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Fourth International, Winter 1956


Trent Hutter

The Workers’ Stake in Bourgeois Culture

A Socialist Looks at Art


From Fourth International, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 1956, pp.21-24.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IN THE WIDEST sense the culture of a class includes its politics. Trotsky pointed out that the culture of the proletariat is concentrated in its political struggle. The bourgeoisie had the leisure, the wealth, the education necessary for developing an artistic culture. The peasantry in many countries was able to develop a traditional folk culture because of the farmer’s leisure during the winter which allowed him and his wife to devote some time to artistic occupations or crafts.

But the cultural situation of the proletariat is quite different from that of the bourgeoisie or the traditional peasantry. The proletariat has neither wealth nor adequate leisure. Its traditions are mostly political or unionist. Except in these fields its education is limited and elementary.

This does not mean that the political culture which the world working class has been able to develop is unimportant. On the contrary, we trust that this very contribution will save mankind and all its wider cultural values and possibilities from annihilation.

Perhaps some of our friends will reply:

“Quite right. But apart from this political culture, cannot the working class also produce an artistic culture of its own? Don’t we see painters who paint the struggle of the workers, their tribulations and heroism; writers who write novels about problems of workers and the class as a whole?”

There are, indeed, such painters, writers, sculptors, etc. However, what they produce – impressive as it may be – is not a proletarian culture. Trotsky explained in Literature and Revolution that the proletariat has no time to develop an art of its own and that those works of art which depict proletarian life and struggles are still rooted in bourgeois culture and are necessarily part of this culture. Even if these works of art criticize and attack the bourgeoisie, they are a product of the bourgeois world. They cannot avoid the influence of its forms, traditions and social conditions, although they may fight its ideology.

While the workers have developed forms of action and organization of their own, the anti-bourgeois artist must continue to use the art forms of bourgeois culture. A class like the proletariat whose main energies are wholly taken up in daily toil and whose brief hours of leisure are really only preparation for more toil, or at best devoted to the struggle for better living and working conditions, cannot create new art forms; for this is a long and involved process.

The Negro slaves of the South sought solace in religion and music for many years before emancipation became a realistic possibility. Thus they developed valuable elements of musical folk culture although not a fully grown culture. The situation of the industrial worker, however, is entirely different. Singing does not fit in with machines. The belt line stimulates any feelings but musical ones. When the going is rough he does not turn to song for consolation. It is true that the building of the railroads in 19th century America gave birth to some extent to “railroad” songs, and it is likewise true that the workers have fine union and revolutionary songs, but when today’s industrial worker does feel inclined to sing he turns to the old folk songs that did not originate in the atmosphere of industrial mass production, or, more frequently, to the songs provided by the highly commercialized “Tin Pan Alley” for the show business.

Even after coming to power the working class will have no time to develop a new culture of its own, although its ideology will certainly dominate literature and other fields of artistic creation. The style of life generated by bourgeois society, its artistic forms, will not disappear over-might. Only the classless society of socialism that will follow the transitional period of the workers’ state is bound to create an entirely new culture – new artistic forms the nature of which we cannot foresee, a flowering of the arts that will permeate the daily life of everyone, an entirely new way of life.

This culture will not be proletarian. The proletariat will have disappeared as a class; no classes will be left; no class struggle; and culture will not be the product of a class but of mankind. In his pamphlet America’s Road to Socialism, James P. Cannon has given an excellent description of the immense possibilities and richness of that socialist culture, based on a short period of obligatory (industrial work for everyone, lots of time for the development of individual talents and creative activities free from the problem of gaining a livelihood. This will open up an undreamt of perspective for the arts and sciences, for the appearance of a new human type – neither today’s bourgeois or petty-bourgeois, nor today’s proletarian, although socialist man will continue to cherish all that is valuable in bourgeois culture and the cultures of previous societies, all that is valuable in the traditions of the proletariat, above all its tradition of indomitable hope, of courage, revolutionary outlook and the teachings of its greatest leaders.

