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VIRULENCE: A STORY OF SUBVERSIVE CULTURE Print
Written by Howard McCalebb   

 

The permeability of cultures is a long-standing fascination. As cultural mobility acts in this sense, as the prime mover of conscience – through experience, it opens secret doors, orchestrates uncanny revelations, and lifts individuals out of obscurity and places them at the center of global life. It is for this reason that I am pleased to participate in this dialogue, which is occurring among thinkers from Eastern Europe (Post Communist), Africa (Post Colonial), and the Americas (Post Colonial USA/Ultra-Capitalist). This interesting mix of viewpoints should foster an enlightening discourse.

 

 

The standpoint I am operating from is one that is situated from the United States as an African-American heterosexual male. But given the "hyperrealism" and many of the other agendas and conceits that were spawned in the Critical Theory morass of the 1980s, everyone’s viewpoints are much more complex today that they were eons ago.

 

In my attempt to respond to the DAta Miners & Travailleurs Psychique inquiry, I must first fix in my mind what I think Redas Dirzys means by “Surrealism” (as a political platform)? My best assessment is found in the politics of Dada - the mother of all surrealists. Dada art, as a protest against World War One, and the huge investment of science and intellect for the purposes of war and killing, sought to respect the intellect by not reducing its power, but instead by reversing it use, thereby deploying its power towards non instrumental purposes.

 

A study of Surrealism with a necessary depth is needed for a proper discussion here. In my case, I do know that the original surrealists were literary people, but before this writing, my basic knowledge of Surrealism was the automatic writings (paintings) of Andre Masson, and the representational paintings of artists such as René Magritte or Salvador Dalí. What we seem to be dealing with in this case is a more potent brand of Surrealism – in terms of its links with politics through the advocacy of anarchism and socialism. In my Western (Post-colonial USA) education, mainstream writers and historians dismissed the serious politics of Surrealism and the more virulent strains such as Comte de Lautréamont’s, while emphasizing its fanciful aspects and imagery.

 

Andre Breton’s quote: "It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself." A black mirror conjures in the mind a fascinating image. But as a black man it is easy to get stuck on the use of the word “black”, as further reflection is needed to recognize that in Europe (in those days) when the word black is used to connote something sinister, illegal, or just simply bad, it didn’t originally refer to black people. But this whole notion of Surrealism that advocates for anarchism and revolution, in the context of the Western doctrine, has a great deal to do with black people – and the “Black Diaspora” especially.

 

I have always looked upon the phenomenon of Western Surrealism as being directly derived from African Ritual, which in the Western context presents an Apollonian verses Dionysian conflict, poised for anarchy and revolution – the kind we saw in the 1950s with the advent of Rock 'n' Roll music.

 

Rock 'n' Roll originated in the United States in the 1950s and has since spread to the rest of the world. White racists attacked and ridiculed Rock 'n' Roll, as “Jungle Music,” due to its African influences, and also because of the forbidden social mingling of black and white people it brought about. This mixing was seen as a taboo form of cultural miscegenation, as the audience and the musicians were often ethnically mixed. Despite these attacks, Rock n Roll prevailed as the defining musical style of America in the 1950s.

 

Early Rock 'n' Roll combined elements of Blues, Boogie-Woogie, Jazz, and Rhythm and Blues, intertwined with white Country and Western music. The words "rock" and "roll" were black slang for sexual intercourse, and was a raucous, exhilarating, and dangerous style of music for a multi-ethnic audience. This was the "Jungle Music" dismissed by the highbrow bourgeois critics, as it induced millions of youth across the land – into a spiritual rapture. To the young white ears this music was the opening wedge that made for a more receptive environment for the countercultures that would explode across the world in the mid-1960s.

 

Jungle Music events evolved into the 1960s Hard Rock concerts and Raves that mimicked a Western perception of African Ritual - a unified mind-body experience that causes endorphins induced hallucination and euphoria. Rock concerts with its throbbing brisk-paced amplified music, psychedelic light shows, and drug induced hallucination, created a madness of trance as people danced “in” the music. These spectacles conjured in conservative minds - the specter of Dionysian infidels run amok. There was this experience of anarchism moving towards revolution, exerting a constant pushing outward of the accepted moral boundaries of the times, as recreational drug use became popular – including the use of the hallucinogen LSD. Rock 'n' Roll music as a cultural phenomenon with all its feared consequences, created new possibilities within a society that needed new possibilities. Social and political institutions began to reform, due to a dehierarchizaton of culture that was propagated by this generation, to realize collectivity a general approach towards equality and freedom in society.

 

During World War Two, André Breton, who had trained in medicine and psychiatry, served in a neurological hospital where he employed Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The artistic style of Surrealism began as an official movement - shortly after the artists were influenced by Freud's ideas of the conscious and unconscious mind. This is the conjunction, at which point Western Surrealism can be observed as having a direct influence from African Ritual. As a French writer and poet, Breton thus lands himself in the quandary that condemns most French modernists as cultural imperialists, giving that they feasted heavily on their rummaging through the cultures of their colonial possessions – particularly those in Africa. While the Russian Constructivists and the German Bauhaus, in their Modernist delight, indulged themselves primarily in a euphoria stemming from the achievements of the Industrial Revolution. With the exception of some like the Impressionists, the French aesthetes instead indulged themselves in colonial pillage beginning with Paul Gauguin in Tahiti, and on to Africa, with nearly all of their Modernist art movements.

