The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: June, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

only_lovers_left_alive_ver3_xlgVampires always mix together aspects of wish-fulfillment and dread, the glamour of eternal youth and immortality eternally wedded to an insatiable thirst for human blood. Only Lovers Left Alive tailors its fantasy to indie aesthetes while contextualizing it as just one intersection of melancholic romanticism and vampirism. Tom Hiddleston’s Adam is a wealthy, indulgent, entitled musician who lives as a shut in in the wastelands of de-urbanized Detroit. Emotionally immature and prone to apocalyptic moping despite his immense age, he spends his days fiddling with massive wired contraptions and recording music on antiquated equipment. Tilda Swinton’s Eve, meanwhile, can read a page per second in seemingly any language and lives an idyllic and idle existence in Tangier, Morocco. The two of them are longtime lovers and spouses, and shortly into the film they cannot bear the distance between them any longer. Eve takes a night flight to Detroit and the two reunite, feeding on a steady diet of contraband O negative appropriated from a local hospital. Eventually, complications arise in the plot due to the entrance of Mia Wasikovska’s Ava, by far the most impulsive of the three, who cannot adapt to the hermetic existence forced on her kind in the 21st century. In the final moments of the film, the two are left starving in Tangier, having been forced to flee because of a murder Ava commits. To put the core narrative in a nutshell, it’s a story of terminal, immortal nostalgics who exist as parasites in more way than one, bind closer together in a hostile world, and are forced back to their primal existence by hardship. Where I want to take this piece has more to do with the way the story of Adam and Eve mirrors the story of the city of Detroit and how Jarmusch’s end-of-the-world anxiety ties into all of this.

Detroit as seen through Jarmusch’s lens is a testament to human failure, as well as a liminal space where civilization’s erosion has left a world returning to the wild. Home to castoffs and wild [human and nonhuman] animals––as well as at least one apparently hip underground music club––the film depicts the city only at night, rendering its melancholic decay all the more poignant. Of course, this poignance is bought at the cost of erasing the very real humans who continue to live in Detroit, more than four fifths of whom are black. Similarly to the comic Pride of Baghdad, Only Lovers Left Alive takes a setting as a mostly symbolic backdrop, a fountain of emotional resonance that the artist can use to generate a stronger response. So be it, we might say. However, my objection is that the idea of Detroit as unclaimed territory, a den for misanthropes and bohemians to “fix up” is part and parcel with the myth of gentrification. Perhaps vampire aristocrats are not, in fact, going to recolonize Detroit in the name of experimental drone rock. At the same time, Jarmusch mostly sees Detroit as a museum, and Tangier as mere backdrop. His fetishism of aristocrats goes further than this, however, extending to his inclusion of a vampiric Christopher Marlowe, whom he uses as a moutpiece for his anti-Stratfordian views.

On the one hand, we can appreciate Only Lovers Left Alive as the story of capital––another vampire, altogether more insidious––and its ability to suck the life out of the planet and from people. The forms of elitist alienation we are mostly treated to here are not the most helpful, but it does have a keen grasp of how need and impulse drive people to do things against their more “civilized” instincts. In that way it is, despite its somewhat aloof nature and its fantasy/apocalyptic depiction of Detroit, more perceptive than your average film. I appreciated the way that it updated the vampiric myth and showed how such supernatural beings could fall out of step with the world, degenerating despite their immortality.My objections to the film’s politics and Jarmusch’s conspiracy-mongering aside, Only Lovers Left Alive is a beautiful date movie, so if all else fails, the film still has that to rely on.



Neneh Cherry: Blank Project


Conventional reviews have been few and far between on this blog for awhile, and that has been intentional. Nonetheless, I still have a keen interest in doing some more work with music on occasion, so expect a stronger flow of them throughout the coming week as I work through some previously written material I didn’t want to publish at first.

