Introduction for a book in Spanish on
Black Mask & The Motherfuckers
Above: Front covers of the two books published by La Felguera and the most comprehensive account to date. Contact: P.O. Box 18,101 28080, Madrid, Espana, www.lafelguera.net
(A meeting with Black Mask in 1967 emphasising some of the essential theoretical conundrums and drifts experienced rather than descriptions of the intense activism, especially the Motherfuckers, which marked those apocalyptic times. Much of this was exemplary as, no doubt, will be explained in this book. None the less, the practical consequences of some of these drifts are still enormous and yet to be realised'.)
Our meeting with Black Mask in New York was to prove consequential in more ways than one but let's get one conundrum out of the way. Unwittingly this was to have big repercussions on ourselves vis-a-vis the last days of Icteric in Newcastle and our new found friends, way down south in London and was to prove crucial in the break-up of the English section of the International Situationists. Once collaboration all-round really got underway, the English section were left with the unenviable job of trying to explain to Debord etc they had met some people from the far north of England they could get along with and wished to somewhat hold fire regarding critique of emerging ex Black Mask/ Motherfucker activities. The French were entirely justified in pointing to the latter's hotchpotch character, which along with other things, even with early Black Mask, uncritically seemed to support the philosopher Bertrand Russell's US war crimes appeals, an interview with Albert Camus, etc. Though we cannot doubt the general superiority of the Situationist International critique emanating from France we also knew that in America and the UK, especially the latter, we were virtually starting out from scratch with very, very little in our immediate past we could fall back on as inspiration and guidance. We were floundering as well as making real advances..
Two of us (Anne Ryder and David Wise) in the summer of 1967 specifically went to New York to meet Black Mask. It proved to be an eye-opener and quite an experience, changing our lives forever. We went directly from Newcastle to New York via London airport and you must remember we were very young. In a sense we had by-passed London and we were in fact disdainful of the London centred 'counter culture' promoted by The International Times with its wishy-washy critique of present day society, and in particular its latter day adoration of Beat poetry which we thought, rightly, to be reactionary simply because it was poetry. Firstly though it is necessary to explain some of the far-reaching experiments in Newcastle at the time because it became the basis of an instant understanding and comradeship with the individuals around Black Mask and why a little later, King Mob kind of felt compelled to do a big issue on Black Mask and the subsequent Motherfuckers even though we have reflected harshly on this fairly recently in "The Hidden History of King Mob" on the website: www.revoltagainstplenty.com
By 1967, we had actively critiqued much of the local cultural scene in Newcastle, slowly and hesitantly proclaiming the supercession and transcendence of art. The hub of the beat scene in Newcastle was Morden Towers, a medieval construct that abutted Hadrian's Wall, which ran through the heart of Newcastle. After London it was the essential stop over for American beat poets visiting the UK and Allen Ginsberg was a regular visitor. The people who ran this unofficial arts centre were regularly in trouble with the police (usually for smoking dope) and were permanently unemployed, exploiting a loophole in social security laws that allowed them, as unemployed poets, to claim the dole, there being no work for poets in Tyneside. The cheek, of course, was admirable and attracted dissident working class youth in Newcastle on that account, which then cynically used the label 'artist' just to stay on the dole unmolested and free therefore to laze around all day. There was also an alternative bookshop 'Ultima Thule' attached to Morden Towers named after the wretched Tolkien. Again it was rather more subversive that its London counterparts like 'Gandalf`s Garden' (also named after Tolkien) because it was not quite a petite bourgeois business, many of the books on sale having been stolen from Newcastle's big bookstores like the Students Bookshop just around the corner. Many of the people around Modern Towers professed anarchist sympathies and could be found on soap boxes in the local Bigg Market or Town Moor proclaiming the virtues of anarchism and swearing heartily, causing the police on duty to upbraid them for their immoderate language. A semantic, often very funny discussion would then ensue as to what was meant by the term swearing and the air would turn even bluer! However culture would get the better of this very promising scene and by the late 1970s there was nothing left of it, its leading representative, the poet Tom Pickard, having become a respectable, suited, journalist writing for local newspapers under the pseudonym 'Mouth of the Tyne' (i.e. a pun on bigmouth as well as the mouth of the river Tyne). However by this time Newcastle was just beginning to redefine itself as the city of installation art, picking up from where we had left off, though absolutely shorn of any revolutionary content and far more socially conservative than the more traditional, counter culture, art scene it was rapidly supplanting.