 

No black artist has been formally associated with Surrealism in the Western art historical canon. Breton’s friendship with the black Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, was an exception. The African-American artist Hughie Lee Smith became known for a style of painting that infused Social Realism into a kind of atmospherically charged Surrealism. Bill Hutson, another African-American artist, who lived for many years in Paris, did some amazing paintings that I describe as “Cerebral Romanticism.” These paintings are not logical but they are very cerebral. But here again, this art was not officially recognized as being about anything, especially Surrealism – which it was. Whomever one might want to recognize as black surrealists, one could also say that they would most likely support the idea of also codifying identity (ethnicity). Whether this satisfies the philosophical concept of “negritude” remains open for debate, while other revolutionary black artists evolving out of Social Realism, like Benny Andrews and Faith Ringgold, certainly argued for a more international proletarianist approach.

 

In the African-American community, we live in a social-political paradox, in that we are Separatists and Integrationists simultaneously. Historically, from the emancipation to the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans could be described as Integrationists. From the upheavals of the 1960s, and the Marxist inspired Black Power movement, American blacks could be described as Separatists. Thus, Integrationists vs. Separatists is now a defunct debate that took place during the late 1960s. It is true that blacks are pursuing separatism in regards to establishing social and cultural institutions that they will control and influence independently (self determination). It is also true the blacks in America do not see themselves as a completely independent economic entity. They see themselves rather as a sector of the larger global economy, into which they demand integration. In the areas of the arts and culture, it is also true that blacks are establishing ideologies within the institutions that they create, control, and evolve on their own terms, while at the same time insisting on a representation within the “recognized” history of the art and culture of the nation - and the world. This dichotomy persists! 

 

At this point though, I think it would be important to examine the motives of the Abstract-Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s conscious effort (like so many artists of “color”) to step beyond the “whiteness” of Eurocentric culture gained no recognition. While his connection to French Surrealism and the paintings of Andre Masson are unmistakable, and his Dada drips are both brilliant and amusing, what he is not known for is his sincere attempts at dehierarchizaton in the hybrid style of painting he proposed. As an American artist of European descent, what Pollock did was to substitute (African-American) Bebop/Jazz (improvisation) for French Surrealism. In other words, he substituted Charley Parker for Andre Masson. This was done while he placed and painted his canvases flat on the floor, to simulate the Asian tradition of Sand Painting that remained as a residue in the culture the Native-Americans – who had migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait land bridge 10,000 to 15,000 years before. 

 

The United States of America, with its cruel historical intertwining of genocide, slavery, and democracy, and the relentless celebration of the white man’s triumph, persists with an enduring fidelity to Eurocentric ideals. Little respect is shown for the values of Native Americans, or the perseverance of the first Africans shipped here in 1619. 400 years after Jamestown, the origin of America’s racial melting pot, and the start of the merging of three cultures – European, Native American (Asian) and African, America has finally arrived at the long awaited crossroads – at the very last moment.

 

I have called for an inquiry into the notion of an authentic international style of art that reflects our new globalized reality. But I myself cannot fathom what it could be, considering that Western art concepts and ultra capitalist art markets are dominating the so-called international art, and has caused a “pluralist stasis” to set in by refusing to snap out of its Eurocentric dream. Music, on the other hand, has had a viral affect on the world and has had decades of progress and advance in relation to the visual arts (with the exception of the industrialized conception and construction methods of Modernist and Post-Modernist architecture). Rock 'n' Roll music is truly a cross-cultural phenomenon that characterizes the artistic expression of a multi-ethnic society such as the United States. Yet even in this instance, within the creed of Western Dualism the Apollonian and Dionysian conflict created by this music, was a very bitter and drawn out fight.

 

The problem with the visual arts, as it struggles to represent itself as a cross- cultural phenomenon, is that those who control and associate the visual arts with elitist culture reject inclusion as a demon of miscegenation – and actively fight against it. Modernist Art is well known for its doctrine of Reductionism and Purity, and as regarding any notion of a poly-dynamic art form as the sign and curse of mongrelization.

 

In the critical treatise: “Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” the French authors Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari supposedly criticized Western society's innate herd instinct, and the individual’s unwillingness to be cut off from the (white) tribe. I read these texts as having the opposite intent – as a surreptitious hyperrealistic deceit, whereby the authors were actually advocating the strengthening of the herd instinct for self-preservation, as a bulwark against social and cultural mongrelization, and therefore economic and political impotency.

