Posted July 25, 2008
When we present revolutionary ideas, is it just the content that matters, or the form, as well? If the form matters, should it reflect popular styles, or should we constantly push boundaries? Either way has advantages and tradeoffs. Forms of media we are used to (magazines, paperback books, television, blockbuster movies, popular music) have an immediately familiar style, without avant-garde flourishes that might be a distraction from the content. Yet, clearly, it’s for a reason that these come with a ruling class stamp of approval: popular culture often reinforces the undemocratic, oppressive structure of society. Most obvious with television, many forms of popular media transmit ideas in a dramatically one-sided fashion. The viewer has little say over what she sees; we can flip channels or even call into the studio, but never choose what’s on.
If I’ve got my correct academic hat on, I think that the (post?)Marxist thinkers of “The Frankfurt School” grappled with the questions of consciousness in consumer society. But they did so as removed intellectuals and not engaged organizers. More interesting to me are ideas flowing from the experience of revolutionaries, social movements, and oppositional subcultures that have battled the symptoms of capitalism in sundry ways. Overlap, of course, exists among all of these. It’s also useful to divide up different forms of art. How have musicians, graphic designers, photographers, actors, playwrights, and directors dealt with these questions? (At some point I hope to write a eulogy for the thoughtfully designed political button: in the 1970s, they were made with a great deal of care and artistic attention; these days they are boring and tasteless. This, I believe, was a casualty of desktop publishing deskilling the graphic design trade.)
Take the newspaper, for example – a bulwark of any revolutionary’s arsenal, at once an agitator, educator, and organizer. The great Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg said that “a newspaper should [not] be symmetrical, trimmed like an English lawn, rather, it should be somewhat untamed, like a wild orchard, it should bristle with life and shine with young talents.” This seems to me a description of the lively style of anarchist ‘zines more than the dry, blocky layout of socialist literature, which tend to be modeled on tabloid newspapers from three decades ago… this would be funny if it wasn’t true. Every leaflet is not going to be a masterpiece, but style matters.
I recently got my hands on several copies of The Great Speckled Bird, an Atlanta-based radical and underground newspaper published weekly from 1968 through 1976. The paper’s graphic design, photography, and content strikes a great balance between the orthodox visual presentations of revolutionary organizations and the freaked-out psychedelia of the counterculture. The awesome collages that Emory Douglas produced for the Black Panther Party’s newspaper are another standout example. In a position paper, Douglas argued that revolutionary artists “must constantly be agitating the people,” but first, “make strong roots among the masses of the people.” I interpret this as an emphasizing familiarity with mass culture and media, but through adapting it for revolutionary agitation, transforming its style.
As incredible as Douglas’ art was, it still remains fairly straightforward in its depiction of people, oppression, and struggle. The collage at right agitates around un- and under-employment of African-Americans in capitalist America. Superimposed on a newspaper’s “Help Wanted” section, a man waits in line at a temp office, with the caption: They tell me there ain’t no jobs – what’s a person to do in order to survive?. Artistically, this is pretty cutting-edge, but I wonder how far from the literal we can stray? I love the European avant garde art movements of the early twentieth century: the challenge from cubists to see all the dimensions of a situation, surrealists’ attempts to question illusion and reality, the celebration (and exoticization, to be fair) of African artistic styles.
In the early Soviet Union, the constructivist movement sought to express revolutionary fervor through shapes and colors – the painting “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” (at left) for example, cheered on the Bolshevik effort to beat back the invading imperialist armies.
Anyway, enough attempted theorizing. The meat of this post is really a question… I was thinking of this contest between metaphorical (some might say confusing) illustration and literal (some might say boring) illustration, and decided to lean towards the metaphorical/confusing. Currently I’m in Solidarity’s national office in beautiful Detroit. To illustrate a draft document on socialist renewal, I decided to pop outside to the alley in back and capture some dialectical photographs. The idea is that these images depict and contrast the harsh, constraining reality we face with the possibility of growth and transformation. Comrades I’ve shared these photos with have reacted differently – some people like it, some don’t. For the time being, I’m using them (the document itself is still in draft form, anyway). But, what do other folks out there in internet-land think?
I’m not a photographer, so “this looks like that corny shit on motivational posters plastered in corporate cubicle offices” is perfectly OK!