Newcastle was never a backwater and there is every reason to think that the idea of the general strike first originated here though it was then, sometime around the 1830s, described as the 'grand national holiday' imbuing the notion with an air of festivity that was then subsequently lost only to reappear in the late 1960s. It was an area also marked by the most bitter industrial disputes particularly in the coalmines, the miners of Chopgate (pronounced Chopyat) just south of Newcastle, going out on strike during the 1920s for over three years, at one point threatening to blow up the mine like in a rerun of Zola's 'Germinal', though crucially this time without the involvement of an outside agitator. The miners to survive also lived in the woods foraging for berries and snaring rabbits, or connies as they were referred to, just as their ancestors had done in the 19th century, who also dug makeshift homes in the ground when evicted from their cottages by the coal owners during a strike. Curiously, Newcastle was Luis Bunuel's favourite fantasy city, and though never visiting it he liked to dream about it. Perhaps he saw something in it we did not. Though traumatised by the place, unable to return even for a visit and despite our exile, it still exerts a grip on us.
Newcastle was a city of intense contrasts, not so much between rich and poor as we see today in Sao Paulo, but between revolutionary 'theoretical' workers like the brilliant Jack Common and a bourgeoisie who would prefer to reach for the gun rather than negotiate. During the General Strike of 1926, the bourgeoisie in Newcastle armed themselves against the workers more than in any other comparable city in the country. As we have learnt to our cost, reaction always packed a punch in Newcastle and an air of suppressed violence was a constant feature of Newcastle life. So in a sense going to New York in 1967 was like home from home and I can remember sitting on a side walk one unbearably hot summer night and being little phased by a youth who passed by, casually smashing windows to either side of us as he did so. Just like Newcastle I thought to myself and Ben Morea was impressed by my relaxed attitude. I then explained to him something of the area's history as outlined briefly above.
Yes, we fitted in just fine and dandy with Ron, Janice, Yvonne, Ben and co on the Lower East Side in New York. There was also a profound social connection. We instantly recognised each other (including Anne and a 'something' she never later was to feel 'at home' with re the English King Mob elite) as having come from the lower end of the shit heap. We were quite spontaneously maladjusted with none the less sufficient clued-in 'middle class' knowledge to get the authorities sufficiently disturbed when in our presence. Looking back, Black Mask was, in many respects, more precise and rigorous than the Motherfuckers, as the latter tended to fall into super-militancy with a strong overlay of active mysticism as hippy transformed itself into yippee. Yet many of their interventions were indeed excellent and Ben still displays a dislike of Yippee superficiality a la Jerry Rueben! We also met Alan Hoffmann though in 1967 Alan was something of a wet drop out. Ben Morea could barely tolerate him and said so to his face. At the same time, Alan couldn't keep away from Benn and seemed to welcome his brickbats. A short while later he would become the target of Raoul Vaneigem's censure for asking him if his 'Totality for Kids' (which is how his 'Banalities de Base' had been translated into English) applied to the kids on other planets. Vaneigem objected to Hoffman's mysticism though many, particularly older New Yorkers like Murray Bookchin, were rather more tolerant of it, finding in it a source of amusement. For instance someone calling up to him from the street outside had awakened Alan one night. Thinking it was god calling him he had gone to the window to ask what god wanted of him! A year and a half later he was to figure large in the Motherfuckers. Remember though something of the 'mystical' disposition was also a reflection of indigenous American hunter gatherer practises which were finally receiving something of the attention they richly deserved, an attention which is even more necessary than in the late 1960s. Interestingly Benn Morea was to say in 2007, almost as if he was confusing himself with Alan's identity: 'I was once accused by Guy Debord of being too mystical'..can one be too mystical. Didn't he become his own spectacle.' Well there is also sufficient truth in the latter comment, even though the mystical content in us ' the difficult, fucking Wise twins ' is virtually zilch.
