The “Left Aesthetics” Roundtable

The editors talk aesthetics, leftism, beauty, Oren’s t-shirts, and the garment industry. Also, Rennix gets cancelled.


We should probably have a discussion about our aesthetics, for all the people who are confused about why we don’t want people to be in poverty (?) but also use purple in our magazine (????)


I think a decent part of the issue is that a certain amount of leftists come from upwardly-mobile circumstances and have no idea what “the working class” actually dresses like in their off-hours. Bland normie clothing is usually more of a middle-class suburban thing. In working-class New York neighborhoods, for example, there are lots of discount stores and thrift stores with cool, flamboyant stuff, and people dress UP, especially to go out.


Materialism is when a velvet hat you got for $5 in a thrift store is bourgeois decadence, but a $100 tracksuit is proletariat because you didn’t wash it.


Dammit I’m wearing an adidas hoodie right now. Does that mean it’s dialectical?


Thesis: adidas hoodie

antithesis: no pants


Also a lot of people don’t really reflect on their own biases, as to why a softer, more colorful, arguably more feminine and queer-coded style inherently makes them think of a publication as less “serious” or “trustworthy.”


Aisling, this is wokescolding. Asking people to be self-reflective instead of immediately reactionary is… *spins the jargon wheel* …neoliberalism.


A lot of the nasty comments I have gotten on my photos do seem to express a distaste for soft or effeminate men. Like boys who wear pink are freakish and unmanly because “The Working Class are big hairy lumberjacks and not a bunch of effeminate men in flamingo costumes” seems to be the undertone. It seems very culturally regressive. Almost, I have to say, a bit fascist. Oscar Wilde would be up against the wall for liking flowers too much.

Also this may be wrong, but I have always had this sense that there is a Will To Failure on the left, and it comes out in, like, making your zine ugly and your clothes look like shit and everything just really off-putting and seeing political success as a sign of selling out. If our candidates win they must be compromised, if our look doesn’t make people recoil then it must be bourgeois, if your publication sells any copies it must be pandering.

And in part that suspicion is justified! Because success in a society with hideous values is suspect.


I don’t think this is necessarily true. I think there is a Will to Failure on the left to some extent, but I also think that “the shitty ’90s zine” is a product of a much smaller left, with much fewer resources, and generally less ability to do some things. I’m not opposed to the counterculture aesthetics that have developed in some parts of the left, it’s actually a good entry point for a lot of people that feel discarded by things that look like general corporatism. That said, those should not be the exclusive aesthetics of the left, and we are in a different time, but I don’t think we should paint with a broad brush either.


I think it goes both ways. There’s value in assessing why we think “classic” aesthetics are beautiful, and trying to find new and interesting ways to be beautiful (this is why I am the Modern Art and Architecture Defender on here). This reassessment is obviously e.g., where a lot of queer art comes from. On the other hand, I think people can get stuck in begging the question and thinking “this is leftist BECAUSE it has the lefty aesthetic” rather than because of its politics. And also a lot of people don’t enjoy the usual lefty aesthetic—either they’re not used to it and it confirms their stereotypes of lefties as “dirty hippies” before they even get to hear the arguments, or else maybe they just don’t like it. I, personally, have never liked it, not sure why, just feel alienated by it.


Real talk: I have no clue what the usual lefty aesthetic is.


Lots of white and black and red. Bold square stencils. Slogan tees. Fists. A khaki jacket that’s too long. Every wallspace covered with some sort of poster.


What if everyone just liked the clothes and pictures they liked and we all worked together to stop people from dying unnecessarily?






Absolutely not. Get out.


Oh no I am Cancelled.


Oren’s aesthetic is actually fascinating to me because on the surface, the divide between him and me is the divide between the Suit Left and the Slogan T-Shirt Left. But while Oren’s typical garb is a revolutionary political T-shirt, he is in many ways (in my opinion) pure counterculture and also very deliberate. Like you’ll notice that Oren’s shirts are not just random slogans, they are all selected well and have messages that he endorses. They’re not ironic. And Oren’s glasses are Malcolm X glasses because Malcolm X wore them. Oren has thought a good deal about what he wears, and I like it a lot because it feels like a sincere or earnest kind of “revolutionary casual.”


Aw, that was very kind and accurate. I’ve actually always found the fact that we are very good friends and have very different (not always, but mostly) dress aesthetics to be a microcosm-vision of the ideal way leftists with different aesthetics could easily interact (i.e. be kind and appreciate the beauty of a good cravat).


One reason I am not an Everyone Must Dress Like Me leftist is that it’s very obvious from our friendship that your look suits you really well and that we look BETTER together for being different, like I really enjoy the way we looked side by side and we both do different things that ultimately are expressions of the same underlying values.


I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast, but I also think it’s super weird that leftists would be more hung up on the aesthetics of clothes than the material conditions under which they are produced. Like, the garment industry—which had a big domestic base until the 1990s, then got outsourced in its entirety to factories with shitty labor standards, and there’s no meaningful way to hold multinational corporations accountable, nor have we found good ways to do global labor organizing—is a great example of the kind of question the left SHOULD be thinking about, but it’s hard and not sexy and doesn’t allow you to just be catty to people you don’t like so who the fuck cares I guess. It’s funny that people think NJR is frivolous for wearing purple when they are really quite frivolous for thinking that means a god damn fucking thing.


I think a lot of leftists feel helpless right now and that’s WHY they’re focusing on these silly aesthetic fights. But culture battles are a right-wing or liberal tactic, and they have been for a long time, and it’s because they serve to distract people from material conditions. The right-wing and liberals always prefer to argue about, like, the outfits of girls in superhero movies because it means we’re not talking about the failures of capitalism or the fact that millions of people just lost their jobs.


It’s also dumb historically to the extent that they are grounding things in some old leftist LARP. Like the leftists of yore dressed equal parts Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx, probably more on the Wilde side.


Late 19th century/early 20th century Russian leftists cosplayed as characters from the novel What Is To Be Done. Lenin did too!


It is also possible that some people on the left get both their politics and their aesthetics from contrarianism and not from principles.


I think the thing we should be judgmental about is not what people wear, but what those underlying values and conditions are that are influencing those choices. There are many forms of beauty in the world! But everything comes from somewhere, and it matters what those conditions are.

(For a longer, more in-depth discussion of art and leftist aesthetics, please check out Nathan J. Robinson’s conversation with the exceptionally talented artist and writer Molly Crabapple.)

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