The Nov-Dec 1968 issue of Radical America, on Radicalism and Culture, included an article “Toward a Theory of Revolutionary Culture,” by David Gross, then a grad student at Wisconsin, now a prof at UC Boulder.

Gross differentiates  between culture as “the appreciation of eternal values” and familiarity with certain “elevating thoughts of former ages” [high culture as we might term it] and a sort of vulgarlized notion of culture as a veneer of acoomplishment useful for class mobility, “culture as knowledge and knowledge as power.” As Gross works his way through a declension narrative tracing the evolution of the concept, he arrives at the second industrial revolution era where culture becomes a possession “certain kinds of cultural objects” that impute status simply by their display.  Moving via Veblen from Adorno into Benjamin Gross reaches mass culture “the very processes themselves” of capitalism become constituent of culture itself, particularly as embodied by “the entertainment industry,” which perpetuates “false consciousness.”

Gross, following a host of Frankfurt school authors, calls for the New Left to creat a culture that is oppositional, what he terms “radical utopianism,” building from Marcuse, in which art is transformative, via critical perception, of everyday, particularly by re-valuing the debased or ignored. This new culture, qua Gramsci, must engage with “civil society,” rather than with some notion of the transcendent. While of course feminist art and women’s culture had yet to be invented, these notions of how culture could do revolutionary work are present in many of the writings of women’s liberationists, that the everyday “women’s world” could become aesthetic content while performing in the public sphere.

Jeremy Shapiro, then a grad student at Brandeis, now at the Fielding Graduate Institute, offered a response to Gross, “Notes on a Radical Theory of Culture.” Shapiro also insists that material conditions have evolved historically such that Marxists “must develop a strategy and tactics of cultural revolution” that incorporate “economic and political revolution” into “a unified theory and practice.” Shapiro, while still drawing on Marcuse, argues not so much from the perspective of the Frankfurt school theorists, but from the idea that culture was implicit in Marx already: “science, as a form of ‘intellectual culture’ (super-structure), enters into the base. Culture, economics, and politics are integrated in a new way.”

While Shapiro quibbles with the historical periodization of Gross’ narrative, his more serious attack aims at the “bourgeois” inner nature of the culture deployed by Gross, as well as the depiction of the “utopian” “humanitarian” aspects of a revolutionary culture, which Shapiro concludes are merely “utopian surrealist constructivist futurist supremacist Bauhaus” redux.

Shapiro’s real target is mass culture, as referenced by his use of McLuahn, which he aruges coopts the radicalism of any avant garde by commodifying and fetishizing. While Shapiro admits the possibility of “aesthetically pleasing art works … that are also morally and politically committed” he restricts their existence to a rarified subculture of “the radical community” (reminds me of women’s community envisioned artists in the WLM) where they exists merely as “ ‘nicer’ commodities” without a concomitant “revolutionary effect.” Shapiro concludes “radical art theories will not call into being radical art,” but may do maintenance work for the radical community.

In order to de-commodify the radical work of art, a goal shared by artists in the women’s liberation movement, Shapiro instead posits a radical art of “experience,” which he terms

negative experience … a unity of thought , perception, and imagination in which things, people, and processes are experienced in terms of their potentialities, privations, and contradictions. … It is a continuous relationship to the most trivial details of daily life … It is rooted in tradition for it participates in the in the realization of the of the oft-tabooed content of past culture

This sort of deconstrucitonist spin on art is precisely what artists in the women’s liberation movement did to the concept of gender, exposing its binary constructions, laying bare its fictions, leveraging the tabooed heritage of craft in process oriented, aesthetic experiences.

However in addition to some notion of the revolutionary potential of culture, the ambivilence about the revolutionary nature of culture also carried over from the NL into women’s liberation. Activists struggled to determine what work, if any, culture could do for the cause and the question “could culture itself be the revolution” lays at the heart of the women’s culture wars.

*More evidence that it was Always Marcuse
** see also working class culture in Radical America

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