From: Felix Stalder
Date: 2 January 2017
Subject: <nettime> John_Berger (5 November 1926 – 2 January 2017)
John Berger is dead. He died today, at the age of 90. Obits are surely
being written right now. However, Sally Potter’s birthday thoughts
from last November seem a more apt and personal way of remembering.
“Ways of Seeing was, together with Robert Hughes’ “Shock of the New”,
one of the first books about art I read as teenager. It stayed with me
As if as a testament to his continued relevance, the LA Review of
Books published today a long article on his theory of art.
That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s.
Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a
critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account
of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.
A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic,
because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but
failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:
A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last
analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power
to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why,
asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began
to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and
was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
H/t: Bruce R
Shiraz (like most of the left) has been remiss in failing to mark the recent passing of the outstanding socialist graphic artist and archivist David King. Here’s an excellent interview published at Mike Dempsey’s Graphic Journey blog; the Graun obituary is here.
He identified as a Marxist and a Trotskyist and his images will be immediately recognisable to any leftwing activist who’s read books or attended demos over the past forty years.
His style is a mix of forceful sans serif typography, solid planes of vivid colour and emphatic borders; a modern reworking of the graphic language of 1920s Russian Constructivism and the collage of John Heartfield.
Below are some of the outstanding, and instantly recognisable, book covers and posters he produced over the years; but we should start with what is probably his most ubiquitous creation:
King’s 1977 poster for a march against the Official Secrets Act
Original artwork by John Rogan … this could become a collector’s item:
It was nauseating to see George Galloway appearing at the Grassroots Out rally last night and campaigning against the EU alongside the racist Ukip’s Nigel Farage.
Between now and June 20th you have the opportunity to see ‘The Big No’, an exhibition of work of one by the greatest left-wing satirical artists of the 20th century: George Grosz. It’s at the London Print Studio (W10) and admission is free of charge.
Grosz was a founder of the Berlin Dadaist movement who created hundreds of drawings that savagely depicted the corruption, injustice and decadence of the Weimar republic. Along with Helmut Herzfeld (who became John Heartfield) he introduced photomontage to the mainstream. Many of his his drawings are composed like photomontages.
The drawings use superb fine-pen draftsmanship while the paintings are composed of bold brush-stokes, to convey shocking images of extremes of wealth and poverty, sexual exploitation and the broken survivors of WWI.
The Big No (named after Grosz’s autobiography A Little Yes and a Big No) features two portfolios of his drawings: Ecce Homo (Behold The Man), published in 1923 and Hintergrund (Background) from 1928. Ecce Homo was the subject of a four year legal case, with Grosz and his publisher accused of both pornography and bringing the German military into disrepute. They were acquitted, but in 1933 the Nazis had all the plates destroyed and the drawings publicly burned. We are able to see the work now because in 1959, after Grosz’s death, his widow and sons licenced a facsimile edition of the portfolio.
The Nazis denounced Grosz as a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work (together with that of fellow modernists, Jews and leftists like Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix) featured in the notorious 1937 “degenerate art” exhibition organised by the Nazis. By then Grosz had fled with his family to the US, where he remained for the rest of his life and where his son Marty became a well-known jazz guitarist.
Grosz wrote, ‘In 1916 I was discharged from military service. The Berlin to which I returned was a cold and grey city. What I saw made me loathe most of my fellow men; everything I could say has been recorded in my drawings. The busy cafés and wine-cellars merely accentuated the gloom of the dark, unheated residential districts. I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon; men playing cards on the coffins of the women they had murdered. I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands… I was each one of the characters I drew, the champagne-swilling glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing with outstretched hands in the rain. I was split in two, just like society at large…’
This exhibition is simply unmissable. I don’t know whether or not it’s going to appear anywhere outside London, so even if you don’t live in capital, I’d recommend a special visit. And how appropriate that it’s appearing in one of the less affluent parts of London, at studio whose stated mission is to “empower people and communities through practical engagement with the visual and graphic arts.”