You may gather from the above how lively the street scene then was in this area of New York and in Ben's company we were constantly bumping into and talking to people. There was a rigour about it and anyone who copped out was denounced. I recall how Ed Saunders of 'The Fugs' pop group covered his face when he saw us and ran away, too ashamed to talk. His face had recently appeared on 'Time' magazine. Instead of jumping for joy he'd got maudlin drunk and in his cups repeated over and over again 'I've sold out, I've sold out'. He knew only too well he had been recuperated though the word had nothing like the resonance in New York it then had in France . And he knew he could expect nothing but the harshest criticism from the people he most wanted respect from. How different it all is from today when pandering to the now fully-fledged, dumb and dumber, celebrity culture passes without a word of rebuke. The only other comparable occasion that comes to mind over the past thirty years involves Joe Strummer of 'The Clash' who lived close by us in London . He also used to look away embarrassed whenever we encountered him in the street, casting his eyes to the ground. To tell the truth we were surprised he even knew of us, so great was the gap now developing between the new aristocracy of rock stars ' even those that purported to want a revolution like Strummer - and us no-marks below.
Later in 1970 I was again to meet Alan Hoffman in San Francisco just before he was accidentally killed falling out of the back of a van. By this time he had become heavily critical of the Motherfuckers, accusing the group of aggressive militant image making that was impossible to live up to for any length of time. He could see it was leading to a catastrophic nervous breakdown amongst Ben's followers, Ben having in the meantime rapidly become an object of hero worship. With two women in tow he would, according to Alan, tout his rifle like he was living out a Hollywood biopic on Zapata or Pancho Villa, striking poses that the police would then take only too real pot shots at. I readily recognised what Allan was saying as I'd recently met a Motherfucker in London who had modelled himself on Ben Morea even deploying the same gestures and accent! I think it was Alan who mentioned how one Motherfucker had gone completely crazy threatening to throw himself off Brooklyn Bridge , screaming he was 'being consumed by the Motherfuckers'. It certainly gave a new twist to the critique of spectacular consumption. This pressurised consumption of revolutionary images would shortly find an even more suffocating expression in the counter revolutionary, Maoist orientated, Weathermen (and women), no matter what you can say about them on other levels. Feeling like awkward, clumsy, weak rejects, we felt totally alienated from these tendencies sensing it marked a dreadful decline in the spontaneous, very creative flow/explosion of the late 1960s, though as yet hardly daring to say so as the revolutionary critique of much (though not all) terrorism was only then in the process of taking shape. At the same time it seems Ben was also unable to carry on with the rebel pose and, almost in a flash, was to dissolve his image and disappear for decades.
Alan, though, was still the zany mystic it seemed he'd always been. This had not prevented him in the meantime from becoming a martial arts expert, saying he'd 'got his guns stashed for the days of insurrection' that were to come. He then handed me a long and convoluted poster decorated in the margins with coloured ying and yang type drawings. It also contained a dense eco sub text I just couldn't get my head around. Couched in a vague, woolly, even ethereal language about the complexities of present day rural communes in America it was like a Walt Whitman poem gone dreadfully wrong, minus too, William Blake's crude down-to-earth insights. I wasn't that I was then opposed to eco critique: I just thought this type of approach unhelpful, as I couldn't really make out what was being said. Alan was also a friend of Murray Bookchin who was, of course, always making his presence felt. Much the older man, he would readily go out of his way to encourage these young revolutionaries. He certainly brought with him a profound and original ecological critique that was way ahead of anything in Europe at that time. The problem was he tended to confuse ecological initiatives with small businesses like whole food cafes etc. which were then just beginning to appear, particularly in an agriculturally devastated country like America. Though he was later to commendably attack this capitalisation he was then at a loss to understand how people did not feel liberated in these highly self conscious, holier than thou, eateries. In fact most of us felt rather more aggressive inside them than we would in a hamburger joint as if there was something not quite wholesome about them, their sole purpose being to sweep the real problems under the carpet. Murray in fact rebuked ex-King Mobbist, Phil Mailer (who was seven years later to write in 1976 'The Impossible Revolution' on Portugal 1974-76) for not being awestruck when taken to see the Grand Canyon. Phil could only feel dead inside like he was viewing a Hollywood stage set. When he apologetically told the nonplussed Murray about his feelings it was like he was confessing, wretch that he was, to an (Irish) sin, though at the same time enjoying the discomfort he was causing.
