Jazz and Politics

Historically, jazz has established itself as the American music. Even today, much of American music pays its dues to this musical tradition.

Much of jazz music is primarily instrumental, yet despite the lack of words, jazz in the past has been marked for its political dimension. According to Louis Proyekt in his interesting essay on jazz and politics, jazz boomed in the US right at the cusp of the anti-war movement in the first half of the 20th century and the rise of the organized Left. Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meerpol, a communist high-school teacher and member of the Communist Party, in New York during the 1930s as a denunciation of the lynchings of black slaves in South America.

Jazz transcended its status as ‘entertainment’ with the rise of bebop, the evolution of jazz which was defined for its fast improvisations and esoteric chord changes, as a way of asserting the blacks’ intellectual and artistic identities. It was meant to be difficult to play and even to listen to, but this self-imposed isolation was the black musicians’ way of breaking away from the mainstream of American entertainment which have long seen black people as mere entertainers, an offshoot of their long history of slavery. Bebop symbolized the passion and explosive energy of the black people who were immobilized not only be physical chains but also the racial stereotypes and the conditions of living which deprive poor and black people from having equal status to whites.

When bebop finally lost its momentum both as an artistic and as a political movement, free jazz emerged with the names of Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor and a multitude of others. Free jazz rose from a dissatisfaction from the rigid structures and harmonies of bebop, and it aimed to break away from it by discarding all the established norms of proper music through doing away with harmony and rhythm. Moreover, it emphasized the collective nature of music, which breaks the individualist ‘aura’ earlier solo-based jazz. Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was met with ridicule for its abandonment of musical norms, but upon closer inspection, Free Jazz is far from chaotic. It captures a brief moment where individuals, freed from the direction of the composer, collectively create a musical consensus, through listening, responding and carrying out these little musical ‘agreements’ for the collective’s interests.

Free jazz was a very diverse movement composed of different artistic sensibilities, but they were all framed within the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and the various anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements around the world. For instance, Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist philosophy has driven his life’s work, attempting to create an identity of almost mythic proportions through his songs promising a planet were all of the struggles in this world are all but tiny variations in a universal ‘song.’

Jazz’s political dimension stems from its improvisational musical aspect, since improvisation breaks away from the capitalist fetish for product. Improvisation highlights the process, the raw material of music where sound and music is seen as a single unit, where genres and structures are seen as mere symbols and planes from which ideas are launched, resisting the current of capitalist production by the assertion of the utterance as an utterance, not as a sound that can be multiplied and sold as reproductions of the same.

Groys and The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond

The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond by Boris Groys was first published in 1988 at the height of the glasnost and perestroika policies in Soviet Russia. Received with mixed responses from Western critics, Groys piece remains relevant decades later after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall as it provided a clever and sober take on Soviet art history as a continuous and organic development. The book is a critical history of the Russian avant garde, Stalinist socialist realism, and the dozens of art movements that came after Russian’s descent into reformism. What is fascinating with Groys’ work is that it refuses to accept the dominant neoliberal rhetoric of

Malevich, Kazimir. Teapot, 1923. An example of early Soviet art's interest in moving away from "art" into "everyday life."

Malevich, Kazimir. Teapot, 1923. An example of early Soviet art’s interest in moving away from “art” into “everyday life.”

Stalinist socialist realism as a primitivistic retrogression from what was perceived as the Russian avant-garde’s futuristic project of dissolving art into everyday life. Rather than celebrating the avant-grade and condemning Stalin’s totalitarian political and artistic aesthetic (which the American avant-gardists and cultural institutions seems to have a penchant for, from the 60s until today), Groys lucidly traces Stalin’s socialist realism as a logical and organic synthesis of the bourgeios contradictions of the avant-garde. For Groys, socialist realism is the triumph of the modernist project which the avant-garde set out but failed to accomplish.


Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square (1915, oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm) or The Black Square, typifies the Russian avant-garde’s aim to dissolve art as a material and sensual object ( or as a “spectacle,” to loosely borrow Debord’s term) in order to bring out the essence which all artistic innovations attempt (but fail) to reach. Malevich’s early works serves as a prelude to the consistent theme in Soviet art to end all connections with the past.

