'Piet Mondrian, painter, New York 1942

Mondrian, and on and on

Obituary of Mondrian

Clement Greenberg
The Nation, NYC
March 4, 1944
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Piet Mondrian, the great Dutch painter, died in New York on February 1 at the age of seventy-one. He came to this country two years ago from London, where he had been living since 1939, after twenty years spent in France.

Mondrian was the only artist to carry to their ultimate and inevitable conclusions those basic tendencies of recent Western painting which cubism defined and isolated. His art has influenced design and architecture more immediately than painting but remains easel painting nevertheless, with all the concentrated force and drama the form requires. At the same time it designates the farthest limit of easel painting. Those whose point of departure is where Mondrian left off will no longer be easel painters. Excluding everything but flat, unmodulated areas of primary color and rectilinear and rectangular forms, his art returns painting to the mural — the mural as a living, modern form, to the archaeological reconstruction of Puvis de Chavannes, [Diego] Rivera, and the WPA projects. I am not sure whether Mondrian himself recognized it, but the final intention of his work is to expand painting into the décor of the manmade world — what of it we see, move in, and handle. This means imposing a style on industry, and thus adumbrates the most ambitious program a single art has ever ventured upon.

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Mondrian’s own explicit intentions were somewhat different. There is no need to take his metaphysics on its own terms, but it certainly helps us to understand the creation of his masterpieces. He said that his art was concerned with mans deliverance from “time and subjective vision which veil the true reality.” — I quote from his essay “Toward the True Vision of Reality”:

Plastic art affirms that equilibrium can only be established through the balance of unequal but equivalent oppositions. The clarification of equilibrium through plastic art is of great importance for humanity. It reveals that although human life in time is doomed to disequilibrium, notwithstanding this, it is based on equilibrium…If we cannot free ourselves, we can free our vision.

Mondrian’s pictures attempt to balance unequal forces: for example, one area, smaller than another, is made equivalent by shape and spatial relations. Further:

At the moment, there is no need for art to create a reality of imagination based on appearances, events, or traditions. Art should not follow the intuitions relating to our life in time, but only those intuitions relating to true reality.

In other words, the vision of space granted by plastic art is a refuge from the tragic vicissitudes of time. Abstract painting and sculpture are set over against music, the abstract art of time in which we take refuge from the resistance of space.

Mondrian’s painting, however, takes its place beside the greatest art through virtues not involved in his metaphysics. His pictures, with their white grounds, straight black lines, and opposed rectangles of pure color, are no longer windows in the wall but islands radiating clarity, harmony, and grandeur — passion mastered and cooled, a difficult struggle resolved, unity imposed on diversity. Space outside them is transformed by their presence. Continue reading

The Coming Insurrection

Formaldehyde embalming the corpse: Looking back at The Coming Insurrection

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Right now the insurrectionary ultraleft is abuzz at the release of a new document by the so-called “Invisible Committee,” entitled A Nous Amis [To Our Friends]. For now it’s only available in French, but a translation is expected to appear under the Semiotext(e) brand as early as January 2015. I’ll probably read it once it comes out. Apropos its publication, however, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the enthusiasm and criticism generated by the group’s 2009 title, The Coming Insurrection.

Let’s start with the enthusiasm. John Cunningham wrote an appreciative piece over at Mute that explains the history and context behind the Invisible Committee’s weirdly anti-social politics — their various perversions and inversions. Cunningham situates them within the emerging “communization” milieu (an appellation that seems to have stuck, given their inclusion in Benjamin Noys’ collection Communization and Its Discontents). Predictably, Geoff Bailey of the International Socialist Review, a Cliffite theory rag, took a much more negative stance in his article “Searching for the New, Resurrecting the Old.”  Bailey sees The Coming Insurrection as tragically out of touch with the return of familiar patterns, conditions conducive to normal soft-Trot recruitment drives: “[T]he authors have overlooked some of the very real changes — the globalization of production, the expansion of access to communication technology, and the onset of new a systemic crisis — that open up new possibilities for rebuilding a revolutionary movement, even as they present new challenges.”

