Nick Wright

Nick Wright

Nick Wright is an editor at Manifesto Press, blogs at 21centurymanifesto and is responsible for the Communist Party’s media work.

Banners for Spain
Monday, 22 May 2017 20:15

Banners for Spain

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Wright reviews the current exhibition of banners produced by Hammersmith Communist Party in the 1930s, to help the Spanish Republic.

Legend has it that while Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, a visiting German officer asked him, upon seeing a photo of the painting Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did.”

As the veterans of the International Brigades breathe their last, a new generation is recovering the significance of their heroism and of the Spanish tragedy.

Defence of the Spanish Republic was the defining issue of the late Thirties. Britain’s ruling elite favoured accommodation with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy while the democratic Spanish Republic counted on the support of the Soviet Union and enormous international popular movement of solidarity.

In every country this took the the traditional form of  political action and demonstration. In Britain there were protests against the  government’s so-called ‘non-intervention’ policy which turned a blind eye to Hitler and Mussolini's shameless supply of military aid and mercenaries to Franco’s fascists.

While thousands from every part of the world rallied to the call of the Communist International to form an International Brigade to confront with arms the fascist threat, the solidarity movement everywhere took practical shape.

Banners for Spain, Fighting the Spanish Civil War in London shows in public, for the first time in decades, banners produced by the Hammersmith Communist Party to aid Spain.

These date from 1937-8 and raised awareness of the plight of the Spanish people along with funds and material aid. Some commemorate the International Brigades - two Brigaders from the area died at the battle of Brunete, Labour Party member William H. Langmead and communist Arthur Ernest Richard ‘Dickie’ Bird.

Conservation funding from the Textile Society and the General Federation of Trade Unions means they are able to be displayed and now form part of the Spanish Collection - the largest archive on the British volunteers and aid Spain movement in the country - and donated by the International Brigade Association to the Marx Memorial Library.

All but two of the banners are unattributed but Lawrence Bradshaw (1899-1974) - whose sculpture marks the grave of Karl Marx - was active in Hammersmith and made Hammersmith Communist Party Sends Greetings to Comrades Fighting in Spain which lists the men and women who fell .

Arms and Justice For Spain depicts a  worker, a miner with lamp and engineer with spanner shaking hands with a combatant. The slogan ‘No Pasaran’ ‘They Shall Not Pass’ was the universal cry from the defenders of Madrid, and at the Battle of Cable Street.

The banners provide a fascinating insight into the politics of the period and to the uncompromisingly partisan nature of the campaign. Aesthetically, they are a window into the cultural politics of the time and show the wide range of styles deployed by artists of the period, whose commitment to a partisan content infused their work with great creativity.

This is exemplified in the striking banner Hammersmith Ambulance for Spain, with the references to the bombing of Guernica, Madrid and Barcelona. This is signed J.O.T.  Julian Otto Trevelyan (1920-1988) was an artist and poet resident in Hammersmith from 1935 until his death who was also a member of the Artists International Association.

In retrospect, the defining work of the period was Picasso’s Guernica. As Morning Star art critic Christine Lindey says: 'Its topical subject and innovatory style provoked strong reactions during its wide exposure first in the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1937, followed by touring exhibitions in London, Leeds, Oxford and Manchester in 1938-9 to raise funds for Spanish Relief.'

Questions of style and content enlivened debates among artists. The artists who created these banners worked fast, with little money and with limited materials.  We can see a variety of influences at work. This is not surprising given that surrealists and socialist realists clashed over what style was revolutionary and how content could be best expressed, and avant-garde opinion and popular taste widely diverged.

Banners for Spain: Fighting the Spanish Civil War in London is at Islington Museum. 245 St John Street, London EC1V 4NB, to Saturday 8 July 2017. Free.

https://www.islington.gov.uk/libraries-arts-and-heritage/heritage/islington-museum/exhibitions

Christine Lindey’s forthcoming Manifesto Press illustrated book:  Art for all, British Socially Committed Art c. 1939 – c. 1962 is due out this autumn.

