revolutionary art without a revolution: remembering the eighties

When the 1980s began, I was a nerdy little white boy in middle school in the rapidly de-industrializing Rust Belt city of Syracuse, NY. When it ended, I was a grad. student in England, but I had lived in New Haven, London, Florence, and New York City. I was interested in classical music and the history of (European) philosophy and was pretty much the opposite of hip. However, I walked around with my eyes and ears open, and my friends were less nerdy than I. So I went in tow to venues like CBGB or Dingwalls. Much more often, I rode graffitied subway cars or watched breakdancers with boom boxes.

Two recent exhibitions have brought back the aesthetics of that period and helped me to understand it a bit better.

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw were a decade older than me and from further north in the Rustbelt (Michigan), but I recognize the world they grew up in. They collected doodles drawn in ball-point pen on lined paper while the teacher wasn’t looking, fundamentalist tracts, album covers, semi-professional local ads, cable-access shows, comics, sci-fi paperbacks, D&D manuals, second-hand children’s book covers, toy packages from the dime store, pinups, and posters for high school plays. They imitated that material and mashed it together in their gallery art and for the stage performances of their punk band Destroy All Monsters.* I got to see samples of their work in “Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw” (MSU Broad Museum).

Born 6-8 years later than Shaw and Kelley, but famous when he was very young, Jean-Michel Basquiat mashed up Gray’s Anatomy (the book), old master paintings, documents from Black history, graphic symbols, sci-fi, jazz album covers, expressionist and pop art, found objects, and graffiti to make his groundbreaking work, which is featured in the Boston MFA’s Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation.

Basquiat’s drawings and paintings are very striking, but it’s possible that the music videos steal the show. In Blondie’s Rapture (1981), which you can watch any time on YouTube, Basquiat is the DJ because Grandmaster Flash failed to show up for the filming. As Debbie Henry switches from punk to rap, she sings:

Fab Five Freddie told me everybody’s high
DJ’s spinnin’ are savin’ my mind
Flash is fast, Flash is cool
Francois sez fas, Flashe’ no do

That Haitian creole must be for Basquiat. Henry was the first person to purchase one of Basquiat’s works. It was news to me how closely punk and rap were intertwined.

Six years before this video, New York City had narrowly averted municipal bankruptcy. The subway had the highest crime rate of any mass transit system in the world and suffered from severe maintenance problems. A big part of the reason that graffiti artists could live in squats in lower Manhattan and paint whole trains was the economic crisis of the city. Meanwhile, the US auto industry that had sustained both urban Michigan and my Upstate New York hometown was shedding jobs. Between 1978 and 1982, 43% of automotive jobs (about half a million positions) were lost. No wonder Henry sings:

You go out at night, eatin’ cars
You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too
Mercury’s and Subaru’s
And you don’t stop, you keep on eatin’ cars

“Rapture” was filmed in the deep recession year of 1981, when the Dow was down along with the rest of the economy. But as the decade progressed, markets rebounded and the culture celebrated finance—more, I would say, than industry or small business. It was the decade of Wall Street. And Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park is just 2.4 miles from Tomkins Square Park, the center of the bohemia portrayed in “Rapture.”

Basquiat’s art is explicitly anti-capitalist. I assume that artists who covered whole subway cars with their work considered the government that owned those trains as basically illegitimate and proposed a different form of ownership. Yet Basquiat started to make a lot of money in Manhattan gallery shows. Several of his close associates also moved from the economic margin to the center of the economic universe. For instance, in 1983, Basquiat and his girlfriend Madonna lived together in the Venice, CA studio of the art dealer Larry Gagosian (later known as “Go-Go” for his business acumen). Madonna was a legitimate member of the same bohemia as Basquiat, but she was on her way to selling 300 million records as the Material Girl. Even “Rapture,” which depicts a bunch of East Villagers who wouldn’t have a lot of money in their pockets, was beamed into millions of suburban rec. rooms through MTV.

Race was another dynamic. In places like Syracuse, Black/white racial integration reached its historic high. The school district implemented an ambitious desegregation plan. The ratio of African Americans to whites in the city’s population was also more balanced than it is in today’s “hyper-segregated” metro area. Syracuse has lost 35% of its population since 1950 in a process of suburbanization and re-segregation that was just getting started in the ’80s. Kelley and Shaw were white, and their musical genre was punk, but you can observe them admiring their Black counterparts from close up. Basquiat became famous in a predominantly white world but remained socially very close to Black and Caribbean New Yorkers. There was money to be made packaging rap for white teenagers, and money to be made subverting Reagan’s America in art or music.

