á la Lex Dexter:
"….More generally, the Frankfurt theorists contended that, quite contrary to the optimism of such liberal-pluralists as Edward Shils, the media made the world of serious culture made widely accessible only at the price of depriving it of its critical substance. For the media, by bringing culture into everyday life, wrenched it from the tradition which had guaranteed it its separateness just as the techniques of mass reproduction deprived the work of art the ‘aura’ of its uniqueness on which alone its critical function could be predicated. Marcuse argues the point with force and clarity:
The neo-conservative critics of leftists critics of mass culture ridicule the protest against Bach as background music in the kitchen, against Plato and Hegel, Shelley and Baudelaire, Marx and Freud in the drugstore. Instead, they insist on recognition of the fact that the classics have left the mausoleum and come to life again, that people are just so much more educated. True, but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth. The intent and function of these works have thus fundamentally changed. If they once stood in contradiction to the status quo, this contradiction is now flattened out. (Marcuse, 1970, p. 64)
It is this aspect of the Frankfurt critique which has been taken up most frequently by cultural theorists on the left. In particular, mention should be made of Walter Benjamin who argued that the development of techniques permitting the reproduction of works of art on a limitless scale, depriving them of their ‘aura’, the uniqueness of their singular existence, had created the technical preconditions whereby art, in being freed from the sacredness of its singular presence, was able to enter the domain of politics in a form in which it could be both produced and appropriated by the masses (Benjamin, 1970).
This was decidedly not the perspective of the Frankfurt theorists. Art, they argued, could fulfil its oppositional function only by refusing any compromise with reality. But, by the same token, it was thereby unable to have any impact on the consciousness of those whose minds are forged in the midst of a compromised reality. If art did compromise so that it might be made available to the masses it would, by the same token, lose its oppositional value. Adorno summarised this dilemma as follows:
The effect that they [works of art] would wish to have is at present absent, and they suffer from that absence greatly; but as soon as they attempt to attain that effect by accommodating themselves to prevailing needs, they deprive men of precisely that which they could.. give them. (Cited in Slater, 1977)
- Tony Bennett, p. 45 (1982) "Theories of the media, theories of society" in Gurevitch, M. et al Culture, Society and the Media (London: Meuthen). Emboldens are my own.
(0.) Punk set out to be, or should have achieved the status of, the ultimate oppositional form of art, and post-punk was a recognition of the failure of that agenda. Or that Adorno’s remark could be used as a brief history, rise and fall, of punk rock in the 20th century.
In this previous post I mentioned Nicholas Rombes's statement in his essay on the Ramones' first album for the 33 1/3rd series of music books that “Ramones is either the last great modern record, or the first great postmodern one”, and then I drew a comparison to ex-Mclusky Shooting at Unarmed Men's Triptych from this year. Postmodernism is a tricky subject (= can be a load of shite), but a valid one nevertheless, and absolutely crucial to understanding the (current) relationship between art and reality.
1. The Wire as a realist, but not realistic, show. This was dealt with I think somewhere on Heaven and Here, and it's important to use in answering the (minority) critical backlash to what is seen as a sycophantic consensus on the Wire's status as televisual art and its literary honesty. While the Wire reflects reality - in multiple levels of political, economic and social injustice - it does this in the process of producing not a documentary, but a drama and a novelistic work of art.
2. Lungfish as an obscurantist band. If they are indeed separate from the punk/post-punk/hardcore/post-hardcore division of intellectual labour in Western alternative music, and really represent a rock group that transcends even the concept of transcendence in rock music; does this explain why the metaphysical, utterly vague yet heavily image-centred lyrics and repetitive, reproduced sound expresses so simply a certain rawness and uncompromising reality of their art?
3. Shooting at Unarmed Men as a postmodern take on the ‘reality’ of punk rock. Triptych takes layers of garage punk rock and post-punk experimentalism, the directness, urgency of lo-fi and the expansiveness, ambience of post-rock; and it melds them all into a three-part album which expresses both the archaic coherence of the 'album' or record and the fragmentation of progressive art after the modern era. Triptych may be the most exciting punk rock album I have heard this year, and the most novel but also the most rooted in the fluid, constructed truth of that musical genre. The oppositional art in the postmodern world of politics.
Shooting at Unarmed Men - 'The Cock-A-Doodle-Doo of Democracy'