Portrait of the Artist as an Obsolete Asshole

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Note: I should revisit this. I missed some points but it is already too long and my body and brain are on fire. It takes quite a while to get things done when this is happening.

Dramatis Personae

Walter Benjamin: Dead person. A theorist of art and society. Deliberately overdosed on heroin rather than be captured by the Gestapo (fucking A right).

Karl Marx: Dead person. Storied theorist of capitalist society. Impregnator of maids. Afflicted by boils. Doubtlessly a genius, most likely a total dick. 

Rush: A rock band consisting of Geddy Lee, notable for his piercing voice and cadaverous appearance; Neil Peart, acclaimed drummer and dead person; and Alex Lifeson, notable for his relative invisibility contra his bandmates. 

Ayn Rand: Dead person. Miserable human. Author of bad novels. Champion of capitalist individualism.

Piotr Kropotkin: Dead person. Anarchist saint. Russian noble. Geographer. 


Fixed capital: Machinery utilized in the production process. Transfers ‘dead’ human labor into products. Incapable of producing profit. 

Variable capital: Human labor expended upon raw material. The only facet of the production process that is capable of producing profit. 

Commodity: A thing that both satisfies a human need and that has an exchange value in which it has equivalence with other things through the medium of money. 

Capitalism: The water that we’re swimming in. Representative of all your hopes and fears. Engine of misery.

Ayn Rand is one of those authors that you try to read in high school because you think you’re smart. After a day of effort you realize that the book, whether it’s The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, or Anthem are painfully boring and largely pointless. I was such a young person, drawn to things that were reputed to be intelligent and still ignorant of the fact that my high school teachers were profoundly stupid. 

I fucking hate South Park. While there is an appeal to watching characters bounce around on their gigantic testicles or witnessing penises take flight and explode, at this point it’s an unavoidable reality that the creative team are nothing more than alt-light trolls who shit on people with enough conviction to try to improve the world. 

I will make an exception as to the ideology espoused: At the conclusion of the ‘Chicken Fucker’ episode, Officer Barbrady finally reads Ayn Rand (and thereby conquers his illiteracy) and concludes “Yes, at first I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical. But then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage and because of this piece of shit I’m never reading again.”  

That’s pretty much how I felt, though I did continue reading. The Cliff Notes version of her work is basically that there are people of vision and genius who need to transcend the grasping fools who would impede their aggrandizement. 

If such a thing strikes you as gross and stupid, it is. One of Piotr Kropotkin’s lasting gifts to nascent radicals is the assertion that there is nothing that ‘great men’ do that is not born of the sweat and technical skill of the lower classes. Without the weaving of children they would go unclothed. If not for the yeoman in the field they would have no food. Nor would they have the necessary raw materials to depart the masses and found a territory of brilliant and talented individuals (yes, this is indeed a plotline in Ayn Rand’s work) without the misery of people laboring in mines. Capitalism doesn’t need an ideology, and if it did it surely wouldn’t be this drek. Its total penetration of human life appears to be natural and that pretty much takes care of its ideological needs. 

It’s a somewhat embarrassing fact that I like Rush. And it’s not an attempt to be ironic. Whether it’s familiarity or just their technical skill I get pretty stoked when I hear Red Barchetta. I’m keenly aware of their politics too. Somehow these people who basically mastered the complicated skill of crafting radio hits were dedicated Randians, and you don’t have to dig too deeply to become aware of this. 

They are painful in their devotion and stupidity. For instance Anthem (from the admittedly awesome record Fly By NIght) is an immediate call back to Ayn Rand’s novel of the same name.  The verses of the song are a testament: “Live for yourself. There’s no one else more worth living for.  Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.” You could compose these lyrics by printing and cutting up any three comments on the Fox News website, throwing them in the air, and rearranging them randomly. The song concludes with a lyric so silly that I almost feel pity for them: “Well, I know they’ve always told you selfishness was wrong yet it was for me, not you I came to write this song.” 

Okay, sure. In a sense this is true. Neil Peart wrote the song so he could make some money. Definitely for him. But any capitalist, beneath their bluster, needs a consumer. If a prog rock radio hit falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear Geddy Lee scream then you’ve just got three nerds without a pot to piss in hanging around and talking about aliens. No one does anything in our society simply for themselves, as much as people love to barf up Milton Friedman for Dummies soundbites. 

There are plenty of songs in a similar vein, from the anti-union ballad The Trees to the outright statement of dislike of their fans voiced in Limelight. These kind of elitist assertions of derision for the rest of humanity by the glorious ubermensch artist happen, but nobody takes them very seriously. 

