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Is Shocking People Revolutionary? 100 Years of Romanticism and Capitalism is Getting Worse

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White popular musicians rebelling against appearances

Recently I attended two music concerts in one of our local parks that were billed as a combination of soul, rhythm and blues and blues. The musicians were all white.

I am not going to argue that white people playing this kind of music is "cultural appropriation" and that they should not play it. There are wonderful white musicians historically and contemporarily who have played in all these musical forms. What I am more interested in is the appearance of the band members. Historically, music, like all the arts originally came out of sympathetic magical practices. In preparation for a magical ritual, the participants had clothing made for them or they made the clothes themselves. In addition, each participant had a very specific role. The ritual was intended to draw a line in the sand and say "what is going on here is beyond everyday life and we have to look and dress accordingly."

In western religion, singing in church was and is accompanied by a choir who had roles to play and dressed according to their role so they distinguished themselves from their audience. Historically, when black musicians began to play secular music, they continued to carry forward the same things they did in church. They dressed for the occasion. Their dance moves and the outfits were choreographed with the background singers dressed in the same color. The lead singer would be dressed in a color that might be analogous or complimentary to the background singers. If any of you remember the Temptations, the Miracles, or Gladys Knight and the Pips you know what I am talking about. In the 50's and the early 60's the white Rock 'n' Rollers also dressed up for their performances: the groups Danny and the Juniors, Dion and the Belmonts both did this.

But somewhere in the late 1960's white rock bands decided that dressing up for performances was somehow giving ground to the Establishment. So, the band members began to wear any old clothes: tee shirts, jeans, sneakers, anything that would level their relationship to the audience. In addition, each band member dressed in a way that was not coordinated with what the other band members were wearing. They made an extra effort to tell the audience, and especially whom they deemed the authorities, that they didn't give a f*ck about clothes or roles. However, the band still had to play roles, because of course, they were specialists in what instruments they played. But as much as they could, they were rebelling against the concept of taking appearances seriously. I cannot track what has become of popular music since then because, frankly, I lost interest in the kind of music that was being played. But if my recent experience in the park is any indicator, there at least some white musicians who operate with this same code of appearance fifty years later.

I am not trained as a musical critic but I spent three years working in music stores in Times Square in New York City and this job required you to become familiar with different types of music. In addition, many musicians came to our store and gave us tickets to the Apollo theater in uptown Manhattan so I've seen many musical acts. I was about 20 years old and working in a music store at the time the changes in appearance of the white musicians was taking place.

The western rebellion against appearances in philosophy

The predominant western tradition has been at war with the value of appearances for most of 2,500 years. Plato characterized appearances as deceptive, shallow, temporary and lacking of substance, while reality was true, deep and eternal. Socrates attacked the Sophists and rhetoric for very similar reasons. Mainstream Christianity, at least in theory, has seen the preoccupation with appearances as a sign of the devil's work, associated with idolatry. A true Christian got beyond the surface appearances of this world to discover the true source of reality - God - on a transcendental plane. The major philosophers of the west have been hostile to appearances, whether it be Descartes, Kant, Bradley and to a lesser extent, Leibniz, and Hegel. Those who have taken appearances seriously have been few and far between, (Hume, Locke) and the Enlightenment philosophers.

Romantic Rebellion Against The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment and the Renaissance were two intellectual movements that appreciated the magnificence of nature, whether expressed through science or through art. Neither were interested in the above, the beyond, or the transcendental. They made clear distinctions between form and content in art. In terms of clothing, the Enlightenment, while rebelling against of foppishness of aristocratic appearances, still believed in the importance of clothing because they were linked to roles people played. Like those in the Renaissance arts, Enlighteners valued the power of illusion, whether it was in perspective painting or in creating distance between the stage and the audience in their plays.

The romantic rebellion in the early 19th century was a new kind of rebellion against appearances. The importance of a person's inner essence required that they dispense with roles and appearances in order to get to the essence of the person's soul. When they did that they were being "sincere". The romantics were about tearing down boundaries: the boundaries between form and content; picture plane and reality; stage and audience; roles and inner state; the objective world and the subjective world. This boundary trampling characterized modern 20th century music, the symbolists, the Dadaists, the surrealists and the abstract expressionists.

Romanticism and the Early New Left

Beginning in the early1960's the New Left rebelled against the Old Left in a similar way as the romantics rebelled against the Enlightenment. Identity politics, with the focus on individual experience, replaced class politics; the "subjectivity" of the situationists replaced the economic analysis of capitalism. Infinite diversity replaced unity. By the mid 1970's to call for unity within diversity was seen in some sense as imperialistic. From the Frankfurt School, to postmodernism, boundaries between disciplines or genders were all signs of the Old World. But to rework the title of James Hillman's book "One Hundred Years of Therapy and the World is Getting Worse", we've had One hundred years of Romanticism and Capitalism is Getting worse.

The rebellion against appearances and roles of the musicians in the introduction to this article is part of a larger New Left movement rebellion against the Old Left and a continuation of the romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment. But here is the problem. It is one thing to wear whatever you want if you are content to exist for your entire adult life at a university as a professor or work with a liberal non-profit which prides itself in "diversity". If all the members of the New Left wanted was some kind of "lifestyle" politics, than there wouldn't be a problem. But there is a big problem. The New Left socialists are increasingly cut off from mainstream Americans and capitalism is getting worse for 90% of the population.

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Barbara MacLean and Bruce Lerro are co-founders and organizers for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter. http://planningbeyondcapitalism.org/

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