Spot the similarities:
1/ From BBC News (East):
Banksy anti-immigration birds mural in Clacton-on-Sea destroyed
A new Banksy mural showing a group of pigeons holding anti-immigration banners has been destroyed following a complaint the work was “racist”.
The mural in Clacton-on-Sea – where a by-election is due to take place following the local MP’s defection to UKIP – appeared this week.
It showed four pigeons holding signs including “Go Back to Africa”, while a more exotic-looking bird looked on.
The local council, which removed it, said it did not know it was by Banksy.
Tendring District Council said it received a complaint that the mural was “offensive” and “racist”.
The artist, who chooses to remain anonymous, posted pictures of the work on his website earlier.
But by the time it had been announced, the mural had already been removed due to the complaint received on Tuesday.
2/ From politics.co.uk
Thin-skinned anti-racist protestors shut down an anti-racist exhibit
By Ian Dunt
The closing down of the Barbican’s Exhibit B event marks a significant moment in the rise of censorship in Britain. We have now become so sensitive, so uninterested in the purpose of a work of art, that we are closing down exhibits intended to support our own politics. We are censoring ourselves.
What an extraordinary point to have reached. Self-professed anti-racist campaigners shutting down an anti-racist exhibit because it features images of racism. Two hundred of them blocked the entrance and the road leading to the building. Organisers cancelled last night’s performance and then confirmed the remaining performances would be cancelled as well.
One wonders how else we are supposed to dramatise racism without featuring images of it? Should 12 Years a Slave have been banned too? It was hardly an easy watch.
The black performers in Exhibit B stand perfectly still, in chains, in a reference to the ‘human zoos’ of the Nineteenth Century. There are also exhibits featuring modern-day asylum seekers, with accompanying text describing them as “found objects”
This is how the actors themselves described it:
“Each audience member walks in alone into the exhibit, and each performer is exhibited in their own tableau vivant. Each performer is instructed by Brett to look into the eyes of each audience member. On arrival, at the first tableau, most people don’t even recognise that human beings are standing there. For a moment, particularly for the first few, we are objects.
“Then, our eyes meet.
“In that moment when our eyes meet, we cease to be objectified and become human. Some people literally jump back. Some break into tears; others immediately look away. Others still gaze deeper as their eyes well up.
“As they move through the exhibit, we watch them and witness anger, grief, pity, sadness, compassion. Above all, we witness a dawning of awareness. This is why we keep doing this, and would keep on doing it, if we could.”
I haven’t seen the exhibit. I can’t, because the protestors have managed to shut it down. But even without having seen it, it is quite clear that it was an anti-racist event, conceived by someone challenging racism and performed by those who shared his vision. It was trying to draw links between the injustices of the past, which we understand to be so, and those of the present, which are still subject to debate. The Guardian, that bastion of racism, called it “unbearable and essential”.
It is perfectly obvious the Barbican would never put on a racist event. It would be almost impossible to smuggle a racist piece of theatre, TV or visual art into modern Britain. So the ultra-sensitivity which has overcome our political debate feeds not on racism, but on the use of shock in art. The same applies in journalism. Demands for ‘trigger warnings’ are fired off angrily every time something even remotely emotive is published online.
For whole sections of the left and right, offence is something to be wallowed in, to be savoured. It is as if they are dedicated to seeking out and exploiting opportunities for it.
And yet, there is precious little support for actually tackling the brutality of Britain’s immigration and asylum system. Earlier this month Rubel Ahmed died in a British immigration detention centre. Authorities say he took his own life. Fellow residents say he was crying out in pain and no-one came to help. Either way, he was a victim of an immigration system which locks up the most vulnerable people in our society without them having committed a crime. And yet when protests are organised against it, the numbers are far fewer than the 22,000 who signed a petition attacking the Barbican for Exhibit B.
