Criticism and Militancy: A Conversation With Evelyn the Marxist Owl
In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.
–Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942), Selected Works, Vol. III, p. 86.
Evelyn: One of the best things about our partnership, I think, is that it has been pulling both of us toward a central meeting point. And that’s not a neutral space somewhere between politics, which is my focus, and culture, which is yours, but a point at which the two of them are really the same.
Alexius: Culture is, in the final analysis, political. You can’t ever make a full-blown distinction between the two, which is why cultural criticism, in my mind, needs to have a militant political component. Up to this point, the work on this blog has been largely geared toward just an eclectic appreciation of culture, whereas I would like to take it decisively in a more political direction. That’s not to say that I would be reporting on politics like the nightly news, but understanding that the work of cultural criticism is a class endeavor, a criticism not just of aesthetics but of political content.
Evelyn: Unfortunately, my talons prevent me from doing much original work on tumblr, and I think that original writing is difficult to come by on that site because the format is so geared toward just propagating images. But at the same time, that is also political work, and it compliments the longer and original pieces here, and some of the pieces you’ve written have come out of what I’ve been sharing, so it’s facilitated a virtuous cycle.
But, as for the blog, what kind of changes can people expect?
Alexius: The major change is that I’m going to be talking about the political dimensions, not just of artistic creations, but also of artists and the production of art. For example, I think one of the main things I’ve neglected on this site that I’ve wanted to do is advocacy for artists. And not just telling people not to pirate stuff or calling out corporations for monopolizing and ruining everything, I mean articulating genuine political changes that would be beneficial to art in North America.
For example, there is a pressing need for a guaranteed basic income. Everyone should be entitled to a minimum standard of living regardless of whether they can be employed or not, and that would free artists to do what they want without having to pander to donors or their audience or to big corporations, all of whom can have a detrimental influence on artistic quality. So one big change is that I want to talk more about both what kinds of economic and social changes would benefit artists. Another point I want to emphasize is that agitating for revolution and raising political consciousness are going to be a larger part of the blog. That doesn’t mean that fun and games are going to stop. I’m going to keep posting about anime and music and film and so on. But the focus is going to shift from purely analyzing and enjoying these works to getting at their politics and trying to sort out the good from the bad. It’s abandoning a postmodern perspective and adopting a revolutionary perspective. That means I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, but there is a thriving community of Left bloggers who are committed to this sort of thing, so I have precedents to look to.
Evelyn: My sense is that there should be a basic alliance between critics and artists rather than an antagonism. Critics should advocate for artists, make their criticism worth reading–works of art in themselves–as well as working with people in other ways, in more tangible ways, to organize and raise political consciousness and so on. And hopefully, with conscientious and dogged critics working, artists will begin to adopt a more revolutionary stance. Art isn’t the meat and potatoes of a revolution, that would be normal people and Communist parties. But art, like theory, is important. It should serve the people, not oppress them. Of course, it should also maintain a degree of independence, serving almost as criticism in its own right.
Alexius: I agree, mostly because we’re the same person. But the conceit is delightful.
Evelyn: I understand you also hope to become more involved in organizing and community politics at the college your editor attends.
Alexius: Unfortunately, students at Calvin College are incredibly apolitical. For a college with such a loft mission, it seems to, like much Marxist criticism, actually, have capitulated to a kind of despair. Everything is all about culture, about changing culture instead of affecting people’s material situation. The school is quite conservative, but it’s a complacent, quasi-progressive, almost shamefaced conservatism. So even the old Calvin College Conservatives group barely existed and now, as far as I know, doesn’t exist at all. I don’t think much can be done at a rich white private college that overspent and needs to impose some austerity, but I think the student body is a massive waste of potential, so I’d like to explore some possibilities there.
Evelyn: Thanks for this discussion. I’m looking forward to the changes around here. A more militant tiger is nothing to sneeze at.
Alexius: Thanks. You too.