We had in fact liked Murray enormously as a person. He was always warm and friendly and would readily shake your hand as though he meant it. In retrospect we do wish he'd talked and written more about his past involvement in car factory and railway workers' strikes because before he entered the academic arena he'd been 'a working stiff' (i.e. corpse) as they say in America. It would have been fascinating stuff though we do know he regretted not running away to Spain at the age of 16 in 1936/'37 and joining Los Incontrolados. It seemed he couldn't forgive himself for this. Barely in his mid teens no one criticised him for allowing himself to be talked out of going to fight for the Spanish revolution. However we would all grow a trifle weary of his never ending, erudite, conversation, one of the Californian's from Contradiction wittily referring to him ' with his academic role in mind ' as 'Murray Bookshelf'.
But we digress. I enclose here a leaflet from my time in New York in 1967 called 'Freedom is not a gift from Captain Fink' which was one of the best Black Mask flyers ever put out on the streets. It's never been reproduced anywhere simply because it was lost and I only found it recently in a pile of mucky papers in my bedroom. (Actually most of the BM/Motherfucker material published in English came from similar mucky piles in my London flat and not from New York - much to the amusement of some Americans). Fresh out of Newcastle, I actually had a small hand in composing the Captain Fink flyer while sitting around a big, old wooden table in Ben's very sparsely furnished, not to say austere, apartment on the Lower East Side. Captain Fink was the new top cop of the local precinct and in a way, represented the changing face of policing in strife-torn America, Fink opting for a more manipulative approach rather than deploy the usual heavy-handed tactics of shoot first and ask questions afterwards. It was this more sophisticated, controlling approach that the flyer condemned.
All well and good but actually it was a different story when four or five of us handed the leaflet out in the streets. I remember attending a large black power meeting on the Lower East Side to listen to H. Rap Brown (a Black Power ideologue) who was speaking to an audience inside a large building, which was already full to overflowing. So many people had turned up that the streets around the building were jam packed mainly with Afro-Caribbean's though there were a few palefaces amongst the throng. On the flat roofs of the surrounding high 19th century brownstone buildings there were occasional machine gun posts (courtesy of Captain Fink?) manned by police units, the barrels of the machine guns pointing directly down into the crowds (remember this was just after the huge urban riots in Newark and Detroit). My heart in my mouth I started handing out the Captain Fink leaflet together with other Black Mask stuff. Suddenly two cops jumped me, one thrusting a gun in my ribs whilst the other shoved the barrel of his gun against my forehead. They seized what I was carrying and slyly pilfered personal belongings though they stopped short of doing anything else. At the same moment another cop sidled up to Anne, who was wearing a mini-skirt, (English mini-skirts were still much shorter than their American counterparts) kissing her full on the lips. Obviously I was shaken as previous run-ins with police in the north of England had been nothing like this. I was certain at the very least I'd be immediately deported back to England but the cops didn't seem interested and perhaps assumed I was American. The personal humiliation was enough and once over with they then laid off. The black guys around me looked on quizzically and, if anything, were a wee bit flummoxed as if not knowing what to make of it all. Ben Morea though had witnessed the whole incident and came running up just as the cops were moving on. He shook his head and said; 'Dave, you shouldn't have let them take the leaflets'! It was then the difference between Newcastle and New York really struck home''' But let's take a look at what the leaflet said:
Freedom is not a gift from Captain Fink
The hippies have become victims of their own ideology. In their rejection of the grand spectacle ' Hollywood/Madison Ave./America ' they have accepted a spectacle no less destructive, one which substitutes synthetic play for real life, while at the same time they have become tools of those against whom they have supposedly rebelled. They have added to the rostrum of 'stars' who entertain the corpse of the bourgeoisie, a corpse which seeks to remake the world in its own image.
Baby, you haven't dropped out ' you've been forced out because this goddamn system is rotten. But what they will never allow is for us to remake our lives, because that will signal their end: they must instead either attempt to either recoup our revolt by making it into a spectacle which reaffirms their vitality while it drains ours or they will seek to crush us. And we must fight either. This one by refusing to 'play their games' while real life is denied, the other by open struggle. 'If they want to play Nazis, we ain't going to play Jews'. And so our struggle crosses that of the blacks and together we can tear this shit down.
The American Indian was forced onto reservations (concentration camps) he did not retire there to smoke and groove. Life cannot be limited to a 'reserve' specified by those who seek to control us. We must decide where and when we will live, play or die, otherwise our freedom is a lie.
