We began Achilles, Powder & Lead because we were interested in the political, historical, and social questions surrounding various expressions of art and literature. Indeed, the epigram from which the blog takes its name is an open-ended reflection on these questions. Art and literature are always moments of social production, historical expressions that cannot easily be separated from the epoch, the mode of production, where they were created. Do the values expressed in the art of the ancient world make sense without reference to the period from which this art emerged? Can we label that literature and art that tries to express values of a by-gone age reactionary? And, vice versa, is there art that is prescient of new and more progressive values that lurk beyond the horizon of today’s world? Well: whatever the case, there is no moment of social production that is completely free from its historical context. There is no art, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, that stands outside of history, above classes, and for its own sake.
Some time ago, one of us wrote and presented a paper on how to make sense of the political dimension of art and literature. The paper was the result of long-standing debates we’d had with both activists and artists; we were dissatisfied with how neither group, at least in our social context, was generally able to make sense of the relationship between art and politics. One of us (VMP) is an experimental film and video artist, as well as a curator, whose commitment to both radical politics and radical aesthetics was often treated as contradictory. So the other one of us (JMP), heavily influenced by the experiences and reflections of VMP, presented a paper at an arts and academic conference, organized by VMP in the art gallery where she works. There was really nothing new or original in this paper; it was merely a synthesis of nuanced and sophisticated historical materialist analyses of art as social production – but we both felt, at that time, that this analysis needed to be reasserted, especially to those self-proclaimed “marxists” whose understanding of art was not entirely historical materialist or dialectical.
(To avoid reproducing the entirety of that paper in this entry, we’ve made a draft version of the essay available here: Whose Art and for Whom.)
The questions our paper attempted to answer – and that both of us continued to try and answer in ongoing debates with activists interested in art and artists interested in progressive politics – still linger. And they linger in such a way that so many people do not begin with the primary and concrete question “what is art?” but in the realm of appearance, like someone who is just encountering a screwdriver from the first time and, without knowing anything about screws or tools, tries to explain its meaning. The fact is that, most often, when we make political and aesthetic judgments, we are simply trying to justify our personal tastes.
For example, it is a cliche to assume that classical symphonies are elitist and bourgeois affairs, as opposed to the music of a mainstream pop band. And yet, as a recent article in the New Yorker argued, the average cost of a live performance of Stravinsky is far less than the average cost of a Justin Beiber concert. To this we can add that the money poured into the mainstream popular music industry dwarves the classical music industry; once we look at the point of production, which for an historical materialist is, in the last instance, the determining factor, it is difficult to call the more profitable, more heavily distributed, and more commodified popular music “proletarian” simply because people prefer to listen to it on the radio.
Films and novels are the same. Is the Hollywood industry, which is generally inclined to promote liberal bourgeois values, suddenly not bourgeois because more people will go to see “the Hobbit” instead of an experimental film produced by an independent film maker? The fact that avant garde film artists labour in obscurity, barely generate enough money to break even with what they spent on the film, should be compared to the billions poured, and the more billions of surplus value produced, by popular films. We do not define factories primarily by the popularity of the commodities they produce – this is a second order question – but as sites of struggle.
The truth is that our personal tastes are most often determined by industry, and though it is also true that some of us have the privilege to expand our aesthetic tastes and this is an important fact to note, we can’t subsume a privileged moment of consumption with the general determination of consumption produced by capitalism. Otherwise we can end up making similarly strange claims about everything. Since No Logo is more popular in Canada and the US than Capital, and sells far more copies, does this mean that No Logo is more “proletarian” than the book that has historically defined revolution? Again, the problem here is one of exclusion.
And yet there are so many galleries, so many sites of unpopular music performance, so many small cinemas and temporary film-showings, that, as noted above, cost less than going to see Mission Impossible 3 on the IMAX or Miley Cyrus perform at your city’s local thunderdome. So even at the point of consumption the political question isn’t solved: how is a $100 ticket to see a pop music sensation more accessible than a $10 ticket to an avant garde music performance? Here only the tastes, the education, cultivated by the capitalist culture industry mediates, and we must also ask why the bourgeoisie always want to cut funding to the arts, thus destroying accessibility… The answer is that the bourgeoisie has never been interested in the education of the masses, culturally and academically, and as long as the masses keep working and spending all their money on expensive commodities, the ruling class is more than happy.
But it is doubtful that most of the engagements on this website will satisfy our complaints. Generally speaking, we’re just blogging about what we like, dislike, or feel some nostalgia for. At the back of our minds, though, the question about art and its connection politics lingers – it is always part of our own discussions – and so too does our interest in the social and historical context from which every work of art springs, from the Iliad to a zombie movie.