Cloud Iron
Thursday, 20 April 2017 07:37

'We want art back, the new art of architecture'

Published in Architecture

'A model of clear thinking and informed comment' - Nick Wright reviews the Imagine Moscow exhibition at the Design Museum.

“The position is this: the ecstatic period of the revolution is over. Now it's the working day — but art is holiday. And we want art back, the new art of architecture,” artist and designer El Lissitzky declared in 1925. This intelligently conceived exhibition revisits that spirit of daring innovation and unbounded optimism which accompanied the accession to state power of Russia’s working class, ushered in by the 1917 Russian revolution.

Buried deep in the Design Museum basement, a series of fluid spaces locate each of the designs for six utopian and uncompleted projects in an architectural, social, political and aesthetic context by assemblies of drawings, plans, documents and illustrations of the post-revolution period. In conception, Ivan Leonidov’s 1927 Lenin Institute is simultaneously rooted in the technologies of the time and moulded by extravagantly utopian and untested technique. A pre-internet storehouse of knowledge and a radio station, it was to be served by a metropolitan aero-tram system. Its synthesis of architectural and political ambition hint that the global revolution might have progressed differently if the Comintern had had at its disposal both social media and television.

El Lissitzky’s Iron Cloud (1923-1925) reworks, from the early years of the revolution, the model of integrated housing, transport, services and work with a new skyscraper technology which prefigures contemporary big-city style, while Boris Iofan’s winning entry for the Palace of Soviets competition conveys something of the optimism of the time. Designed to be the tallest building in the world, topped by a 100-metre statue of Lenin, it was to sit on the site of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The project started in 1931, just as Stalin warned that the USSR had a decade to prepare for Western invasion. But, by 1941, political realism allowed its uncompleted structures to be recycled to fortify the city against the nazi invaders. Later, the foundations became a swimming pool and now Russia’s new bourgeoisie worship in a replica of the cathedral built on the site.

NW Palace of the Soviets edited 1 2

Lenin's statue in the Palace of the Soviets

The utopian spirit of these Soviet pioneers is predicated on a sense that transformed social relations produce a new human being. But, as the world revolution faltered, the bourgeoisie weaponised its fascist auxiliaries and, as the problems of building a socialist society demanded answers, new ways of transforming social actions presented themselves. The very magnitude of the problems necessitated prodigious efforts to mobilise the human and material resources of the socialist state. Thus there were over 100 entries for the competition to design a Commissariat of Heavy Industry, with Yakov Chernikhov’s 1933 Architectural Fairytale echoing Lenin’s telling phrase: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” while Konstantin Melnikov’s two 40-story buildings, connected by a futuristic external escalator, were to be decorated with sculptures representing the successes of the first and second Five Year Plans.

The idea of communal living was rooted in the appropriation of the spacious dwellings of the bourgeoisie. Those utopian and revolutionary ideals were shaped to advance the liberation of women through their entry into social production more fully and to render domestic labour less oppressive. Communal kitchens, leisure facilities, laundries, nurseries and restaurants were conceived as state-sponsored instruments designed to enhance women’s education and intellectual development. Nikolay Ladovsky’s Communal House transmutes this into utopian form through a spiral structure echoing the dialectical thrust of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. The focus on healthy living for the whole person finds direct expression in Health Factory, Nikolay Sokolov’s plan for a seaside complex designed to restore workers’ productive well-being through structured vacations, recreation, sport and medicine.

NW Ladovskis Communal House

Nikolay Ladovsky’s Communal House

The one project which did reach completion in 1930 is Alexey Shchusev’s Lenin Mausoleum, in which the Soviet leader's body lies in a sarcophagus designed by Konstantin Melnikov. Distinctive though the modernist building is, the materialist world view might be better served if successive Soviet leaders had done what Lenin asked and buried him alongside his mother. The contextual material to the exhibition is excellently presented, with useful accounts of debates in which architects and planners, artists and ideologues, futurists and functionaries argued out their competing priorities.

