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International Socialist Review, Fall 1957


Trent Hutter

The Artist’s Prospects


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.4, Fall 1957, pp.125-128.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In both the Soviet bloc and the capitalist world, artists find themselves fettered by economic and political forces. Does socialism offer the road to freedom of expression?

Trent Hatter’s specialty is the stage and screen. Here he expresses some of his views on issues of wider interest. What are your opinions on the relation between art and socialism? We invite discussion.

* * *

WHAT will the artist’s position be in a normal workers state and later in the classless socialist society?

He will, of course, like everyone else be assured material security. He will not have to worry about his daily bread. He will be provided with all the facilities he needs; for it is a vicious bourgeois myth that poverty stimulates the artist. It is true that starving artists have produced masterworks – and died of tuberculosis in their twenties or thirties. But it is equally true that relatively well-to-do artists have produced masterworks of no less value – and continued to do so till the age of 80; Goethe, for example, or Verdi.

But how free will the artist be in a workers democracy? Will he be able to say what he thinks? Or will he have to defend a certain political line or at least an official ideology?

The Stalinist humiliation of the artist, the totalitarian muzzle, is not typical of socialism but stems from forces alien to socialism. Under the Stalinist bureaucracy the artist enjoys many material comforts and privileges so long as he follows the official political and artistic line. But this condition puts the artist in a straitjacket. Even if the bureaucracy has somewhat loosened the fetters since Stalin’s death, the situation does not seem to have changed basically. So far, painting, sculpture, literature are, with only a few exceptions, in a sad state in the Stalinist-dominated countries. Only in the field of music where even in the Stalin era some remarkable compositions were produced despite Stalin, has bureaucratic control been notably relaxed since the dictator’s death.

Totalitarian dictatorship and its official academism inevitably stifle artistic creativeness. The artist does not always resent being told what to paint; for instance, if the commission is within his competence. But he should not be told how to paint it. With the possible exception of poets and novelists, who prefer to choose their subject matter, artists generally are glad to get orders for important works that challenge their imagination and creative thought; but nothing can be more demoralizing for the artist than an enforced official style corresponding to the vulgar taste of bureaucrats and their reactionary politics – a style he has to follow no matter how he feels about it.

The Soviet Union’s ruling caste is as reactionary in its domination of the arts as in its politics. The bureaucratic mind hates originality. In art as in politics they oppose innovating ideas, any spontaneous move of the human personality. The official Soviet style is heavily conservative, unoriginal, unimaginative. Paintings looking like color photographs glorify the bureaucracy’s doings and other “patriotic” themes. Statues look as if they were mass-produced. (The impressive Soviet monument in East Berlin is one of the rare exceptions.) Aside from some movie versions of operas, operatic excerpts, ballets, fairy tales and some cartoons, Soviet motion pictures have been low artistically and intellectually, especially since the leading movie makers of the revolutionary era ceased to work or had to stop making the kind of movies they liked. Russia’s contribution to world literature has been far less under Stalinism than under Czarism.

A socialist art policy can only be a policy of freedom. In a normal workers state there would be no question of forcing the artist to express certain ideas or apply a certain style. Great art cannot be created in an intellectual and political straitjacket. If the workers state is interested in cultural as well as in social progress, it has to protect the artist’s freedom. And the workers state ought to favor all forms of cultural development, since its aim is to open a way to a better, happier life for all.

In a normal workers state such as we can expect in America the artist will have a much more important role to play than he does today under capitalism. But let it be clearly understood that if he is to create great works of art, he must be able to follow his own intentions, feelings, intuitions and ideas, without any fear of the policeman or some bureaucratic organism. Freedom from want, freedom from both totalitarian and commercial capitalist interference – these are the two decisive freedoms the democratic workers state has to offer the artist.

Someone might ask, “What if the artist, whom the workers state supports and whom it lets freely express himself, turns against the workers state, criticizing or attacking socialism?”