The following article by my friend Ashley Weger takes a different path. Weger, unlike Bailey, readily acknowledges the deep discontinuity of the present with the revolutionary movements of the past. Unlike Cunningham, however, she does not find the Invisible Committee’s reworking of traditional problematics all that promising. Some might dismiss Weger’s simply because it first ran in the Platypus Review, but such prejudices are silly. (I’m not even sure whether Platypus is still publishing; their last issue was the combined August-September issue, appeared late, and only had one mammoth panel transcript. October has no new issue yet, unsurprising considering the pitiful turnout at their inaugural European convention and ongoing boycott of their events).

A couple of Weger’s allusions to pop culture are a bit too clever or cute for my taste, but other lines are devastating. Regardless, this is a great piece.

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The coming insurrection? A reflection on resistance at the Toronto G20

Ashley Weger
Platypus Review 27
September 1, 2010

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One of the results of these recent movements is the understanding that henceforth a real demonstration has to be “wild,” not declared in advance to the police. Having the choice of terrain, we can, like the Black Bloc of Genoa in 2001, bypass the red zones and avoid direct confrontation. By choosing our own trajectory, we can lead the cops, including unionist and pacifist ones, rather than being herded by them. In Genoa we saw a thousand determined people push back entire buses full of Caribinieri, then set their vehicles on fire. The important thing is not to be better armed but to take the initiative. Courage is nothing, confidence in your own courage is everything.[1]

— The Invisible Committee,
The Coming Insurrection

These few sentences prescribe the Invisible Committee’s advice for today’s budding radical. Concurrently serving as agitator and guidance counselor, their pamphlet’s understanding of the path towards overcoming capitalism is woven through with the demand to abandon the fear and inhibition taming one’s revolutionary, insurrectionary potential. As a theoretical justification for tactics of subversion, violence, and destruction in the name of anti-capitalism, The Coming Insurrection was without a doubt in the minds, hearts, and backpacks of the black-clad protesters who converged on, collided with, and combusted cop cars in protest of the Toronto G20 Summit in June [2010]. Perhaps less apparent is the manner in which the emphasis on the propaganda of the deed, à la the insurrectionists and those participating in Black Bloc actions, is hardly restricted to the usual, sable-appareled suspects. Rather, this lust for radical change rooted in “real struggle” represents the culture of the contemporary anti-capitalist Left en masse, and is reflective of a politics whose fervent affirmation of action expresses a non-critical, reified understanding of society.

Despite seemingly great differences between “mainstream” protest and “extremist” tactics, Black Bloc methods and the theory of the insurrectionists are in reality only more acute expressions of a political outlook shared by the contemporary activist Left as a whole: a naïve, ahistorical asseveration of action, despite the Left’s continued downward descent into the abyss of meaninglessness. Marx once described the predicament of emancipation being fettered by a gulf between thought and action, famously concluding that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The mantra of the 21st century left seems to have amended this evaluation, posing that the point is to resist it. This fixation on resistance, contrary to popular imagination, does not reveal the Left’s strength, but rather its consensual degradation into pure symbolism. The actions, antics, and aftermath of the G20 protests underscore the current crisis of the Left: not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.

Global gatherings of the G20 have been celebrated for bringing together all flavors of left activism: religious social justice types pleading for peace, eco-warriors distraught over the destruction of Mother Earth, dozens of infinitesimal sectarian groups ironically endorsing the power of the masses, Fosteresque entryist union organizers championing any cause that gives their local more street cred, anarchists equipped with tear-gas-ready bandanas, hoards of protestors decked out in “Fuck the G20” shirts and marching to chants of equal chutzpah, and enough Tibetan flags to make one think he or she is jamming at a Beastie Boys concert circa 1994. The uncomfortable, odd couple dynamic of this conglomeration is a decades-long tradition, for these unlikely comrades share the streets time and time again, as they did in 1999 while battling in Seattle and in the host of protests against corporate criminals, global hegemony, and world capital that populate the landscape of the Left, post-collapse. Protest, it has been decided, is the least common denominator amongst what constitutes itself as the Left today, the arena in which divides are bridged in the name of unity against the enemy of all.

