Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Hitting the high notes

(September 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 189, September 1995, p. 9.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘We recognise, consciously or unconsciously, that some artists are much better at giving expression to people’s feelings than others’

August saw a whole number of silly season articles in the posh papers bemoaning the tendency of some universities to take popular culture seriously.

Typical was a piece in the Observer by that increasingly Tory ‘liberal’ Melanie Phillips. ‘Our increasingly visual culture’, she claimed, ‘is undermining literacy’. There has been a ‘sustained attack for three decades’ on the notion of literature as ‘the transmission of enrichment’ that helps ‘create civilisation and promote social cohesion’.

She was, as usual, writing rubbish. More young people are studying literature today than ever before in history, if only because more are taking GCSEs and A levels and entering higher education.

If you travel regularly by train or tube you notice far more people reading ‘classic novels’ than was ever the case 20 or 30 years ago – at least in the second class carriages which people like Phillips don’t frequent.

What ‘people like her are doing, in reality, is giving vent to their own prejudiced view that ‘culture’ consists of a narrow elite studying ancient books.

No wonder many socialists react by rejecting all ‘high’ art out of hand, and insisting that ‘popular culture’ is all that matters. It is only a short step from there to the fashionable ‘postmodernist’ notion that any one ‘text’ is as good as any other.

Such a response is wrong. It may seem to be fundamentally opposed to those of cultural snobs like Melanie Phillips. But it rests on the same counterposing of ‘high art’ and ‘popular culture’.

In fact, few great artists would have recognised such a distinction. Figures like Shakespeare, Mozart, Verdi and Dostoevsky did not consciously set out to provide art for a small elite. They sought to express themselves as well as they could to the biggest audience they could get – and, in the process, to make a livelihood for themselves. They were often the popular artists of their day.

At the same time, those who claim to admire present day ‘popular culture’, and to dismiss an interest in ‘great art’ as snobbery, usually themselves grade different examples of popular culture. There are very few who would argue that Kylie Minogue was in the same league as the Rolling Stones or Home and Away as deserving of serious attention as Brookside.

Whether they like it or not, people make distinctions between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’.

In making these distinctions we recognise, consciously or unconsciously, that some artists are much better at giving expression to people’s feelings – and therefore giving us insights into ourselves and our lives – than others.

This is a particularly important recognition for socialists to embrace under conditions of modern capitalism. The laws of the system tend to transform everything into a commodity – and, in the case of culture, into commodities that glorify being commodities.

This applies to enormous amounts of popular music, to the great majority of TV sitcoms, to all TV quiz games, and to most megaselling popular novels.

It also applies to much of what is regarded as ‘high art’ – with ‘classic’ plays and operas given lavish period costume productions so as to attract tourists and corporate hospitality audiences, even if the price is to neglect much of what the writer originally wanted to convey.

But commodities can never be just exchange values. They also have to be able, eventually, to satisfy people’s needs if they are to be sold, to be use values. Cultural products are no different to any others in this respect. And satisfying people’s needs means providing them with some sense of themselves and their place in the scheme of things.

The result is that even the most cornmodified art – modern pop music, for instance – can give expression to people’s striving for something more than simple commodification.

‘Good art’ is that which, historically, has gone furthest in this direction. Even if it has been produced by people with reactionary political views, it questions established ways of living in and seeing the world. It helps us to view ourselves and the society we live in in a critical manner.

The power of Shakespeare’s plays comes from his ability to bring out the contradictory feelings and desires of people whose lives were being transformed as early capitalism undermined the certainties of the feudal order. That is why we can still learn something about our own feeling and desires from them, in a way we can’t from, for instance, the latest episode of The Bill.

Similarly the strength of Beethoven’s music lies in articulating, as none other does, the emotions of those torn between an old society that stifles human aspiration and a revolutionary alternative that stalls before breaking through – a predicament that is ours today.

Or take the case of Billie Holliday. She sings the same lyrics as a thousand other female vocalists from the 1930s and 1940s. But hers is great art because of her ability to express the tension and anguish that so often seem inseparable from the joy of loving relationships in a society built around money and power.

To be a revolutionary is not just to object to this or that element of economic hardship – although this is indispensable. It is also to challenge the total stultification of human life under capitalism. This gives us every interest in rescuing the good art of the past from philistines of the Melanie Phillips type, for whom it is little more than a collection of dead ornaments.

We cannot afford to dismiss it out of hand as no more than ‘bourgeois culture’ that is ‘less popular’ and ‘less relevant’ than the latest pop song, soap opera or sporting fad. Still less can we accept that the latter are ‘working class culture’.

In fact, the realities of working class life do not give the mass of people the time or opportunity to play a central role in the production of either ‘popular culture’ or ‘high art’. The few workers who are successful in either sphere are usually very rapidly torn away from their original roots and drawn into a petty bourgeois or even bourgeois milieu – as the biographies of numerous successful rock or jazz musicians show only too well.

What matters for us is not the class origins of the artist, but the extent to which the art is critical of rather than apologetic for existing conditions. And the measure of that is not simple popularity.

After all, if we didn’t think there was anything better than the market, we would have to abandon socialist politics.

Last updated on 3 November 2019