This swirling vortex suggestive of a hurricane with the word NOW stamped across it was imprinted on the back of the Captain Fink leaflet. For anyone with half an eye the avant-garde associations were immediately obvious and could have come straight out of the annals of Dadaism or Futurism though all the more powerful through being put to use in a very real context and as far from the polite world of museums as it was possible to be. Remember too that museums had been the target of the first issue of Black Mask, to the consternation of a number of Murray Bookchin`s followers. More specifically it betrayed Ben's original love for Abstract Expressionism especially Jackson Pollock. I had in fact been keen on Jackson Pollock myself in my late teens but during the recent Icteric years in Newcastle had distanced myself more and more from AE (as we called it) regarding the movement as a retarded artistic recuperation of more promising anti-art tendencies in the Surrealist movement. Pollock was a sort of psychic automatism in paint, which stopped far short of taking the next step into the arena of everyday life as the surrealists had done in their random walks. Though on a very different plain to that of the more socially attuned derives many years later, they were an anticipation of them in so far as they left the studio and the writing desk behind. For me AE art was nothing other than better-quality wallpaper. Ben and I talked about all of this as we drifted about here, there and everywhere in New York and he'd agreed with me only to end up with: 'But, goddam it Dave, I still love Jackson Pollock.'
A few years later I was to learn of a comical follow up to this. Bruce Elwell an American member of the original Situationist International - amusedly recalled to mind heated conversations he had with Ben around the same time, which focussed on that huge swathe of industry on the outskirts of New York, called the New Jersey Turnpike. Bruce wanted to see a Salvador Dali type melt down of these oil refineries and storage depots whilst Ben on the other hand wanted them to remain much as they were with maybe a little more angularity and straight lines - an Americanised revolutionary equivalent of Russian constructivism if you like. Duchamp during his long sojourn in America had said something like 'as for art, America has its plumbing and bridges'. Perhaps Ben had really taken this observation to heart. Entirely lacking in humour we can today laugh at the earnestness of this exchange but the laugh will be on us if we fail to recognize what has been lost. Stemming from the fundamental recognition of the need for a revolution, what is commendable about it is its visionary impulse, an impulse that was profoundly orientated to taking possession of things. This has been all but snuffed out today, though it is in fact more necessary than ever if humanity is to be in with a fighting chance.
In retrospect all this raises a number of points that for too long have been glossed over. Ben and I had a number of things in common like our fairly recent background in art, racing from that into an anti-art perspective and then, in short order, into a revolutionary one. All this had occurred within the space of two years, three years at the maximum. We never really mentioned this to each other almost as if as if we were ashamed to do so, profoundly embarrassed - and I do mean profoundly embarrassed - by our juvenilia and former naivety. We put on the airs of a modern revolutionary sophistication far in advance of our understanding and experience, one that fell far short of a genuine subversive awareness able to withstand the shocks (and how!) that were shortly to come. On the other hand our overwhelming eagerness to get out there and do things compensated for this lack and the urgency of the times led us to think the future was within our grasp, a future we were going to fundamentally shape.
A similar suppression of the immediate past was also evident a little later in the early days of King Mob (e.g. Chris Grey had been involved in Indica gallery happenings only a year and a half previously). As for me (or rather ourselves) we'd been involved in the then 'unmentionable' Icteric experiment in Newcastle, blushing at the mention of the name.
One of the last projects before Icteric fell apart -as it had to under the pressure of these revolutionary times - had been a utopian architectural scheme we'd put together in miniature marquette form we then photographed in a bog in the Northumbrian countryside just north of Newcastle. We are still embarrassed at the mere thought of it but this whimsical utopian construct of straw roofed cardboard huts with mad stairs reaching up into star-lit heavens had been loosely based on the Voyage to Laputa in Jonathan Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels', as well as reference to the postman Cheval's fairy palace at Hauterive in France and ad hoc 'primitive' constructions in general. The Voyage to Laputa was easily the most fire-cracker section of 'Gulliver's Travels', Swift's invective there knowing no bounds, even satirising without mercy the august Royal Society of his day so recently ruled over by Isacc Newton. In fact we had reproduced a paragraph from Swift in Icteric wherein he just about slates every imaginable profession, letting rip with a torrent of breathtaking vituperation. Aware that the surrealists had fulsomely praised Swift for being 'surrealist in irony' we were reading into it a seminal critique of a very modern division of labour which had evolved to the point of complete madness, and which within a matter of months we would take for real, transgressing the limits of surrealism in this respect by far. We also liked the fact Laputa was a floating island and seemed to be a kind of 'land art' equivalent of Malevich's suprematist space cube.