While constantly conceptualized as unprecedented, this form of politics is in reality formulaic, and the storyline of the G20 in Toronto has only reproduced the equation. Thousands gather for state-sanctioned, peaceful demonstrations seeking to inform those in power what democracy looks and sounds like — apparently, like hundreds of people mechanically shouting in unison. As the demonstration unfurls, a small militant population destroys property as a gesture of their “autonomy” and fearlessness to resist the intimidating batons and tear gas of police officers outfitted in riot gear. This is followed by intense retaliation from the police officers, chiefly against persons who committed no crime. Indeed, the G20 resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. To the embarrassment of police officers and the city of Toronto, nearly all these arrests and detainments, whether the result of the frenzy of the moment or an intentional abuse of power, were without merit. Continue reading

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A. Laptev, We build from cardboard [Строим из картона] (1932)

Rad Borislavov

One of the lofty goals of Communist Party and education officials was to create “harmonious human beings” by instilling Soviet morals and work habits into the minds of young children. While literacy rates in the first decade after the October Revolution were remarkably low, reading was soon to become the single most important way of socializing and educating children in the Soviet Union. An important but lesser-known aspect of Soviet 1930s education involved do-it-yourself books. These were conceived as an interactive medium that invited children not only to enjoy reading, absorb information and reflect, but also to develop practical skills needed for the construction of a Communist society.

Compared to other children’s books, do-it-yourself books often encouraged young children to view themselves as responsible adults and engaged citizens. Their topics were numerous and wide-ranging and yet overwhelmingly geared toward the achievement of practical goals at hand and the learning of useful skills for the future. Their themes range from the application of technology in the context of Stalinist industrialization, military preparedness, the importance of voting, and understanding how machines work, to arithmetic, drawing, printing, and making figures of cardboard and wood. Published during the First Five-Year Plan, these books were clearly unified by the particular urgency attributed to the cultivation of practical technical skills and knowledge during that period of accelerated industrialization.

Do-it-yourself books are invariably multicolored, engaging and include easy and simple instructions. They often start with a list of required materials and tools and end with an exhortation to their young readers to build on what they have already learned. Some of the books have a simple plot with characters that walk the reader through the steps of assembling an object. Most lack a plot but sometimes go well beyond the construction of toys. For example, Kak my delali Avroru [How We Made the Cruiser Aurora] asks children to model various objects associated with the historic events on the eve of the October Revolution and then to use these toys and re-enact them in groups. These re-enactments hearken back to the massive theatrical commemorative events of the October Revolution organized on a huge scale during the early 1920s by avant-garde theater directors. Continue reading

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Chronopolis

J.G. Ballard
New Worlds
August 1960
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His trial had been fixed for the next day. Exactly when, of course, neither Newman nor anyone else knew. Probably it would be during the afternoon, when the principals concerned — judge, jury, and prosecutor — managed to converge on the same courtroom at the same time. With luck his defense attorney might also appear at the right moment, though the case was such an open and shut one that Newman hardly expected him to bother — besides, transport to and from the old penal complex was notoriously difficult, involved endless waiting in the grimy depot below the prison walls.

Newman had passed the time usefully. Luckily, his cell faced south and sunlight traversed it for most of the day. He divided its arc into ten equal segments, the effective daylight hours, marking the intervals with a wedge of mortar prized from the window ledge. Each segment he further subdivided into twelve smaller units.