While there are examples of cold war and unreflective petit-bourgeois prejudice in the exhibition and the excellent accompanying book, in comparison to other stuff with which we are assailed this anniversary year, Imagine Moscow is a model of clear thinking and informed comment.

Runs until June 4, box office: designmuseum.org. This review was first published on morningstaronline.co.uk

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism
Monday, 12 December 2016 16:07

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism

Published in Cultural Theory

Nick Wright reviews Neoliberal Culture, edited by Jeremy Gilbert, a challenging collection of essays which exposes the ideological and cultural project behind neoliberalism.

Capitalist realism is a useful concept. It allows an investigation of the ways in which the dominant ideas in contemporary capitalist society possess the power to order the actions and thoughts of working people, even as life and work compels a rejection of those ideas. In exploring this terrain, Neoliberal Culture assembles essays that trace connections between neoliberalism as specific set of ideological and social practices and discrete areas of social life — literary texts and technology, ideologies of consumption and food journalism and pornography and the projection of modes of sexual activity expressive of neoliberal culture. Valuable stuff, and other sections takes us some way towards a fuller critique of contemporary capitalism.

Editor Jeremy Gilbert interrogates Mark Fisher, author of the influential text Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? to map out the ground on which an Anglophone array of cultural theorists consider the relationship between the distinctive features of contemporary capitalism and the cultural practices that characterise it. “The hegemonic field which capitalist realism secures and intensifies is one in which politics has been ‘disappeared’,” Fisher argues. “What capitalist realism consolidates is the idea that we are in the era of the post-political, that the big ideological conflicts are over, and the issues that remain largely concern who is to administer the new consensus.”

The highly provisional nature of such insights is illustrated by the speed at which the politics of capitalist crisis has moved. His suggestion — that the notion of the post-political isn’t just an ideological ruse and that membership of political parties really is declining — is a conclusion subverted by the rapid rise of the new political formations that have emerged in contexts as far apart as the Sanders/Trump polarity in the US, Podemos and its alliance with United Left in Spain and, in Britain, the massive irruption of new forces into Labour politics.

Nevertheless, the problems he identifies must concern the working-class movement and Fisher draws on the experience of Blairism as the paradigmatic example of a “formerly left-wing party surrendering to capitalist realism.” This, he argues, isn’t a wholehearted embrace of neoliberal ideology but rather the acceptance that this is the way of the world, that there is no alternative.

We can argue with some of the terms in which this argument is pitched. Class collaboration, rather than representing a latter-day capitulation to capitalist realism, is itself in the political DNA of social democracy and is, historically, what has distinguished its theoretical apparatus and political practice from an explicitly socialist approach. Indeed, it is precisely social democracy’s failure to challenge the neoliberal narrative — exemplified by Labour’s failure to contest the trope that Britain’s present crisis is due to profligate public spending rather than the salvage of the banking system — that underpins the pervasiveness of the neoliberal mindset.

Cultural studies, as an academic discipline, has gained a reputation for harbouring the notion that the connection between transformations in the economic base of society have nothing but a highly attenuated relationship with developments in the cultural superstructure. In a departure from this tradition, the virtue of this book lies in its scope and in the well-grounded nature of its studies. Paul Gilroy’s examination of the ways in which the aspirational discourses of black entrepreneurship work to capture the imagination is characteristically rich in concrete examples which refer back to religious traditions, transatlantic experiences, musical genres and notions of masculinity.

Paul Patton finds both convergences and ruptures in Foucault’s “critique” of neoliberalism and the liberal and social-democratic theories of US philosopher John Rawls. What emerges is the utility of notions, to preserve monopoly capitalism’s ideological project, of individualised competition in a market economy as the default mechanism for managing and regulating human society.