Numerous avant-gardist movements emerged and tried to gain hegemony in Russia upon the Bolshevik’s victory in the Russian revolution. Influenced by Fillipo Marinetti’s futurism, the avant garde is essentially a totalitarian movement in the sense that it aimed to incorporate art to the everyday life of new society that the Bolsheviks’ are setting out to create. However, Groys pointed out that the divisiveness and the carreerism of the avant-gardists prevented this feat from happening. Artists attempted to penetrate the political structure so they can gain hegemony over other artists. This is despite the fact that it is their common aim to bring down art from its privileged pedestal into “cogs and wheels” of the revolutionary movement, as Lenin has stated. Lenin, admitting that he does not have enough knowledge to problematize things such as art, left the cultural aspect of the revolution at the hands of the avant-garde in a relatively liberal fashion. Being essentially bourgeios, artist commitment to actualizing the socialist project vary from group to group and artist to artist, and this pluralism put the new Soviet artists at the center of the Western (bourgeois) art world’s attention, thereby undermining the essence of the avant garde itself. Stalin’s entry into political power, however, changed the landscape entirely, both literally and

El Lissitzky's "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" is as literal and symbolic as a propaganda gets.

El Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is as literal and symbolic as a propaganda gets.

figuratively. With Stalin’s radical industrialization attempts and aggressive political and economic policies, his power also aimed to consolidate the artistic community under a single unit that serves the interests of the revolution. This aesthetic came out to be Socialist Realism, and not all avant gardists embraced it fully. Yet the baffling contradiction, as Groys points out, is that this is precisely what the avant-garde wanted: a total and violent restructuring of society towards a new world. Stalin did what the middle-class sensibilities of the avant-garde prevents them from doing so.   Stalin’s Total Art Stalin’s total hegemony on all aspects of everyday life is precisely what the avant-garde wanted to attain.

Karp Demyanovich Trokhimenko: "Stalin as an Organizer of the October Revolution". Oil on canvas, 85 x 117 cm

Karp Demyanovich Trokhimenko: “Stalin as an Organizer of the October Revolution”. Oil on canvas, 85 x 117 cm

Socialist realism, therefore, is the consummation of the modernist project. In the West, postmodernism is often defined as what emerged after modernism ‘failed,’ yet the sheer power and the revolutionary actualization of what was perceived to be a utopian dream of Stalin’s Russia typified the new world that the avant gardists aimed to create. With the collective power of a whole nation and a strong will for discipline, the whole Soviet Russia became a totally new “work of art” in itself. Perhaps what Groys is attempting to elucidate is how the avant-garde pursuit for the dissolving the ‘ego,’ ‘the Author,’ ‘the Artist’ and the glorification of the process and not of the product imply a huge quantum leap into real and symbolic violence. With contemporary arts’ fascination in displacing the authority of the producer, what Groys tries to imply is that all artistic innovations aim towards self-annihilation, and this requires a total, passionate and self-sacrificing commitment for the collective revolutionary project of transforming the world.

Form is Political, Too

For art and literature students, the title seems a well-established truism. Trendier names such as Raymond Williams and Jacques Rancière have repeatedly asserted the political dimension of form, yet even the most popular of red-heads such as Lenin and Mao have already stressed the importance of having a grasp on artistic form with regards to the aesthetic formulation of radical political content.

Yet today, the classical dichotomy of form vs content remains to be touted everywhere from art journals to drunk-talks as if the two are separate categories that remain independent of each other. As for art products and propaganda materials, the running dialogue remains to be the supremacy of the political message in the agitative and critical function of political art.

While I do not want to dwell on these issues as they warrant a separate, lengthier and more pretentious-sounding write-up, I just want to give an update on some of the more interesting contemporary art in Baguio and the North that I had seen so far, and its relation to the importance of form.

Kervin Calabias’ and Kaisa Aquino’s Purge seems like your typical terse aphorism rant zine, but it is not. Working under the simple concept of scanning objects in an office scanner (perhaps our archetypal present-day “machine”) and superimposing words on these images, Purge functions as its name implies: a purging of thoughts repressed by the dehumanizing rituals of work. Purge is interesting not only because of its formal novelty but more so because it presents a critique which refers back to its own conditions of production. Works of art that accept their limitations is something of a rarity in today’s perfectionist, product-obsessed cultural market. And hey, you can read it for free!

Pedanic Pedestrians’ Oncept Series is a series of formalist experiments which attempt to explore the possibilities of poetic articulation beyond traditional lyrical poetry. This series of pseudo-poetic is almost devoid of political content, except “Trees” which juxtaposes Joyce Kilmer’s classic poem with Baguio Congressman Nick Aliping’s cutting of 300+ trees to give way to his property. This attempt to focus on the formal aspect of digital and non-digital poetry is driven by the need to create a new artistic grammar that breaks away from established forms which carry their own political implications.

