc. . . . This is a neat theory, it must be admitted—a form of misstatement, when what we want to say is that this is a necessary fiction on which the author can hang a dissident tradition. It is a tradition, moreover, which dissents against a localized phenomenon, namely against modernism, which is purely a 20th-century event, a happening of modernity as its name suggests.
What this critique wishes to establish, however, is a continuity of rebellion in relation to pre-existing artistic structures—an argument that brings it perilously close to a form of self-serving addenda, whereby lettrism, for instance, can be classified as on a par with the libertarian Christian poetry of William Blake. This is something that ultimately serves the ends of cultural distortion—the assimilation and absorbtion of difference, the denial of quality and hierarchy in relation to culture.
The basic point of Home’s critique, however, involves a certain amount of nostalgia, a respectful nod in the direction of Dadaism, in particular the Dadaist idea that anything can be a work of art. Whereas Surrealism always insisted, under [André] Breton’s tutelage, that anyone can produce art—in the latter case by a dextrous manipulation of unconscious forces that can be used to create. ‘Everyone dreams! Everyone can create Art!’, ran the catch-phrase.
Situationism, on the other hand, at least the specto-Situationist variant that Home is prepared to recognize, believed that everyone should destroy art by achieving its futility at the moment of its recreation—its final gasp. The Post-Situationism that Home’s analysis favoured, all of which is laid out in his book, Assault on Culture, is a form of mannerist council communism—with an individualist twang—in the realm of art. Hence, we see his advocacy of industrial protest against bourgeois culture, namely an artist’s strike, whereby no artworks would be produced for the art market, thereby marginalizing the fringe artists who were stupid enough to endorse this position!
Home and his associates wish to see a situation where nothing rests easy, where everything is contumacious and unclear, where art has no meaning except as a form of proletarian indulgence—a type of mute and redundant sensibility. Hence, we see the call for artists to strike, an attempt to engineer on behalf of these nihilists a go-slow action, a cultural taint—what we might call a refusal to observe reality, when reality is a minefield of action. (Hence, the exhibition that was entitled Culture on the Ruins; the Ruins of Culture—a show they claim was smashed up. They probably did it themselves!)
In short, Home and his adherents wish to bring about a culture of the ruins, an archaic splendour without the echo—the footfall of the Gods—an attempt at an arrested process of deliverance. Now Home and these other cultural bullies—these vandals of the screen—wish to anaesthesize their audiences. They want to render them mute—silent—spendthrift and withdrawn. Hence, we see the fascination with working-class culture—more accurately, the avoidance of the fact that the proletariat has no culture!
For Home, of course, to talk of art is to believe in a form of unity, a type of transcendence beyond class and yet rooted in elitism. These are the things he is in violent rebellion against! Ultimately, what he wants to destroy is not transgression, or even the sublime, the wilfully articulate—no; it is the prospect of transcendence in relation to hieratic order, and his colleagues (it may just be him) are intent on the destruction, through denial, of what is described in such circles as ‘essence’, ‘essentialism’—the fact that reality is rooted in the nature that we see all around is, but which such critiques tend to visualise as nothing more than a sea of bourgeois filth.
Men like Home ultimately want to use art as the final communist frontier—a basic resource in their strategy to attack and degrade art, to leave it no room of manoeuvre, and finally destroy it. The point of this is not purely nihilistic, however, in that Home has a definite political agenda that is somewhat submerged. It is submerged amidst the debris of culture, particularly his own, amongst the shards of a fractured dialectic—but it is there nevertheless. Moreover, it is an attempt to deny any transcendent aspect to culture, thereby degrading it, reducing it to the level of proletarian swill. In short, it is an attempt to come to power in a wasteland of the imagination, where the method of the artists’ strike holds good for all time—hence, the sheer nihilism of its viewpoint, its conspectus of the absence of horror.
Yet, although there is a strong dose of the merely destructive in this argument, this is by no means all. There is a hidden agenda, unspoken and possibly even unconscious, and this is the desire to come to power (if only in the cultural area) on the backs of a philistine proletariat, on the basis of a plebeian disdain for culture. Thus, the Assault on Cultureis paving the way—in its imagination, of course; in the real world these things are of scant importance—for the destructive power of non-creativity.
Rather like the murderer, the psychopathic killer, who sees all of society as his victims, this Left Communist/Nihilist analysis is designed to leave a lonely T. S. Eliot in his wasteland—in fact, to find a wasteland without an author, T. S. Eliot or anyone else, to transcribe it effectively, when what is opposed is the possibility of transcription, of change in relation to essence; when Home and his colleagues do not know what they want.
