Marxist Glue and the International Situation:
Pop Marxism for the 21st Century
“The American Dream Is Real Only To Those Who Are Sleeping…”
The group of artists known as the Marxist Glue[i] have achieved something that few people could have imagined even a couple of years ago. They're making Marxism mainstream by turning it into a democratic discourse, or rather, a discourse about the current state of democracy. In fact, as an art collective they may have effectively introduced culture at large to a new artistic genre - proletarian pop-aganda. Judging from their impact on the urban art scene and the massive success of their recent gallery shows, the Marxist Glue might one day be credited with reshaping counter-culture aesthetics at the opening of the twenty-first century by bringing together the unholy trinity of Marxism, street politics and pop iconoclasm. However, it's just as likely that we won't have to wait that long because the wide demographic of eighteen to thirty-somethings that follow their work attests to the fact that this transformation is already well underway.
After the Hippies of the sixties, the Punk movement of the seventies and the Goth kids of the eighties, the Glue has qualitatively upped the ante on dis-identification with mass culture by transforming counter-culture polemics into counter-culture-critique, ultimately putting forth the image of a people's Marxism. In our post-subculture era of hybrid identities and virtual personas what allows the Glue to attract such a diverse group of followers is the urge to let content determine form and the avoidance of settling into a codifiable house style or a predictable program. Despite owning a few of the same iconic stickers the followers of the MG don't look any particular way - they are the great band of the unbranded in a culture based on overconsumption and neo-narcissistic over-identification. As such, the acolytes of the Glue are not the disenfranchised and the disenchanted but those for whom a new chant against the economic enfranchisement of every last democratic institution must be voiced.
For the uninitiated, the work of the Marxist Glue might seem at first glance to be a rather banal affair. Every dismissive reading of their overture tends to reduce the plurality of subgroups, disparate styles and particular agendas that make up the MG to a loose network of reactionary polemicists that have co-opted the controversial moniker of Marxism to promote their own personal style of anti-capitalist imagery. However, a more sustained engagement with the MG reveals that something much more inexplicable and enigmatic is taking place around their aesthetic and their activities. While it's not hard to list all the reasons that the Marxist Glue isn't exactly what you think it is - that this seemingly rag-tag group of dissidents is in fact, very well organized; that they have a plan and a dedicated art practice that revolves around scrupulously selected themes and site specific interventions; that they have gotten far more flack than good press for aestheticizing anarcho-Marxism while being consistently reproached for a lack of declared party affiliation; and that they continue to thrive and even gain momentum in a paranoid proto-McCarthian era still doesn't provide a succinct summation their politico-aesthetic project - even though all of these elements play a very important role in public life of their work. In order to touch on the broader implications of the different projects undertaken by the Marxist Glue it is important to first position their activities in relation to the intersection of street art and fine art over the last few decades and to draw out the consequences thereof.
It is an unfortunate truth that the imagistic practices associated with populace pictorialism over the last few decades have largely consisted of faux interpretations of other art movements evidenced by the work of the pop-surrealists, the stuckists (the cult of neo-figuration), and the steampunk movement (neo-industrial era illustration with a sic-fi twist). We have reached a point where the Sherpard Fairey's of the world are disappearing, or at least becoming something less than a minority presence in the contemporary art scene. In fact, the last time that public murals and graphetti art had a decisive influence on the world of fine art was during the mid-eighties with what eventually became known as trans-avant-gardism - a trend that was epitomized in the U.S. by the work of Jean Michel-Basquiat (a.k.a Samo), Keith Haring and Frederick Brathwaite (Fab 5 Freddy) - among many many others. However, this fusion of high art and subway sensationalism had an extremely short shelf life. Panned by the critics as regressive and overly self-indulgent, and hated-on by artists as opportunistic drivel, Neo-Expression went down in the annals of art history as one of the most reviled movements of recent note.[ii]
In retrospect, we should all still have a few questions about what this reaction-formation might be hiding, especially since the fine art world only turned its gaze away from the populism of eighties street art to embrace the popular aesthetic of comic books as the defining motif of the new century.[iii] Often masquerading under the banner of pluralism, this new graphic aesthetic has garnered the lion’s share of attention in almost every sub-genre of fine art from feminism to identity politics to abstract art, so much so that it has ended up becoming something of an industrialized style as of late. Some would attribute this change over to a simple logic of succession but there remains a great deal of continuity between the co-option of commercial aesthetics (Pop art), street art (Neo-Expressionism) and the look of comic books (Tokyo pop), especially since the western(ized) world appears to be at a significant cultural crossroads trapped somewhere between the will-toward mass infantilization and radical advances in technological performa. The fetishistic disavowal of the fine art world toward trafficking in the products of the culture industry, i.e., of reappropriating their motifs, emptying out their meanings, and redeploying the artifice of their mimetic capacities really represents something like a "new autonomy" in the arts that extends from the late work of Phillip Guston to Raymond Pettibon to Takashi Murakami and beyond. In fact, this modus operandi (of mobilizing reductive renderings, bombastic colors and a superflat aesthetic) might just be what we meant by the term postmodernism all along - at least regarding the register of style. At its best, this kind of work served to challenge the violence of social abstraction associated with mass production. At its worst, it simply epitomized the trend it sought to oppose.
