MARXISM & THE ARTS

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Thu Jun 1 06:35:49 MDT 1995


Ralph expresses boredom at the prospect of self-consciously political art
of any lower caliber than Sweet Honey in the Rock. I wonder, though,
whether the boredom isn't with low caliber artistix expression rather than
with political art per se. Most art, like most anything, is not very good.
Good political art is no less good than any good art.

I once had a public exchange with the Brit critic Geoege Steiner, a smart
reactionary, about political art. The context was a public reading of
poetry and other discussion about the bomb--thgis was in Britain in 1980.
Steiner put forth the proposition that great poetry could not descend to
political issues of merely topical concern, but always addressed the
universal human condition. I recited a few lines from Wordsworth's Milton
and another few from Shelley--I think "England in 1819." He sputtered and
spit and turned red, so to speak. The fact is that politics is part of the
human condition and merely topical issues keep coming up, which is why
Shelly and the early Wordworth and Milton, etc. still live. But of course
they are great artists. Or consider Brecht in our own time, more or less.

I wonder whether there is a specifically Marxist approach to art and its
use in the struggle. Those who think that there is tend to slip into a
crude instrumentalism of the sort most vulgarly manifested in Socialist
Realism. There's a lot of that going around in general left circles--the
art, film, and music criticism in the pages of Z Magazine, for example,
seems to me to address whether the works discussed are reactionary or
whatever, a dull discussion. Reactionary works can be wonderful as
art--Marx loved Balzac, Trotsky Celine. And PC art can be, and usually is,
catatonic.

Brecht himself tried to construct a more subtle and practically useful
account of a Marxist approach to works of art, but it was so idiosyncratic
and tied to his own personal style that it didn't find any takers
afterwards. (Is that right?)

There's something in the idea of artistic production, the free creation of
beautiful things for the sake of creating them, that is central to Marxist
ethics--this is a strain in Marxism which descends from German
romanticism, particularly Schiller. Its best exponent in English is
William Morris, who never read a line of Schiller, as far as I know. But
this may be more along the lines of Marxist theory of art rather than its
practical use in struggle.

In my experience, Marxists tend to undervalue the practical importance of
art--not high artr, but participatory art--in their concrete work. My
outfit, Solidarity, is long on analysis, but our meetings are more like
seminars and debates than celebrations. When I was in the now-defunct
Communist Workers Party we put a lot of emphasis on performances by
internal talent--we had a few good folk-style singer-songwriters and a
couple of rock bands, a pretty good comedy team, and we sang a lot at
meetings and demos--mainly warhorses like the Internationale, Los Colores,
Lift Every Voice and Sing, Which Side Are You On, etc. That went a long
way to creating a sense of togetherness and general good feeling, helped
keep us going. I think Solidarity and other left outfits could take a cue
from this. A perfunctory Internationale at the end of a biannual National
Convention is no substitute.

Likewise, left publications trend to be visually dull. The Nation is the
obvious example, but Z, The Progressive, our Solidarity's own Again the
Current or Independent Politics are no better. I think this is a mistake.
When I edited a little left wing mag in Ann Arbor in 84-88 I had the
good luck to work with a couple of fine radical graphics people and we put
a lot of work into making sure The Connection, as the mag was called,
looked sharp and interesting. As a point of principle we never used
political cartoons. We did original montages, used photos (not of people
marching with banners and raised fists!), used original and stolen
drawings, and it enhanced the publication and increased our readership.

In general I think we need to take art more seriously in our practical
work for lots of reasons, and not worry too much about what a Marxist
approack to art might be. Not that I'd discourage theory.

--Justin

On Thu, 1 Jun 1995, Ralph Dumain wrote:

> >i think that there is a major dearth of talk, analysis, etc, on
> >the role of art in marxist strategies (as distinct from marxist
> >theory, where some good work has been done,
>
> What do you mean exactly by "marxist strategies"?  Do you mean the
> use of art in political organizing?  Use of art to get people to
> donate money to political causes?  The dual role of artists as
> artists/entertainers and political figures?  The political content
> of art itself?
>
> In spite of my historical veneration of Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger,
> and Woody Guthrie, why do I find this subject leaves me cold?  Is
> it because I'm sick of all this cultural studies crap that
> substitutes the politics of style for revolutionary activity,
> takes seriously the reactionary, obscurantist,  adolescent
> posturing of hiphop for political consciousness?  I did manage to
> endure Sweet Honey in the Rock in the rain this past Sunday, who
> admittedly are of high caliber, but I find that political art that
> gets too topical, too specific, bores and annoys the crap out of
> me.  I'd rather get my teeth pulled than have to attend some
> politically conscious artistic event.  Can I be the only one?
>
> Then again, I find that the intellectual left, in its grungy
> narcissistic desperation, has no interest whatever in esthetic
> issues or artistic quality, but is as nakedly opportunistic and
> utilitarian in its approach to the arts as its Stalinist
> forefathers.
>
> Because I find contemporary American culture so vacuous, I find
> myself immmersed in those historical and theoretical questions you
> are probably tired of.  Also, I only know and care about the USA.
> So here is my laundry list of topics to discuss:
>
> (1) CLR James's aesthetic theory: its Hegelian foundation and its
> misappropriation by pomo cultural studies academic dorks (but I
> won't name names);
>
> (2) The Beat Generation -- Marxist and Hegelian analyses,
> philosophical foundations, dialectics of Bohemianism, historical
> trajectory of its ideological elements -- zen, etc.
>
> (3) The historical significance of the 1940s in US culture --
> black self-assertion in literature and the arts, birth of the
> Beats, bebop, abstract expressionism, etc.
>
> (4) Prospects for, analysis of dynamics of, relation between
> social and cultural regeneration in the USA, and where to seek the
> New (not just self-conscious regurgitation of past pop culture
> artifacts -- the culture of sampling).
>
>
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