Reflections on Culture and Its Artistic Production

   The critique of culture[1] follows on from the critiques of religion and of philosophy; all are separations and divisions of labour that emerge with new developments in class relations. So religion is linked to the development of social hierarchy in early human society and the appearance of a division within the communal life where a representative caste of priests emerges to mediate between gods and society. Art appears linked to the development of magic, ritual and tools as society develops new relationships to the rest of nature. But in tribal societies there never was a separate sphere called 'art' or 'culture': it was integrated into the totality of people's relationship with nature. As class society develops, the fruits of exploitation flow to the rulers and create a class with a surplus of leisure time and resources to produce and create in non-essential activities ' and so aesthetics develops as a specialised practice of both production (artistic creativity) and consumption (appreciation). The same occurs with the production of ideas and other intellectual processes, leading to philosophy.

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   'In spite of being by profession just a plain peasant, it was clearly seen from the small baskets he made that at heart he was an artist, a true and accomplished artist. Each basket looked as if covered all over with the most beautiful sometimes fantastic ornaments, flowers, butterflies, birds, squirrels, antelope, tigers and a score of other animals of the wilds. Yet, the most amazing thing was that these decorations, all of them symphonies of color, were not painted on the baskets but were instead actually part of the baskets themselves. Bast and fibers dyed in dozens of different colors were so cleverly - one must actually say intrinsically - interwoven that those attractive designs appeared on the inner part of the basket as well as on the outside. Not by painting but by weaving were those highly artistic effects achieved. This performance he accomplished without ever looking at any sketch or pattern. While working on a basket these designs came to light as if by magic, and as long as a basket was not entirely finished one could not perceive what in this case or that the decoration would be like.- ' (B. Traven, 'The Assembly Line'.)

   As William Morris pointed out, there came a time in feudal society when the functional and decorative aspects of workmanship became separated in both the object and the producer, craftsmanship and artistic production becoming progressively separate commodities and separate skills. So the time when 'artists are craftsmen and craftsmen are artists' comes to an end. Whereas products of labour had most often contained their decoration and aesthetic pleasing qualities as an integral, in-built component of their functional usefulness, many things now came to be produced as either predominantly functional or aesthetic in their use. The capitalist mode of production has kept design aesthetic within the commodity - one that there is status in judging and possessing ('to be admired for admiring') but little joy in its producing, standardised and mass produced as market competition necessarily makes it.[2] So bourgeois aesthetics expresses as a virtue the division of labour in class society between these previously integrated components.  Artistic activity is the reproduction of these aesthetic values.

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    The left and ultra left generally ignore the repressive function of culture. Using categories that define proletarians solely as workers they relate to them only as components of production ' the opposite of how most workers think of themselves. Their workerism means they fail to deal with proletarian life as a totality - despite the fact that nowadays, more than ever, proles define themselves far more by how they act/consume outside work than by their particular job (leaving aside the fact that the majority of the working class are not even directly wage-workers - children, housewives, the elderly etc). These marxoids tend to treat cultural forms as neutral, judging them only on whether the message they carry appears 'radical' or not. Despite their fetishising of rigorous Marxist categories they ignore the fact that cultural forms are commodity forms and that the cult of media celebrity is but one more manifestation of this society's hierarchical power.[3]

   Such illusions about culture miss completely the process of recuperation involved. Cultural recuperation is often so effective that it's easy to forget that something real existed that needed to be recuperated. Capital has a constant need to use innovation and modification in a competitive marketplace to renew the content of its basic unchanging forms and categories. Anything that emerges autonomously from outside the marketplace in a non-commodified form is a threat to the commodity society and so must be either suppressed or co-opted ' this is equally true in the fields of culture and politics.

   A prisoner who cannot see the sky from his cell window may paint on his wall a scene of birds flying amongst clouds against a blue haze of space. Outside in the wider society art plays a similar role; what is denied and seems unreachable, but possible and desirable, is represented via the window of the picture frame or TV screen. So art/culture as the representation of what is repressed fuses with the commodity form; the very form whose domination has fragmented this creativity from the rest of life. (And with this fusion adverts become seen as 'the cutting edge of art'.)

   The contradiction within art is that it appeals to our desire for realisation of what it represents ' passion, creativity and other experience routinely denied in bourgeois society - but it only 'realises' in a fragmented, isolated manner, separate from daily life. It is now art and the cultural spectacle, not religion, that is 'the opium of the people' and 'the heart of a heartless world'. This is why, wherever circumstances allow, religion also organises itself in the image of the latest media technology ' from slickly marketed TV evangelism to increasingly theatrical church services.

