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Managers of the culture system and private possessors of art pin their hopes on art’s futures. The beer brand Beck’s, for example, calls its art sponsorship programme Beck’s Futures. Financial software service company Bloomberg manage a programme called ARTfutures: ‘For those in the market for cutting edge contemporary art, whether first-time buyers, or new or committed collectors, the Contemporary Art Society’s annual ARTfutures, is a “must see”‘, states the call to collectors in 2007. What is that future that art managers so confidently claim to dictate or discover? On the one hand a simply economic calculation. It signals to collectors buy here, buy now, for future return. Bloomberg tracks and predicts emerging markets as well as emerging artists. Beck’s is a brand worthy of investment, so too its hallowed artists. Of course, it cannot just be this and Beck’s Future’s, like all such projects, claims that the future it is interested in is the artist’s own, allowing its successful sponsees to develop their work. The future in art has a long tradition: it is an element of avant-garde production. Better-world-boosters – futurists, constructivists, productivists –  conceived blueprints for the future. This did not mean that art re-presented tangible images of future worlds. Rather it instituted modes of non-commodified production – collaborative, or refusing single authorship in the bourgeois sense by subjection to the public statement of the manifesto.  And they piloted transformed social relations by what Brecht called ‘refunctioning’. As Benjamin wrote of Brecht’s practice in ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934), refunctioning is ‘the transformation of the forms and the instruments of production in the way desired by a progressive intelligentsia-that is, one interested in freeing the means of production and serving the class struggle’. In the case of the Soviet artists especially there was some justification for functional transformation of the forms of art in an effort to test run new social relations and skills. The Soviet avant garde operated in times of transformation, not least times of transformation for art, which emerged from the galleries and museums, dropped its preoccupation with individualistic artists, instead organising itself into agit-prop groupings, grasping towards new technological forms of expression, and rushing forward to meet its audience on newly defined terms.

But the future might seem blocked right now to real, collective political change, making it available unchallenged as a realm of speculation for commercial art sponsors. The future is now the playground that a few can enter for a little while, until they grow up and make serious money or disappear from the scene. ‘What is to be done’ is an urgent question but its hope in the future as a realm of action is premature. Instead we have yet to complete our dealings with the past. Its potentials have not been realised. The question still exists: what was done? In any case the past can be, or already, is the Utopia to which we aspire. Utopias imagine future worlds, projecting into the aftertime the outlines of a perfected society. Utopias are brought into being negatively, against their moment, but are none the less formed by it. There is a unifying characteristic of many utopias (and dystopias) from the nineteenth century onwards. In some way or another the currently achieved state of technological development frames the utopia, and so developments along the same lines are envisaged. Utopia can only come into being once its technological preconditions are already or almost in place. Marx identified the impulsion of revolution in this way: humanity ‘sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.’

Problems … Problems … Problems

Marx insists there is a problem in social reality, a contradiction in the bourgeois logic of money. It’s there whether or not we choose to think about it, a glaring rift. In the multiple discourses of excuse and confusion issuing forth from Paris since the failure of 1968, problematization is deemed a virtue, a special buzz conferred by paid intellectuals. Society is unproblematic, banal and natural, and it takes the special efforts of theorists and artists to ‘problematize’ its operations and so give us something to think about. As revolutionary theory is recuperated by academia and the art market, it’s transformed into its opposite. Marx’s exposition of the logic behind subaltern actions which defy the market (today we might list: land seizures in Brazil and Zimbabwe; protests against an arms fair in London; raves in squatted office blocks; Free Improvisation as anti-genre) was meant to simplify and clarify, provide a politics for those excluded from bourgeois politics and its games of mere appearance. Just as those working on cures for diseases proceed by inverting the DNA of the enemy virus, so justifications for capitalism adopt Marxist-sounding modes of reasoning. Every cultural entrepreneur and every artist competing for the limelight is ‘overthrowing ideology’, ‘defying common sense’ and ‘problematizing the situation’ with their own patent brand of abject nonsense. We do not need to ‘problematize’! The burning issue stares us all in the face: a so-called rational society murders millions via famine and war, and is incapable of explaining why. Waking this murderous zombie from its dream trance is our task.

After Art

Engels wrote of ‘the leap of mankind from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom’. Benjamin gave direction to this leap in his ‘On the Concept of History’- a ‘tiger’s leap into the past’. For him, utopia or future freedom, is signalled in the confectionary of fashion, an absorbent material for the storage of societal wishes, fantasies, dreams. Fashion’s energies stem from the past, from citation, from recycling motifs that remain pungent, because they are still relevant: ‘Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past’. Tigersprung, in German literally tiger’s leap, is a metaphor extended from the more familiar Katzensprung, cat’s leap, which is the equivalent of stone’s throw, a short distance. The colloquial meaning of Tigersprung is diffuse – it is used variously, including as a description of the final spurt in track sports. For Benjamin, its resonance may arise from a compound of associations: the tiger as exotic, dramatic animal, the tigresse, the female equivalent of the dandy, and so a fashionable type, and then there is the verb tigern, to tiger, which means to mooch – all these are slinky, sexy images that perhaps access something essential – and utopian – to fashion. Fashion quotes the past, leaping out the present, representing the possibility of a new temporality – one in which future-directedness and past citation are connected, making for an anti-linearity and logic-bucking that carries much explosively political potential within Benjamin’s revolutionary historiography. Specifically Benjamin uses the word Tigersprung to describe the leap into the past that fashion repeatedly makes, as part of its conundrum existence, where the absolutely new is so often a re-edition. This is the flip-around, the negative side, in which fashion is shown to have the temporality of hell, as Benjamin puts its. Capitalism, whose logic and justification makes recourse to the new, the latest, the fashionable, is unmasked as bemired with the old, stuck in the past, in dead labour, in accumulated energy, in the repetition day on day of reinforced social relations. Fashion mirrors the mode of production, a negative force. Where might that leave genuine futurity, the ‘what is to be done’? It is a matter for the future, but also one of the past.

