Monday Musing: Is Art Political Again?

Posted on March 19, 2012


The critic has a monkey on his front.

The more I write about different things, musical aesthetics, the music business, music industry politics, culture and all the rest of it, the less I feel like I’m writing about different things. It’s only when I take a step back that I can see how abstruse and theoretical some of the things I say about aesthetics, for example, must appear, because for me there is nothing less political about a topic like that than there is about any overtly social subject. Everything is political, everything is aesthetic, everything is emotional, everything is spiritual and everything is subject to fruitful theoretical examination; but it is the political dimension in particular that enables me to write with passion and commitment about the most obscure things. My last musing was about aesthetics, and the differing ways that we see natural objects and human subjects; a relatively innocuous, even harmless topic, grist to the mill of the amateur philosopher and watercolourist, sporting their tweeds through the green and pleasant. But what I found when I thought about it, was hegemony and capitalism; I found aesthetics as an expression of ideological values, bundled up in individual subjects with whatever discourses of consumption or resistance they may be engaged in.

Of course the observation that everything is political is not a new one, but it takes some practical experience of political thinking to really understand how deep that runs. However, we live in an era where the globally dominant ideologies are so ubiquitous in their geographic heartlands, that very many people seem to be living a ‘post-political’ existence. As with all dominant regimes, the elite maintain an appearance of debate, a pantomime of meaningful political decision making within the strictly bounded territory of the ideologically acceptable, but the official myth is that the era of political conflict is over. The battlefield of the twentieth century was won by the Right, by capital, and they won by delivering material prosperity and making everybody happy. Of course everyone’s not happy, and it has become obvious to the dispossessed above all that the game of mainstream politics has no meaning or value whatsoever; but they have had their perceptions shaped by a system that offers no alternative definition of political action, and so most people will tell you that they’re ‘not interested in politics’. That such a conclusion agrees so powerfully with the idea at the opposite end of the socio-economic scale that we have arrived at the ‘end of history’ is no coincidence; it’s not a conspiracy, just an ecosystem of power and value; and above all, it is the mark of a dominant ideology that it is completely invisible.

I’m not setting out to write a polemic about how political everything is, however. The last year or more that I’ve spent writing regularly about music has been very illuminating for me, and I have learned to see many ways in which art, culture and aesthetics are ideological or political in practice. I get the impression that culture, even avant-garde or underground culture, has become gradually de-radicalised over the past century or so. Thinking back to the intensity of debate around the early years of abstract art, for example, I can think of no recent equivalents; back then, many artists had a passionate, consciously ideological commitment to their formal practice, linking it directly to the political struggles that would shape the face of Europe. People lived and died for aesthetics; when the Soviet Union ceased to be interested in change, and became focussed exclusively on hegemony, it brutally suppressed all radical aesthetics and instituted a kitsch, conservative official style. Even the abstract expressionists, a group of artists with no coherent group agenda, hated by the McCarthy-ites, many of its proponents committed to socialist principles, was used by the U.S. government as propaganda for Western freedom. The C.I.A. even funded a touring show! And now? Well artists just do their thing, and don’t think too much about politics.

This is a gross generalisation of course, and unfair to many, but I think it’s a fair enough assessment of the general trend. Music, however, and its creators’ engagement with digital, internet, and particularly social technologies, is a site of rupture, and one which I think will look more and more important as the years go by. First fans and listeners outpaced the capacity of the power structure to control (and harvest) them, and then musicians did, leaving the sad figures of the traditional industry blustering furiously on the sidelines, presiding over the ludicrous and artistically trivial rump of mass culture. The old model, that realising value required mass, mediated engagement, and the sharing of percentage points among many participants, points whose value depended on huge sales, has foundered; it has foundered on a newly accessible capacity for musicians to engage directly with listeners, in smaller numbers, but more profoundly, and to sell fewer units of merchandise, while keeping a far higher proportion of the revenue. That possibility already existed, but it was ridiculously hard work before: just ask Black Flag or Cardiacs. The competition between these models is immensely political, because it is a conflict between industrial capitalism on the one hand, and a small producer, direct market on the other. It’s the choice between a supermarket and a farmers’ market. It’s the choice between rule by centralised government, by hierarchical concentrations of power, and self-determination by autonomous communities, in which power flows freely to the sites where it is needed. It’s the choice between repression and freedom.