Ka Arman, the nome de guere of Arman Albarillo, is a guerilla fighter for the New People’s Army. He was also a human rights activist. He was killed in combat by units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. An exhibit was held in his memory in the University of the Philippines, sponsored by the Dap-ayan ti Kultura iti Kordilyera (DKK) and his family and friends.

What is interesting about Ka Arman is not only his passionate dedication to the armed struggle but also his works. Most of his works can be traced by far into the 80s and 90s. Like most revolutionary artists, his works depict the harsh realities of living in a semi-feudal and semi-colonial hukbo2society such as the Philippines. However, as one navigates his work chronologically, his style transitioned from the bold and realistic strokes typical of socialist realism into a less detailed and almost impressionistic painting style.

Of course, there is nothing new with Seuratian pointillism, which is obviously Ka Arman’s preferred style during his years as a guerilla fighter, but the conceptual shift from the poverty-focused, angst-tinged ‘realism’ into a more idealized, simpler, yet politically-charged style is a great insight for radical artists who wanted to break free from shock-and-awe aesthetics and poverty-porn madness which is fetishized in today’s art market.

Last July, militant groups in Baguio city staged a mobilization dubbed as “SONA ng Bayan” as a reaction to BS Aquino’s State of the Nation address. Kabataan Partylist Cordillera and the DKK, however, added elements of impromptu theater performances during the rally. Instructed with the the simple script of actors dressed as pigs (the corrupt government) heckling the people of the Cordillera, a whole organic performance was dramatized throughout the mobilization until the mobilization culminates in a unified program where an effigy of the Noynoy as the “Pork Barrel King” was burned. This organized yet spontaneous dramatization of the country’s political conditions disengages the actors from the privileged confines of the “stage,” the fourth wall” and the conditions of the dramatization’s fictionality.

Because the dramatization points back the performance into the reality from which it was born, the tight-lipped middle-class aura of

photo from here:

photo from Kabataan Partylist Cordillera Facebook account

art is dissolved. The performance has no audience since it has programmed itself to include the “audience” as participants. Yet it transcends the typical anarchic spirit of  “performance art” because in the end it allows the viewers to enter a narrative, in which the Pork Barrel King is eventually burned, not by some artist group but by their own projected collective anger.

All of these brings me to my point regarding the essentially unchanging yet worsening political, cultural and economic conditions of the country and the need to create new forms that can articulate these conditions (content) in more creative ways. This is precisely because neoliberalism cannot change the “content” but it can produce distortions of the formal representations of the content, and can even assimilate resistant forms to render them impotent. In today’s society of profit-driven spectacle, innovative forms of resistance will certainly be of merit.

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# WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// The Spikes Are Not the Problem, Homelessness Is

John Levi Masuli:

had some thoughts on how capitalistic aggression can manifest under the pretense of “design” and “aesthetics,” especially since non-homeless people do not perceive the spikes as an offense against them but rather just a whimsical attempt to change urban scenery

Originally posted on The Funambulist:

There has been a recent outcry on the Internet after the wide spreading of a series of photographs showing metallic/concrete spikes on stone thresholds, planters and other surfaces that could potentially be used by homeless people in order to sleep. Judging the motivations of people who have been part of this outcry is not my place here; however one cannot help but to notice the hyper-punctuality of this kind of conversations on the Internet that, too often, restraint themselves to 140 characters of indignation with no subsequent political traction. The very fact that many people seem to have just discovered this anti-homeless material device for the first time in these coming weeks is telling of the triviality with which they consider the public space of the cities in which they live. The problem here is not as much the evanescence of this outcry — after all, it could have sensitized a few people — but…

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The impotence of art theory

We also have seen a proliferation of theories and practices that aim to account for these contradictions, or to confront them from within, or to escape them by proposing or creating alternatives. I myself have long argued that the critical and political potential of art lies in its very embeddedness in a deeply conflictual social field, which can only be confronted effectively in situ. From this perspective it would seem that the apparent contradictions between the critical and political claims of art and its economic conditions are not contradictions at all but rather attest to the vitality of the art world as a site of critique and contestation, as these practices develop in scope and complexity to confront the challenges of globalization, neoliberalism, post-Fordism, new regimes of spectacle, the debt crisis, right-wing populism, and now historic levels of inequality. And if some or even most of these practices prove ineffectual, or readily absorbed, with their truly radical elements marginalized or quickly outmoded, new theories and strategies immediately emerge in their place—in an ongoing process that now seems to serve as one of the art world’s primary motors of content production.