Engels can be usefully reinvoked here, as Benjamin does in his essay on the Social Democratic collector and historian Eduard Fuchs. Engels is a critic of idealist histories of progress and the passive contemplative attitude towards the past: ‘Historical materialism conceives historical understanding as an afterlife of that which has been understood and whose pulse can be felt in the present’. ‘Afterlife’ has to do with the new historical circumstances into which artworks, as much as the reception of historical events, are born and reborn, and thereby serve as means to reveal continuities and discontinuities in relations of domination and constellations of power. History is not completed. Fuchs had glimpsed this, but he also carried traces of the ‘old dogmatic and naïve idea of reception’, assuming that the meaning of a work is the meaning attributed by its contemporaries. However, Fuchs’ practical passion for collecting  – caricatures and pornographic imagery proposed a different relationship to historical work. Fuchs rejected culture as a marker of value, as a locus of classical beauty. His practical activity in the field of reproduced imagery destroyed traditional conceptions of art. His materials were destined for a mass audience. His anti-classicism led him to seek truth in the extremes of expression such as the grotesque. Through Fuchs, Benjamin gestured at the negative side of historical movement, its anti-progress: ‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. Cultural history is unable to take note of this state of affairs, for it regards culture as a booty that drops into the lap of mankind, a bonus, an eternal good – and commodity, detached from the wider social conditions of its production.  The Marxists turned Positivists had been unable to recognize technology as a historical – and not just scientific – development. Positivists saw only ‘the progress of natural science, not the concomitant retrogression of society’. Capitalism shaped technology and illusions of neutral technical progress made proletarian efforts to seize it under its control ever more unthinkable. Benjamin argued against this for the return of the ‘destructive side of dialectics’.

Stomp & Smash & Bash & Crash & Slash & Bust & Burn

What is the ‘destructive side of dialectics’? It’s giving up on the illusion that we can ever explain ourselves to the ruling class. History is not decided in the debating chambers of the bourgeoisie, a sterile ward from which the concepts necessary for grasping the modern world – capital, labour, commodity, surplus value, unconscious, fetish, spectacle, human need, improvisation, bile, class hatred – have been hygienically expunged. However blindly, history is made by classes acting in their own interests. We think we can transform the entire world by bringing this understanding to those at the sharp end of capitalism’s contradictions, those who must act against its logic, or perish. To achieve this we must unleash the total pleasure principle involved in not living lies. Marx’s Capital is inconceivable without the belly laughs of Tristram Shandy, the fantasies of Charles Fourrier, the struggle for the ten-hour working day and the poetry of Heinrich Heine. If we believe that after Finnegans Wake every literary novel – however third-world – is kitsch; or that after Asger Jorn all non-accidental painting is repressed kitsch; or that after punk all non-political rock is fatuous repressed kitsch – then these insights must become one with our political actions, with no concessions to the self-denying ironies of postmodernism.

Our Fabulous Correctitude

The current number one enemy for revolutionary thought is the dubious proposition that there is no collective politics of transformation, that we are Bolshevik cadre tragically stranded on a sandbank of reaction. As Trotsky said, ‘Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in the last stage that the idea finds its masses.’ We must dare to be the avant garde, unheralded and unrewarded except in our knowledge that we’re so amazingly correct. And, as Marco Maurizi argues in his I Was a Teenage Critical Theorist, the notion of the universally justified individual, the person uncrucified by the money-commodity relation, is profoundly reactionary. It’s like the way a cheap image of Jesus-with-halo makes everyone else in the picture look insignificant and shadowy. The notion of the redeemed and justified reduces everything really-existent to dust and ashes. If two people tell the truth to each other, however obscure and underlit the circumstances, then – in this globe permanently mediated by lies – the effect is nevertheless seismic. Only if we revel in the ‘absurdity’ and ‘impracticality’ of our ambitions (at least, according to the craven justifiers of an unjustifiable system) will our total critique reach the critical burning point at which a revolutionary fire storm becomes unstoppable. As Gramsci hinted in his lines on the ‘organic intellectual’, a  proletarian freak is something to be. Hey, ho, let’s go!


Esther Leslie & Ben Watson are critics and based in London.
See more of their writings at www.militantesthetix.co.uk