For its first three and a half minutes, Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project is about as minimal as you can get. A spare drum beat and Cherry’s svelte voice make a lonely pair, leaving the listener plenty of space to contemplate her verses. These words, like many of the lyrics on the album, express both resignation and a will to endure. Though the music of later tracks blooms into much richer and more active life, you don’t find any manifestos or calls to arms on this album. Instead, Blank Project is a plea for enough space and time to cool off and ponder life’s more unpleasant moments.

For example, one of the more memorable motifs on the album is the bed. On more than a few occasions, the bed is associated with escape and rest. On the penultimate song, “Dossier,” she tells a story of an awkward chap who finds the courage to give his phone number to a woman he fancies. In concluding their story, she sings, “Now they meet every night beside their beds, and clean their teeth before they climb into their heads.” Cherry reportedly wrote the songs for this album in her bedroom, adding some biographical poignancy to the already fertile idea of the bed as a space for dreaming whether awake or asleep.

Of course, Cherry’s is not the only creative mind involved in the project. While the first track, “Across the Water,” features minimal production, the rest of the album bears the distinct mark of collaborators RocketNumberNine and producer Four Tet. Both of these acts have long been part of the British underground. RocketNumberNine’s improvisatory soundscapes, which meld house beats with jazz-inflected drums and droning synths, are best exemplified by “Weightless.” This song, built around a scathing guitar riff and rapid-fire drum beats, finds Cherry contemplating anxiety and feelings of awkwardness. “I keep on dancing but I don’t fit the right shoes” she sings, “and I’m weightless.” While her voice can be too airy on the more barren tracks, here the richness of her singing perfectly contrasts with the jagged instrumental background. No matter how chaotic the situation gets, her singing maintains its poise and remove, reinforcing the album’s observational tone.

“Weightless” proceeds right into “Cynical,” another one of The Blank Project’s stronger compositions. Dominated by a brooding bass groove, the song’s main refrain–“Don’t think I’m so cynical now/I’ve found my ground”–echoes plaintively over the song’s percussive jitters. Four Tet shows his expertise here, keeping each of the song’s many elements distinct while letting them play off of each other. For instance, Cherry’s vocals echo into the distance, starting as intense statements before merging into the rhythms of the song. Though the song repeats itself once too often, it smoothly compensates for it with its danceable hook and a synth-washed breakdown. When Cherry and her collaborators clear the drums away and let the ambience take control, “Cynical” announces its triumph over cynicism more clearly than it could express in words.

When her career began in the 1990s, Neneh Cherry made her name working in the British underground. Though trip hop has faded from prominence and a thousand fads and trends have either disappeared or gone mainstream, Blank Project proves that the darker side of London still has a powerful voice to share with the pop music world. In “Out of the Black,” Swedish pop star Robyn sings a duet with Cherry, bringing the two Swedish pop stars and their hip British comrades into a place both in touch with the past and looking toward the future. After eighteen eventful years, Neneh Cherry is “back,” and though her music and message are more subdued, they resonate just as strongly as before.

Bioshock Infinite’s Bleeding-Heart Liberalism


Every form of production, artistic or otherwise, is a struggle with the material, dealing with its internal contradictions and applying force to resolve them in a satisfactory way. It’s often more delicate than that blunt description might suggest, but perhaps that’s only an appearance, the result of a successful war against human and material limitations. Bioshock Infinite, however, leaves contradictions to fester and eat away at its integrity. This is even more curious because the fatal problem––namely, the dissonance between narrative and interactive mechanics––is extremely common in games. What’s more, the problem is not that the game and the story are about different things. Both tackle issues of violence, greed, human misery, capitalist exploitation, etc. Unfortunately, the two sides go about exploring those things in irreconcilable ways. To properly explore this game, we’ll need to briefly look at the game’s press reception, a couple of more critical looks at the game, and finally try to come to the root of why the conversation has worked itself out in the way it has.