This utopian scheme had been put together in response to a suggestion by the New York happener, Dick Higgins who had circulated a request for just such schemes. Together with Wolf Vostell from the European Fluxus group (a group which had been co-founded by Higgins in America) he intended to combine them in a book on utopian 'architectural' schemes. In fact the book was flirting with the notion of anti-architecture but typically Higgins preferred to hang on to the term 'architecture', the book, published by the Something Else Press, finally appearing in 1969 under the title of 'Fantastic Architecture'. Possibly he was afraid that if he dropped the term he would be assisting the revolutionary mob that was then pressing at the gates of the city determined to burn it to the ground in order to reconstruct everything anew.
Sometime in the late spring of 1967 Ron Hunt sent off the photographs and accompanying texts to Higgins. Come summer however the bomb of revolution exploded big time in us and we knew we had little choice but go completely beyond art and the artefact in order to find their realization in the act of total revolution. So we hastily consigned everything we'd done that was leading up to it to the dustbin of history. A few days after meeting Ben, rather shamefacedly I casually mentioned this scheme in passing. He responded by saying we go and see Higgins who just happened to live around the corner. In any case, he too wanted to see him. We arranged a meeting though after a few minutes both of us quickly realised we couldn't get on with the guy. Higgins thought our anti architectural scheme was 'dreadful' and though right about that, it was certainly no worse than any of the others he was to praise and publish in his forthcoming book. Looking back I think he took objection to the violence of the texts that accompanied the scheme. This was directly aimed at the knuckle-headed, unbelievably philistine stupidity we had run up against in Newcastle and which linger on to this day, in some ways more powerfully than ever, completely oblivious to the fact Newcastle has become possibly the world centre of installation art.
Higgins appeared to be more interested in Black Mask. A discussion on Cuba ensued with Higgins asking Ben what would he do if he lived there? Ben unhesitatingly replied he would organise a band of people and go back into the Sierra Maestra and from there, armed with a genuinely socially libertarian critique, fight Castro's Bolshevism. (Little did we know but at the time some guerrillas had begun to do just that. In response to the industrialisation of agriculture agenda being implemented by the Che Guevara Brigades, a band had already formed in the Sierra Maestra, a fact Sam Dolgoff, another New Yorker and former painter and decorator and unreconstructed (i.e. traditional) anarcho-syndicalist, was to point out in his book on Cuba nine years later)'. Coincidentally, in order to survive, Ben and Ron Hahn also did painting and decorating as well as window cleaning.
The meeting with Higgins wasn't a particularly friendly one. We were all very guarded and uncomfortable in each other's presence so the meeting didn't last long. At one point Alan Kaprow, the well-known New York happener came in and picked up a copy of Black Mask, remarking how beautiful the typography looked. Raising his eyes, Ben shot me a despairing glance. Once outside Higgins's door and back on the street both Ben and I, exasperated beyond measure, started bad-mouthing both of them. We agreed they'd never step outside the framework of installation art and happenings and in this we were proved completely right. Once back in his Lower East Side rented second floor apartment Ben opened a recent book by Higgins titled 'Jefferson's Birthday' also published by The Something Else press and going to the page where he said he was about to take to the barricades, tore it out in fury.
Higgins died in 1997 shortly after his sixtieth birthday. He was due to attend another pointless Fluxus event he'd been scheduled to speak at. We nearly said inconsequential but that just would not be true because the latter day influence of Fluxus is bigger than ever. Though immense and growing it is a hidden presence, particularly in the pop music industry. The lead sound engineer D Toop of Bono's band U2, is a Fluxus fan, as is Brian Eno and latterly Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame who has swapped the art/anti-art posture of a much watered-down situationism he was manipulated into adopting for a far more orthodox Fluxus inspired one he fancies he has freely chosen, though in reality he is almost completely ignorant of the origins and history of these drastically opposed movements. The worst aspect of this whole affair is that there is virtually no one around today capable of critiquing this development. To put it baldly we were - and still are - for intervention & disruption, Fluxus and co for performance & display. And those who should know better now grow angry at the merest mention of this distinction; such is the sacrosanct grip of art over even the best people just at the moment intelligent subversion is needed more than ever.
