Brian Holmes on Sun, 19 Dec 2010 20:01:12 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Pollock, Art History and Cold War [was: Wikileaks is old hat]

On 12/19/2010 05:44 AM, Keith Hart wrote:

> My main reason for posting this synthetic comment on nettime was to bring
> James into dialogue with those like Brian Holmes who have an active
> contemporary interest in exploring the relationship between democratic
> politics and art. I know that Brian too once held to a Frankfurtish line
> on this question, but he may now be moving away from it.

This thread interests me a lot, thanks Keith and Goran, of course I 
immediately ordered a used copy of the book by CLR James, can't wait to 
check that out. I must say my naive pleasure in viewing Pollock's work 
from the late forties and early fifties was multiplied by reading the 
Pollock chapter in one of the really great books of contemporary art 
criticism, Raiding the Icebox by Peter Wollen. There you learn that 
Pollock came out of a leftist family and was steeped in the regionalist 
"American Scene" tradition of his teacher Thomas Hart Benton in the 
Thirties, before being fundamentally influenced by what Wollen considers 
the only completely original North American modernist movement, namely 
Mexican muralism. Wollen unfolds the relations between Pollock and these 
American versions of social realism, rather than insisting on an 
absolute break - a narrative which in his view was imposed on Pollock by 
Clement Greenberg, the intellectual "market maker" of postwar American 
painting. In Wollen's reading, Pollock's work and life become the 
theater of immense cultural, political and economic contradictions, 
along the lines of what CLR James seems to be suggesting.

Now, this is not to say that the critique of the way that Abstract 
Impressionism was promoted in Cold War Europe is wrong, not at all (I am 
also a great fan of The Museum of American Art, Berlin, by the way - a 
contemporary artistic analysis of the MoMA's traveling shows in Europe, 
check it out if you have never seen it: 
In addition to the books that Goran quotes, I suggest dialing up a few 
great Pollocks on your screen and checking out, say, Fred L. Block's 
"Origins of International Economic Disorder: A Study of United States 
Monetary Policy from World War II to the Present" and and Shoup and 
Minter's "Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and 
U.S. Foreign Policy." Heck, you could even throw in Neil Smith's 
gigantic book "American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude 
to Globalization," since its anti-hero, the geographer Isaiah Bowman, 
was not only Roosevelt's close advisor and one of the architects of the 
United Nations, but also president of the Council on Foreign Relations 
during the war. Reading these books - especially Block's, which is 
perhaps the best of them - you start to understand the structure of 
America's liberal empire, based on multilateralism, free trade and an 
ideology of the sovereign individual. The World War II America whose 
tremendous vitality Keith points to gave rise to a deliberately 
structured capitalist world-system whose chief industrial and financial 
power, the United States, would always come out on top whatever the 
freedoms of all the others. As Block demonstrates in his review of 
foreign policy and its economic results, the crucial issue was opening 
up the Western European markets and ensuring that the various forms of 
Keynesian national capitalism did not become socialism. The European 
triumph of Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, followed by 
Rauschenberg and Pop, was part of the massive Cold War exportation of an 
incredibly flexible and resilient American operating system whose limits 
are only now appearing.

Maybe it's clear from the above that I have always been attached 
simultaneously to the negative critique of the Frankfurt School and to 
the many theories of "power from below," whether it's CLR James and 
Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit, the Subaltern Studies Group in India, 
autonomous Marxism in Italy or Deleuze and Guattari in France. Now I am 
working on a lecture entitled "A Cultural Critique for the 21st 
Century?" where I try to establish that the imperative need for a 
critique of contemporary capitalism in all its aspects - a resolutely 
negative critique that confronts the mutually reinforcing systemic unity 
of all these aspects - does not in any way preclude the recognition of 
really existing emancipatory forces on the levels of daily life, 
artistic expression, territorial organization, and hopefully soon, 
formal politics. In fact, only by recognizing, not just the impulse 
towards, but also the maturity and strength of direct-democratic 
cultures on the ground, all over the world, can we hope to find social 
support for an effective critique of the abysmal so-called "liberal" 
economic system, whose oligopolistic and increasingly authoritarian 
reality is plain for all to see at this point. Such a critique will not 
be expressed by inexorable "historical forces" or embodied by an 
abstract "proletariat"; and it's not gonna come out of the neoliberal 
universities either! No, but it's already being articulated by thinking 
and struggling people who have gained enough autonomy to start talking 
and acting collectively. By the way, I think WikiLeaks is a great 
example, and all the stuff on this list about it's being old hat or sold 
to the media is just rubbish. But more on that some other time...

best from snowy Chicago, Brian

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