Is this really a big problem? First of all, many artists will be attracted by socialism, genuine socialism, once they understand what it means and realize that it is the only solution for the artist, too. If some of them should criticize one or another aspect of a workers state, there would certainly be no harm in this. A workers democracy must not be afraid of criticism, of discussion, of clarification. It has more to gain than to lose by freedom of expression. It can even afford to tolerate frankly hostile artists because, on the whole, it will immensely benefit from a free and genuine art, and this advantage will outweigh by far any embarrassment arising from the freedom of ideological enemies.

In fact, these hostile voices – and we trust they will not be too numerous – present a challenge which is quite healthy and which can strengthen the ideological basis of the workers state, since the socialist idea, the Marxist method, will become increasingly clearer to the proletariat through a lively discussion, through the spirited defense of socialism against talented but uncomprehending opponents. Only recently even Mao Tse-tung felt compelled to admit the stimulating effect of ideological opposition in overcoming the stagnation of cultural life and the ossification of thought.

Artist’s Function in Society

Even those twentieth century artists who do not – or do not yet – consciously reject capitalism frequently feel unhappy and frustrated in capitalist society. And even some of those few who have been able to make a fortune actually do reject capitalism.

Somerset Maugham, the great British writer and probably one of the most wealthy literary giants, came out for socialism in his book The Summing Up. The late George Bernard Shaw was ideologically confused up to the point of strongly flirting with Stalinism; but at any rate the brilliant playwright definitely was not in agreement with capitalism. The same is true of the painter Pablo Picasso. The late Thomas Mann, one of the twentieth century’s most important novelists, always insisted on making plain his roots in bourgeois culture – the culture of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie; he was certainly no revolutionist, yet he openly advocated social reform in the last ten or fifteen years of his life. If some of the most successful artists have severely criticized capitalism, how much more must the less successful artist, suffering from its monstrousness, feel inclined to turn toward something better!

While there are well-to-do artists, it is difficult for the majority to make a living as artists and remain intellectually and creatively independent without any concessions to commercial requirements. In the capitalist world the artist is mainly an ornament. He has no organic function to fulfill in this society unless he sells his talent as a “commercial artist,” professional propagandist or other servant of the business world. The “independent” artist is often exploited in a most shameless way by art dealers, publishers, agents and intermediaries of various kinds. In capitalist society there is room for only some of the living artists, and this spells hardships, sometimes despair for the others.

It has not always been this way. Throughout the Middle Ages the artist – practically every artist – served a feudal lord, a community or the Church. If he served his community or the Church he had a clearly defined place and function in society. He was considered a superior craftsman; there was nearly always enough work for him; and he was assured of a living even though a modest one. This does not mean that the artist’s position at the courts of seventeenth and eighteenth century princes was ideal; frequently they considered him a superior kind of lackey. (This is exactly how the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg looked at the young Mozart.) But today the “free” artist in bourgeois-capitalist society is basically homeless, faced with the fact that the more successful work of art tends to become an object of financial speculation. [1]

Thomas Mann, who as noted above, identified himself with the nineteenth and early twentieth century bourgeois milieu, stressed in several novels and short stories the loneliness of the artist in bourgeois society, the deep gulf separating the artist from the bourgeoisie whether he wants it or not. He was obsessed with this vital problem of the modern artist. He was also a most astute observer of the bourgeoisie, whose decadence he did not fail to notice.

Socialism aims at a better, more dignified life for everybody and, springing from this, a new, more rounded type of man. It is obvious that art and the artist have a big role to play in this. In the workers state the artist will not be a mere ornament but an organic necessity.

In the classless society of the future a new integration of art and society will be realized, of a far higher type than was achieved in the Greek or the medieval city. The alienation of the artist from the ruling power in society will become diminished and eventually eliminated as the artist comes closer to the people, their requirements, feelings and outlook.

On the other hand, the people themselves, freed from the shackles of incessant and dull labor, will be able to use their leisure and even devote their working hours to satisfying their creative capacities and indulging their artistic inclinations both as producers and consumers.