There is some kind of political awakening going on at the moment, and the internet has also been instrumental in the growth of protest movements globally. The internet is a forum of possibility, and one of its possibilities is for people to build communities. Where industrial capitalism has historically hamstrung people’s political agency, by making impotent any movement or aspiration mobilised on anything less than the largest scale, the internet enables it; the number of people acting is still small, but their impact is huge. The mass media is full of it, and politicians are running scared: they waste no opportunity to discredit political direct action, but frequently find the PR cost too great for them to do so overtly, when the targets are bankers or despots for example. I don’t know if anyone in the political classes has recognised the possibility, but I would hope to see a similar transformation taking place in politics to the one we are seeing in music.

So what I’m trying to get around to discussing, is the re-radicalisation of art. Is artistic practice becoming something potentially transformative again? I’ve been writing and thinking about DIY music promotion, culture and aesthetics, and I haven’t been setting out deliberately to present a political perspective, but I have found it impossible to ignore the connections between politics, art, economics and philosophy. In fact, ‘connections’ is the wrong word; these apparently different aspects of human activity really represent different ways of conceptualising the same fluid web of interlaced and overlapping significations. I’d be very interested to hear from musicians about whether they conceive of their work as having a political dimension, but it’s clear to me that, whether they think that or not, many musicians are developing a creative practice with radical implications for power relations, within the world of culture and aesthetics in the first instance, but in the world of society and politics as well. I’m not just talking about the way that work is distributed, bypassing the traditional, hegemonic channels, but actually about the formal qualities of the music, and the kinds of aesthetic response it invites. There is a growth in work that evokes particularity, and valorizes a specific, individual response, rather than the submission to an oceanic herd aesthetic invited by the productions of musical mass culture.

I can’t get into specific examples here, but my aim is really just to posit the political as an available theatre of action, and art as an appropriate instrument of activity. This isn’t meant to be some nice idea for academics and intellectuals to discuss; I know I don’t reach that many people with my blog; and I know that those I do reach will (thankfully) have a diversity of political views. I don’t wish to impose my own particular politics on anyone, and that is one of the good things about the non-hierarchical structure of online social networks, that if we don’t need to do politics on a vast scale to effect any change, we can do it in ways that reflect each activist’s agenda, rather than working to some lame and harmful consensus. What I want to do is add my own small voice to all the others calling for change. Change is needed, change is coming, and the resistance to it comes largely from the arseholes who hold the power in the established hierarchies; music needs to take its place beside protest, beside debate, beside direct action, as a tool in the effort to bring that change about. I really want to say that music is a weapon to use in revolution, but history’s lesson seems to be that we need some other paradigm than violence in which to frame our calls for change. And really, we can no more use music than it can use us…

As I’ve written this piece I’ve been thinking more and more about Jacques Attali’s Noise, a quintessentially French work of poetry and polemic disguised as the abstrusest of critical theory. In it, Attali (an economist sufficiently mainstream to have advised the French presidency) argues that music has an oracular function in culture. He suggests that it has anticipated, in its modes of production and distribution, as well as its formal structures, the dominant modes of socio-cultural practice: the era of printed music anticipated and announced the practices of industrial capitalism, for example; and Attali’s book seems quite prophetic in its suggestions about what might succeed the era of ‘Repeating’ that was dominant at the time of writing. Attali was writing in 1977, but he predicted that technology would place the means of producing and distributing music in the hands of individual artists, and went on to speculate about what that might imply for politics and society at large. I can’t really judge whether his views on music’s historical prophetic function hold water, but I really hope he’s right. While we wait to find out, I’m going to do my best to make my every creative act politically engaged, and my every political action creative.