Immediately he had a working timepiece, accurate to within virtually a minute (the final subdivision into fifths he made mentally). The sweep of white notches, curving down one wall, across the floor and metal bedstead, and up the other wall, would have been recognizable to anyone who stood with his back to the window, but no one ever did. Anyway, the guards were too stupid to understand, and the sundial had given Newman a tremendous advantage over them. Most of the time, when he wasn’t recalibrating the dial, he would press against the grille, keeping an eye on the orderly room.

“Brocken!” he would shout at 7:15 as the shadow line hit the first interval. “Morning inspection! On your feet, man!” The sergeant would come stumbling out of his bunk in a sweat, rising the other warders as the reveille bell split the air.

Later, Newman sang out the other events on the daily roster: roll call, cell fatigues, breakfast, exercise, and so on around to the evening roll just before dusk. Brocken regularly won the block merit for the best-run cell deck and he relied on Newman to program the day for him, anticipate the next item on the roster, and warn him if anything went on for too long-in some of the other blocks fatigues were usually over in three minutes while breakfast or exercise could go on for hours, none of the warders knowing when to stop, the prisoners insisting that they had only just begun.

Brocken never inquired how Newman organized everything so exactly; once or twice a week, when it rained or was overcast, Newman would be strangely silent, and the resulting confusion reminded the sergeant forcefully of the merits of cooperation. Newman was kept in cell privileges and all the cigarettes he needed. It was a shame that a date for the trial had finally been named. Newman, too, was sorry. Most of his research so far had been inconclusive. Primarily his problem was that, given a northward-facing cell for the bulk of his sentence, the task of estimating the time might become impossible. The inclination of the shadows in the exercise yards or across the towers and walls provided too blunt a reading. Calibration would have to be visual; an optical instrument would soon be discovered.

What he needed was an internal timepiece, an unconsciously operating psychic mechanism regulated, say, by his pulse or respiratory rhythms. He had tried to train his time sense, running an elaborate series of tests to estimate its minimum in-built error, and this had been disappointingly large. The chances of conditioning an accurate reflex seemed slim.

However, unless he could tell the exact time at any given moment, he knew he would go mad.

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His obsession, which now faced him with a charge of murder, had revealed itself innocently enough.

As a child, like all children, he had noticed the occasional ancient clock tower, bearing the same white circle with its twelve intervals. In the seedier areas of the city the round characteristic dials often hung over cheap jewelry stores, rusting and derelict.

“Just signs,” his mother explained. “They don’t mean anything, like stars or rings. “

Pointless embellishment, he had thought.

Once, in an old furniture shop, they ha d seen a clock with hands, upside down in a box full of fire irons and miscellaneous rubbish. Continue reading

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Against kitsch criticism

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Not to be elitist or deliberately “high brow,” but I feel like the analysis of pop culture phenomena has more than run its course in leftist circles. Or rather, being optimistic, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, to sift genuine insights from a sea of banalities. Perhaps the real criterion is time, seeing whether or not a given work or series stands up to revaluation after a few years. At least then, once philosophy’s painted its gray on gray, there’s some sense of balance and perspective. Did movie x or y truly capture something of the cultural Zeitgeist? Is it still relevant today? Hence the more quality reflections tend to arrive only after the fact, like Agata Pyzik’s “Mauer Dreamstory” (on Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Possession) or Fredric Jameson’s “Realism and Utopia in The Wire (on the hit show by David Simon).

Writers for The New Inquiry and even Jacobin would do well to revisit an old essay by Harold Rosenberg on “kitsch criticism,” which examines that odd situation where a piece of writing or commentary comes to resemble the object it supposedly critiques: dull, ephemeral, and ultimately forgettable. Originally published in Dissent back in 1958, and later republished in Rosenberg’s influential collection The Tradition of the New, it observes that

[o]ne of the grotesqueries of present-day American life is the amount of reasoning that goes into displaying the wisdom secreted in bad movies while proving that modern art is meaningless. Yet it is nothing else than the intellectualization of kitsch.