 

The American art critic Clement Greenberg first made his name writing for the journal Partisan Review, where his most well known essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" was first published – at a time when he was more involved with literature than with visual art. In this essay Greenberg asserts that true avant-garde art resists the degradation of culture by populist tastes. He espoused a Modernism that maintained a fidelity to the “best” of the past (Europe), which he believed was the nature of an orientation that would insure standards and levels of aesthetic quality, by emulating and living up to that past. For Greenberg, a multicultural America was not the ideal, and one does not have to be brilliant to know that when he speaks about the “past”, he is not thinking of Native-Americans or a Pre-Columbian America. This philosophy consisted of a continuing endeavor to protect a “white” bourgeois society threatened by middlebrow tastes and the democratization (mongrelization) of culture, and “other oppositions that hadn't been present in the past” – such as the aspirations of (uncultured) ethnic minorities.

 

Even among the intellectuals, most are unaware that the New York world of culture and art is the birthplace of the Neoconservative movement, and had been under its evolving grip for more than 60 years. The original Partisan Review was founded in 1934 as an outgrowth of the John Reed Club, the arts branch of the American Communist Party. But the magazine foundered when its principal editors rejected the Moscow-dominated party line in both politics and culture. In 1937 it was revived as a dissident Marxist journal, and became the leading intellectual magazine of the anti-Stalinist left - its politics were Trotskyist.

 

A revived Partisan Review pursued a radical attitude that would go beyond politics. It also achieved an influence on literature and the visual arts, with a cultural platform that disregarded the interests and values of the “uncultured“ masses. This burgeoning Neoconservative platform rejected the art of Social Realism after the signing of the HitlerStalin Pact of 1939, in favor of Abstract-Expressionism as an “individualist” free expression art form. In this same political frenzy, they also rejected Surrealist art out of a disdain for its most celebrated forms, which were representational. In that aspect, Surrealism was besmirched as a form of "kitsch" that pandered to middlebrow (proletarian) visual acuity.

 

Partisan Review’s conservative leanings began by publishing the writing of the literary critic Lionel Trilling, whose agenda was to elevate the case for “bourgeois values.” Trilling’s association with Partisan Review marked for the magazine the intellectual beginnings of Neoconservative thought. His criticism endorsed values that acerbated class distinctions in literature. And it was at this time that the magazine turned away from writers like James Joyce and Franz Kafka, while it and Trilling chose to champion novelists like Jane Austen.

 

The recent global financial scandals, and the plunder of common wealth by the Wall Street parasite class, have renewed the consciousness of class struggle. This systematic plundering of the global economy has left average people (proletarians) increasingly impoverished. In the United States, the middle class is being slowly dismantled piece by piece, as a continuing trend that is pushing more human beings into a perpetual struggle to survive. Those in the top 5 percentile of wealth are the only group that is growing their income. This increasing inequality gap, and the stark disparity between rich and poor, demonstrates that the current recession is actually widening the chasm between the working and upper classes.

 

Partisan Review, which was once the pre-eminent journal of culture and politics in the United States, folded after 68 years of publication.

 

 

In Memoriam: Partisan Review

By Norman Birnbaum

 

“Partisan Review, our most exciting and influential journal of culture and ideas in the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, the journal that began in 1934 by calling for revolution in society and the creative destruction of tradition in the arts ended as one more voice of neoconservatism in politics, as a conventional defender of "standards" in culture.”

Copyright © 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

 

 

Eurocentric domination has fixed limits in our current globalized society. A century ago, Europe was home to 25 percent of the world's population. Today, Europe holds about 12 percent of the world’s population. Today, Eurocentrism is nothing more than a conceit within nostalgia for preeminence, White Supremacy is a dead dream, and Neo-Nazism is a dangerous folly. The imperial ambitions of a Napoleon Bonaparte, and thankfully the ugly dream world of Adolf Hitler are impossible today. And, the world we currently live in is beyond the conceptual grasp of a Jane Austen notion of high society – as there are new voices and visions to be reckoned with. China for example has by program created a new class of international elites.

 

In Western societies, Multiculturalism may still be regarded as a kind of apocalypse. The residual effects of the global expansion (colonialism) of Western Europe up until the 20thCentury reverberate within the Post-modern practices, which now endangers cultural grounding. Foreign presences now challenge Western aesthetics from within, not by the earlier appropriations of European artists, but by the foreign practices of the “others” themselves. Arising from what might be recognized as an epoch of reckoning, “pluralist stasis” can be viewed as the latest resistance to inclusion in the further evolving Western societies’ own cultural histories.

 

In closing, I would say that homogeneous societies and cultures (of any elk) that lack internal conflict brought about by a diverse citizenry, are not in the best position to move this debate forward - from an internal experience. An intellectual participation might suffice, but the only way for these societies to participate in the evolving human catastrophes is to understand themselves as individual and collective members of a globalized society.

 

Howard McCalebb - June 2011, Berlin, Germany

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

Univ Of Minnesota Press (December 15, 1983)

 

Avant-Garde and Kitsch

by Clement Greenberg

Boston: Beacon Press, 1961)

 

In Memoriam: Partisan Review

By Norman Birnbaum

May 9, 2003

The Chronicle of Higher Education

 

The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals

By William Barrett

Anchor Press/Doubleday; 1st edition (1982)