The artist will not be a maker of Stalinist icons or a hack, subservient to an all-powerful bureaucracy. He will be free to follow his inner voice; for this is the preliminary condition of artistic creation.

But will not the artist have to help spread the idea of socialism, explaining the times he lives in, guiding or trying to guide his public?

The free development of any style in art does not include a prohibition against an artist facing the problems of man in our time. But the artist must be allowed to deal with these problems in his own way. He is not and cannot be a teacher in the exact and narrow sense of the term. Nor can his work be a mere piece of political or ideological propaganda if it is to be a work of art. Political propaganda is the task of the political militant. The artist can be a militant, even a political militant. It is good when he is. But aside from political cartoons and posters, a work of art cannot be simply painted or versified politics. If it is – and the Stalinists as well as the fascists have engaged in this – it is not art. It gives no artistic pleasure, no feeling of life-enhancement.

In other words, as Somerset Maugham has pointed out, a “philosophical” novel has no value if it is not, in the first place, a good novel which gives us pleasure. A bad novel with a good ideology is worthless and useless because it is boring, while a good novel can be exciting reading despite the ideas of its author. Such a novel is not worthless; for a fascinating picture of a certain society, of certain true-to-life characters indirectly “teaches” us much more about life and the condition of man – even if the author’s ideological or political conclusions are erroneous – than an idea that has been draped in an uninteresting story with synthetic figures, thereby turning out to be neither clear political nor philosophical theory nor a work of art. Balzac was a reactionary, a royalist; yet he was one of the best observers of the early nineteenth century bourgeoisie; many of his novels remain excitingly alive to this day. Who will have the courage and patience to read the novels of the Stalinist hacks 120 years from now?

It is true that excellent novels and plays have been written about politics and politicians; but in the first place they are good novels and plays, not books on political theory. If we want to learn about Marxism we turn to the books of the great teachers of Marxism, not to any novel. A revolutionary play or movie, or a revolutionary novel – if it rises to the height of a genuine work of art – does not replace political and ideological or sociological theory. It does what the theoretical books can hardly do. It communicates a certain experience of life in our era, of its human beings, their emotions, their tragedies and comedies, cowardice and heroism, mixed actions and feelings, the terrible, the ridiculous and the beautiful things, the failures and hopes. Life is made more intense for us – even if only for a limited time; we feel more vividly where we stand, where we ought to stand. The revolutionary play or novel or movie or other art form can achieve this, but can achieve it only by producing an excitement that is basically pleasurable, by raising us above our everyday selves, by carrying us to the mountains of life and showing us the valleys below – not through scientific analysis, even if the artist sometimes and legitimately uses the results of scientific study, but mainly though flashes of intuition and imagination.

Of course, the artist deals with all the problems of his time (depending on the character of his art and the nature of his themes), but his approach in dealing with them is different from the scientist’s, the philosopher’s, the politician’s; for the highest form of pleasure remains his goal. When we read a superb revolutionary novel like Giuseppe Berto’s The Brigand we enjoy the captivating and moving story, we become absorbed in the very real and very pathetic characters, in their situation, in their struggle – and thereby in their cause, their ideas. We share the writer’s sadness about the hero’s tragedy; and we also share his hopes for a better future and for the eventual triumph of his cause. But if it were not a gripping tale, if it did not make us tremble for the hero and worry about his situation, the writer’s revolutionary tendency – much as it enhances an exciting book’s value – would not help it at all, would not in itself be sufficient to make it a good novel.

Whether the story is serious or comico-satirical, its abstract political, social or philosophical significance alone will not make it a success. Its figures must seem to be alive, must have individuality. They cannot be contrived intellectual abstractions, a thesis with a person’s name, a neat black-and-white division of persons, actions and reactions. Looking at one of the twentieth century masterpieces of revolutionary social satire, the Kurt Weill, Bert Brecht Three Penny Opera, we see that each of its characters is a real person, very much alive and unforgettable; for example, Macheath, the half vulgar, half suavely elegant robber; Mr. Peachum, the “respectable” bourgeois who exploits a beggars’ racket; Jenny, the bitter prostitute with her dreams of rebellion and revenge; and all the others, too.