Unlike his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, who would probably agree with him that endless inquiries into mass culture are a waste of time, Rosenberg did not think that kitsch could be eliminated by simply championing modern art. “There is no counterconcept to kitsch,” he maintained. “Its antagonist is not an idea but reality. To do away with kitsch it is necessary to change the landscape, as it was necessary to change the landscape of Sardinia in order to get rid of the malarial mosquito.” Neither by delicate demystification nor polemical annihilation can kitsch be removed.

So please, lay off the articles alternately declaring “Death to the Gamer” or standing “In Defense of Gamers,” or dreck about how Breaking Bad is somehow racist or the black family sitcom is in terminal decline. Lana Del Rey is cool, and I even like some of her songs, but dedicating a whole issue of a magazine to the Kulturkritik of her latest album just seems to me like theoretical overkill.

I say this as someone who appreciates many of the classic studies of film, television, and mass media conducted by Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes, and occasionally some even today. For their sake, if not for mine, knock it off.

Lebbeus Woods. Geomagnetic Flying Machines. 1988. Ink on tracing paper on board, 832 × 811 mm. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods 1

Doom time

Lebbeus Woods
June 8th, 2009

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Flashed around the world in September 2001, the pictures of the World Trade Center towers lying in ruins were both horrifying and — though few would openly admit it — strangely stimulating. The former because we instantly realized, with despair, that many people had died in the towers’ collapse, and that many others would suffer as a result of it for the rest of their lives. The latter because such a grand scale of destruction evoked an essential truth about human existence, a truth so disturbing that it is usually cloaked in denial: we are all going to die.

Not only will we die, but so will all our works. The great buildings, the great works of art, the great books, the great ideas, on which so many have spent the genius of human invention, will all fall to ruins and disappear in time. And not only will all traces of the human as we know it vanish, but the human itself will, too, as it continues an evolutionary trajectory accelerated by bioengineering and future technological advances. What all of this means is that we cannot take comfort in any form of earthly immortality that might mitigate the suffering caused by the certainty of our personal extinction.

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It is true that through works of art, artists can live on in the thoughts and actions of others. This, however, is more of a comfort to the living than to the dead, and while it may help a living artist maintain a denial of death effective enough to keep believing that working and striving is somehow lasting, it is an illusion, and a pretty thin one at that. In contrast, the solidarity that develops between people who accept the inevitability of oblivion is more substantial and sustainable. When we witness an accident or disaster, we are drawn to it not because of ‘prurient interest,’ or an attraction to the pornography of violence, but rather to an event that strips away the illusions of denial and reveals the common denominator of the human condition. For the moment of our witnessing we feel, however uncomfortably, part of a much larger scheme of things, closer to what is true about our existence than we allow ourselves to feel in the normal course of living.

Religions have promised immortality and certainty in afterlives of various kinds, but for many today this is an inadequate antidote to despair. There are people who want to focus on the present and in it to feel a sense of exultation in being alive here and now, not in a postponed “later.” This desire cuts across all class, race, gender, political, and economic lines. In some religious lore, the ruins of human forms will be restored to their original states, protected and enhanced by the omniscient, enduring power of a divine entity. But for those who feel this is too late, the postponement of a full existence is less than ideal. For them, the present — always both decaying and coming into being, certain only in its uncertainty, perfect only in its imperfection — must be a kind of existential ideal. The ruins of something once useful or beautiful or symbolic of human achievement, speaks of the cycles of growth and decay that animate our lives and give them particular meaning relative to time and place. This is the way existence goes, and therefore we must find our exultation in confronting its ambiguity, even its confusion of losses and gains.