In a piece given extra relevance by the discourses around Hillary Clinton’s candidature for US president, Angela McRobbie examines the strategies employed by neoliberalism to accommodate the aspirations of contemporary feminism. Another contribution by Jo Littler looks at the ways in which notions of meritocracy serve to obscure economic and social inequalities, while Neal Curtis examines how government, as well as knowledge-producing systems like universities and the media, failed to relate the 2008 market failure of finance capital to the system’s sustaining ideologies.

The value of this collection lies in the attention it pays to concrete manifestations of neoliberalism. The weakness, which cannot solely be placed at the door of cultural studies as a discipline, lies in the inadequacy of critiques of actually existing state monopoly capitalism which do not posit a compelling alternative. Political economy is weakened if it does not enrich our understanding of the cultural and ideological superstructure. The discipline of cultural studies is impoverished if it proceeds without an adequate analysis of the economic formation.

Neoliberal Culture is published by Lawrence and Wishart, £18. This review is also published in the Morning Star.

 

13C Gold Rhino, hidden by the racist apartheid regime of South Africa because it contradicted their ideology of an empty land
Monday, 12 December 2016 14:52

South Africa: The Art of a Nation

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Wright reviews South Africa: The Artof a Nation

Filmgoers of a certain age will remember the 1964 film Zulu, which shows a group of British soldiers holding out against the massed warrior formations of the Zulu nation. A relatively minor 1879 episode in this country’s bloody colonial history, it originally gained its salience in the public mind because its exaggerated heroics served to deflect attention from the earlier devastating defeat inflicted upon the imperial army at Isandhlwana. But each audience reads cultural products in distinct ways.

More than a century later, 20 years after the film was released and in the aftermath of the fighting at Broadwater Farm which saw the Metropolitan Police fought to a standstill, I watched as the youth of Tottenham — packed into the public gallery of Haringey town hall — answered the racist rhetoric of Tory councillors with an intimidating rendition of a Zulu battle chant which they can have only learned through an oppositional reading of that film. It is against the colonialist narrative that in this exhibition John Muafangejo’s imposing linocut The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, created under apartheid in 1981, depicts the Zulu soldiers as powerful, imposing and decisive and, through this opposition, gains its power.

The apartheid rulers of South Africa were acutely conscious that the narrative they constructed around their contested presence in the country — that this was a land without a people — would be unsustainable if cultural artefacts revealed that other people has lived there for millennia. Thus the recovery and exhibition of artefacts that illuminate the presence of South Africa’s first and subsequent inhabitants raises complex problems for anthropology and art history. We define “artworks” as art because they embody symbolic power, evoke emotions, command inquiry as to their origin and invite attribution.

The Zaamenkonst Panel, discovered in 1912, was later interpreted in rather prosaic terms within a narrowly representational art historical tradition. But because the creators of these works, unlike those of more contemporary art, are unknown, problems of attribution and cultural identity inevitably arise. Today, when the deployment of related disciplines — ethnography, linguistic theory and archaeology — is brought into play, these artworks may now be understood as possessing, for their creators, great spiritual power. It is now believed that hunter-gatherer rock paintings, rather than “art for art’s sake” are related to the “trance dancing” and “great healing” still practiced in the Kalahari.

When given greater force by the new post-apartheid political situation, such artworks acquire a fresh ideological significance. Thus, images from that pre-1900 Linton Panel, attributed to “San Bushman” though its creator(s) are unknown, have been incorporated into the South African state’s coat of arms signifying, in the official narrative, the common humanity and heritage of South Africans.

South Africa House in Trafalgar Square is decorated by a series of panels by landscape painter Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1986-1957) and the extent to which these, and the paintings and prints which under apartheid gained awide currency, were consciously created to sustain the Afrikaner version of terra nullus — no-one’s land — is contested. But the regime saw in his idealised and homogenised landscapes, empty of human beings, a version of their own legend in which this land was legitimately theirs.

