THE CULTURE THAT WASN'T ART
Bakhtin, from personal experience, knew about unofficial culture, private terror, darkness and irony, for at the age of 34 the Stalinist State sentenced him to six years of internal exile in Kazakhstan for alleged involvement with the underground Orthodox church. After his release he taught at a remote teachers college for 25 years, struggling to get his work published and even publishing work under assumed names. Although written in the 1940s Rabelais and His World wasn't published in Russia until 1965.
It was Bakhtin's declared intention in resurrecting the lost life of the mediaeval carnival to contextualise the misunderstood Rabelais in the academic study of the accepted canon of Renaissance literature. But 'Rabelais and His World' also carried the suppressed hope of the ancient carnival against the state culture of Stalinism.
Published in the west in 1968, Bakhtin's study of carnival was eventually taken up by English speaking cultural theorists in the 1970s-80s, integrated into radical Theory as a theoretical model and applied to various texts, authors and cultural formations : Shelley, Joyce, Beckett, Soviet Yiddish literature,1 and most recently Punk rock 2. In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression published in 1986, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White produce a compelling and convincing study of culture and social class according to carnival theory :
'By focusing on the the 'taboo-laden' overlap between high and low discourse which produces the grotesque, we have tried to effect a transposition of the Bakhtinian conception of the carnivalesque into a framework which makes it analytically powerful in the study of ideological repertoires and cultural practices.
If we treat the carnivalesque as an instance of a wider phenomenon of transgression we move beyond Bakhtin's troublesome folkloric approach to a political anthropology of binary extremism in class society. This transposition not only moves us beyond the rather unproductive debate over whether carnivals are politically progressive or conservative, it reveals that the underlying structural features of carnival operate far beyond the strict confines of popular festivity and are intrinsic to dialectics of social classification as such.' 3
This quote raises what will later become a central contention in this text. Stallybrass and White construct their carnival theory out of a re-working of Bakhtin and an amalgam of Marxist Cultural Studies, Post-Structuralism and Post-Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. The insight and historical context that their work provides is invaluable, but the problem is that in spite of their materialist position, like many other Carnivalists, they have constructed an idealist model. Stallybrass and White' s Carnival is not a utopian mediaeval celebration, it is a conceptual framework which reveals underlying structures and binary dialectics. Moreover they have not moved beyond the 'unproductive debate' of politics, because there is nowhere beyond politics to move.
A concept of Carnival occupies the minds and texts of the academic institution of Theory......Romanticism is a carnival for bourgeois culture...but what happened to the actual carnival ?
If we agree with Bakhtin that the mediaeval carnival developed out of thousands of years of folk culture and that the carnival thrived over many centuries, are we then to believe that this tradition disappeared with the Renaissance and the supersession of cyclical time? Or that the Romantic grotesque was the final vestigial trace ?
Bakhtin believed that the carnival 'principle' was indestructible, Stallybrass and White trace a historic migration of the fairs and parades of the carnival to the seaside holiday resorts, the limits of the land. The premise of this text is that there was no end to the carnival, that in fact it is a defining feature of a continuous but mercurial popular/folk tradition which can be mapped out of prehistory to the present. This text is not going to analyse elements of carnival in the paintings of Frida Kahlo or to interpret the films of Peter Greenaway using carnival theory. Neither is it going to site the production of the grotesque at the overlap of high and low culture or to seek the carnival in the murky 'subconscious' of the bourgeois subject 4 . In this text carnival is not a theory or a model it is a living tradition, it is made of people and things, it can be experienced ( in fact I know how to make it happen and I will soon tell you how to do it). And because this popular culture is a living tradition it cannot be essentialised into an ahistorical model, analytical tool or binary opposition.... we shall have to live with the troublesome folkloric approach.
As to whether carnival is 'politically progressive or conservative' , that depends on the carnival and who we can get to come.
The carnival still lives on November the 5th, when all over England fireworks light up the night and crowds burn the effigy of the traitor Guy Fawkes, the hated Catholic, the beloved destroyer, the pagan Year King. Carnival tradition is at the rave, the car boot sale, the free festival, the Blackpool illuminations, the football match, the custom car cruise, the bowling alley, the clubs of Ibiza, the Dr Who convention, the pub, the Exploding Cinema. The carnival tradition of popular culture winds through history transforming, mutating, diverging and combining. Its history is ambivalent, it was loathed and feared by the emergent bourgeois class who sought to suppress and control it, and yet it was also commodified, industrialised and economised by the bourgeoisie into the mass popular culture of the 20th century. It is the popular which is the key determinant in the development of cinema in the 1890s and the emergence of Underground Cinema in the late 50s /early 60s. This is not to mythologise the utopian power of popular culture without acknowledging the history of popular racism, sectarianism, patriarchy, homophobia, mob violence and persecution which also lies in the carnival tradition. Neither is it to disregard the hegemonic and colonial exploitation of the mass media by the state. But it is to contend that popular culture developed from an unbroken tradition beginning in the folk rituals of ancient paganism, that it became an unofficial utopian life of the people and that the bourgeois institution of Art constituted itself by systematically excluding it.
This last point is critical, because whereas modern popular culture developed as a chaotic interaction of folk culture, commerce, prohibition and technology, producing boundless and divergent cultural forms, the autonomisation of Art as an institution is a historical process of limiting , eliminating or controlling all interaction that threatens the bourgeoisie fetishisation of feudal power. This is the tragedy of the bourgeoisie, that although they could not apply their revolutionary industrial and management techniques to the Art they worshipped ,they could apply them to the popular culture they held in contempt.
The historical interaction between popular culture and Art (Warhol, Koons, Young British Art etc.) does not and cannot threaten the autonomy of Art because since Dada and the 'ready made' the Artist has become the generator of aura able to bestow sacred and feudal power even upon mass produced popular culture. This is why one frame of a comic book enlarged by Roy Lichtenstein is Art and entire comic books of 150 frames by Jack Kirby are not. And why Douglas Gordon the 1996 Tate Prize winner was able to project a slightly slowed down loop of footage from the 1934 version of 'Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde' at the Tate Gallery as his Art without crediting the director Rouben Mamoullian, the actor Frederic March or any other of the hundreds of people who worked on the film. Taking popular culture into Art does not and cannot, blur or erode the boundaries between popular culture and Art because Art was constituted for the creation and maintenance of autonomy; everything placed in the institution of Art becomes Art.
And this is not only true of 'practise' but as we shall discover, it is also an effect of Art theory.