The role of art in all this has varied historically and is very much open to question from the viewpoint of the present. The painting and poetry of the Romantic era made extensive use of ruins to symbolize what was called the Sublime, a kind of exalted state of knowing and experience very similar to religious transcendence, lacking only the trappings of the church and overt references to God. Hovering close to religion, Romantic ruins were old, even ancient, venerable. They were cleansed of the sudden violence or slow decay that created them. There was something Edenic about them — Piranesi’s Rome, Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Friedrich’s Wreck of the Hope. The best of such works are unsentimental but highly idealized, located intellectually and emotionally between the programmed horror of Medieval charnel houses and the affected nostalgia for a lost innocence of much architecture and painting of the late nineteenth century.

Lebbeus Woods. Aerial Paris. 1989. Copic Marker on tracing paper on board, 815 × 507 mm. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods

Taken together, these earlier conceptions are a long way from the fresh ruins of the fallen Twin Towers, the wreckage of Sarajevo, the blasted towns of Iraq, which are still bleeding, open wounds in our personal and collective psyches. Continue reading

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Against inadvertent climate change; for великое преобразование природы instead

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Even casual readers of Marx will likely know that his favorite figure from antiquity was Spartacus. In his responses to one of the questionnaires that periodically circulated — or “confessions,” quite popular during the nineteenth century — he listed the great leader of the Roman slave revolt as his hero. Johannes Kepler was his modern idol. What is less widely known, however, is that Marx’s favorite figure from classical mythology was Prometheus, who revolted against the gods. Marx did mention Aeschylus, author of the famous tragedy Prometheus Bound, as his favorite ancient poet in the 1865 “confession.” Shakespeare took the title as greatest of the moderns; Nietzsche would have approved of both choices. He went so far as to quote Aeschylus’ Prometheus in the introduction to his dissertation, in March 1841: “Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus — ‘in a word, I hate all gods’ — is its very own confession, its own sentence” (MECW 1, pg. 130).

Franz Mehring later pointed out the affinity Marx felt with the fallen Titan, who stole the technology of fire from the gods and bestowed it upon humanity. Edmund Wilson would expand on this motif in his outstanding intellectual history To the Finland Station, placing Lucifer alongside Prometheus as one of Marx’s twin patron anti-deities. Both challenged the gods. “In one of Karl Marx’s ballads,” Wilson explained, “a Promethean hero curses a god who has stripped him of his all; but he swears that he will have his revenge, though his strength be but a patchwork of weaknesses: out of his pain and horror he will fashion a fortress, iron and cold, which will strike the beholder livid and against which the thunderbolts will rebound. Prometheus is to be Marx’s favorite myth” (To the Finland Station, pg. 116).

After his journal, the Rheinische Zeitung, was suppressed by state censors in 1843, Marx was depicted in a contemporary cartoon as Prometheus chained to a printing press, being disemboweled by a Prussian eagle. There’s also a squirrel holding a rifle featured in the upper left of the picture, the symbolism of which has been lost to time. Regardless, Marx was quite flattered by the comparison.

Marx als Prometheus, 1843

One of the more controversial subjects within Marxist discourse over the last forty or so years has been Marx’s relationship to what is commonly called “Prometheanism.” Following the appearance of the Club of Rome’s neo-Malthusian study The Limits to Growth (1972) and the Romanian mathematician Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s ruminations on entropy (1970, 1975), optimistic visions of mankind’s mastery of self and world were generally frowned upon. Since this time, many sympathetic to Marx tried to distance the his theories from more Promethean strains of applied Marxism or actually-existing socialism. They stress Marx’s ambivalence toward large-scale machinery in heavy industry, marveling at its productive powers while also decrying their effect on the humans who operated them.

John Bellamy Foster, for example, tries to turn the tables by revisiting Marx’s critique of Proudhon, supposedly on grounds of the latter’s “Prometheanism.” In his book, Marx’s Ecology, Foster claims that Marx impugned “Proudhon’s fetishistic approach to machinery, which gives it a reified ‘Promethean’ character” (Marx’s Ecology, pg. 131). Foster fails to produce textual evidence that Marx argued in these terms. Marx’s argument, in fact, is not that Proudhon is too Promethean. If anything, he is not Promethean enough. Ever the dialectician, Marx recognized the dual-sided character of progress in capitalist society: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary,” wrote Marx. “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it…At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance” (MECW 14, pgs. 655-656).