With each passing year, however, rather than diminishing the art world’s contradictions, these theories and practices only seem to expand along with them.

Andrea Fraser, “There’s No Place Like Home” from Texts, Scripts, and Transcripts, here

On musical virtuosity

The idea of the musical ‘virtuoso’ has often been attributed to individuals who display mastery in their respective instruments, often with reference to their technical skills in matters of melody, harmony, rythym. Virtuosity has become the hallmark of musical genius, the pinnacle of every musical modernity, may it be in classical music, jazz, and to some fetishistic extent, pop music.

Yet as the virtuoso’s claim of dominance over his/her instrument of choice is not the prime element in determining his/her importance in the industry of the musical arts, so is the concept of ‘genius,’ the hero of the modern, a fragile, if not altogether defeated, concept in music. While modern virtuosos/prodigies such as Mozart and Art Tatum have undoubtedly contributed to the development of music in their respective fields, contemporary virtuosos are generally ostracized in the post-modern musical market. Words such as ‘lo-fi,’ ‘garage,’ and quite interestingly, ‘humanized’ are currently in vogue, with much credit to the anti-virtuoistic and democratizing revolutions of punk and similar movements. Musical minimalism from the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the ‘film-score generation’ of musicians have rejected the formal excesses of musical modernity. This perfectly makes sense, since Arnold Schoenberg’s mantra of ‘emancipation of the dissonance’ single-handedly dissolved centuries of classical tradition based on Bach’s well-tempered organization of tones, and even more popular genres such as rock and jazz have messed with free-jazz inspired atonality. If the logical conclusion of all musical experimentation is everything is possible, then what is left to be explored?

Interestingly, trends in critical theory have also dismantled the notion of ‘mastery’ in all arts, replacing the centuries-old concept with the idea of ‘rituals’: musical practice and pedagogy have already organized even the very abstract idea of musical expression (that is why we have these so-called ‘jazz cliches,’ idioms and devices that seek to convey a particular musical idea). With music departing from a mere expression of a extemporaneous idea into a intermixing of idioms and pre-learned devices, it cannot be untrue that musical composition and performance is ‘ritualized,’ meaning the musical object has become a mere constructed object, similar to a building that cannot actualize its buildingness if built on sand. Due to this, virtuosity has become fetishized, a meaningless act carrying the prospect of profit. Rock stars like Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and the very concept of the G3 rock supergroup capitalizes on this fetishization, producing listeners who think that any guitar player who doesn’t sweep-pick and tap is boring and unskilled. Search Youtube for the keyword “sweep-picking lesson” and you will literally thousands of lessons instructing you how to play like Malmsteen, some even selling books and materials specifically for the matter. Search Google with the keyword “how to play jazz” and you will see a lot of jazz musicians who are willing to tell you the ‘secrets’ of jazz, each promising you to sound like a legitimate jazz cat after watching the lesson. You know what happens when we spill secrets, like in the famous tv series revealing the secret behind a magician’s tricks. It spoils the fun.

It is fortunate that Philippine indigenous music was grounded on a very different musical psychology, one that doesn’t share Western music’s division between performer and audience.Indigenous music in the Philippines have a strong cultural character, meaning that a musical performance is more than a display of musical skill but a cultural act, a collective performance that gives primacy to the meaning of performance rather than the level of mastery of the individual performers. While drone music, repeatitive music, aleatoric music and other permutations of the minimalist strand have only emerged in the post-tonal stage of Western music, indigenous Filipinos have long been engaged in these types of sonic organization, all without the usual artist vs The Institution drama.

Filipino virtuosos in classical and pop music have been recognized throughout the country’s musical history, yet despite the high levels of virtuosity that these particular musicians displayed, less than few of them have garnered international recognition. This spells much the political, if not altogether economic and cultural, aspect of virtuosity: the virtuoso is Westerner’s wet dream, and those outside the circle of global musical production will only be recognized if they are truly great or they play 10 different musical instruments at a time, and are blind and poor, as the Philipppines should be. Virtuosity is inhererently a political issue, and if Filipino musicians really wanted to create something new that will distinguish them from the others, throwing virtuosity to the trash would be a start.