    Not all present artistic activity is totally commodified - when not being done to pursue a media career or some kind of cultural status it often fulfils the therapeutic desire to be playful and creative for its own sake, outside the motivations and necessities of market forces. It is part of a search for pleasurable productive activity beyond the confines of labour imposed by economic necessity. 'Creativity' in the workplace for most is usually either: a kind of improvisation imposed to deal with a failing in functioning of the production process; or some marketing ploy to give a product an edge against competitors (design, advertising); at best it's a feeling of job satisfaction at one's skills/application etc, even if applied to a task of no real interest or use (beyond the wages earned); yet none of it comes close to the joyful possibilities of the conscious creation and reproducing of our collective life and environment' this lies somewhere beyond the limits of this society.

   It's the social and economic role of the artist as celebrity and specialist producer that must be attacked - and the illusions it feeds. A revolutionary movement would seek to recover the lost unity between creative activity and daily life ' where none would be 'artists' but all would collectively reproduce a world full of sensuality and beauty.

   Morris thought that in a communist society the presence of a certain artistry in labour would be a measure of what work was pleasurable and therefore of what work people would choose to do; ''commerce, as we now understand the word, comes to an end, and the mountains of wares which are either useless in themselves or only useful to slaves and slaveowners are no longer made, and once again art will be used to determine what things are useful and what useless to be made; since nothing should be made which does not give pleasure to the maker and the user, and that pleasure of making must produce art in the workman.. So will art be used to discriminate between the waste and the usefulness of labour''. (Art Under Plutocracy.)

     Art is the domain of the 'uniquely creative' specialist, the glorification of the hierarchical social division of labour. But to fetishise the uniqueness of one's own subjectivity is only to recognise its demise ' we are all now products of a uniform age of uniform experiences[4] ' so the artist has to push the limits of his/her extremism ever further to make any impression on the jaded consumer: witness the recent exhibitions involving the public vivisection of corpses in UK art galleries and the performance of the actual eating of dead babies by Chinese artists [5] - confirming that though art may be dead it won't stop some consuming its corpse.

   Whatever people do for money is a commodity. Whether it's State-funded or not, work produces this society.

[1] By culture we mean here not the totality of customs and values of a society, but its skills and arts that emerge with the development of class society and encourage a division between professional specialist performers and passive spectator consumers ' as in sport and the arts.

[2] The exceptions are true craft production in 'developed' countries for the exclusive consumption of the rich - and craft production in less developed areas where absence of modern technology and/or poverty determines the use of more traditional methods.

[3]  This is only part of a larger phenomena whereby the insights of earlier theories are not transcended but repressed; the Frankfurt School and the Situationists, whatever their limitations, recognised the necessity of a critique of culture and of daily life. 'In an age that has forgotten theory, theory has to begin in remembrance'. There is history that remembers and history that originates in a need to forget.' - (C. Lasch.).  Even most who pay a lip service recognition to earlier critiques  - just to appear knowledgeable - have retreated into a dull marxoid 'objectivity' concerned mostly with the great ultimate questions of theory whilst applying the great eternal truths of communism to all events in the present; but carefully only dealing with external events in the arena of bourgeois politics, never challenging the complacency of their own role by theorising its limits. This marxism, as an intellectual doctrine, seeks security and certainty in grand generalities, prescriptions and pronouncements on the totality of existence; an essentially religious attitude. So it tends to deal in deterministic general abstractions applied uniformly to all events - but avoids the more difficult yet necessary complexities and contradictions of any specific situations that might lead to significant conclusions - such as real challenging activity. While its terminology and categories sound radical, their usage is profoundly conservative - trapped in the same straitjacket as the rest of bourgeois thought. And no, we ourselves probably haven't always completely escaped falling into that trap'

[4] Tourism is a good example; the really adventurous tourist seeks out locations where tourism has not yet penetrated - his arrival there ensuring that this place will, soon after his discovery, become just another tourist destination.

[5] The situation in the Chinese art world mirrors the contradictions of the wider Chinese society. The ruling Communist party has always kept tight control over all ideological and artistic expression (in retrospect the occasional mild liberalisation allowed might be seen to function as a means to flush out the dissidents). The State-approved artists toe the line in form and content, their role being Government propagandists. The (baby eating) avant-garde that has emerged, being disapproved of by the status quo and antagonistic to its values, necessarily leads a marginal existence. Whereas the traditionalists put their art in the service of the State, the avant-gardists put theirs at the service of the market. Its main outlets - galleries and dealers - are on Hong Kong, in the heart of the new rapidly expanding entrenepeurial Chinese economy.