A slightly different reading of this same scenario might highlight the disturbing valorization of cartoonified subjectivity across a number of different entertainment genres including day-time T.V., reality shows, family oriented sitcoms, political punditry, ultra-violent video games, blockbuster movies, internet cult fame, celebutants, etc., etc., that now dominate mass culture - or really all "culture" for that matter. In the fine art world this problematic has been complicated by increasing academicism, (which is another kind of cartoonification of the general intellect), that has served to widened the gulf between the fullness of meaning that certain works are purported to embody and the less than satisfying experience of what they are subtracted from any textual accompaniment. Here we come up against a comedic-tragic impasse based on the reification of the formal attributes of cartoons - or of reification-as-cartoonification summed up in the experience of aesthetic depersonalization, (i.e., of the general reduction of phenomenological complexity; of the elimination of overtly political content; of the diminution of affective capacities and so on and so forth). In short, this new form of critical distance seems to consists of the institutionalized marginalization of projects that deal with the social whole - or of what was once known as the production of total works of art[iv] - a trend that says as much about what it means to be an artistic producer under hyperbolic capital as it does about what the future holds for everyone who adopts western models of creativity and production.
If we look at the dialectic between counter-culture aesthetics and fine art practices in the second half of the twentieth century we can identify three major paradigmatic schisms since the birth of postmodernism. These would consist of: (1) the influence of psychedelic art in the 60s on Op-art, (2) the aforementioned influence of graffiti art in the Soho scene of the eighties art world and now, (3) the transformation of motifs from politically engaged illustration practices into Pop Marxism vis-a-via the Marxist Glue and other “alternative” art practices. Looking back, these first two movements in the fine art world can also be seen as alternative forms of illustration if one looks at them as the illustration of a certain set of ideas where Op-art offers us a demonstrative thesis about the affective capacities of color subtracted from the vibratory potential of counter-culture activism -- and Neo-Expressionism presents us with an extended exposition on the power of high art to reterritorialize the eruptive creativity of counter-statist graffiti practices. In both of these instances, the white cube of the gallery seems to profit from a white washing effect whereby psychedelia is magically transformed into Op-art and then, through another slight of hand, just as quickly condemned for being too experiential - while tagging and graphetti art was made over into "Neo-expression" only to be taken to task for being a movement based on branding potential and name recognition (two of the core postulates of its street value outside of demarcating social territories!?!).
What is often missed in this intellectualized shell game is that once the political potential of an object is ejected in favor of its mutability within the exhibition circuit - an act that is often accompanied by the reapportioning of formal qualities toward a certain type of connoisseurship - is that the object under discussion becomes not once but twice removed from its social and material context, (and by proxy, from its political and affective potentialities). And because this circular logic relies on a process of social abstraction that is everywhere co-extensive with the machinations of capital, the co-opted object in question is always already destined to fail in some key regard which then prompts an even faster succession of expropriative mechanisms in the form of new movements, new hybrid forms, new icons, new critics and so on and so forth - making the social body of artistic production into an exhausted, decrepit and unfeeling organism without any real means of resistance (realpolitik). Sadly, this seems to be the unfortunate fate of the most socially promiscuous movements in the arts today.