This exhibition, and the exemplary book which accompanies it, raise interesting questions about the ways in which we understand cultural products.Is art a category that includes any form of symbolic expression or can it be understood only in terms in which art is appropriated in today’s market economy? The Daily Telegraph, predictably perhaps, discusses the exhibition in term of the prices the artefacts fetch and bemoans the fact that “there is nothing by the darling of the South African art auctions, Irma Stern, or by Marlene Dumas, one of the most expensive living female artists.” But art created in opposition to the apartheid system, encompassing both work created within contemporary painting and graphic genres as well as that mobilising indigenous techniques and motifs, resonates across cultural boundaries.

Gerard Sekoto’s 1946 painting Song of the Pick was circulated in postcard versions as an expression of resistance, while Gavin Jantjes’s 1974 assembly: A South African Colouring Book draws on a graphic design context grounded in magazine design, collage and photography. And a 1983 photograph by David Goldblatt, 9:00PM Going Home: Marabastad-Waterval Bus, with the explanatory caption: “For most of the people in this bus the cycle will start again tomorrow at between 2:00 and 3:00AM,” is a striking depiction of the human cost of apartheid policies.

Yet, however much that system imposed all kinds of breaches and fissures on people’s practical and spiritual lives, the cultural traditions of the populations who make up the nation continually found new expression.
In bringing together a vast array of images and artefacts drawn from South Africa’s pre-history, history and its contemporary situation this exhibition — free to those under 16 — is unashamedly political and ideological in its intentions and that is undoubtedly to be welcomed.

Runs until February 26, box office: britishmuseum.org. This review was originaly published in the Morning Star.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship
Monday, 12 December 2016 14:36

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship

Published in Cultural Theory

Nick Wright reviews Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla.

The diverse appropriations of Walter Benjamin – the cultural theorist and critic — of his life and work, inevitably bear the marks of Cold War polarities. Liberal sentiment regards his intimacy with Bertolt Brecht as a Stalinist disfiguring of his sensibility. Gerschom Scholem's account has Benjamin more rooted in Jewish metaphysics. The not-so-New Left privileges his connections with the Frankfurt School.

Against these accounts, the great strengths of Erdmut Wizisla’s Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship rest on his exquisitely detailed scholarship and his irrefutable demonstration that the relationship between the two was not only reciprocal and creative but that it was grounded in a shared world view.

Brecht’s reputation for an unwavering political realism and his unshakable Bolshevism of a distinctive German temper is tamper-proof. Incontestably, it is marxism which anchors his aesthetic.

But Benjamin, who died on the French Spanish border by his own hand — caught between the Nazi tide and the refusal by the Spanish authorities to allow him passage to Lisbon and thus to refuge in the USA - has had the integrity of his ideological standpoint assailed from many directions.

Had Benjamin survived to join Brecht, who returned from exile in the USA to help construct the socialist order, the creative life of the German Democratic Republic would have been further enriched.

Erdmut Wizisla’s studies commenced in the GDR, he gained his doctorate with a study which is the foundation of this intricate and clear-sighted book. He heads the Bertolt Brecht Archive and since 2004 the Walter Benjamin Archives at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and is an honorary professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The book puts a decisive end to the disputed discourse that marks our understanding of the relationship between the two giants of German culture. Its title bluntly refutes the analysis which derives from the earlier Story of a Friendship by Gershom Scholem. Whereas Scholem rooted his account in what are inevitably subjective reminiscences of his friendship with Benjamin Wizisla contests his view with a detailed account of Brecht and Benjamin’s collaboration which grounds Benjamin’s thinking in their shared politics and materialism as much as their friendship.

Thus, in notes on his Commentary on Poems by Bertolt Brecht Benjamin writes:
“The tradition of the oppressed is of concern to Brecht (Questions from a Worker Who Reads) The tradition of the oppressed is also the decisive factor in his vision of the banned poets. Brecht emphasises the basis, the background, against which ‘great princes of intellect emerge'. In bourgeois representation this background tends to be a uniform grey.”

Benjamin’s writing is marked by an exceptionally wide compass — from a deep engagement with German literature, both high culture and the popular culture of the lower orders — but also the religious and metaphysical elements in Jewish culture, fragmentary features of modern life, dialectics, the effect of montage technique and famously, the impact of mechanical reproduction on art.