The Proletariat and the Arts

Recognizing that the concept of “proletarian culture” is erroneous, what should the working-class attitude be toward works of art today in literature, music, painting, sculpture, the theater and the movies?

It is obvious that of all these only the motion picture is thoroughly popular along with music to the extent that it is light and entertaining. We must frankly recognize that while admission prices to concerts of serious music are not prohibitive, we do not see many workers in the halls where symphonies and chamber music are played. The theater would be more popular with workers if a good network existed and productions were properly publicized. This, however, is not the case. The worker’s interest in painting and sculpture is limited; and only a minority read the master works of world literature although these are now available in cheap pocket editions.

Many efforts have been made, especially in Europe, to introduce the worker to the world of the arts with its magnificent traditions. Among others, the reformists have been active in this field. Some of these efforts have had a measure of success. And it is possible that on a large enough scale they could advance the education of the working class – not creating a proletarian culture but making a good many workers more familiar with some real values generated by bourgeois and feudal culture.

Nevertheless we cannot hope that under capitalism even a generous program of popular adult education will transform the proletariat as a whole into an enthusiastic public for serious music, the fine arts and literature. The enjoyment of great works of art requires in most cases a certain effort and also education or at least self-education. If this is acquired, the effort made, the possibility opens of the richer and deeper life of the art lover. Thousands of workers, especially those in the vanguard do manage to realize this possibility despite all the handicaps. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Capitalism does not permit the average worker to become thoroughly educated. Because of this the worker who loves a Beethoven symphony or a Faulkner novel is a rare bird indeed.

Moreover, the general handicaps faced by the American worker iin this respect are further aggravated by two other factors – the lack of popular cultural traditions as compared to Europe and the present anti-intellectual trend in the US, the constant pressure of reaction to divert interest, especially that of the younger generation, away from cultural and intellectual matters. In addition, as long as the witch hunt lasts with its tendency toward thought control in all fields we shall not see much progress in popular art appreciation.

The working-class vanguard, which has the extra energy needed for better assimilation of bourgeois culture, must become as familiar with it as possible. On the other hand we must respect the sentiments of the big majority of workers whose present artistic needs are satisfied by light music, the movies, TV shows, etc. The motion picture, for example, is the art form of the masses in our time, hence the tremendous importance of securing good films. Light music can be good music; not all of it is commercial trash. As for popular TV shows, some are very bad, the educational possibilities of TV are shamelessly neglected; the hucksters wield deplorable power; and yet – who will deny that there are a few great comedians, many talented actors, dancers and musicians on TV and at least a few educational programs worth watching?

Contempt for light entertainment is foolish. Even the socialist society of the future, we may imagine, will appreciate light music and comedy. Only it will be a part of a much wider range of artistic experience.

Bourgeois Sophistication

When we say that the culture of our time is still a bourgeois culture and can be only a bourgeois culture until socialism is triumphant, we do not mean that today’s bourgeoisie are cultured as a whole. In the era of their decadence the bourgeoisie are subject to cultural disintegration.

Some of the most remarkable works of art of this era of ours express various degrees of opposition to capitalism.

An outstanding feature of the times is the loss of that comparative unity of education which the cultural public showed in the Nineteenth and at the beginning of the Twentieth century. Traces can still be seen in several European countries, principally England, France and Italy. But in Germany it was destroyed by the anti-intellectual virus of Nazism. As in America, where the tendencies of monopolistic capitalism likewise operate most strongly, the cultural crisis of the bourgeoisie takes glaring form. It is no coincidence that it is a German historian Arnold Hauser who particularly stresses the disintegration of the cultural public in his excellent Marxist The Social History of Art. [1]

The Renaissance and Eighteenth century idea of general culture was already endangered by the rise of modern capitalism at the beginning of the Nineteenth century. Capitalism brought with it a trend toward increased specialization. Nonetheless, Nineteenth century bourgeois society still tried to combine this with the old ideal of general culture. The American bourgeoisie abandoned the ideal with more ease than the European ruling classes because the tremendous expansion of American economy made almost anything that did not directly fit into the struggle for wealth seem unimportant and because the cultural traditions of America were relatively poor and not so deeply rooted in the people as were the cultural traditions of Europe.

