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THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST
The role of the artist has changed considerably over the past century, due both to the emergence of a mass culture industry, and to what might be called the effervescence of technology. While the twentieth-century is often characterised by the invention of new communication technologies, we should not forget that the same might be said of the nineteenth-century - the railway and the postal system, both available to anyone in the "public" who could afford a ticket or stamp - were key victorian developments. Recently there has been much talk of "expanding globally-dominant cultural industries", though we would emphasise that this phenomenon can only be understood as part of global capitalism. Stalinism and Maoism imposed capitalism on what had been predominantly peasant societies, and so one of the chief characteristics of the twentieth-century was a shift from the formal to the real domination of capital on a global scale. As a result, industrial production was shifted around the planet, and some of the most advanced industry is now found in what were once considered "backward" countries, just as regions that were previously heavily industrialised - such as the American Mid-West and British North and Midlands - have become rust belts. All of which has had an immense impact - and usually unremarked - effect on the production of art.
Some of the declining industrial nations have transformed cultural production and real estate into ways of grabbing surplus value (wealth originally generated by human labour). The global/local paradox indulged in by the postmodernists is merely a name for CENTRALISATION by cultural centres such as Los Angeles, New York and London. Furthermore, cultural production is closely tied in with the gentrification of what were traditionally working-class areas in these cities. The meteoric rise of property prices has destroyed much of what gave these places their character, and thus what initially made them attractive to the artistic vanguard among the gentrifiers.
Having established a material basis for our critique, we would like to move on to a very one-sided suggestion that we've encountered numerous times in recent years, viz, that the practice of the early twentieth-century avant-garde has been normalised within contemporary art. This is true, but only to a very limited extent, for while the technique of bricolage, and the treatment of the entire history of art as source material for the production of new work has become normalised, the critique of the institution of art which accompanied it has been jettisoned. The involvement of the Berlin Dadaists and the Situationist International with the revolutionary left is often ignored. The avantgarde wished to integrate art and life, and this project failed because their leftism failed to influence the controlling political organisations of the working-class masses. Art gains its appearance of ideological autonomy from its commodification (a truth the Frankfurt School stumbled on, but hid inside over-complex "Aesthetic Theory" which has provided a rich source for critical mystification as contemporary contributors to Art Monthly employ the term "autonomous art" to revert to the Kantian antithesis between freedom and necessity, one which Hegel and Marx superseded).
To greatly condense our analysis, if capitalism provides the material conditions for art, then German idealism supplies it with its ideological legitimation. Drawing on the same philosophical sources, Marx concluded that human activity constitutes social reality through its praxis; truth is process, the process of self-development; or, as Marx more famously put it, the rounded individual of mature communism is a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night - without being defined socially as either a hunter, a fisherman or a critic. Since it is shackled by commodification, artistic practice today is a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self that will be possible once we've achieved real human community. The goal of communism is to overcome the reification of human activity into separate the realms of work and play, of aesthetics and politics. Communism will rescue the aesthetic from the ghetto of art and place it at the centre of life.
Where, then, does this leave the role of "the artist"? Since under capitalism everyone reproduces the conditions of their own alienation, while art as we know it continues to exist, it would be ridiculous to expect those who seek its abolition as a separate sphere of activity not to engage in and with it. However, those who adhere to Militant Esthetix must never forget that their role as specialist non-specialists must be negated. Art cannot be reformed, it can only be abolished. Therefore, our cultural strategy in this transitional period must be to autonomise the negative within artistic practice. We love the stuff that screws up their sense of reliable cultural value! We must live out the death of the avantgarde not just in theory, but also in practice. We learn nothing from the dead art of the living (hello Brit Art). We learn everything from the living art of the dead (hello Marx Joyce Benjamin Zappa etc). LONG LIVE THE DEAD!
This text is based on "Art Futures?", which Stewart Home wrote for "The Anthology Of Art" web project, eventually to be published in book form, but previewed in "Fasting On Spam & Other Non-aligned Diets For Our Electronic Age", ISBN 0 9540063 1 3, available for £3.75 + £1p+p from Sabotage Editions, BM Senior, London WC1N 3XX (worth every penny, it includes a sidesplitting horoscope). We liked this manifesto so much that we decided to adopt it. There's been some grammatical and political tweaking (though we'd like to credit Stewart for his canny formulation about the roles of Stalinism and Maoism in the twentieth century). It now constitutes our MILITANT ESTHETIX STATEMENT ON THE ROLE OF THE "ARTIST": this is what we thought before, but just hadn't realised! Readers surprised at Home's presence here should be informed that Shitkicks & Doughballs (Militant Esthetix's online "novel") includes "Stew At Home" (aka Stewpot Hauser) in a Bestial Crowdpleaser of a Sex Act with Out To Lunch in section three of Chapter 11, though we haven't yet had enough interested responses to put up more than eight chapters so far.
Stewart Home's website is www.stewarthomesociety.org
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