'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

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.

Just a brief up­date, Decem­ber 2016: For whatever reas­on, the amount of “cri­ti­cism” writ­ten in this vein has only in­creased. Sam Kriss is a very tal­en­ted writer, of­ten an in­sight­ful crit­ic. But his calls to “smash the force” (i.e., “[the latest Star Wars is] not just in­fant­ile bour­geois ul­traleft­ism; it’s Blan­quism in space”) and “res­ist Pokémon Go (i.e., “this form [of game] de­mands a par­tic­u­lar type of en­gage­ment, that of a vi­cious, sticky-fingered child”) fall flat. Kriss has done pop cul­tur­al cri­tique quite well in the past, one need only look at his bril­liant sen­dup of Hildebeast in “Just Plain Nasty” for proof of this fact. If you’re look­ing for a funny and un­ex­pec­tedly com­pel­ling in­ter­pret­a­tion of Star Wars, check out “The Rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of Luke Sky­walk­er: One Jedi’s Path to Ji­had” in­stead.