First, I’m taking a representative review from the mainstream gaming press. Edge Online awarded the game a 9 out of 10 and lavishes praise on the game throughout. The review opens with this positive appraisal:

“BioShock Infinite is a lavish, spectacular game…where themes such as the nature of choice, metaphysics and the effects of political isolationism jostle for your attention alongside electrifying giant robots with your genetically altered left hand and then shooting them in the face. That Infinite can handle the collision between its philosophical concerns and its dead-end thrills without seeming hopelessly crass or overly portentous testifies to its often touching script, excellent pacing and the kind of unparalleled world building that shows you all of this coexisting cohesively in a golden city in the sky.”

[emphasis mine]

What’s curious about this passage is that, in its headlong rush to praise, it ends up stumbling right into the game’s core problem. Edge notices the “collision”––if it didn’t, its author’s powers of observation would be much in doubt––but argues that the game is able to synthesize its disparate elements. After enticing the reader with such a promising overture, the author is obliged to provide details. One catches the eye:

“…Columbia is alive, its civilian populace a constant presence throughout the game as the city teeters on the brink of war. As well as providing chances for the shooting to cease, these moments let you interact with Columbia’s people…”

We’ll be seeing another author make the exact opposite claim later. For now, let’s briefly discuss the accuracy of this detail. Most of your non-violent interactions with the Columbian populace come either at a carnival at the beginning of the game or in brief moments later on. Unlike in Dishonored, a game I’ve covered extensively here, you can’t speak to townspeople. All of your chats with the populace here are scripted, sometimes with a binary choice presented, none of which end up mattering much. For the vast majority of the game, Columbia is a shooting gallery. In rather egalitarian fashion, nearly all of them exist to become corpses and replenish your money and ammunition. Moving on.


When we click through to the second page of the review, we see this curious paragraph, which is worth reading in its entirety:

That said, there are times when all these incidental character details can bump up against Irrational’s more overt attempts to make a useful AI companion. At unpredictable moments, she’ll toss coins she’s scavenged at DeWitt, her canned call for your attention puncturing the quietness of a scene. Her role as the pair’s lockbreaker, meanwhile, can sometimes pick at the illusion of her autonomy, since she instantaneously and cheerfully responds to DeWitt’s beck and call. This responsiveness makes far more sense on the battlefield, where she can pull aid (cover, mechanised allies or guns) through tears at the press of a button, and where the urgency of her unpredictably tossing potions, health and ammo your way never strikes a discordant tone.

Only two paragraphs after the started to justify the big black “9” at the end of the text, they start to wander. Elizabeth’s agency as a character is eroded. Her scripted moments and quiet moments alone clash with her strange omnipotence over locks. In other words, she acts one way in the (scripted) narrative and another in the story the game tells moment to moment through player action. In the former she’s an active presence, a moral compass, and something of a terrifying power in her own right. In the latter she is a tool, sweeping corridors for loose change and ammunition to feed the protagonists’ prodigious appetites. The review has one more unreservedly positive paragraph before focusing once more on problems, noting that enemies are too “damage absorbent,” that the story “unravels” near the end, abandoning its setting for its own flights of sci-fi fancy. After a canned “but the game is ambitious and beautiful and so all is forgiven” conclusion, the review ends on that puzzling little number. Another contradiction for a game that seems to generate them.

Leigh Alexander gave the game a thorough critique over at Kotaku, making essentially the same point I am with a different method. Additionally, she comes to a strikingly different conclusion than I have. She writes:

“This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.”

Though I would argue that Alexander’s piece is also far too clever for its own good, it identifies the contradiction that tears Bioshock Infinite to pieces. Though she errs in her explanation by largely refusing to make one––only passingly noting that it might have resulted from a stressful and protracted production period––she can see clear as day that the game’s drudgery and lightweight treatment of violence pillages whatever gravitas its script might have had. While it doesn’t merit a lengthy treatment here, the Foldable Human has also discussed Infinite as an example of games that treat violence as part of their narratives rather than just vomiting it in front of the player uncritically. It almost solely deals with the scripted narrative, and in particular with the narrow story of the protagonist himself, so it is, strictly speaking, accurate. On the other hand, the defining feature of infinite as we have seen and as others have noted, is its inability to digest all the blood it’s spewing up, its failure to actually understand and incorporate violence into a coherent story. As we’ve said, there is a script and a game and rarely do the twain ever meet.