On the one hand, they wish to cut the bourgeois out of art, whether the term is used in a social or a ‘Marxist descriptive’ sense, but they have nothing to replace it with. On the other, they dream—in the loose manner of the Left-wing mind—of a complete transformation of the social scene (the response, it must be said, of a severely alienated intellect). This is the sort of intellect that can mystify itself over the prospect of essence, from a strongly materialist position, when what is believed in is positively chiliastic. Namely, this is the idea that all social structures, idealistic concepts (i.e., all forms of recognised religion), every positive and actual cultural affirmation or statement, can be done away with, be destroyed, find itself lonely and abandoned.
Yet, after this momentary act of vandalism, what do we find? Nothing but the fact that the author believes in the prospect of proletarian footling, of the working-class individuality, and collectively replacing culture with another form of culture (whatever that means). With a culture that is so free that it is worth nothing at all—a mere grubbing around in the sand, dust, and ashes of what is left, an attempt to approach what Home would call the free creativity of the universalized proletariat—namely, no art whatsoever. This is a vision that truly resembles psycho-art—the often drug-induced despair and cultural illiteracy of the squat, of the anarcho-punk hatred of existence—i.e., the hatred of themselves. It is the state of mind one sees in the following piece of squat graffiti: the acronym ‘F.O.A.D.’—Fuck Off and Die!
Home ultimately wants to see a somewhat baboonish vision of culture—a veritable Tower of Babel—that people like himself will find easy to control, in that the far Left always consists of conflicting strands, even within the same individual. These consist, on the one hand, of a desire to apply a form of universal humanism—do-goodery, in other words. While the other element, the other admixture, is blindly destructive, wilfully nihilistic, anarchic, vengeful, and without pity. It is essentially a position that exists to mouth its own despair! Particularly when society itself can serve as a vehicle for an individual’s misanthropy. When an individual can vent his or her spleen on the society, on the social whole—especially when the do not have to pay any price for it!
As a consequence, there is a deeply cynical side to this endeavor, an attempt to trap proletarian mores in a way that will have to be denied ever afterwards. Namely, that the absence of working-class culture is used as an excuse to ‘destroy bourgeois culture’—the only form of existing culture—just because of personal dissatisfaction, a feeling of inadequacy, and unfulfillment. In short, nihilistic cultural communism is the rebellion of the fart and the belch—of a distended and inadequate angst on all finer things, particularly when those higher notions go under the general heading of ‘God’.
Nevertheless, Home attempt to go beyond art, to transgress towards a type of culture that bears no relation to what we call art, was bound to fail. It rested too hopelessly on an image of self-achievement, an understanding of a process that was otherwise impossible, namely the free creation of the sovereign proletariat. This is something that would involve the destruction of all possible art, even the avoidance of creativity itself.
What is actually required is a specific understanding of what we mean by art, in particular in relation to the definition that Wyndham Lewis gave of it in The Demon of Progress in the Arts.
Lewis adumbrated several principles of artistic excellence, all of which involved creative expression, literary interpretation, and radical foreknowledge—all of which refers to the fact that creativity has to communicate something; it must enhance the intensity— not the quality, but the intensity—of life, insofar as the one excludes the other.
The artistic act also has to adopt the configuration of the line—draughtmanship as a real token of meaning rather than an indulgence, something to be mastered so that it can be dispensed with after the act.
It also has to marshall and order experience in relation to a creative gesture, so that it does not have to come to rely on sensuous impressions in a manner that is passive or unduly effeminate.
All of which relates very strongly to the artistic theory of Greenberg, Herbert Reed, or Clive Bell—all of whom posited a sensuous or impressionistic art criticism against the hard-edged rationality, the masculinity, and diachronic insight that Lewis favored.
Another thing that the observer has to be aware of is the notion of art as a form of hierarchical ordination, an understanding of the fact that art is hieratic, religious, and occasionally spiritual. (This analysis should not be overdone, but a spiritual dimension to life cannot be ignored.)
In a sense it is a recognition of the purity of the process, the fact that art has a genuinely apolitical element attached to it, and that human inequality is the basis for all genuine artistic activity.
Moreover, when we mention the term ‘apolitical’, we do not declare an absence of social consideration—far from it—merely an understanding of the fact that art impinges on things that are slightly beyond the category of machine-guns and butter, even though without machine-guns and butter, of course, there could be no art.
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