The core of the book is a section which sets Benjamin’s eleven essays on Brecht’s work against the political conditions of Germany in the interwar years, drawing strongly on the cultural politics of the German left. More fragmentary evidence is available in the passages which give insights into Brecht’s attitude to Benjamin’s work. It is clear that Brecht gave practical support to Benjamin while their personal relations were deepened by shared exile in Paris and by Brecht’s hospitality in the summers of 1934, 1936 and 1938 at Skovsbostrand in Denmark. Many of the photographs that depict the two men show them playing chess during their shared sojourns.

Wizisla cites both Hannah Arendt and Adorno to support the view that Brecht regarded Benjamin both as “the most important critic of the time” and that he was Brecht’s “best critic”.

The book ends with an assembly of surviving documents that illustrate the exceptionally fruitful collaboration between Benjamin and Brecht with the participation of, among others the film and theatre critic Herbert Ihrering, philosopher Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács in preparing the ultimately abortive project for a journal Krise und Kritik.(Crisis and criticism).

Wizisla speculates, drawing on recollections by Bloch, that the stimulus for this project may have lain in the formation of the Nazi Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Struggle League for German Culture). Bloch’s account has as the prospective title Journal of Cultural Bolshevism.

For the specialist Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship marks a new stage in the evaluation of both the period and the personalities and the passages which bring out the intensity and fraternity entailed in their collaboration are where Wizisla’s method is most fruitful.

Wizisla calculates that in that dangerous period after the German bourgeoisie handed power to Hitler Brecht and Benjamin spent ‘a total of more than eleven months living and working in direct proximity to each other’ — a good part of it in Brecht’s house in Denmark.

This is demanding stuff. Wizisla includes the minutes of their discussions around Krise und Kritik., a valuable source and one which demonstrates the ideological convergences and synergies that result from their collaboration as well as the extraordinarily fertile character of this period in which the changes in political direction entailed in the Communist International’s highly creative response to the realisation that the Nazi regime was no passing phenomenon were reflected and refracted through prism of their shared critical thought.

While marxism’s claim to be a general theory makes it especially attractive to people working in a wide range of specialisms it is sometimes true that specialists tend towards revisionism in relation to their own discipline and dogmatism in relation to the over arching theory. It is here that both what might be termed New Left assumptions about their relationship, and more particularly Scholem’s account, which seem to suggest that Brecht’s ideological fortitude positioned Benjamin as a subject, are subverted.

Because Benjamin’s writings are so fruitful for contemporary cultural theorists — especially those engaged in a critical encounter with modern visual culture and mass media — there is a tendency to read him against contemporary political configurations rather than see him in the context of the thirties. But both Benjamin and Brecht were politically active revolutionary intellectuals in a period when the strategic turn of the world communist movement was critical for the eventual defeat of fascism — and because they were partisans of this strategic reorientation their encounter, and their collaboration, can only be read as symptomatic of their shared politics.

Benjamin’s unwavering realism: "A total absence of illusion about the age and... an unlimited commitment to it" and Brecht’s characteristic fusion of political analysis with dramatic effect both illustrate their shared commitment to the idea, as Benjamin puts it, that': ‘the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency’.

Such partisanship in cultural production and criticism is unpalatable to some.

For the general reader or for a partisan of the left it is an exemplary demonstration of the dialectical method in biography mobilising, as it does, both a deep understanding of the conjectural factors — political and cultural — that conditioned this friendship and the interplay of their cultural production.

The book draws on a rich assembly of writings, correspondence, texts, ephemera, documentary evidence and recollections. Clarity could be lost in this rich miscellany without Wizisla’s rigorous method — dialectical materialism at work.

The translation, by Elizabeth Shuttleworth, is of great elegance and clarity — not always the case in translations from the German.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla, ISBN: 9781784781125 Verso £16.99