I never really got into Walter Benjamin. I certainly admired him. Just the fact that he overdosed on morphine rather than be arrested by the Gestapo earns him a statue as far as I’m concerned, but his work was in the vein of the Frankfurt School which I’ve never liked all that much. This might be intellectual laziness on my part. They were working during a time of great danger and attempting to grapple with the rise of fascism in Europe. While the fascists ultimately lost, they’d done a great job of exterminating the people on my team and they probably deserve my attention. 

The only essay of Benjamin’s that I’ve read is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The thrust of the essay is that (in 1935) society had reached a point of development in which art was being produced on an industrial scale. His assertion was that in earlier societal development the work of art had an aura, which was itself socially produced. It was housed in a place of worship or on display in a gallery. There was only one such thing, unique in all the world. David or the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel were not things that could be reproduced. In part their singularity was their value. 

But a new thing had occurred. Processes for mass producing images and sound had developed and they suplexed this prissy sculpting and painting from the top rope of the ring. The eye behind the camera lens was the eye of a technician. The portrayal of reality became a simulacrum of discrete moments assembled for presentation to a mass audience. So it was that before Fordism the mass production of images became accessible to all. The reality of the theater captured perception. 

This is all very smart and very important. But there’s a Marxian concept that doesn’t really get deployed in the essay. Value theory, the core insight of Marxian economics, doesn’t get played around with and I think it has a lot to say. 

As Piotr Kropotkin would assert, there is no one who is great (though there are plenty of heroes). Artistry under capitalism is a complicated thing. For one, what the fuck would we even call art? Do the ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ posters you can buy at “Bed, Bath, and Beyond” qualify? I fucking hope not. 

Or perhaps the disneyfied photographs that appear alongside captioned platitudes on bus shelters and billboards rise to this level? Perhaps it’s comforting to the pensioner fighting frostbite to be reminded that Frederick Douglass existed and has some wisdom to offer her as she sits in the cold, waiting to be ferried to some futile doctor’s appointment. Is the new season of Vikings art?  Or is it a way of insulating the world from some sort of refutation of the terminal boredom we live with? 

We’re in a post-propaganda world. The weaponization of images, words and sound isn’t something that we’re likely to recover from. You can’t believe your lying eyes, but you very likely want to. We know that underneath it all is an engine, some diabolical vitamix, liquifying us in furtherance of some impulse or dark dream. 

There is a duality to the use values of the cultural commodities we consume. They satisfy a need, and I’m completely honest about the need they satisfy for me: I’m fucking pacified. Television is a drug and I’m an addict. Even the most puritanical modern human shoots this heroin into their eyeball. It’s what we talk about, where we go fishing for identities that we’d like to try on, and the neurological sedative that we return to at the end of a day. 

On the other end of things it provides a means of social control and it doesn’t even have to be designed to accomplish this goal. It’s enough that it transfixes. There’s no need for a government to coordinate it: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to continue its grand enterprise of apologizing for imperialism without a bit of prodding from the state. 

And of course these things are a means of accumulating capital, but I really don’t feel qualified to speak to the economy of television and film. It’s a collision of advertising, sexualization, ticket sales and kitsch that is beyond me at the moment. 

Music functions similarly. I spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. Mostly there is a pleasant vacuum of stimuli. The background noise of humming HVAC provides just enough audible fuzz to allow me to space out and simply stare. It’s heaven, to be in an in-between place at an in-between time. Thought disappears. Sweet relief. 

But sometimes they play music and I take umbrage at this. This isn’t fucking Walgreens (where I am under the impression that they play Sting just to hurry me through the store). The worst, the very worst, was an office where they played modern top-40 country. I developed a deep antipathy towards everyone who worked there and decided that they were, if not bad people, dangerously stupid. 

Joseph Goebbels would be hard-pressed to develop something more diabolical. The only difference is that the end-goal of this shit ear garbage was to inspire either drinking, fucking, or (ideally) both, in a particularly dumb, armed, and trucked package, instead of facilitating a genocide and the construction of a war machine dedicated to global conquest (it’s already been accomplished).

Is it art? I guess so. So, having established that I hate everything, let’s talk about Rush some more. 

That they consider themselves to be artists is abundantly, grossly clear. It’s in the lyrics. But this is capitalism. If you’re an artist then you’re an artist for money and if you’re doing something for money then it’s your job. So, Peart, Lifeson and Lee are workers, but they’re workers in a music factory. 

Working in the music factory takes some skill. Depending on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish it can take years of training with no compensation (although it is true that you can be utterly talentless and be a musician- go ahead and listen to the Misfits). So, you first have to make yourself. 

This likely requires hours of practice and in some instances schooling in a conservatory. Following on that you need just enough of an input of aspirational ego not to jump ship on the process and start selling guitars at a music store. 

Following this there are the weird tasks of forming a band. Since most people are horrible this can take a while. Hats off to whoever made Cream come together. Eric Clapton is an asshole, Ginger Baker a psychopath and Jack Bruce (was) an alcoholic. 