The cultural public of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century were still united by the language of culture and a liberal education that included humanistic traditions. Certain quotations and allusions were understood by everyone belonging to this public, and as with the forms of bourgeois parliamentarism in politics so in the field of culture a definite standard of manners was universally accepted. The unity of the cultural public included different outlooks, ideas and tastes.

On the whole this public was quite cultured. It made an effort toward understanding nn nrtist or thinker. The effort was not always successful but it was seriously made; and because it was seriously made, it frequently generated heated discussions and controversies; for example, the struggle between Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians about ninety years ago. Cultured people knew that a more complex work of art, especially in the fields of music and literature, cannot be enjoyed without a preliminary effort to get acquainted with the artist’s intentions, style, method and background; and that this effort is often rewarded by an all the more profound pleasure. They still felt that art is worth that effort.

Contemporary capitalism does not favor general culture for the individual, not even the Nineteenth century norm for the individual bourgeois. The contemporary bourgeois or petty-bourgeois individual either rejects any but purely entertaining works of art, or, if he has cultural ambitions, often expresses them in a confused way, since he has not received an education equipping him for the appreciation of art, has not grown up in a cultured atmosphere or in an atmosphere of cultural ambition, has not been nurtured by solid cultural traditions and is living in a period of bourgeois uncertainty, shattered standards of values and complete separation of entertainment from serious art.

These people hardly speak a common language. They do not form a uniform cultured public. They have lost the cultured person’s deep respect for artistic achievement, even if they claim to be art lovers. They are no longer willing (although there are exceptions of course) to make an effort to understand an artist’s work. They judge before studying a work of art. Instead of trying to enter the artist’s world, they want the artist to enter theirs and demand that he pay them with entertainment.

Since they judge a work of art before trying to enjoy it, since they consider it mainly for the purpose of judging it, and since they want the artist to enter their world instead of the other way around, they necessarily reject most of the works of art they consider. The idea that they might not be equipped to judge a work of art or that such judgment requires a preliminary effort does not seem to enter their heads. Nor do they know that the basic purpose of considering a work of art is its enjoyment, not the attempt to find fault with it. Only when our effort to enjoy a work of art, to enter the artist’s world has failed are we entitled to attempt criticism. But the sophisticated person – and it is the so-called sophisticated type of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois critic that we want to describe here – thinks much more of expressing an “original” opinion about a work of art than of an effort that may lead to its appreciation and possible enjoyment. They use art as a means to display what they fancy to be their intelligence and taste.

Sophistication has become the substitute for culture in the monopolistic phase of capitalism. The de-personalization of the individual, the conventionalism of political views and ideological outlook, the crippling effect of professional specialization on personality make the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois look for a field in which opinion can still be voiced freely without fear of reprisal, where exciting experiences and discoveries are still possible. Thus the anti-cultural forces of capitalism finally provoke some kind of reaction. However, since the bourgeois who reacts against the anti-cultural trends has lost the cultural background needed to establish communication with the artist, he merely becomes sophisticated, replacing artistic enjoyment and the cultured person’s constant experience of greatness and beauty with an exercise of wit at the expense of the artist.

Comparing and judging becomes the spectator’s main preoccupation with works of art. And this is done in a very superficial and narrow-minded way. The sophisticate does not aim at assimilation of a wide range of artistic experience, a more intense enjoyment of art and of life. All this requires a general culture.

