Contradiction and Possibility


by Adam Rothbarth


A friend who is traveling in California called me the other day. She had met Quentin Tarantino at a famous record store and he was buying a Kendrick Lamar CD. It seemed like a perfect match to me: two artists whose styles are viewed as progressive and “in touch,” but who are wholly enslaved by the forms they take up, never transcending them or imbuing them with new relevance or meaning. These artists maintain an aesthetics of the past, an almost scientific synthesis of prior and contemporary moments from the culture industry pantheon. But as the presidential election has shown, new contradictions have been revealed. The axiom of political art has been turned on its head: it is not political art that can teach us how to be political, but, rather, politics that can teach us how to be aesthetic. The Clinton supporters driven by Lamar’s ominous “We’re going to be alright!”—a culture industry fiction commonly accepted by liberals as legitimate political theory—have experienced a caesura, not in art, but in the logical relationship between art and their lives; the social media climate of confusion and despair on Wednesday all but confirms this. This political event thrust into focus the contradiction of the subject that posts song lyrics saying that we're going to be alright alongside a status update that says that we are not alright, never the wiser to examine the exchange between the two.

The veil has been lifted on the sensually expressed neoliberal ideals of being alright. Those illusions are now replaced by an actual reality that Marxists can acknowledge not as alright, but as new, volatile, and having potential for actual change. As the French Revolution served as the condition for the possibility of Beethoven’s explosive subjectivity and, subsequently, the near century of sublimation that followed, this election might serve as a condition for an art world worth thinking about again, and, hopefully, a re-emergence of an aesthetic theory that can see through the opportunism and regression of popular and political art.

Art criticism is and always has been a matter of interpretation. The art critic has a methodology that she derives based on her philosophy of the present (which is, by proxy, her philosophy of history), applying it to artworks she seeks to critique. She then views those objects dialectically, from within, meaning that she examines their internal phenomena, understanding how the form and its contents comport with themselves, where the fissures emerge. She comes to understand what is new about it, what is critical about it, what it points towards. The potential overcoming of the neoliberal ideology and a return to a bourgeois labor-based ideology could, in theory, lead to a significant change in how we represent social life to ourselves, and, more importantly, how we understand those representations. But will the spirit of art criticism move alongside this changing art? The political art upswing of the past decade, brought on by the rise of identity politics, has surely warranted an art criticism that can look through it as one would a glass of water, keeping both the glass, the water, and the beyond—in this case the economic base—in the same frame. Yet the water has become increasingly murky; art criticism loses footing—the sand it anchors itself on is always shifting.

It is a form of economism to simply assume that since the base is changing that art will change, and, therefore, our interpretation of it will change. The base has been consistently reproducing itself for years, yet criticism moves further and further from the Frankfurt School, whose critical theorists haunt our work to this day. As the French Revolution continues to task us politically, our critical forerunners continue to task us aesthetically. Art will certainly change if the base changes, but understanding those subtle changes will require more than most art criticism currently has to offer. We should not seek to change art, but, rather, we need to transform the way we think about it. We don't need a new "Alright," nor do we need a new Joyce, Schoenberg, or Pollock. We are tasked with understanding the meaning of these phenomena as they continue to pile up at our feet. Only when society truly understands their meaning as a totality will we be freed from the burden of thinking about them. 

In a sense the earlier comment about political art and aesthetics is paradoxical. Political art, only through immanent critique, can be meaningful for politics, in that recognizing its failure can imbue us with a higher consciousness of our alienation. But this consciousness must materialize politically, foremost. A new form of politics, seemingly, is necessary to jumpstart the convalescent body of art criticism. Better art, without a worthy art criticism to understand it, will be as impotent as the art we currently have and largely fail to understand.

I do not believe that the election of Trump is going to be a forceful storm that blows us beyond post-modernism. The culture industry is here to stay. Perhaps people can begin to think about it differently, but the fact of the matter is that without Marxism, there can be no legitimately dialectical aesthetic theory today.