Clearly, there is a dimension of the old man’s thought that is far from being naïvely enthusiastic about newfangled industrial technologies. He can hardly be called a vulgar technocrat. But it is not so easy to disaggregate Marx’s own Prometheanism from that of his so-called “epigones.” Quite plainly, if one looks to his writings, Promethean undertones are readily apparent. For example:

Herr Daumer’s cult of nature…is a peculiar one. He manages to be reactionary even in comparison with Christianity. He tries to restore the old pre-Christian natural religion in a modernized form. Thus he of course achieves nothing but Christian-Germanic patriarchal drivel on nature…[T]his cult of nature is limited to the Sunday walks of an inhabitant of a small provincial town who childishly wonders at the cuckoo laying its eggs in another bird’s nest, at tears being designed to keep the surface of the eyes moist, and so on, and finally trembles with reverence as he recites Klopstock’s Ode to Spring to his children. There is no mention, of course, of modern natural science, which, with modern industry, has revolutionised the whole of nature and put an end to man’s childish attitude towards nature as well as to other forms of childishness. But instead we get mysterious hints and astonished philistine notions about Nostradamus’ prophecies, second sight in Scotsmen and animal magnetism. For the rest, it would be desirable that Bavaria’s sluggish peasant economy, the ground on which grow priests and Daumers alike, should at last be ploughed up by modern cultivation and modern machines. (MECW 10, pg. 245)

Marx had very little patience for reverential attitudes toward nature, or romantic anticapitalism in general. As he saw it, the main problem faced by society under the capitalist mode of production was the subjugation of all its efficiency toward ends foreign to itself. Humanity, which is able to marshall wondrous materials and energies in pursuing its productive enterprise, nevertheless does not produce for the good of society. Social production serves an end outside of itself, namely the valorization of capital. Other considerations take a back seat to the primary goal of capitalization, so it is seldom that the unintended consequences or harmful byproducts of this process (such as climate change) are questioned. This is one of the ways production is “alienated,” to borrow the terminology of the young Marx.

In fact, the character of Prometheus reappears in Marx’s Capital. Here Prometheus stands in for enchained humanity: “[T]he law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock” (Capital, pg. 799). The implication is that capitalist production after a time actually constrains the creative capacities of mankind, instead of cultivating them. This was the sense of the metaphor summoned up by the revolutionary leader Clara Zetkin almost sixty years later, discussing Comintern’s need to “accelerate the advent of the proletarian world revolution.” Zetkin implored her audience to “learn from Lenin to believe implicitly that within the bosom of every proletarian and of every oppressed human being, there dwells the titanic promethean defiance which says to the strongest oppressors: ‘And yet you cannot slay me!’ Let his spirit teach us to snap the chains of Prometheus and forge them into weapons for freedom and into tools for construction.” Once again, the technologies which today constrain the proletariat tomorrow may just liberate them, effectively repurposed to serve society.

Continue reading

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From painting to photography: Aleksandr Rodchenko’s revolution in visual art

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Against the synthetic portrait, for the snapshot

Aleksandr Rodchenko
Novyi lef № 4, pgs. 14-16
Moscow (April 1928)
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I was once obliged to dispute with an artist the fact that photography cannot replace painting in a portrait. He spoke very soundly about the fact that a photograph is a chance moment, whereas a painted portrait is the sum total of moments observed, which, moreover, are the most characteristic of the man being portrayed. The artist has never added an objective synthesis of a given man to the factual world, but has always individualized and idealized him, and has presented what he himself imagined about him — as it were, a personal summary. But I am not going to dispute this; let us assume that he presented a sum total, while the photograph does not.

The photograph presents a precise moment documentarily.

