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Tag: culture industry

Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture (Jameson, 1979)

by FREDRIC JAMESON

The theory of mass culture-or mass audience culture, commercial culture, “popular” culture, the culture industry, as it is variously known-has always tended to define its object against so-called high culture without reflecting on the objective status of this opposition. As so often, positions in this field reduce themselves to two mirror-images, and are essentially staged in terms of value. Thus the familiar motif of elitism argues for the priority of mass culture on the grounds of the sheer numbers of people exposed to it; the pursuit of high or hermetic culture is then stigmatized as a status hobby of small groups of intellectuals. As its anti-intellectual thrust suggests, this essentially negative position has little theoretical content but clearly responds to a deeply rooted conviction in American radicalism and articulates a widely based sense that high culture is an establishment phenomenon, irredeemably tainted by its association with institutions, in particular with the university. The value invoked is therefore a social one: it would be preferable to deal with tv programs, The Godfather, or Jaws, rather than with Wallace Stevens or Henry James, because the former clearly speak a cultural language meaningful to far wider strata of the population than what is socially represented by intellectuals. Radicals are however also intellectuals, so that this position has suspicious overtones of the guilt trip; meanwhile it overlooks the anti-social and critical, negative (although generally not revolutionary) stance of much of the most important forms of modem art; finally, it offers no method for reading even those cultural objects it valorizes and has had little of interest to say about their content.

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Vandalizing Vandalism

splasher3

A.M. Gittlitz is a freelance writer, essayist, and delivery boy living in Bushwick Brooklyn. He is a frequent contributor to The New Inquiry and has contributed to Vice, Gothamist, Salon, and Truthout. His essays and journalism focus on counterculture, radical politics, and punk, and he recently released the 6th issue of his personal zine ⒶFOLK, a collection of travel essays about squatting and leftist nostalgia in Berlin, Rome, and ex-Yugoslavia.

The horrific erasure of Five Pointz’ walls last winter is a wordless sign written in Wite-Out that despite the alchemic success of street art and the reverance for graffiti and hip-hop culture held by the New York culture industry, the war on vandalism is still in full effect.

It was Ed Koch who first started treating graffiti writers like semiotic terrorists, pulling subway cars at the first sign of a tag. Then with the clearing of homeless from Tompkins Square Park under Dinkins, the implementation of Broken Windows Theory policing under Guiliani and Bratton, and the monstrous culmination of all this during the Bloomberg regime, the graffiti writer is today at their height of both danger and celebration.

The contradiction is resolved by civil society’s drawing of borders between art and graffiti, street art and vandalism, etc. As long as we remember that one is always “good” and the other “bad” then there’s nothing to worry about—that lengthy pun spraypainted in lowercase letters? Street art—good. That illegible tag written in magic marker? Graffiti—bad. Writers play into the same game, arguing that their tag is good and valuable no matter what anyone thinks.

Pushing the lines even farther are the recent spate of art vandals—possibly the most talked-about movement in contemporary art. A Rothko was tagged at the Tate, a Poussoin repainted in London, a Gauguin gouged in Washington D.C., a Clifford Still soaked with urine in Denver, the Piss Christice-picked in France, and a Picasso re-painted in Houston. Last month a vase of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was smashed by a local artist in Miami in protest of the international art market’s colonization of Miami as a hub. He was charged with criminal mischief, and the police vase was valued at $1 Million. Photographs of Weiwei’s own smashing of a Han-dynasty vase were exhibited in the museum, but as Malcolm Harris pointed out in his essay “U.S.Ai,” “It’s only freedom of expression if you break something you own, otherwise it’s vandalism.”

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