“If it weren’t for Stalin would Post-Modernism have happened?
That is the thought which occurs to me as I look into the mirror brushing my teeth, staring at the tee-shirt I am wearing. It’s a stylised picture of a “worker” holding a hammer, with a slogan in German and the symbol of the former East German Deutsches Demokratisches Republik. The whole style of the shirt is unmistakably Modernist, and what’s more, Stalinist.
In the twentieth century the various State-Capitalist dictatorships going by the name “Communist” made heavy use of this kind of Modernist art, as did the Communist Parties of many Western Countries. When I went to Cuba in 2005 the legacy of this was still intact, as amazingly vibrant surrealist art was everywhere to be seen.
The styles of art used on old Communist propaganda are edgy, and in most peoples opinion, pretty cool. At the time they first came out they must also have seemed fresh and “modern”, hence “modernism” – signifying the ideals of the Modern Age: Progress, Technology, Big Hammers.
I cannot help but contrast the style of the art on the teeshirt I wear to bed with those I saw just earlier that day for sale in Camden Market. I used to go there as a teenager to actually buy things – rather than just go busking as in the case now – and I remembered seeing (and buying) a great number of old Communist propaganda tee-shirts, with just a few that would make reference to silly things in popular culture like Star Wars and Supermario, as well as a shit-load of teeshirts for rock bands.
There were always a few that were examples of what the Situationists called “detournement”, which basically means “subversion”. These would be shirts where a politically or culturally significant piece of art would be altered in some way so as to change the underlying message.
This process was highly popularised in the UK by the Punk movement, such as with the iconic Sex Pistols images of the Queen with safety pins through her face. In that case the message being expressed was clearly a rejection of Monarchism in favour of a nihilistically destructive, yet fun-loving attitude – Punk.
These days it seems that ‘detourned’ teeshirts are the main sort sold in Camden Market, but rather than signifying any anarchistic political messages there are, in the words of Hamlet, “signifying nothing”.
Take for example the “Obey” brand. This, as I understand it, was a fiendishly clever social experiment by a subversive street artist, to create a new brand that simply contained the word “obey”, sometimes with a funny picture of an angry old wrestler. In so doing I believe he was trying to make a comment on the fact that modern consumer-capitalist society has become so focused on Brands that they have become authority figures in themselves.
The experiment worked extremely well, as the brand has become commercially successful; with the result that now you will see “Obey” written on the fronts of clothing shops next to other brands like Nike and Adidas. This means that rather than having to go around putting stickers on all the shops, he has found a way to make the system itself do the work for him.
Unfortunately I do not believe that too many of the people who actually spend money on clothes which say “Obey” on them really realise that this was the original intention. Ironically most of them are simply taking the brand’s injunction to Obey at face value, which only proves the original point, that our society’s culture has become dominated by Brands to a scary degree.
The “Obey” story doesn’t end there, however, for now in Camden market you can see a great number of tee-shirts which have been “subverted” to say “Disobey”, and the wrestler’s face has been replaced with the V-for-Vendetta mask. This V mask has become something of a brand-name for “revolution”, with new activist groups like Anonymous and Occupy appropriating it as a symbol, and thus advertising the film V-for-Vendetta each time they do so, to the benefit of the production company of that film.
The film itself was already an example of capitalistic appropriation of a genuinely revolutionary piece of art, the V-for-Vendetta graphic novel by Alan Moore, an Anarchist. The film version takes out all explicit mentions of anarchism or even the word Anarchy, and changes the lead female character into a potential rape-victim who needs to be saved by another man rather than a sex worker being oppressed by the government for her choice of profession. This obviously makes the film character much less of a strong female role model, as you’d expect from a Hollywood film.
So now some smaller scale capitalists – the people who put up the capital to make all these shirts in Camden, and the people who own the stalls and shops selling them – are making money from the fact that some people never understood the original intention behind the Obey brand and who furthermore cannot understand a revolutionary message unless a watered-down Hollywood film version of it has been made. It would be interesting to know how many people wearing these “Disobey” shirts even know who Guy Fawkes was.
Generations of graphic designers have detourned so many images from popular culture already that they have started to detourn things that were already, in my opinion, subversive enough. In this process all meaning has started to become lost. Rather than expressing some clearly understood message such as “Fight for revolution against capitalism”, they more and more express an absence of any kind of over-arching coherent meaning at all.
This is called “post-modernism”, the idea that we must consciously do away with any “meta-narratives” such as “society is progressing towards a better capitalist world for us all” – which is still the official narrative of most Nation-States, or “society is progressing towards a better Communist/Islamic/New Age world for us all”.
I have no objection to Post-Modernism in itself as an artistic or political theory, for great damage was indeed done to the world by blind acceptance of these kinds of meta-narratives, and indeed is still being done.
Post-modernism – I believe – was born partly out of the realisation of many genuine revolutionaries that the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary project had become corrupted to the point of representing a reactionary and extremely violent threat to the liberty of the global working class, rather than a force for it’s liberation.
This realisation prompted a crisis within revolutionary circles in the West, with some turning to “Trotskyism”, a mythological version of Marxist-Leninism which portrays Leon Trotsky as a messianic figure whose ideas can save the whole project. Many others dropped out of the Marxist movement and became Anarchists instead, as anarchists had not been tainted by association with the Bolsheviks, and had actually been the first to criticise their corruption. Others just dropped out of revolutionary politics altogether.
Some however – the Post Modernists- began calling into question the fundamental assumptions of Marxism itself, assumptions which many Anarchists had also shared, as they too had been influenced by Marx, even if they did not see him as an authority figure.
The greatest of these assumptions was that capitalism will inevitably collapse in on itself due to the nature of its own contradictions. This prediction of the future relies on belief in some abstract historical forces that have nothing to do with decisions that we as revolutionaries make in our real lives.
It is similar to a religious belief that the final victory of good over evil has already been foretold, and therefore we don’t have to worry too much about it. We just have to do what the Church, or the Communist party tell us, even if they tell us to do “evil” things like kill innocent people in the name of the cause.
Along with challenging the ideas of Modernism – which Communism and Capitalism were both examples of – came challenges to Modernist art work. Post-modern artists began to juxtapose images of progress – like big factories and workers with hammers -with images representing the pre-Modern world – like big old Cathedrals or idyllic countryside scenes – with other images that were just completely chaotic.
The overall message behind this kind of collage is that Modernism is a myth and progress is not necessarily happening at all. Elements of the pre-Modern world are still very much with us now in the 21st Century, as a quick glance at the Islamic world, or indeed most of the former colonised world will prove. These exist alongside elements of “Modernity” – big skyscrapers and constant advances in technology – and of course the chaos of War, Climate Change and Nuclear radiation tearing at the very fabric of reality.
So when post-modernist art is a reflection of this reality in which we live today in the twentieth century, then it’s all well and good. But what the fuck am I supposed to make of a tee-shirt I saw in Camden where the faces of the Olympic athletes making the Black Power salute had been replaced by those of Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars? Are they saying that the Black Power movement has been incorporated into the Western Imperialist superstructure? Or are they just “signifying nothing” again?