Real Existing Capitalism
by Rosemary Heather
For the theme of this issue, Real Existing Capitalism, I have to thank Montreal writer and dramaturge, and frequent C contributor, Jacob Wren. Having agreed with Jacob that his theme was a good one, I spent some time with him puzzling over what exactly was meant by the term real existing socialism, with which our capitalist version is intended to resonate. Did it refer to the socialism that had already been achieved, to the extent that this had actually happened? Or did it refer to the socialism to come, back when it was still a possibility? My own thoughts on the question were vague. We were like archaeologists contemplating the mysteries of the last century. Perhaps we should consult the Internet?
From the perspective of today, the idea that communism was once considered achievable is a genuinely weird thought to contemplate. It was a political program, the premise of which-the equal distribution of wealth-is more agreeable than the reality of its rather imperfect implementation. Despite this, Marxist ideas were at one time the engine that fired great artistic projects-notably, the Marxist-informed films of Jean-Luc Godard, such as Le Vent d’est (1969) and Tout va bien (1972). During this phase of his career, Godard often worked with Jean-Pierre Gorin, under the communitarian moniker of the Dziga Vertov Group, an homage to the Russian constructivist filmmaker. An artist almost without peers in the 20th century, Godard devoted years of his life to exploring what a Marxist aesthetic would look like in film.
Today, one can scan the cultural landscape in vain for a similar artistic engagement with a big-idea political program. Perhaps it is because the big ideas are all gone; more likely, through they exist in a form that is not yet recognizable to us, just waiting to be made manifest. The cultural moment we are currently in has the inescapable feeling of hanging on a precipice of change. Somehow, everything is different now, but it’s a reality that has yet to fully sink in. Maybe it is only the prospect of impending global recession speaking; still, certain conditions-most obviously, the monumental changes being wrought by the Internet, allow us to experience a dynamic of change in capitalism that is relentless. At the very least, this we know. It is a state of affairs that brings to mind the phrase, “All that is solid melts into air,” which, of course, comes from Marx.
The concept of Real Existing Capitalism is less difficult to ponder. It’s the school of political thought that currently dominates, in part because its advocates have worked so hard and so successfully to marginalize the plausibility of all the others. As part of his artistic practice, Austrian artist Rainer Ganahl- interviewed in this issue by Christine Martin-conducts reading seminars on Marxist texts. As Martin notes, Ganahl is both “enlightened and repulsed by Marxist-Leninist theory;’ and this ambivalence informs his practice, which, in addition to reading Lenin’s writing, includes the artist’s “book destructions” of those same texts.
Ganahl notes that Lenin speaks about imperialism “as a … system that destroys itself.” Again, this is a phenomenon we seem to be in the midst of but can’t quite recognize. Making things visible is the role of art, but it is often the fate of certain artworks to be, in this respect, misunderstood. In Ryan English’s interview this issue with Francesco Vezzoli, the Italian artist asks if “contemporary art … has become more like an entertainment:’ It is a question Vezzoli dramatizes in his work, which mimics certain aspects of the entertainment industry. By doing so, he risks accusations of indulging in the superficiality of celebrity and fashion, a problem he discusses in the interview. Vezzoli makes clear, however, that he is more interested in making evident the pressures placed on art by the wider global spectrum, especially the process of capital accumulation, in which it plays a part. Talking about the trend of the artist-celebrity, Vezzoli asks, “to which degree has the artist suffered the price of exposing himself more than he would want to?”
In a third interview in this issue, Steve Kado, founder of the inimitable Blocks Recording Club, speaks with Toronto artist Brian Joseph Davis. Notorious for refashioning Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951) into a punk-rock song, Davis comments that when “artists try to keep pace with … the culture at large … they just end up looking like idiots.” In a way, this is the same problem that Vezzoli addresses in his work. Even though Davis acknowledges the overpowering effect that today’s mass entertainments can have on an artist, he nothing less does a remarkable job of engaging with, and making art from, that behemoth that used to be called the culture industry. Davis’ works include synchronizing all of Whitney Houston’s hits to play simultaneously and adapting the BGM end-user licence agreement to be sung by a choir. As Kado asks the artist, “there’s more to the world of culture than Jennifer Lopez. Why do you pick the stuff that you do?” To this question, Davis provides the almost perfect answer: “my duty is to the world we are actually in.” For better or for worse, this world is all we have; how well we are able to understand it is another question entirely.
On another note, special thanks go out to Rebecca Gimmi, C’s outgoing manager, for the excellent job she did besting the considerable challenges she faced while running this organization; and to Rebecca Roberts, our excellent long-time copy editor, who is now living and working in New York.