What is needed is a new, thoroughly materialist, critique of the game. This will be necessarily short, more of a collection of notes toward a broader investigation into games as a medium and how they reproduce capitalist, in particular liberal, ideology. With that in mind, let’s take what we’ve gathered so far and carry it a few steps further.


Magic pants and cakes in safety deposit boxes are only two of the surreal absurdities in the game.

Bioshock Infinite’s dissonant approach to violence not only compromises its scripted statements on “violence” in the abstract but also hopelessly confuses its stance on concrete oppressions and capitalist exploitation. Its horrific failure to deal with the issue of race largely stems from its narrow-minded vision and its insistence on some fanciful idea of “balance” that minimizes the destructive effects of oppression and vilifies the just violence of the oppressed. In the game, the revolutionary Vox Populi, led by charismatic black leader Daisy Fitzroy, begin to overthrow the racist, capitalist nightmare of Columbia but are immediately vilified for using violent means to do so. Liberalism fundamentally mistakes reactionary and revolutionary violence as equal in weight. After all, in a nation of free individuals, to kill is to violate the rights of another in the cruelest way. Yet the liberal notion of “freedom” is only so much mist. It vaporizes the moment you expose it to the sunlight. I suspect that people only noticed the egregious condemnation of revolutionary violence in this game because it is hamfisted and handled so quickly that it quickly ceases to matter. Labour strikes, revolutions, pogroms, public humiliations, back room police torture––it all solves to the same thing in Bioshock Infinite. 

By the time the game ends, the game no longer cares about Columbia or its people. It cares about Booker, the protagonist. It cares about Elizabeth in all of her many alternate forms. It cares about maybe one or two other characters. But, as the wise reviewer at Edge noted, it no longer cares about its own setting. Even the script, so lauded for its high aspirations even among skeptical critics, loses all of its weight the moment you start slaughtering black and Irish revolutionaries like so much cannon fodder. Supernatural events begin piling on top of each other; ghosts appear with little warning; the ending folds in on itself so many times we forget that its plot is actively erasing the lives of all those slum-dwellers and wage slaves the game spent so much time lovingly showing us. Loosed from its social bearings, the game reduces its setting to window dressing. And by removing its protagonists from meaningful history and shoving them into a sci-fi house of mirrors, it turns them into ideas or things. Everything is the same as everything else. Nothing matters. It’s solipsistic and weirdly mindless and deeply, deeply liberal. Humanism of this kind, that fetishizes the individual “journey” and makes the player’s avatar, an objectively horrific human being, a sainted martyr by the end fo the game, spits in the eyes of anyone working for progress in the world. Its contradictions finally drown the game, its political and moral incoherence far too dense for the game to keep afloat.

This character barely shows up in the story before she is completely vilified. The propaganda was right, I suppose!

This character barely shows up in the story before she is completely vilified. The propaganda was right, I suppose!

Considering the commercial compromises that probably introduced many of these toxic tensions into the production process––after all, the game needed to justify its enormous budget––it’s only too appropriate to cite Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism. The game offers the player only the redemption “defined and limited by what capitalism requires and allows” (Amin 14). It is a document struggling to be radical but finding itself incapable of doing so because its message––even that “higher” script––serves the ruling class alone. What’s painful is that Bioshock Infinite is actually quotidian, even minor. It is what capitalism looks like, depicted in all its cynical glory. A formerly critical modernity curdled into mysticism, liberation for the bourgeoisie crushing the vast majority of humanity. What sets it apart is its conspicuous messiness, the openness with which it shows its wounds. But this is a game. With all its blood and guts shed without much comment, it cannot hope to compare to imperialist capitalism in the flesh. That’s no comforting note to end on, but by identifying such contradictions in media, we can hopefully find them in our real world and struggle to overcome them. I will let Frantz Fanon have the last word:

We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.