Artistic Creation and Today’s Public

I hope that in stressing the main trend I will not be thought to have exaggerated. Of course great works of art are still being created and they find an appreciative public. The cultural decadence of the bourgeoisie does not completely prevent great artists from creating master works nor does it prevent thousands of people from enjoying them. But this cultural elite, consisting of working-class vanguard elements, the more serious and promising representatives of the petty-bourgeoisie and the last remnants of the cultured bourgeoisie, is very thin numerically.

We note too that the number of record collectors interested in serious music has increased considerably with the introduction of the long-playing record and high-fidelity amplifying equipment for the home. Symphony orchestras have been organized in some parts of the country, even in smaller towns. Recognizing this as part of the reaction against conformist, anti-cultural trends, still it is quite doubtful that musical culture has actually widened much. We note, for instance, that the number of concert-goers in cities where symphony orchestras have long existed has scarcely increased. Moreover, the very gap between concert and light music – two worlds that rarely meet in our time in contrast to the Eighteenth century and before – testifies to the continued isolation of “high brow” music in America.

Apart from the movies and from light entertainment, the artist and his work have but a small public or a partly uncultured one. Artistic creation in the US is taking place in something almost resembling a vacuum. It is all the more credit to the artists who continue to work despite everything and refuse to give in to discouragement. They feel somehow that in today’s limited public are the forerunners of tomorrow’s wider, more cultured public and that it is important to reach them.

The cultural decadence of the bourgeoisie as a class does not spell the end of noteworthy artistic achievement within the framework of bourgeois culture. The relation between the artist and the ruling class is always rather complex, particularly that between the artist and the bourgeoisie. Anti-bourgeois trends and moods have

been strong in many artists throughout the bourgeois era. Today the artist, especially the American artist, finds himself in a strange situation. The old bourgeois public with its relatively uniform culture and cultural ambitions has ceased to exist. The much broader public of the future does not yet exist. Today’s artist finds himself separated from the people. In fact, for the painter, the sculptor, the composer of “long hair” music, even the writer of outstanding novels, it is the general rule. William Faulkner’s name is fairly well known, but how many actually read his novels as compared to those of Micky Spillane?

The government does not encourage the artist at all in contrast to European governments who at least make a pretense at it and in some cases really help due to the European tradition of considering the artist a necessary ornament to the community.

The European tradition also grants the artist a certain leeway in political opinion that the American bourgeoisie refuse “their” artists. Not long ago the Italian President Luigi Einaudi, an anti-Communist bourgeois liberal, opened an exhibit of paintings by Pablo Picasso, a “Red.” Can you imagine President Eisenhower doing that? In America no orchestras, no opera houses, no theaters are government-supported; no travel scholarships are granted talented young painters and sculptors.

Even if many artists refuse to give up, it is inevitable that their work sometimes reflects uncertainty, searching, confusion, escapism, despair, destruction of form, or a mixrture of realism and illusion. How could it be otherwise? Very few are able to approximate clarity in a period of confusion.

In the Nineeenth century the cultural aspirations of the American bourgeoisie were far more ambitious than today. Shakespearean actors toured the frontier West and the rough miners of Central City, Colorado, built a splendid opera house. But American culture was still largely based on importation of foreign culture and native art remained comparatively undeveloped. Today the great majority of American people stand aloof from culture, but the cultural life of America is incomparably richer than in the Nineteenth cenury. American literature, including the drama, has conquered an international position, as has its symphony orchestras and ballet troupes.

The development of the arts in the US, already remarkable considering the artist’s difficulties, points to the overwhelming height of artistic achievement a socialist America promises. Socialist culture will be more artistic; will put greater emphasis on all the arts than any previous culture, including ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance. For the first time the entire population will actually become identical with the art public; for the first time art will become a necessary part of everyday life.

Footnote by MIA

1. In the original printed version the title of this book was mistakenly given as Socialist History of Art. See Correction, Fourth International, Vol.17 No.2, Spring 1956, p.64.

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