[Marxism] Marxism and film criticism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 2 05:55:00 MST 2015

(Shane, this didn't even bounce. Not sure what happened.)

Hi Louis

I posted a version of this to the list but your blog won't let me post 
it (perhaps there's a word limit or something.


Shane Hopkinson

Thanks for that Louis. Its got me thinking more about the issues and to 
Peter for the heads-up about Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Whatever their limitations at least WSWS has put some serious work into 
developing some cultural critique for their organisation.  I had read 
over a number of lectures by David Walsh before putting my query to 
Louis and so I thought it might be useful to put my summary here of the 
classical Marxist position a la Walsh.

In his lecture 'Socialism and Cinema' 
(http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/11/cine-n10.html) Walsh stated 
that "the best film work in the past—including at the US studios—was 
inconceivable without the powerful presence of socialist ideas and thus 
the revival of global cinema requires a socialist movement and "the 
emergence of a consciously socialist and revolutionary tendency in film 
making and criticism." Historical events like Cold War and Collapse of 
Communism are ultimately the cause of the decline in quality of art 
since "all serious art contains the element of protest, direct or 
indirect, against the conditions of life, and that all serious criticism 
of social life gravitates toward Marxism" and the present state of the 
world is certainly crying out for more artistic creations that are about 
the big human problems we face. This is elaborated in two parts as 
“Film, history and socialism” 
(http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/01/york-j22.html) which are worth 
reading. In Part Two Walsh argues that ‘great films’ have ‘what Trotsky 
called a definite and important feeling for the world. They make a 
genuine engagement with reality, with the way people are, the ways in 
which they behave... Trotsky speaks beautifully of this quality, which, 
he says, “consists in a feeling for life as it is, in an artistic 
acceptance of reality, and not in a shrinking from it, in an active 
interest in the concrete stability and mobility of life.”’

But it is in 'The Aesthetic Component of Socialism' 
(http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/10/aest-o11.html ) that Walsh 
takes up the importance of Trotsky's 'Literature and Revolution'. Walsh 
argues that the role of the critic is not to give a 'Marxist' blessing 
to this or that work, artist or style - we are partisans of free 
artistic creation and of access to those creations in art – just as we 
would be in science - in promoting scientific exploration of physical 
universe and education about their discoveries.

Walsh goes on to say that Trotsky understood that culture was impacted 
by history and class relations and that culture (which Trotsky defines 
as "everything that has been created, built, learnt, conquered by man in 
the course of his entire history, in distinction from what nature has 
given....") was *both* an expression of human powers and that these 
powers have forged art into a basic instrument of class oppression. It 
was in this contradiction that Trotsky urged workers to study and master 
the best of bourgeois culture. Walsh, following Aleksandr Voronsky, 
argues that just as sciences need to be mastered (analysis as rational 
conceptualisation in the form of laws) so too do the arts (synthesis as 
sensuous contemplation in the form of images). Trotsky suggests that the 
role of Marxist critique is to "to help the most progressive tendencies 
by a *critical illumination* of the road."

The tension is between seeing art and culture in instrumental terms - 
the aim of 'good art' is to 'advance the class struggle' or some such - 
and in solely individual expressionist terms (of 'art of art sake'). If 
the former then why study Shakespeare? The latter posits that the artist 
is an isolated individual. Walsh goes on ‘a work of art, Trotsky 
observed, must speak directly to the reader or the viewer in some 
fashion, must move or inspire or depress him or her’ and this can happen 
across time and space. Great art can transcend its conditions of 
production - even as it expresses the very ‘way of life’ of its 
particular time and place – it shows us something about the human 
condition. There is a role for examining the social context and 
emergence of art forms but this isn’t strictly an aesthetic assessment – 
knowing the class outlook of an artist is hardly the end of the matter.

Walsh argues that creating an audience for revolutionary ideas cannot be 
about mere political propaganda and cannot be separated from a culture. 
The socialist movement before 1917 ‘which brought into its orbit and 
assimilated the most critical achievements of bourgeois political and 
social thought, art and science’. A revolution requires the critical 
consciousness of the mass of the population and is not just expressed in 
political or scientific ideas but in art as well – ‘it’s great power 
consists in its ability to connect human beings, as though by invisible 
wires, at the most profound and intimate levels’.

Walsh then asks since there is an objective aspect to art - what of the 
subjective? In what sense does art have a subversive or disturbing 
quality? Is this a matter of the content of a work as in a ‘political’ 
film? What then of abstract art or orchestral music? Walsh suggests that 
great art represents an impulse to freedom, the striving for a better 
existence, and quotes Breton saying that artistic expression ‘is the 
beginning of a protest. This protest, conscious or unconscious, is an 
element of every creative work’ and calls forth a reaction in us.

Marx’s 1843 Letter to Ruge says "Hence, our motto must be: reform of 
consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical 
consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests 
itself in a religious or a political form. *It will then become evident 
that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has 
only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.*

Walsh concludes: ‘Bringing this "dream of something" into humanity's 
conscious and unconscious life is the eternal labour of art.

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