The Wretched of the Earth: Conclusion

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Dracula Poster-3 color

There’s an argument to be had over whether horror stories like Dracula are retold so often because they are enduring or if they’re enduring because they’re retold so often. Doubtless the answer is a combination of the two acting in a continual spiral of new interpretations and updates, taking the story into new places and inspiring creative minds to keep the cycle going. Which is not to say that the spiral can’t die off or slow down, but that it tends to be self-perpetuating. One of the stranger kinks in the Dracula cycle is Guy Maddin’s filmed silent ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, a film that feels contemporary despite its (in film terms) ancient aesthetics. Like all of Maddin’s film’s this vampire story takes the core of an old story and unfolds its subtext onto the screen, heightening the narrative’s obsessions with death, sexuality, and xenophobia in ways that can be both highly abstract and frighteningly concrete.

On the abstract side, this production is a ballet filmed on a stage, though the camera almost always feels immersed enough in the expressionistic sets that it’s hardly noticeable. Actions are suggested in sweeping motions, conveying an almost pure emotion. One critical scene in a graveyard, the first time we see Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) and the undead Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) dancing under the moonlight. Like the rest of the film, it has the air of an erotic dream; there’s no actual sex but the arousal and sensuality are unmistakable. Each actor/dancer weaves their characterizations into their movements, making sure that no moment is wasted.

Zhang Wei-Qiang’s Dracula is graceful and menacing, and feels far more sympathetic than our ostensible protagonist Van Helsing. Much of the reason for this is that our vampire villain is in many ways the victim of British Empire racism. Maddin begins the film with a nightmare about a plague of immigrants polluting grand old England, represented as a dark glob of liquid that menaces Lucy in her sleep. Near the end of the film, in Dracula’s castle, one of Lucy’s suitors exclaims that the fiend has stolen money from the crown. By casting a Chinese actor in the role rather than a Romanian, he highlights the fundamentally Orientalist character of the Dracula story. I’ve previously cited Edward Said’s notion that, in Orientalist discourse, the East is saddled with everything the West is supposedly not. In this case, the vampire’s aristocratic decadence––he has a harem, overt, fluid, flamboyant sexuality, etc.––comes to represent the exotic, everything that repels the bourgeois gentlemen who want to keep their women, their money, and their country away from this foreigner.

Because of its critical eye, the story ends up being quite rich and intriguing despite its brevity and surface familiarity. Another of its pleasures is the most obvious: the visual style. Cribbing from Soviet montage, German Expressionism, and American silent film in equal amounts Maddin and his collaborators have created a striking body of images here. Suffused in grain and surreal color tints, the film has an electrical appeal to the eye that’s all of a piece with Maddin’s other work. Though it could be dismissed as just an imitative effort, the style combines with the oppositional narrative to transcend mere imitation. It pushes its interrogation of Orientalism and xenophobia about as far as the material will allow and even further thanks to some of Maddin’s original touches (Dracula bleeds coins, for instance), and the beauty of the dancing and cinematography complements the hyperbolic story of Victorian paranoia. It’s probably the only Guy Maddin film I could recommend to anyone.

Christian Kitsch #8: Man Church


When the formative years of your youth were spent in the Indian rain forests, where survival actually depends on physical prowess and skills, you tend to reflexively laugh at the comical posturing human males take on to protect their fragile egos. One of the most pathetic examples of this is the “Man Church” phenomenon. Man Church. Fearing the creeping “feminization” of church, men have now developed services designed only for the people of the penis. And given what we have discovered about evangelicals’ aesthetic ineptitude through this series, the laughable kitschiness of the imagery and ad copy for these manly seminars comes as no surprise.


Our paradigmatic Male Man, everyone. Clenched teeth, adorably wrinkled nose, steel-grey eyes set for the kill, sweaty matted athlete hair, the works. Adding insult to injury, the graphic designer put this desaturated wannabe-hulk in front of a dusty chalkboard. Let’s not forget the football either. That leathery ovoid is clutched tight between the Male Man’s hands, standing in for any number of things men could clutch in like manner. Its resemblance to a penis is not going to raise any eyebrows, methinks.

