I have had a very busy stretch recently, writing a lot (for work) and thinking a lot (not for work; mostly about dying hegemons, nuclear warfare and tectonic shifts). Unfortunately this combination of energy and physical fatigue makes for a lot of half-formed, half-baked ideas. I need to get them out somehow – so please don’t judge me for the incoherence.
One of these days I will have a ton of time, energy, rested mind and spirit, no distractions, and I can sit and write something and then perfectly sculpt into orderly, insightful, joyous concepts. One of these days….probably in another life.
But not this one. So here goes.
The world has long been separated into two camps: those who think art should be enjoyed for art’s sake and those who..don’t. Those who don’t instead believe in art as a moral medium, a vehicle in which to convey messages or reflection of the social conditions in which art exists.
Of the first camp, there are commonly two justifications for this:
First is purely aesthetic, whereby art should merely be visually or aurally appealing, it should “spark joy” pure and simple, to steal the highly problematic words of Marie Kondo (and which the other half of the concept, it should spark joy or “throw it away” in my feverishly overactive imagination brings to mind a terrifying vision of society; eugenics and genocide and all of that bad stuff).
Second is little more than a thinly veiled excuse for the first: art should be accessible to be able to convey expression to as wide an audience as possible.
Of the second camp, there is again a further split:
Art should have a moralistic, didactic function and should strive to teach and improve.
Art should be politicised and should be used as a tool for criticising society and mobilising the working class against bourgeoise oppression.
As Bertold Brecht explained: “Art is not a mirror held up to society; but a hammer with which to shape it.”
No prizes for guessing what this little quadrant graph correlates to then! As everything in life, it generally reflects the broad political (class) spectrum.
Of the l’art pour l’art camp:
(apologies for the Anglocentricism – but this is my frame of reference)
1. The bourgeoise (represented by the centre-right, today the neolibs) who hate theory, fear depth and intimacy, enjoy simplicity, prefer to take things at face value which means empty aesthetics above all. Think New Labour soundbites, think advertising industry, think middle-of-the road and unconfrontational blandness that is the hallmark of today’s developer-led urbanism.
2. The socialists or social democrats (centre-left, soft left, Fabians and Orwell, the third way people, in today’s money the Starmerites) who if we are to be generous are comfortable with a sort of pact-like arrangement with the centre-right, and if we are to be cynical are prepared to sprinkle a bit of theory over the moral void of the bourgeoisie to make it a little more palatable. They offer a little social critique if provoked but it is not their modus operandi: they are happy to do whatever it takes to take power, regardless of whether this means abandoning all beliefs or worse, forgetting what they actually believe (spoiler: usually little to nothing) in once they actually get close to power (and here a brief interjection: take heed – don’t trust Starmer’s trumpeting about electoral reform and a national energy company. I’ll believe it when I see it). Hence, art is only fulfilling a role if it reaches a wide audience, regardless of what it has to say or what it stands for.
And of the l’art pour plus que l’art (?? Sorry my French is rusty/nasty)
3. The right and far-right who believe that art should preach, moralise, and should have the sole underlying purpose of self-improvement (think zealots, Hitler, the Futurists – who are the reason I am writing about this today). Nietzche, who did in rare cases have some useful things to say but often not, summarised the vehemently anti art as aesthetic stance in his writings Twilight of the Idols, a piece of work that is centred around the famous aphorism “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” likely today a motto of the incels the world over (including the arch-incel, Vladimir Putin) and the ever-shrinking British working-class electorate in northern seats who continue as an act of self-harm to vote for an alarmingly mouth-foaming and rabid Tory party.
Old Nietsch (sic) said:
“When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless — in short, l’art pour l’art, a worm chewing its own tail. “Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!” — that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer?
With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations. Is this merely a “moreover”? an accident? something in which the artist’s instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist’s ability? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life?
Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?”
4. OK, now we get to the best one. The Marxist take on art is that is primarily a tool for social critique, and as the producer of art is part of the society, then the two simply cannot be detached (see Brecht).
For me, instinctively, the first assessment I make when I contemplate a piece of art is not how it looks but in which context was it produced, and from there it is possible to decipher the message (and, importantly, from and to whom the message is aimed).
The Frankfurt school wrote extensively on art and probably the most important frame of reference is Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. This is a thesis to which I fully can subscribe: the shackles lifted on modern artists leads to a greater responsibility for social critique. Although, I do think he went too sour and his writings on music in Minima Moralia make my blood boil. I would contest rejection of musical innovation and “crimes of pop music.” He lauded high European culture and classical music and rejected jazz, blues. To this I have some strong questions around Eurocentricism and I would ask why he is rejecting so outrightedly culture that is not dominated and led by white well-educated Europeans.
Pop culture, punk, and the aestheticising trap
One thing that I have often questioned about Anglo-American culture is how readily and deftly with which pop culture vacuums up and absorbs aesthetic influences from outside the Anglosphere without really engaging with the concept its represents. My partner, who was born and raised in Farawayistan (i.e. outside the Anglo world), explained that it’s because British and Americans conceptualise the world in three ways: 1. Colonise; 2. Tourism; 3. Coloniser-tourist.