A hostile critic would charge the ’80s bohemians with hypocrisy or even nihilism. (Those trains didn’t belong to them; most citizens preferred a subway without graffiti.) But I see pathos. This was revolutionary art without a revolution, an expression of left radicalism at a time when the deep cultural movement was rightward.

*this paragraph is self-plagiarized from Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescence.

Campus Compact podcast

This is the audio of my friend Andrew Seligsohn, the President of Campus Compact, interviewing me earlier this week about the election, what it tells us about civic life, and what we should do next. I enjoyed it and appreciated the opportunity. Follow Campus Compact for other #CompactNation podcasts.

modus vivendi theory

I am preparing for a weekend conference on modus vivendi–on how people can coexist peacefully even if they do not like each other one bit. The conference was planned a long time ago and has a global scope. Nevertheless, it feels timely to an American after the 2020 election.

Some of the papers are works of abstract political theory, with references to Hobbes and modern liberal or communitarian philosophers. Some are empirical, discussing the possibilities of trust and agreement when people differ. Some of them are about consociational and polycentric governance arrangements–when there isn’t one centralized state or one big market but several heterogeneous entities govern simultaneously. And some of the readings are about concrete situations. For instance, I highly recommend Informal Order and State in Afghanistan, by Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili.

I think one of the unresolved issues is whether to reduce interaction in order to preserve peace and liberty or to encourage interaction by decentralizing power so that people who dislike each other can still negotiate intensively without feeling that one group might use the state to dominate the others.

Murtazashvili depicts local governance in Afghanistan as a complex network of local leaders who have overlapping and limited powers and who collaborate quite often and compete for public support. This implies a lot of negotiation and communication. The overall system is adaptive, not rigidly traditionalist. One of the advantages of polycentrism, Paul Dragos Aligica emphasizes, is its openness to local experiments that others can observe and imitate (pp. 66-69). In short, polycentrism is helpful for learning, and we might expect people in a polycentric order to converge about what they learn over time. They would become more similar.

A different model is a classic consosiational arrangement, such Belgium, which allows different religious and linguistic communities to manage their own affairs independently and without much interaction. Shadi Hamid is convinced that religions are divided by fundamental normative assumptions, and when such divisions arise, it can be wisest to reduce interaction–to send the parties into their respective corners. “Sometimes, reducing contact between opposing sides and allowing for autonomous communities are ways of accepting that some differences cannot be bridged” (p. 36).

In the US context, it seems plausible that reducing the imprint of the national government might lower the temperature of partisan division. The problem with that solution is that some of us have strong commitments to federal intervention, whether on climate change, racial equity, or responses to COVID-19. Telling everyone to disengage at the national level so that the states and localities can do their own thing is biased toward some of the states and localities–the ones that vote for less rather than more social welfare. And it leaves minorities in each state exposed. I don’t think you can predict that progressives will stop demanding national policies, and I am not sure that we should stop.

But we could think about ways to address genuine common problems with a minimal footprint on the values that divide us most deeply. And you can think about that even when the values (e.g., racial or gender equity) are very worthy. I have long favored emphasizing cash transfers over behavioral interventions for this reason. I think that trying to change people’s behavior threatens liberty. It also provokes distrust that undermines the capacity of the national government. This is true even when the goal of an intervention is most worthy, such as educating against racism.

A strategy of lowering partisan polarization by reducing the explicit footprint of the national government may or may not work. And it doesn’t necessarily tell us clearly what we should actually do. For instance, you could argue that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade and allows states to ban abortion, the partisan temperature will fall as more people become satisfied by the policy in their own state. (This is the decentralized-democracy argument.) But you could also argue that if the government (at any level) is forbidden to ban abortion, the choice becomes personal, which is much more decentralized and prevents battles over state laws. (This is the liberal argument.) So far, we can see that Roe had worsened polarization, but we don’t know whether repealing it would reduce polarization or take it up another notch.

Another example: Tufts is going through an intense conversation about anti-Black racism. Very few people in our campus community evidently supported Donald Trump. Trump voters appear as an out-group, characterized either as complicit with racism or as people to be understood better–but not as part of the community. If people who voted for Trump were better represented at Tufts, the temperature might rise through the roof. I do not believe that the already complex conversations would survive that extra dimension of plurality.

