I attended the Left Forum in New York to chair two panels and to MC (and also play) at the Left Forum’s musical evening. The panels were called Art Against Capitalism (I & II), and two were needed to provide all the speakers adequate time to present. The panel description read as follows:
“Capitalism needs art but art does not need capitalism. Art has the capacity to envision the future as well as to attack present suffering and injustice. Art-making has, furthermore, the capacity to engage people in practices that are themselves the embodiment of ideals such as equality, collectivity, creativity and imaginative exploration. All these dimensions of art both as ends (artworks) and means (art-making practices) militate against rigid limits and outright suppression resulting from capitalism, its ideology and its structures of production and distribution. What this panel seeks to explore are examples of present practices directed against such restriction and suppression as well the envisioning of art and art-making in a new world free of capitalism altogether.”
Joining me on the first panel was Eli Smith, a banjo player, writer, researcher and promoter of folk music living in Brooklyn, NY. Eli is a Smithsonian Folkways recording artist and produces two folk festivals annually, the Brooklyn Folk Festival in the Spring and Washington Square Park Folk Festival in the Fall. He has appeared as a guest on terrestrial radio stations such as WBAI, WNYC, WKCR and WDST in New York and KPFA, KPFK and KUCI in California. Eli has presented panels and discussions on folk music at the Left Forum conference and at the Podcamp podcasting conference in New York City. In 2004 He traveled to Caracas, Venezuela as an American delegate to the Encuentro Mundial de Intelectuales y Artistas “En Defense de la Humanidad” (World Encounter of Intellectuals and Artists “for the Defense of Humanity). Eli also served as music consultant for the Civil War film “Racing Daylight” (2007). He has performed and recorded with his old time string band The Down Hill Strugglers, as well as with Peter Stampfel and John Cohen. The Down Hill Strugglers were recently featured on the soundtrack album to the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis”, which was produced by T Bone Burnett.
Eli and I presented complimentary talks about the past, present and future in art practices and artistic imagination. While the focus was the United States, especially the development of explicitly anti-capitalist art in the post Civil War era, attention was drawn to the similarities between artistic movements in the US and those in virtually every corner of the globe. Indeed, the role of internationalism and the anti-colonial struggle in the period following World War II was referenced in both mine and Eli’s discussion. Still, the main focus of Eli’s talk was American Folk Music, its “discovery” by Charles Seeger and its emergence in the years between World Wars I and II as the “anti-capitalist”-“pro-workers” music par excellence. The Civil Rights Movement, the Folk Music Revival and the steady growth of opposition to the war in Vietnam, were closely linked as is well known. Eli brought fresh perspective, however, because he brought us up to date with his own experience as founder and director of two folk festivals currently enjoying success testimony to the vitality of a decidedly anti-commercial trend among young music-makers today.
My own presentation was based on the chapter I contributed to the book Imagine Living in a Socialist USA. The chapter is entitled Imagining Art After Capitalism, an exploration of possibilities, focusing especially on the education of artists and arts in the education of all. I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout (about forty people came to each of the two panels) and by the lively participation in Q&A. It is readily apparent that many people have a keen interest in the subject, recognizing both its potential in the struggle against capitalism and its necessity for humanity’s renewal.
Art Against Capitalism II featured Demetrius Noble and Eroc Arroyo-Montano. Demetrius is an activist and nationally renowned spoken word artist. He currently serves as an adjunct professor in the African American and Diaspora Studies department at University of North Carolina, Greensboro and plans on pursuing a doctoral degree in either Literature or American Studies. His research interests include Marxism, Critical Race Theory, African American Literature, Popular Culture and Hip Hop Studies. His work has been published in The African American Review, The Journal of Pan African Studies and The Journal of Black Masculinity. As an activist, Noble prides himself on being a radical cultural worker. He specializes in organizing (and performing in) grassroots community spaces that draw an explicit connection to the role of art and culture in the struggle to forge a revolutionary working-class movement.
Eroc Arroyo-Montano is a father, youth worker, social justice activist, writer, and musician. He represents one-half of the well-known radical hip hop group,The Foundation. Recognized for both their music and their community activism, The Foundation Movement has also been honored by the Urban Music Awards with the award for Best Hip Hop Group, the M.I.C. Hip Hop Awards with the award for Performer of the Year, and the Survivors of Violence with a Community Star Award. They’re committed to addressing issues of injustice and oppression, while also entertaining crowds with hot beats and relevant lyrics. Foundation Movement has shared the stage with KRS-One, Rakim, Angela Davis, The Last Poets, Noam Chomsky, X-Clan, Dead Prez, The Coup, C.L. Smooth, Pharoahe Monch, Greg Nice, Michael Franti/Spearhead, Saul Williams, Edo.g, Medusa, Howard Zinn, Wise Intelligent/Poor Righteous Teachers, Soulfege, Lee Wilson, Supernatural, Billy Bragg, Mr. LIF and Amiri Baraka. They have also performed in Canada, Europe, Bahamas, Japan, South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya, Israel and Palestine. Chosen as Boston’s Best Hip Hop Act in the Improper Bostonian’s Best of Boston Issue, the Foundation Movement continues to be one of Boston’s top Hip-Hop acts, with songs crafted with creativity and balance.
Demetrius and Eroc not only spoke but gave stirring performances which perfectly exemplified art against capitalism. Their contributions greatly enhanced the historical and theoretical presentations made by other panelists, proving beyond doubt that the creative imagination is alive and well. By emphasizing the close association of artistic expression and political activism, Demetrius and Eroc completely demolish the notion that today’s youth are disinterested and uninvolved or that popular culture is a wasteland of commodified pabulum. Their work is excellent by any measure, providing powerful evidence that the struggle for freedom is a great source of inspiration for talented artists.
All in all, Art Against Capitalism was a successful intervention in a much needed debate. We’ll be revisiting this theme often in the months and years ahead.