At the time I did wonder why Ben wanted to meet Higgins. I got the impression Ben had been an action painter a number of years earlier, jacking it the moment his body and soul was gripped by the prospect of a total revolution. But truth to tell what we were doing in Newcastle was far more negative as regards art than Black Mask and when we first saw a reproduction of a Henry Moore sculpture on the front page of an edition of Black Mask we automatically assumed it was a piss take. Soon however it was followed by a Juan Miro illustration and we all began to wonder what the hell was going on, which merely reinforces what was said more broadly in the introductory paragraph here.
Years later we realised Ben had followed a similar trajectory to ourselves in Newcastle only he had reached the finishing post a few months before we had. Ben Morea's winding path to that end had passed through the doors of Julian Beck's and Judith Malina's Living Theatre project, itself based on theories put forward in Artaud's 'The Theatre of Cruelty'. A little later on and now calling themselves the Motherfuckers, Benn and newfound friends were to occupy the Fillmore East auditorium, turning it into a revolutionary base. In order to stop the cops from invading the building, Ben turned to Julian Beck for assistance hoping, no doubt, Beck's reputation on the New York cultural scene would allay the cops. It was almost as if he had now had need of Captain Fink's broader cultural grasp. How much Ben's participation in the Living Theatre project had helped him along the way is a moot point. Certainly, in the not too distant past, he had burst through the sham and ritualised pretence of performance art to engage with real life hoping to find in fighting for a revolution, a life lived more intensely than ever before. He wasn't wrong. And not before time, his silence on the matter when I first met him suggesting that being waylaid by the Living Theatre had been nothing but an embarrassing waste of time Ben would as soon forget about. However the Motherfuckers' kamikaze, ultra-voluntarism could also send him, at short notice, straight into the arms of a recuperation he had only just to say turned his back on, though no doubt Ben would dispute this as his street-cred spontaneity could never be doubted in instantaneous direct action, only afterwards to wonder how he'd get out of the deepest shite he'd landed himself in. (Interestingly a few months before meeting Ben, a few of us in Icteric had, on the spur of the moment, disrupted a Merce Cunningham dance performance in London. I don't know if Ben, unable to tolerate the pretence any longer, had done something similar around the same time. But here at least was an overlap but one I never thought worth mentioning to Ben, even in passing).
It is only now the connections are becoming apparent, connections, which were then very opaque because of a shared abhorrence regarding our immediate past. They are also important for another reason. Many of us around that time had very quickly passed through this latter day, decadent, cultural avant-gardism to the easy embrace of the need for a total revolution that would realize art, a project first astonishingly flagged by Hegel over 140 years previously. (That idea is now 180 years old!). I say 'easy' because that step then seemed so very logical and we were at a loss to understand why others, like the Fluxus troupe, could not see that, it was all so blindingly obvious. However the latter were to prove the easy victors in this contest, the status of the avant-garde in the last forty years moving from the margins to occupy centre stage. This process rapidly accelerated after the turn of the millennia, the path to revolutionary transcendence becoming totally cut off, excepting of course in Latin America .
It now behoves all of us to try and explain why this radical, very necessary development has come to a full stop. And why especially we can now begin to speak of an aesthetic political economy, for it was the wall of money that proved decisive ultimately. We need to link it to the hegemony of finance capital in the west and the rise of industrially subcontracted nations like China in particular, and, to a lesser extent, India. This new fangled aesthetic economy, still very much in the making, has everything to do with asset inflation, itself dependent on the credit mechanism and the easy availability of money for those who can use their appreciating assets, like avant-garde art, as collateral. Inevitably an economy like this devalues labour, the working class becoming the scum of the earth where once they were regarded, in some quarters at least, as the salt of the earth. More crucially it undermines, though by no means fatally, Marx's labour theory of value to such an extent that those who rigidly adhere to it become insensible to what is different in this most dire of situations.
A Political Economy of Art was first advanced by John Ruskin in the 19th century and in retrospect it does seem more than strange that neither Marx nor Engels paid the slightest attention to it. In fact Ruskin's Political Economy of Art was firmly grounded in Ricardo's theory of labour value and was based on the honest, enduring, value of craft based production, like stone carving, that had remained unchanged for centuries and therefore clashing fundamentally with the surfeit of constantly devalorising products issuing from the mechanised factories. It is a concept of little relevance in today's aesthetic economy though one has to acknowledge Ruskin's perspicacity in raising the possibility of a political economy of art. Though affirming the spirit of labour and the correct frame of mind prior to the execution of a practical task, Ruskin's economy it is in fact a very material one, carrying far more weight than today's ultimately extremely corporeal 'weightless economy'. However these phantom, though very real values, the latter floats on are so very apposite to today's ruling conceptual art and the process of valorisation it is utterly dependent on - like the machinery of publicity rather than factory production, personal reputation rather than actual product.