I had to admit, he has a point. With the caveat that the whiter and richer the Anglophone, the more likely this is to apply. The Anglophone is never an immigrant; always an “ex-pat.” We are at home everywhere (coloniser) and we can survive most places with only a basic grasp of the local language and customs (tourist). My partner also raised the point that the Anglo world is fixated with the “deep dive” (coloniser-tourist). We have a binary relationship to the world around us: either complete disinterest and rejection or full immersion to the point we feverishly consume everything we can find that will bolster us to the much-coveted “expert” status. Hence the raft of hobbyists and collectors (and looters, looking at you, British Museum) that Anglo-America inflicts on the rest of the world.
A case in point. Last winter, I visited Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry – “Use Hearing Protection.” It was about Factory Records, the label that was the main driver of the Manchester scene and also operated the now-defunct Hacienda nightclub which is very much part of the musical lore of the country. The label signed New Order, Joy Division, Happy Mondays, Durutti Column, James, and many others shaping the British (and I’d also say European and even American) post-punk scene. Their influence is still felt today: there are so many British, American, Canadian bands from the past 20 years that are keeping that FAC sound, although by now it sounds rather pastiche and, quite frankly, dull.
The exhibition itself was fairly interesting, although as always these days when reflecting on musical production and cultural scenes in Britain in the 20th century, I mostly feel sad about how our culture and ability for creative minds to produce and reflect has been completely destroyed in the past 10-20 years. Support systems to allow creative types to create AND live have long since withered up and this has had a huge impact on our modern society which, I argue, is characterised by sterility, pastiche, blandness, and an overall aura of anxiety. BUT: that is a long discussion for another time (and I will need to bring in some of Mark Fisher’s thinking, which deserves time and attention of its own. Mark Fisher should never be a footnote).
The main takeaway from the exhibition for me was learning that Factory Records took the graphic design inspiration (both logo and font) from the Italian Futurists. You can have a look at the FAC album covers here.
The Futurist movement was an Italian art, film and architecture and socio-political movement that was essentially a cheerleading club for Mussolini and celebrates speed, violence, and power (surely Le Corbusier was a fan then). It was founded by several mixed medium artists, with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti being the most ardent. They were an odd bunch, clearly influenced by the Swiss Dadaist surrealism, with strange puppetry and experimental, kind of proto-industrial music embedded within their movement. In the manifesto, Marinetti writes that we need to keep knocking down buildings each generation, and building new ones, which is obviously a bit mad, especially in a country that celebrates its ancient Roman heritage. Marinetti was really an early hipster who supported a death cult. Really a Proud Boy ahead of his time.
One of the Futurist artists, not a contributor to the manifesto and stayed silent on support for Mussolini’s fascist regime (in a sort-of tacit support, it is understood), is Fortunato Depero. It turns out Depero was born in my boyfriend’s hometown (a small town in Trentino). One rainy day this summer, we visited the museum and I have to say that visually speaking, Depero’s art is lovely, but there are racist under(over)tones which are impossible to ignore. Great designer, but terrible beliefs.
The form and function is clearly influenced by cubism and I could see some Joan Miro in there in the formation of shapes and also colour palette. His Campari adverts pop up here and there (I think there are even posters hanging in some lefty pub in my hometown). There’s clearly also a reflection of socialist movements such as Bauhaus and the parallel communist Russian Futurism, both of which (it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) I very much enjoy.
However, my point now is that I do sympathise with Peter Saville and the FAC creative team – it must be said that Depero’s art is visually appealing. And then, I felt a dissonance between l’art pour l’art and experiencing aesthetic pleasure and my moral conscience, which understands that the Futurists were terrible fascists who supported widespread civil violence and killing communists.
The second point of this, is that we need to be careful about the provenance of things we “borrow.” The New Order cover, taken directly from Depero’s illustration of the 1932 Futurist exhibition in Trentino (possibly Rovereto, L’s hometown?), is a step too far. I wouldn’t want to see an Arctic Monkeys album cover influenced by Mein Kampf – just because Futurism looks nice, still doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to recycle it without question. It is difficult to swallow that an ostensibly left-wing, anti-Thatcher wave would take its look and feel from overtly fascist art movement. It’s as if, I dunno, Rough Trade would suddenly start producing the artwork of their signed bands in font Fraktur, entering sponsorship deals with Hugo Boss and depicting Wagnerian scenes.
Although, looking back again retrospectively at the apolitical, culturally illiterate, pointlessly hedonistic and self-congratulory, overwhelmingly white and male music scene of the UK in the late 90s and early 00s, probably the signs of the cultural landscape of the preceding decade(s) should have been clearer. Also, one of the mainstream figures to come out of that, Morrissey, has turned out to be horribly racist and right-wing so it does seem that the picture is coming into focus.
Usually, when something states to be “neither right nor left,” it means it is to be treated with suspicion, and, more often than not, silence speaks volumes. Nothing is ever apolitical; to be apolitical is in itself a political act. This certainly doesn’t mean that anything that has ever touched a Factory Record label should be “cancelled”; that is not how the world should work. The message is simply sort-of: don’t judge a book by its cover — the cover might look nice but what’s inside could well be alarming. Read it first and then decide.