Another church went with a more subtle approach:


According to the ad copy, “this ain’t your momma’s church”

I’ll let the Cornerstone Church of Chandler, Arizona enlighten us as to what we can expect in what is surely a high-impact seminar:

A church for men; no singing, short sermons and time to process. Laugh, learn and be challenged in the company of friends. Straight forward relevant topics around the challenges facing men today – not like any other church you have seen. This ain’t your mamma’s [sic] church!

No, indeed, though for once I might prefer that it were. On the site linked above, you can sase that the tab for “men” is just one in a whole line of painfully specific, tailored services the church offers. It’s marketing at its most transparent, and because of that it’s tempting to write off the “Man Church” fad as just a way to check off another demographic niche. Let’s not be too hasty, however. The “Man Church” phenomenon has a more sinister air to it than many of the curios we’ve investigated in this series––which is saying a lot. While none of the rhetoric here is as fascistic as Men’s Rights advocates can be, the patriarchy runs strong and naked here. While all masculinity is bleak and oppressive, the iron-skinned, men-as-tanks ideology we see regurgitated here is especially pernicious. This is not to say that these churches are not responding to a really felt need; straight white men, being in every way empowered, are also constantly reckoning with insecurities. Men are not actually oppressed, but any place or situation they encounter that seems too feminine (God forbid it be church!) instantly becomes annoying to them. So accustomed to dominance are they that, even in the macho world of evangelical Christianity, where women are more often than not barred from leadership positions, the mere appearance of a female majority is enough to send them off-kilter.

These are aggressively reactionary programs aimed at capitalizing on male insecurity. While the American church is almost entirely a bastion of reaction and prejudice, the last squirrel hole for blatant chauvinism and militarism, this is an especially troubling phenomenon. I have no insights into whether these ministries are successful (especially given that the one from Cornerstone starts at 6:30 am!) but their existence points to a troubling pathology in the American straight cishet male mind: a maniacal need to hold onto power and demonstrate that power, usually at the expense of someone deemed inferior. To end on a deflating note, I would be remiss not to point out that such chauvinism is almost present within the Left, especially where its revolutionary hands are idle and petty posturing displaces praxis. It’s not too surprising to find reactionary sexism in the Church; what’s far more disturbing is that it infests even the bloc that pretends to the role of undoing it. It’s yet another point where the bourgeois’s ruling ideology seeps into every nook of a society.

The Illusion of Choice: On “Popular” vs. Mass Art


Commentators and activists with a leftist bent have been raising the alarm over the monopolization of the culture industry for as long as anyone can remember. Neo-liberalized ownership rules and lax regulatory frameworks have allowed a small circle of plutocrats to devour smaller companies left and right. Far too often, these alarms are wedded to the premise that media can be fair or balanced under capitalism if only there are enough small players. Long before the current round of consolidations, the culture industry in capitalist centres made it its business to propagate a desolate, one-dimensional popular culture. What is happening here is just the normal mechanisms of capitalism at work, and we know that “The enormous growth of industry and the remarkably rapid concentration of production in ever-larger enterprises are one of the most characteristic features of capitalism.”¹ Power and wealth concentrate in fewer and fewer hands as the vast majority of workers, and eventually even smaller capitalists, fall victim to monopolization.

It’s helpful to keep the above in mind because one of the most important challenges confronting the Left is the creation of truly mass art, culture, philosophy, etc. Often, however, liberal tendencies in media criticism tend to misidentify the current popular culture as the culture of the masses, believing that there is a correspondence between what people want and what the culture industry manufactures for them. Critics who buy into this mystification often attack cultural work that is imagined to be highbrow or obscure, as well as the critics who champion such work, as snobs or elitists. Popularity, expressed as attendance figures, ratings, and, in the final instance, dollar figures (i.e. capitalist profits) becomes for them a vital metric for the significance of a work.