It is essential to clarify the question of the synthetic portrait; otherwise the present confusion will continue. Some say that a portrait should only be painted; others, in searching for the possibility of rendering this synthesis by photography, follow a very false path: they imitate painting and make faces hazy by generalizing and slurring over details, which results in a portrait having no outward resemblance to any particular person — as in pictures of Rembrandt and Carrière.

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Any intelligent man will tell you about the photograph’s shortcomings in comparison to the painted portrait; everyone will tell you about the character of the Mona Lisa, and everyone forgets that portraits were painted when there was no photography and that they were painted not of all the intelligent people but of the rich and powerful. Even men of science were not painted.

You need not wait around, intelligentsia; even now AKhRartists will not paint you. True — they can’t even depict the sum total, let alone .001 of a moment.

Now compare eternity in science and technology. In olden times a savant would discover a truth, and this truth would remain law for about twenty years. And this was learned and learned as something indisputable and immutable.

Encyclopedias were compiled that supplied whole generations with their eternal truths.

Does anything of the kind exist now? …No.

Now people do not live by encyclopedias but by newspapers, magazines, card catalogues, prospectuses, and directories.

Modern science and technology are not searching for truths, but are opening up new areas of work and with every day changed what has been attained.

Now they do not reveal common truths — “the earth revolves” — but are working on the problem of this revolution. Continue reading

Lissitzky_El_Arp_Hans_Die_Kunstismen_1914-1924_Page_01

Hans Arp and El Lissitzky, The “isms” of art (1924)

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Monoskop recently posted a scan of El Lissitzky and Hans [Jean] Arp’s Kunstismen (1924), translated roughly as The “Isms” of Art. It is reproduced here in its entirety, page by page, or in
full-text pdf format.

The original text runs in three parallel columns separated by thick dividers, very much in a constructivist style. Each column is in a different language: first German, then French, then English. Originally, I was planning on pasting the text from these in the body of the post. But I decided against it because, upon further examination, the translations are simply awful. German might have been a natural second language for Lissitzky; French and English were clearly not his strong points.

So instead, I’m posting an article that came out shortly afterward by the Hungarian art critic Ernő [sometimes Germanized as Ernst] Kállai, translated by John Bátki. Kállai’s work is not well known in the Anglophone world, though I did rely on one of his articles fairly extensively in an article on architectural photography. Here he summarizes the rapid succession of “isms” in art from 1914-1924 and astutely observes that this period ferment was then drawing to a close.

The twilight of ideologies

Ernő [Ernst] Kállai
“Ideológiák alkonya”
365 (April 20, 1925)

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Translated from the original Hungarian by John Bátki.
Between Two Worlds: Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

Kunst kommt von Können. [Art comes from ability.]

The saying is very old and a commonplace, and has even acquired some ill repute; still, it is high time we pay heed to it and, more important, put it to use.

The age of ferment, of “-isms,” is over. The possibilities of creative work have become endless, but at the same time all paths have become obstructed by the barbed wire barriers of ideologies and programs. It takes a man indeed to try and fight one’s way from beginning to end, across this horrible cacophony of concepts. Not that all of these theoretical skirmishes, manifestoes, and conclusions for the record were not indispensable for the evolution of ideas, or were incomprehensible. Even the wildest flights of pathos, the most doctrinaire stylistic catechisms had their own merit. It was all part of the ferment caused by Impressionism, and the infighting of the various expressive, destructive, and constructive schools.

But all of this turmoil is now finally over. Our awareness of the diverse possibilities has at last been clarified, so that today we are witnessing a time of professional consolidation and absorption in objective, expert work. This holds true for the entire front: the areas of political, tendentious art and Proletkult as well as those of Cubism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Neoclassicism, and Neorealism — and also in criticism. The most extreme, most exacting measure of individual vocation and achievement is that which is being employed by each and every school or camp toward its own. The process of selection has begun, and its sole essential guiding principle is this: what is the artist capable of accomplishing in his own field, through his own particular means and message.

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