It’s possible (likely even) that this work process requires that you have a powerful addiction to a mind-altering substance. It’s part of whatever remains of the ‘aura’ Benjamin was speaking of. Tragedy is part and parcel of all of this. We like our artists troubled and it helps if it’s the kind of troubled that they somehow survive and talk about in Rolling Stone. 

So, our rock stars have been produced. The value embodied in them by numerous drugs, educational processes and egoism are moved into a recording studio where a recording engineer, who has way less capital crammed up his ass then the musicians, works with them to get a perfect cut for consumption by the masses. This is a process that involves a lot of machinery, from the mixing board to the guitars to whatever other shit ends up in a recording studio. Chips? Beers? 

From there the master tape moves to pressing. WAY more fixed capital involved here. The fixed capital embodied in the recording is distributed across however many CD’s, tapes, vinyl records, whatever. They’re sent to market. Apparently some UPS guy moves them around unless there are strategic air drops of Rush records in counterinsurgency campaigns. Otherwise a tragically stereotypical salesperson sells these recordings in Sam Goody to the sad fuckers buying the music. (Yes, I realize that this is no longer a way that people access music, and it will be acknowledged several paragraphs down).

It’s probably a thing that the musicians go on tour. This appears to be some sort of homage to the reliquary of authenticity. It fulfills the yearning for nostalgia of weekend warriors to hoist a beer and sing along to the verses they know. They confirm that Rush isn’t a clever artificial intelligence kicking out radio hits for the mullet set. They’ve imparted a facsimile of aura to the plebes to get ready for another day running the gauntlet with a morning dose of Spirit of the Radio

I went to a Rush concert when I was 13, accompanied by my drug buddy cousin and my psychotic uncle. It was the “Test for Echo” tour, which is definitely one of their more forgettable records. We were in the cheap seats. I was supposed to be enthralled by the image of Geddy Lee prancing on the stage and Neil Peart playing an obligatory drum solo on his ridiculously overbuilt set. There was even a laser light show component. I was still bored out of my mind. 

So these are the inputs: Highly capitalized living labor; stacks and double bass drums, a recording engineer and mixer laboring away on expensive equipment to assemble the cacophony into something digestible; the marketing geniuses responsible for convincing people that this music is indeed something worth buying; the road crew committed to creating a sufficiently seamless tour for their pampered charges; and the poor schleps who produce the music as a consumer product and the bitter nerds who sell it. 

This is a formulation that mostly applies to a brief period in history, just a passing phase as music passes through a progression of production processes. I’m old enough to remember Sam Goody, (which I’m pretty sure means I’m on my way to ancient). but an interesting thing occurs on the way out of this particular era of production: We transition to music that is primarily distributed via the internet. 

This is an interesting passage. The living labor embodied in music is ever more infinitesimal. CD’s get tossed in the trash because who fucking needs them? They’re delicate, it’s too fucking easy to lose the liner notes, and who wants to have one of those tacky CD towers? We’ve got an endless array of computer programs and streaming services that are infinitely more durable. Some of them allow us to circumvent the commodity form altogether. Shazam and Napster (and whatever other services allow you to download stuff for free) allow us to access music without paying for it. Regardless of the streaming music services that make an effort to monetize the last live Rush show, the commodity transitioning to a different economic form is essentially free. Has it transcended capitalism? 

Probably not. It’s definitely rendered lyrics about the ‘art’ being performed by the musician themself a joke. It’s definitely for us, not Neil Peart (or his ghost? Kids? I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how this shit works). We don’t have to pay. The most that all but the cheesiest musicians can hope for in terms of payment is some ‘tip’ money via Venmo or the purchase of a t-shirt when they’re on the road. Otherwise you might get some praise or some respect (which are indeed rare in the life of a laborer).  And unfortunately praise and respect don’t get you paid. How are you going to spend months in a farmhouse being a fucking genius when no one has to buy your records? 

To wrap up, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction might, instead of losing it’s aura, has nothing else. The extent to which digitization has shifted the balance between living labor and machines is profound. The incredible productivity of the reproduction of images and sound may have pushed the work of art from the commodity form out of the realm of exchange value to nothing more than a use value. 

This was an assertion of autonomous Marxist collective Zero Work- that capitalism had reached a point at which there is so much amassed ‘fixed capital’ that there is no longer any value being created and that we are transitioning to a post-value world. Work, in this society, is simply a means of social control. 

Maybe contemporary art is just this: A mechanism for social control that is no longer a bearer of value. Drive your Tesla through the homeless encampment while your Spotify account queues up Red Barchetta. Instead of dodging air ships you can run down the people that remind you of the inevitability of death. Sure, the song doesn’t really mean anything, but what does? 

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