One particularly unsightly manifestation of this phenomenon is in “poptimist” music criticism. While it has a few valuable insights about how conventional music criticism is constricted by an unquestioning allegiance to “rockist” standards, it ultimately amounts to nothing more than a crude celebration of Billboard and whatever the monopolists promote as valuable at a given moment. Popularity is mistaken for relevance to the masses, market categories for meaningful “diversity.” While it is important to understand “pop” music (here understood as a marketing category and production process that de-centers the individual writer-artist rather than a coherent genre or style), it is far too easy to slide into simply validating what the monopoly feeds people. Another error I’ve addressed in the past is the direct opposite, imagining that the sophisticated and “independent” producers can somehow escape the dictates of the market, the crude economist straitjacket that binds all of culture in the capitalist centres and increasingly extends its grip to the rest of the world as well.


A film in which countless women were commodified to create a spectacle can be excused for being “critical” in the shallowest way possible.

Ultimately, consuming one form of art or another can render no particular virtue to anyone. But art criticism tends to only concern itself with the moment of consumption, the subjective experiences of the critic or audience that has paid its admission fee. For Marxists, the question of production takes the first priority. Who is producing art, and for whom? Popular art today might need the masses to line up for blockbusters and tune in to The Big Bang Theory to generate profits, but that makes it in no way genuine mass art. It is art by and for elites, designed to promote and profit from the basest human desires––and this is often the case in a more obscure way for more highbrow art as well. “As Chairman Mao states, Whatever is under the leadership of the bourgeoisie can- not possibly be of the masses.”² Mass art proceeds from the masses, through production facilities and distribution channels collectively owned and democratically managed by all the people. It fulfills people’s needs, provoking their curiosity and encouraging their noblest attributes. Mass art recognizes neither the elitism of the old aristocratic arts nor the crass pandering of popular entertainments. For the sake of nuance, I am obliged to say that, within the current order, it is possible and, for revolutionary artists, necessary to create mass art, if only on an experimental basis. The criterion for such works, however, is not beauty alone but their capacity to move people toward revolution. This is articulated beautifully in the manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema:”³

“Any attempt, no matter how virulent, which does not serve to mobilise, agitate, and politicise sectors of the people, to arm them rationally and perceptibly, in one way or another, for the struggle – is received with indifference or even with pleasure. Virulence, nonconformism, plain rebelliousness, and discontent are just so many more products on the capitalist market; they are consumer goods. This is especially true in a situation where the bourgeoisie is in need of a daily dose of shock and exciting elements of controlled violence (7) – that is, violence which absorption by the System turns into pure stridency. Examples are the works of a socialist-tinged painting and sculpture which are greedily sought after by the new bourgeoisie to decorate their apartments and mansions; plays full of anger and avant-gardism which are noisily applauded by the ruling classes; the literature of ‘progressive’ writers concerned with semantics and man on the margin of time and space, which gives an air of democratic broadmindedness to the System’s publishing houses and magazines; and the cinema of ‘challenge,’ of ‘argument,’ promoted by the distribution monopolies and launched by the big commercial outlets”

Whether arising from the avarice of the big bourgeoisie or the solipsism and petty academic concerns of the petty bourgeoisie, the art of capitalist centres is in the main corrupt and reactionary. Its watchwords are tedium, mindless repetition, and gross violations of the human person. Only the revolutionary seizure of the means of production––cultural and otherwise, since the culture industry is utterly dependent on the other industries to survive––by the proletariat can allow for the conditions in which truly mass art can bud and flourish. Our criticism of media cannot stop at our impressions and opinions; it must extend to the very origins of whatever we are observing. Only then can it serve as a truly radical critique, understanding not only what something means but who it means something to and whose interests it serves. If we do not understand these things, we will fail to understand art, which is every much as part of the concrete world as it is the world of ideas.



1. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

2. Mao, “Talks at the Yenan Forum On Literature and Art”

3. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Towards a Third Cinema”

Other helpful links on the subject:

Walter Benjamin: “On the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

JMP: “Imperialism and False Consciousness”

(I did not speak much on the issue of imperialism as it relates to reproducing capitalism as a world system and its role in oppressing the peripheral nations to the profit of the centre, which I will rectify at a later date.)

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