The Red Mist descends
James Turley introduces a new cultural website
“A Klee painting called Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise: it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the philosophy of history
After the death of England’s best-loved alcoholic gambling bigot, the queen mother, the Daily Mail rather ludicrously suggested that the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square should be given over permanently to a statue of her. The Guardian impishly proposed the potential responses of contemporary artists to the challenge. For Antony Gormley, we got ‘the angel of the south’: a steel sculpture of an old lady, complete with cane, handbag, absurd hat and enormous aeroplane wings.
This is how one pictures the angel of contemporary culture. Her eyes stare at hordes of tourists, bemused consumers of Britain’s heritage industry. Her existence is a cheap trick, a grandiose prosthesis grafted onto a piece of idiotic kitsch. Nobody any more is quite sure if she is a serious endeavour or a mischievous joke; the work of a dedicated artisan or of an industry. Unlike Benjamin’s angel, she does not want to stay behind but to take flight from this shabby existence. Unfortunately, she is riveted to the plinth. These rivets are what we call capitalism.
Cultural products are produced because someone has something important to say, progressive or reactionary, rational or irrational; yet everywhere the result is trite banality. Late capitalism has become ever more adept at enforcing its conservative, accountant-friendly agenda on culture. In the world of the market, an artist can only try something that has already been tried and been seen to succeed. The state’s arts-funding bureaucracies - not much less conservative than private investors, but acting at least in the name of different priorities - are getting slashed out of existence, along with everything else that needs public money to function (failing banks excepted, of course). At this rate, in 50 years all movies will be sequels, all plays will be musicals and all novels will be airport-friendly crime yarns. (All academic papers, meanwhile, will be cooked up to order by corporations.)
Red Mist is the successor to London Book Club, to whose interesting accumulation of reviews we intend to add some serious political direction, editorial focus and old-fashioned panache. As Marxists, we do not think that the above depressing outlook is the only possible outcome for the human race. More to the point, we do not think that artists, writers and thinkers meekly accept their fate - nor do their works. Ernst Bloch used to say that every artefact of capitalist society, no matter how apparently banal and degraded, had a hidden utopian striving beyond its mundane existence; the reverse is also true, however, and even the most radically leftwing work has to come to terms, secretly, with the reality that gave it birth.
Working out what is what is the job of critics. It is not our job to say that we liked film X and thought that it was good; or (still worse, as the reviews in most leftwing publications do) say that we approved of the explicit political content of film X, and therefore liked it and thought that it was good. And, though we are a theoretically minded project, we will not destroy your will to live with 10,000 word Lacanian disquisitions on Proust.
What we will do is review all manner of texts - from pop singles to academic monographs - and reveal what really makes them tick. We will do this with the oldest tools in the box: a knowledge of context, an understanding of the medium and a sprinkling of humour (after all, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry). Join us on our journey through the bizarre, contradictory cultural life of capitalism - hopefully we will one day get out the other side.
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