Yet, because we live in a cultural moment where co-option is immanent and the idea of a utopian outside has vanished, it remains to be seen what the fine art world can do with today’s Street Marxism, if anything. In a culture of intensive subsumption by capital we may have to accept the radical thesis that resistance today might finally prove to be resistance to the aesthetic machinations of high culture as much as the politics of fear. In light of this new situation, the critique offered up by Marxist Glue doesn't come from outside culture - it is not a position of radical alterity; of being 'outside' the system; of being extra-culturally aware - but of being intra-cultural operators. In fact, by avoiding the cyclical trends of the fine art world (of biennualism as a state of artistic meta-stasis), the Glue has been able to enlarge the arena of what can be done with aesthetic-politico interventions. By developing a layered and polyvalent program that challenges the representative regime of democratic politics the MG has succeeded in illuminating the ways in which capital has invested every last governmental and/or representative body through and through.[v] If people mistake the adoption of the term Marxism by the MG for a radically anti-statist position[vi] then it is simply because they have not yet understood the degree to which the nation-state is now permeated by other interests - and particularly by those powers that are most interested in accumulating more and more interest!
The numerous artists that make up the Marxist Glue help us to realize that it is exactly at this point in history - during the period of intensive subsumption by capital of politics, education, spirituality, mental health, and so on and so forth - that the profit motive is now everywhere diametrically opposed to the democratic functioning of the body politic - which has ceased to be either democratic or representative under the viral effects of hyperbolic capital. Democracy today is increasingly a mouthpiece for extra-political concerns; for corporatist and post-national concerns; or for that which is simply supra-political or more than political. This simple realization is what calls for an enlarged means of critique beyond the regular Francophile retort of art-as-theory -- and especially for new forms of criticism and art production that are radically de-institutionalized. As such, the type of post-avant-garde practice put forth by the MG is easier to contextualize alongside the political cartoons of Goya, Rowlandson, Gillray, and Daumier or the various trajectories of politically informed collage and graphic design work. Consequently, the duplicitous aesthetic of the MG courts a much more dynamic synthesis of influences and allusions than what might appear relevant to the current gate keepers of the fine art world because their work tends to fall outside the contemporary narrative of adjudicated politico-aesthetic-importance. This peculiar populace-elitist disjunction appears all the more ironic for having come to pass in the supposed age of high "pluralism".
But why is this return to political cartooning, public murals, pop-agandistic printmaking and committed painting of any special note today? And why does it merit being qualified as a distinctive counter-movement to the academicism of "high" cartooning in the fine art world or even the low cartooning of magazines like the New Yorker and MAD for that matter. Taking for granted that the rise of the Glue and their imitators marks the third moment in the last half century that the art world has turned to urban culture to appear "engaged" we can also say that the true radicality of the MG stands on one undeniable fact - that they have confronted one of the central problems of Marxism itself, namely, how to make an arcane system of thought into a message that can be received and interpreted by the masses. This particular conundrum has been the central source of conflict in Marxist scholarship for well over century, starting with the split between Lenin and Bernstein after Marx's death and continuing right up to today in the work of radical leftists like Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek.[vii] It is a problem that Marx first assigned to an elite class of organizers he called the communists who were to “bring together the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality”[viii] and it is here that the Marxist Glue really provides us with a unique solution and one which traditional Marxism would abhor - the final reification of the idiom if Marxism itself; the co-option of critique as a new form of critique; the development of an insurrectionary politics of pop-aganda against propaganda - in short, the valorization of practices of Pop-Marxism based on the excluded middle rather than high art (academicism) and politics from on high (state-judicio-marxism) -- or the poverty aesthetics of the lumpen-proletariat (reactionary dissenters).
While the far left today would consider this to be the site of absolute false consciousness, MG makes us reconsider the entire history of Marxist inspired praxis from Constructivism to Institutional Critique to Relational Aesthetics in the hope of searching out fruitful alternatives whenever and wherever they may appear. If we follow the development of Marxist critique from the Soviet Union (Lenin-Stalinism) to the ‘westernized’ Marxism of Germany (Frankfurt School), France (Situationism) and Italy (Workerism), to the aesthetes of university Marxism (sometimes called disco or discourse Marxism) that have taken up tenure along the eastern seaboard of the U.S., we see two general trends emerging. One toward progressivist, or rather so-called “progressivist” de-politicization, based on overcoming the weighty history of Marxism as it has come to be associated with state socialism - and second, the total rethinking of its practicality as a theory for addressing the ills of capitalism. The Marxist Glue simply represents the furthest extension of these two trajectories inasmuch as the Glue is focused on healing the social fabric through immediate forms of political participation, resistance-in-representation and a common ethic of giving-in-exchange and community building that accompanies their exhibition practices.