The modern censorship movement dresses itself up in compassionate clothing, but it is fundamentally selfish. It does not care about the world. It cares only about its own feelings.
The protestors who shut down Exhibit B should be ashamed of themselves. They act against their own principles, while doing nothing to help those who might actually need them.
* depressing, self-righteous rubbish in the Morning Star
* A more intelligent view from Catherine Bennett in the Observer
My old friend and comrade John Harris invites us all to visit his exhibition of photos from the miners’ strike.
John took the famous photo featured in the flyer below, and the cop on the horse took a swipe at him a moment later:
Between the 1930s and 1950s the revolutionary socialist (ie Trotskyist and, later, Shachtmanite) press in the USA made use of the wit and skill of talented cartoonists such as ‘Carlo’ (Jesse Cohen). In an Era of Wars and Revolutions, a new collection of their work, gives a snapshot history of the times: the rise of the mass industrial union movement in the USA, the great strike wave of 1945-6, the fight against ‘Jim Crow’ racism, World War Two, the imposition of Stalinism on Eastern Europe, and more.
Sean Matgamna (editor of In an Era of Wars and Revolutions) writes:
That “one picture can be worth a thousand words” is true, but only up to a point. A photograph or a painting cannot properly nail down, explain or explore ideas. A complicated piece of writing has no visual equivalent.
Yet a well-done cartoon is a powerful political weapon. A few bold strokes by an artist can convey an idea more vividly and fix it more firmly in the viewer’s mind than would an editorial or an article.
A cartoon is drawn to convey an idea, a point of view, an interpretation of what it depicts, and its meaning. Cartoons by their nature simplify, caricature, exaggerate, lampoon, and play with archetypal images.
A cartoon is highly subjective, yet it draws on commonly recognised symbols. The image, idea, interpretation fuse in the drawing. Drawn to convey an idea of people, things, institutions, classes, states, and of their inter-relationships, a cartoon distills the artist’s conception of what is essential in those people, events, entities, institutions, relationships.
The cartoonist is licensed to distort everyday reality so as to bring out a view, a “seeing”, analysis, critique, historical perspective of it. Its ciphers, emblems, archetypes vary to allow for the artist’s individual slant (like, in this collection, Carlo’s characteristic rendition of the top hat-fat archetypical bourgeois laughing at the gullibility or helplessness of workers).
All of a cartoon, all its details and references, are consciously or subconsciously chosen to convey a point of view, a nailed-down perception, a historical perspective. In old socialist cartoons the worker is always bigger and stronger than his enemies. He needs only to be awakened to an awareness of his strength.
It is almost always a “he”. The socialists who drew these cartoons were, themselves and their organisations, militant for women’s rights, but little of that is in their work.
One of the difficulties with old socialist cartoons for a modern viewer is that the stereotype-capitalist wears a top hat and is stout or very fat. In some early 20th century British labour movement cartoons he is named, simply, “Fat”. Fat now, in our health-conscious days, is seen as a characteristic of lumpenised workers and other “lower orders” people.
Much contemporary comedy is a hate-ridden depiction of the poor, the disadvantaged, the excluded, the badly educated, by physical type – fat and slobby. Where most of the old racial and national caricatures have been shamed and chased into the underbrush, no longer tolerable to decent people of average good will, the old social-Darwinian racism against the poor is rampant still, unashamed and not often denounced.
Even so, the old symbols, the fat capitalist and the big powerful worker, are still intelligible. They depict truths of our times as well as of their own. These cartoons still live.
They portray US politics, governments, the class struggle, the labour movement, America’s “Jim Crow” racism, Stalinism at its zenith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal”, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism. They present clean and stark class-struggle socialist politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.
A few are from the 1920s, but mainly they cover the quarter century after the victory of Hitler in Germany in 1933. and the definitive consolidation of Stalinism in the USSR.
