Comintern History. Australian Communist Party 1944

A Further Reply to John Reed’s Views

by H.M.

Source: "Reason in Revolt", Source documents of Australian Radicalism;
First Published: in Communist Review, July 1944, pp. 285-286;
Transcribed: by Chris Clayton.

In February “Review,” I criticised John Reed’s views on the relation of Art to Society. Now, John Reed claims that my article is almost irrelevant to the question of painters and paintings. That can only mean that Art has almost no relation to painters and paintings.

It is instructive to note that John Reed puts forward nothing constructive. This is not to be wondered at when we find him admitting that the basis of his arguments are his natural sensibilities.

Take the first point wherein J. R. finds my argument “basically false,&38221; “hopelessly inadequate,” “narrow,” “limited” and “dogmatic.”. I said: “Reed’s contention that the best artists in Australia are those who are not understood by the people amounts to saying there is something in their work quite unrelated to human needs.” John Reed replies, “It would be as sensible to say that because some complex piece of machinery is not generally understood by the people, therefore it is quite unrelated to human needs.”

It is true that the bread I eat is made by a machine I don’t understand, but I do get the bread. I get nothing from the picture I can’t understand, except a conviction that the artist who painted it is not functioning as he should in society.

Take the argument which John Reed finds so one-sided. I said, “Those who have nothing to fear from creative work must see that they themselves become the patrons of art. If the education of the people is one-sided and inadequate, then the people, including the artists, must be given a balanced and adequate education. It is a co-operative affair. It can be undertaken best by trade unions and associations who know how to co-operate in the interests of human welfare. It is with these people the artist will work if he wants to be understood or if he wants to learn how to say something worth saying.”

John Reed replies “Even this (education) he takes from a purely one-sided point of view and blames the artist for not working with trade unions, etc., instead of it occurring to him to lay at least equal blame on the trade unions for not working with the artist.” I leave it to the reader to decide who is one-sided. In any case capitalism is to blame. It is not a question of blaming the artists or the workers but to finding a way of bringing the two together.

Next J. R. charges me with misrepresenting him. I said, “J. R. is convinced that artists are doing all that can be done by remaining obscure.” In December “Review” J. R. wrote: “It is indeed true that the future of the artist is with the people, but it is a great mistake to assume that this result will be achieved by the artist setting to work to paint pictures which people will understand.” What can such a statement mean? Does it not tell artists they would be making a great mistake if they ceased being obscure? Now, J.R. says: “I have no desire that the artist should remain obscure.”

Because he has changed his mind on this point since December it is hardly fair of him to say I misrepresented him in my last article.

J. R. goes on to say that my remarks on Soviet Art are irrelevant because we are discussing Australian conditions. My point was that Soviet Art is good — in the light of the response it arouses in the Soviet people “because it is helping to build the unbreakable morals of the Soviet people.” I went on to point out that in Australia, too, the anti-fascist war determines the content for those who lay claim to a “dynamic and penetrating vision.” The fact that J. R. finds all this irrelevant simply proves that Australia’s obscure artists have not made J. R. conscious of the People’s War. I maintain that art which has inspired both the Soviet soldiers at the front and the men and women in the rear to feats of heroism is good art. J. R. who asks for objectivity judges it merely by the fact that he personally finds it “deplorably dull.”

I criticised J. R.’s views on this basis:

1. The response which Art arouses in human beings is the main thing and not some intrinsic value in art itself.

2. For art to be vital and creative it must arouse responses which strengthen the progressive forces in society.

3. This is nothing more than applying to art the idea that everything created by man should contribute to his well being.

John Reed finds this approach “appalling bunkum” and the worst kind of “narrow,” “dogmatic” and “undialectical” thinking.

So much appalling bunkum comes out of John Reed’s subjective approach through his “natural sensibilities” that he could have read no more than the front cover of “Left wing Communism” to get the phrase “infantile disorder.” Lenin says (chapter 4): “It is not yet sufficiently known abroad that Bolshevism grew, took shape and became steeled in long years of struggle against petty-bourgeois revlutionism.—The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, its ability to become swiftly transformed into submission, apathy, phantasy and even into a “mad” infatuation with one or another bourgeois fad — all this is a matter of common knowledge.”

That is hardly a plea for the revision of objective truth to accommodate the ideas of everyone who has received education and leisure by reason of a favored position in society.

No doubt certain individual Party members at certain times are sectarian in their approach to art, but I see nothing “leftist” in the broad generalisation, that art must serve man’s needs. If J. R. accepts this as his ideal he will get co-operation. Otherwise the gap between himself and the working class will be a desirable thing.

(Note: H. M. does NOT stand for Herbert McClintock in this instance.)