With the advent of Marxist Glue we have not only a prime example of Pop Marxism but also a new disposition toward art and politics based on Commonism - or a new concern for the common future of democratic-egalitarian societies. In this regard the Glue has invented something like a Street Marxism grounded in our common interests rather than the failed experiment of eastern block communism (communal life, planned economies, etc., etc.) Perhaps more than any other collective body of art practioners working today it is the members of the Marxist Glue who most clearly recognize the impasse that the U.S. and many other 'developed' nations face - that the end of civil society is synonymous with the perversion of democratic representation by the forces of Big Capital and that over the course of the last fifty years we have witnessed an unanticipated resurgence of consolidation in almost every field of industry[ix] - and with it, the concentration of political power into the hands of the few rather than the many. If one adds to this the impending ecological disaster, increasing competition for dwindling resources and the naturalization of the war time economy as the substratum of all other profiteering, then we have a recipe for disaster that will soon send us all into the streets right behind the MG. In this regard, the aesthetico-politico import of their work is of paramount importance for us today. If more of us were willing to engage in radical forms of consciousness raising that mirror the activities of the Glue then we might just be able to heal the wounds inflicted on our culture by mass deregulation and the conscription of our vital resources to strictly corporate interests. Marxist Glue is not just negation, pessimism and despair. It is an outcry to begin healing our common social world, to strip away the human rights given to corporate-capital by the Supreme Court during this last cycle of closed sessions[x] and to return to the dignity of democratic life without undue interference from the hegemonic powers of capitalist expropriation. Everywhere around us, this work remains to be done. In the years ahead we will all be grateful that Marxist Glue began the work without us.
[i] The Marxist Glue includes: ABCNT, Robbie Conal, Cryptik, Eddie, Mark of the Beast, Mear One, Nomade, The Phantom, Political Gridlock, Restitution Press, Sharktoof, Skullphone, Yo!Peace, and Zoltron.
[ii] See Buchloh, Benjamin. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting.” October 16 (Spring 1981): 39–68. And Foster, Hal, “The Expressive Fallacy,” Art in America 71 (January 1983): 80-83, 137.
[iii] See Marcoci, Roxana. Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making (New York, MOMA, 2007) and Nakas, Kassandra. Funny Cuts: Cartoons and Contemporary Art (New York: D.A.P, 2004), and Cassel, Valerie. Splat, Boom, Pow!: The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art (New York: D.A.P, 2003), and Brehm, Margrit. The Inevitable Japanese Experience (Germany, Hatje Cantz, 2001).
[iv] Here I am referring to the exclusion of unified pictorial experience as one of the presuppositions of the postmodern age. In this regard the Marxist Glue still takes a certain amount of inspiration from the programs of Lessing, Novalis and Wagner concerning immersion, the multiplication of motifs and mediums as well as totalizing social narratives.
[v] Following the loss of Citizens United vs. Rederal Election Commission campaign donations rocked to a staggering 7,974, 859 per seat on average with 15 incumbents spending more than 15 million each and 9 out of 10 senate seats going to the candidate who spent more money.
[vi] In this instance we are really talking about a anarcho-Bakhtin inspired Marxism.
[vii] Here the Badiou-Zizek, Hardt-Negri divide of today very much resembles the Lenin-Bernstein conflict over the conditions of revolutionary versus evolutionary communism. In this instance Pop Marxism can be said to represent something of a third way.
[viii] Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto (New York: Verso, 1998) 51.
[ix] Here I am referring to the fall from over 50 major media companies in the 70s to the big five today: Time-Warner, Disney, News Corp., Bertelsmann and Viacom; the comsolidation of more than half of the Banking industry into the new big five: BofA, J.P. Morgan Chase & Company, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Company and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.; and finally the massive re-engineering of foodstuffs around the production of corn as well as the massive expansion of nested and networked hegemonies across the socio-political spectrum. See Bagdikian, Ben H., The New Media Monopoly: A completely revised and updated edition with seven new chapters (Boston: Beacon Press books, 2004) and Pollen, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin books, 2006).
[x] See Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010) and Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life (New York: Radom House/Knopf, 2007).