Except for the political poster or cartoon, art as an ally cannot directly serve politics. The artist has to deal with contemporary issues in his own autonomous way. Art then becomes a powerful ally in the political or ideological struggle for social justice.

Even the non-political artists frequently has to take a stand in our times. He may not wish to deal with politics, but politics deals with him. It is better for him to know where he stands when circumstances force him to speak out on a burning issue; and circumstances do that often enough.

The artist who sees mankind’s present situation with complete clarity is bound, I think, to become a revolutionist. His art and his politics will then probably become interrelated in some way or other; but he should not inject his activity as a militant directly into his activity as an artist. He should not try to just translate a political program into the language of art; for this is impossible; but rather create an autonomous work of art in the spirit of that program. There is a big difference between these two methods. Whenever a work of art is conceived as a piece of superior propaganda a miscarriage becomes inevitable. But the authentic work of art that is inspired by revolutionary ideas, by an artist’s vision of reality in the light of his experience and of the conclusions he has arrived at, may become an influence, even though an indirect one, in the struggle for a better world.

Art in Socialist Society

The workers state is a transitional stage between capitalism and the classless socialist society of the future. What the art forms and styles will be in that future society we cannot foretell. But we can expect that the role of art will be extremely important, that it will have a much greater influence on every person’s daily life than ever before in history.

The more intense artistic penetration of life will contribute to a more artistic life; and by artistic life we do not mean the life of the Greenwich Village bohemian. Liberated from economic worries and pressures, with the short working hours made possible by modern science and technology, and with the greater assurance of health that the further progress of medicine promises, man will be much more the master of his own life than he ever thought he could be. The life-enhancing quality of the work of art will thus become much more effective and will have a much wider radiation. The gulf between life and art will become smaller. In other words life itself will increasingly be lived as a work of art or something inspired by art. And art will increasingly contribute to form a new human type.

This idea is not a new one. To live life consciously as a many-sided entity similar to a work of art appears to have been Goethe’s goal 150 years ago – to make his life his supreme work of art. And he succeeded to a large extent, educating and wisely exercising all his faculties, participating in the great drama of mankind, always rounding himself, always creative, never permitting himself to be distracted from going his way.

Goethe was an exceptional human being with exceptional gifts who lived in comparatively favorable individual circumstances. The overwhelming majority of people in a capitalist society cannot think of following Goethe’s concept of life – not simply because they haven’t got his creative genius but because they couldn’t muster the energy and time to educate all their faculties, to cultivate so many interests, to take in and assimilate so many impressions and experiences. Capitalism just doesn’t let them lead so rich a life.

In a socialist society the Goethean concept of life will become concretely possible. In all probability it will become mankind’s prevailing mode of existence after the struggle for mere material survival and security will have ceased in the society of plenty. Under socialism everyone will not necessarily be a great poet like Goethe or Shakespeare, or a great painter, or a great musician, or a great dancer. But everyone will be able to develop all his faculties and talents, participate to a much higher degree in mankind’s knowledge and achievements, and, to a considerable extent, consciously shape his own life.

More than anything else, the experience of art and its indispensable part in his existence will educate him in the art of living, a sovereign art of mankind’s maturity; for mankind will reach maturity only with the coming of socialist society.


1. The following anecdote is fairly indicative of this capitalist way of looking at art: A wealthy man purchased a French impressionist painting and made sure he got the testimony of several experts to confirm its authenticity. When he came home with these documents and put them in his safe, his wife asked, “Where is the painting?”

“Oh, the painting,” he said. “I forgot it.”

This “art collector” really only cared for the papers establishing “his” painting’s material value, its convertibility into real estate or shares of stock: insofar as the artistic value of the painting was concerned, his “lapse of memory” shows that he rated it unimportant and uninteresting.

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