Modus vivendi theory might say: It’s good that we have a heterogeneous, voluntary system of higher education. Let Tufts people go to their corner and have their own hard, important conversations, while Trump voters assemble in other places if they want to. Or modus vivendi theory might say: We need pluralism within institutions devoted to learning. Places like Tufts are relatively homogeneous ideologically. That is bad, and the solution is for the institution to say less in its own name so that a wider variety of views feel fully welcome. (Or maybe there are other ways of addressing this issue that don’t require modus vivendi at all.)

The idea of modus vivendi theory can be opposed to democratic, liberal, social-welfarist, and deliberative theories, but it’s also possible that negotiating a modus vivendi is the best way to advance those values when antipathies run high. In any case, I think there is much to be learned from this body of thought.

Cited sources: Paul Dragos Aligica, Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond (Oxford, 2014); Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, Informal Order and State in Afghanistan (Cambridge, 2016); and Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Shaping the World (St Martin’s, 2016). See also: polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth); racial pluralism in schools reduces discussion of politics, and what to do about that;  why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); etc.

upcoming public events

Now that all of life occurs on Zoom, it’s easy to join events like these:

Tufts 2020 COVID-19 Research Symposium: Research. Policy. Solutions. Nov 17-18, 9:00-2:00. #TuftsCOVIDResearch

The Tufts 2020 COVID-19 Research Symposium will be two half-days of panels and talks on many aspects of the pandemic: biomedical, public health, economic, political, and more. I have served on the planning committee and will moderate the panel on “Equity in the COVID-19 Pandemic” (Nov 18, 1:00pm – 1:45pm). People who read this blog may also be interested in the panel on “Cultural and Political Impacts of Disinformation in the Pandemic,” Nov. 18, 10:00am – 10:40am. The keynote speakers for the event as a whole are Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, World Health Organization and Dr. Eric Rubin, Editor-in-Chief, New England Journal of Medicine. All of the presentations will be open to the public. Register here.

The Upswing: How America Came?Together a Century Ago and How We?Can Do It Again, November 18, 5:30 PM

Join Tisch College for a conversation with author, professor, and thought-leader Robert Putnam, and co-author and social entrepreneur Shaylyn Romney Garrett to talk about their latest book, The Upswing: How America Came?Together a Century Ago and How We?Can Do It Again. The Upswing is an analysis of economic, social, and political trends over the 20th century, demonstrating how we have gone from an individualistic society to a more communitarian society—and then back again. How we can learn from that experience to become a stronger, more unified nation?  

I will interview Putnam and Garrett and moderate the discussion. Register here.

Mass. Humanities “Let’s Talk about our Democracy” series, “Threats to our Democracy in Historical Context,” Thurs., Nov. 19: 7:00-8:00 pm

Peter Levine, an expert on civic engagement, will moderate a conversation and audience Q & A with Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman, authors of the new book Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. By studying previous periods in history when our democracy has been in peril, they discovered four recurring threats: political polarization, racism and nativism, economic inequality, and excessive executive power. Today, for the first time in American history, all four threats are present at the same time, a convergence that marks a grave moment in our democratic experiment. Yet history also points the way to imagine a path toward repairing our civic fabric and renewing democracy. Register here.

Mass. Humanities “Let’s Talk about our Democracy” series: The Promise of Civic Renewal to Revive our Democracy, Dec. 10, 2020: 7:30-8:30

Peter Levine, an expert on civic engagement, will talk with Program Officer Jennifer Hall-Witt about a promising vision for reviving our democracy, focusing on the role that ordinary citizens can play in fostering more deliberative, collaborative, and engaged communities. This conversation will be based on the findings in his book, We are the ones we have been waiting for: the promise of civic renewal in America, which advocates for a new, citizen-centered politics capable of tackling problems that cannot be fixed in any other way.

This event will include small-group discussion in breakout rooms amongst members of the audience. Please come ready to listen and participate. Register here.

the highest turnout ever

“Turnout” is usually defined as the percentage of legally eligible people who actually vote. So defined, turnout was higher back in 1900, when no women and few African Americans were permitted to vote. But if we want to measure how democratic the society is, it’s better to ask how many people voted out of the whole population. By that measure, 2020 will be the best year in US history.

This graph assumes that 149.5 million Americans voted in 2020, although that number may actually be higher. It implies that 45 percent of the people voted. That beats the previous high of 43.9 percent in 2008. Note that the ideal rate would not be 100%, because the population includes people of all ages, even babies. But 45 percent is not high enough.

Population estimates from the decennial Census, with my own linear estimates for the intervening years. Number of votes cast from Dave Leip.