Across the decades, they still carry the emotional hostility to the master class and solidarity with their victims that they were drawn to convey; the socialists’ abhorrence of the Stalinist atrocities that discredited and disgraced the name of socialism (they themselves were often among the targets); the desire, hope and drive for a re-made world — a socialist world. They blaze with anger and hatred against the horrors of America’s all-contaminating Jim Crow racism.
These cartoons were of their time, and what their time and earlier times led socialists to expect of the future. They were often mistaken. Government repression during World War Two was less fierce than the severe persecution of socialists and militant trade unionists in World War One and afterwards, led them to expect.
In the later 1940s, like most observers, they saw World War Three looming. In fact, the world settled into a prolonged “balance of terror” after Russia developed an atom bomb in 1949 and the USA and Russia fought a proxy war on Korean soil which ended in stalemate. The economic collapse which the experience of the 1930s led them to expect did not come (though in fact the long capitalist upswing took off only with the Korean war boom of 1950-3). Plutocratic democracy in the USA, during the war and after it, proved far less frail than the Marxists feared it would.
Over many years I have collected photocopies of these cartoons, buried as they were in files of old publications for six, seven or eight decades. I think others will be moved by them too.
What Peadar Kearney wrote fifty years after their time of the Fenians, the left-wing Irish Republicans of the 1860s and 70s, speaks to the socialists of the era covered by this book as well:
“Some fell by the wayside
Some died ‘mid the stranger,
And wise men have told us
That their cause was a failure;
But they stood by old Ireland
And never feared danger.
Glory O, glory O,
To the bold Fenian men!”
From the Dockland & East London Advertiser:
Artist ‘censored’ by Tower Hamlets Council at Bangladeshi exhibition
Above: Saif Osami with some of his work at the Brady Arts Centre
By Adam Barnett, Reporter
A Bangladeshi artist has criticised the Council after he was told some of his work was too controversial for public display
Above: one of the pieces deemed “too controversial” by Tower Hamlets Council
Saif Osmani, 32, who was born in Whitechapel, was invited to show his work at the Brady Arts Centre in Hanbury Street as part of a season of Bangladeshi drama and art.
But when Mr Osmani arrived on November 2 he says he was told by a council arts officer that four of his pieces, which combine the Pakistani and Bangladeshi flags, might anger “hardliners” and would not be shown.
Mr Osmani, who lives in Stratford, said: “I was told that due to the political situation in Bangladesh I was unaware of what this series of paintings could trigger with the ‘hardliners’.
“I can’t see why these events happening thousands of miles away have started dictating this exhibition here in the UK.”
Tower Hamlets Council declined to say who its arts officer meant by “hardliners”.
Mr Osmani said the rest of his work was moved to a corner of the room near the toilet and was later hidden by a pull-up banner.
Akhtar Hussain, of art group Avid Art Agency, said: “It is an absolute disgrace that this level of censoring is taking place in the name of political correctness at an event which was supposed to celebrated British and Bangladeshi arts, but instead curtails the content of the art on display.”
A spokesman for the council said: “We are clear that there has been no censorship in relation to this exhibition.
“As with any public space the council does have the right to decide what is exhibited and in this case the pictures chosen were fully discussed and agreed between the artist and a member of the council arts team.”
The exhibition runs until November 22 at the Brady Arts and Community Centre in Hanbury Street.
Assuming that the article is accurate, this would appear to be an outrageous act of censorship. But what exactly are the political motives that lie behind it? And who are these “hardliners” who might be angered by the paintings? Any information from readers would be most welcome.
Ive only just discovered QualiaSoup, an artist and thinker whose YouTube videos present the case for rational, critical thinking and the scientific method. It’s excellent stuff, that anyone with religious hang-ups, belief in the “supernatural,” tolerance of backward ideas in the interests of “open-mindedness” and indeed quite a few people who consider themselves “Marxists,” would do well to watch and ponder. Here’s an example:
P.S: It transpires that QualiaSoup has a brother, TheraminTrees (!)