Perhaps if Marx and Engels had deigned to consider Ruskin's views they may well have remembered the German idealist philosophy of their youth and in particular the major importance given to aesthetics in the systems of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. By relating that concern to the political economy of their day, Marx and Engels could have made the subject vastly more relevant to the present. Instead they relegated the consideration of aesthetics to the fine arts, a very traditional thing to do and when compared to their philosophical predecessors, marked a major step backwards. Aesthetics today is, of course, a dirty word and we can barely comprehend how 200 years ago it had become linked, through the auspices of German philosophical idealism, to practical action, that historical action Marx was at pains to emphasize, had been so sorely neglected by French and English materialism.
One other thing: having more than glanced through Marx's 'Capital', particularly Volume One and the chapters devoted to an analysis of the labour process as transformed by modern inventions like steam powered machinery, we have, for a number of years now, been struck by the absence of any mention of photography in the combined oeuvre of Marx and Engels. More than ever it seems a great oversight and surely Engels, who survived Marx by a good few years, must have been aware of its growing importance to capitalism, particularly the photo-litho process essential to the production of newspapers and posters from which eventually would spring today's miles of advertising hoardings. It is rather revealing to think that task was left to Mallarme, one of the first tentative anti-poets, to begin to unravel.
The ramifications of finance capital today whether hedge funds, private equity funds, house price inflation, advertising, auctions etc always raises, either directly or indirectly, the issue of art somewhere along the line. Here in the UK, even more than New York or America in general, it is hardly possible to switch on the TV or open a newspaper without being confronted with yet another yawningly empty manifestation of avant-garde art, masking the fact that even the bourgeois democracy we have become accustomed to over the past century is everywhere on the retreat. It is a situation that is rotten ripe for revolt but so far, incredibly, there is not the slightest sign of this happening. To end on a positive note all we can say is that when it does - and we fervently hope it will be soon - the bourgeoisie will not be ready for it, lulled as they are, increasingly thanks to avant-garde art, into complacency without precedent.
In the meantime we must remorselessly critique our pasts and those who wish to keep us stuck fast within them. Any kind of fame is useless to all of us. All our pasts must be subjected to perceptive critique preparing the way, yet again, to hopefully getting the world out of a rapidly descending inferno far worse than anything we combated in the late 1960s and, which we were severely punished for. There is no point in emptily affirming reified images.
As for Ben Morea he has recently 'returned' visiting New York on a regular basis from the wilds of New Mexico and now, after all these years of absence, writes a blog called E-Blast. Typically Ben, the style tends to the pert and epigrammatic though perhaps too restricted to politics and not enough about society at large. On the other hand a recent interview explains just how acute his analysis of the late 1960s is. He calls one of us 'a great guy' (thanks but we don't need it) having forgotten the name (DW) and in response we reckon he is still a 'stand-up guy' as the Americans say. In the meantime what happened to Ben? (We were even asked the same question by sympathetic Yanks in the 1970s but hadn't a clue). It seems after the Motherfuckers, Benn and Janice spent a long-time in the wilderness of the American south-west living the life style of latter-day indigenous Americans (ye old Indians) avoiding police detection before Ben became a lumberjack until somewhat invalided by a chainsaw accident. But the myths once he'd disappeared from the rebel 'spotlights' went similarly wild ranging from horse breeder/trader to rich businessman. At least in this respect we were similar, as we'd also become millionaire businessmen owning a garden furniture/sculpture business serving the nouveau riche of the home-owning world. In reality we'd lived on the margins, surviving in the building industry as members of an equally waged gang of skilled and unskilled operatives hired by mini-capitalist sub-contractors we utterly loathed! However if somebody knows where our missing millions are can they please forward some of it to us!
The fucking Wise twins 'sometimes as an 'I' sometimes as a 'We'
For further recent commentary related to the above read the following in the "Wreckage & bric-a-brac" series: