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Colin Sparks

The debate on art and revolution

(Summer 1979)

From International Socialism 2:5, Summer 1979.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Reading the debate between Ian Birchall and Andrew Collier in the first two issues of this journal left me feeling depressed. It is not so much that the question of realism in art is not important, and I would have added my little portion to the heap of words had the editors found them interesting. Rather, it is questionable both whether the question of realism should form the starting point for contemporary Marxist discussions and whether the type of debates to which both authors seem addicted are the most profitable ones.

On both counts, it seems to me that both Birchall and Collier are making undue concessions to bourgeois ideology, and very dated bourgeois ideology at that. Much of what they wrote could just as well have been written in 1878 as 1978. Perhaps a few novels and poems have been written since then, perhaps a few more canvasses have been covered with oil-paint, but the theoretical tools and concerns inherited from the Masters still serve our authors.

There have, however, been a few little changes since the Grand Old Men wrote their fragments on Art. Indeed, even before Marx sat down to write the Communist Manifesto, a certain M. Daguerre had set out to make money from someone else’s invention. There have been a number of other developments since.

None of this is of much interest to the comrades: the lyric poet and the easel painter served as models of artistic activity for the Grand Masters and they can serve as models for us too.

But the insistence upon literature as the main area for discussion is perhaps the least impediment that they carry with them. Together with it goes the greater burden of Great Art. In every other area of human activity, Marxism is permitted to demolish the myths of bourgeois ideology, to drag down the lofty imaginings of idealist thinkers into the mire of historical materialism, but here is a portal which no grubby materialist may enter, for it is the home of Romanticism.

The truth is that a great deal of gibberish has been written about art, even by Marxists. For example:

The charm of (Greek) art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society from which it grew. It is the result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return.

There are some fairly obvious objections to taking this well-known passage seriously. For example, ‘art’ was one of those things for which the Greeks did not have a word. The word which we translate as ‘art’ we write as ‘techne’. This category included various activities, for example carpentry, which we do not qualify as being of the same order in our own conceptual system.

We could further ask just what ‘undeveloped stage of society’ we are talking about when we discuss ‘Greek art’. If we consider the epics, for example, we are discussing the products of a pre-literate culture. If we consider the dramas, we are discussing the products of a literate urban culture.

The same is true of the activities involved in constructing these artefacts. According to the internal evidence of the epics themselves they were continually composed and re-composed by generations of oral poets. It is probable, but not so far as I know proven, that they were written down when this evolving Greek culture encountered a more developed, literate, culture from the East. The dramas, on the other hand, were specifically produced for competitive performance at quasi-religious festivals within a fully-developed city-state.

Consider also the question of the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘politics’ which so greatly concerns our comrades. They display a quite unreasonable concern about the precise nature of these relations. If we examine the actual historical relationships between the two, both in terms of the lives of particular artists and in terms of the extent to which this has been evident in their work, we find a profusion of different relationships. To cite some obvious examples: the case of Shelley is well known. Dante was a member of the elected government of Florence and was forced to flee into exile and poetry by a reactionary coup. Milton was a member of the bourgeois revolutionary government established by Cromwell and, after the Restoration, narrowly escaped death for his part in the execution of Charles I. Brecht, aged 16, welcomed the First Imperialist War. Four years later, he claimed to have been a delegate to a Soldiers’ Council. In 1953, he expressed his support for Walther Ulbricht after the suppression of the Berlin Rising. Even the Big One, William Shakespeare himself, was a paid propagandist for Absolutism, as witness The Tempest.

I think, in this at least, we are forced to agree with Plekhanov that what matters is not the task of discovering the ‘correct’ relationship between art and politics but of examining those conditions which make a close relationship between the two a concrete possibility.

From this point of view of the development of a revolutionary socialist culture, this seems to me to be a fairly fundamental question. The immediate response of Marxists at this point is to become fixated with Russia after 1917 and to start muttering about the Proletcult. Now, there is obviously much which can be learnt from this experience, particularly by comrade Collier, who seems to labour under the delusion that an organisation with rather more members than the Bolshevik Party was a ‘millenarian sect’, but there are grounds for doubting whether it is the best available example.

I suggest that we might consider the example of Germany between 1919 and 1933. Here we have a relatively developed capitalist country with a cultured working class struggling for power. Obviously, here too there are major differences, for example: the traditions of the German working class, the existence of a mass Communist Party, the rise of Stalinism and Fascism. However, even if we make allowances for these differences, we can still draw some very important lessons.

Some of these lessons concern debates between such radicalised representatives of high bourgeois culture as Lukács and Brecht. (Not that they ever seem to have actually debated but, for example, Lukács considered Thomas Mann the greatest living German writer and Brecht considered that he should be shot and his works suppressed.) Much more important for us, however, were the attempts to organise a culture which embodied the revolutionary aspirations of the working class.

Now, I am not an expert on this, and the following example is only indicative of what I believe to be a profitable area for further investigation. During the course of the 1920’s, various technical developments in cameras, lenses and printing made new types of photography a possibility. One of the ways in which this developed was amongst a number of bourgeois intellectuals who effectively established a tradition of photo-journalism. Another of the developments was the birth of a ‘workers’ photography’ organisation. This attempted to organise workers who were interested in photography and, by mutual assistance, to help solve the financial and technical problems which were the first obstacle to their activity. Founded in 1926, the movement had, by 1931, some 2,412 members organised in 96 branches. On the basis of this sort of organisation and this sort of activity, it was possible to argue concretely about the nature of a revolutionary aesthetic. One of the members of the movement wrote, in 1930:

One needs the professional eye to pick up at once certain details of landscape or machinery, the clothing or habits of other people; and you need the eye of a certain class in order to perceive the signs of prevailing social conditions in the internal and external life of our fellow beings, in the structure and appearance of homes and factories, their internal organisation and the general picture of life in the streets, or even the shape and size of fields and the crops grown on them.

Whatever we make of this particular contribution, or of the pictures published in the movement’s journal Der Arbeiter-Fotograf, this seems to me to represent a step forward towards revolutionary art. Certainly, it represents a step forward compared with Collier’s Surrealists snapping their friends ‘in the act of insulting a priest’.

Such a movement, proletarian in its aims and composition need not be totally divorced from the work of the radicalised bourgeois artist. In fact, the organisational apparatus contained, as it were at the apex, the weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung. This magazine, the second largest-selling illustrated magazine in Germany, carried the work both of worker-photographers and of others. In theory, it depended for its reportage upon worker-photographers, but in practice seems to have included much reportage from other sources. It also employed the talents of John Heartfield, and other revolutionaries of indubitably bourgeois origin.

What is true of photography was also the case for a number of other areas of artistic practice. The key question at stake was not so much the nature of the artefacts or the aesthetics debates which surrounded them but the fact that they were grounded in a different form of activity – the organised, collective efforts of workers rather than the individualised efforts of the professional bourgeois artist.

None of this is particularly new or original – the reformist writer Raymond Williams had similar things to say more than twenty years ago in Culture and Society – but it is a discussion which does not seem to interest our comrades. They remain firmly within the reified, abstracted debate about Art and Culture which they have inherited from the class enemy.

The matter would be of little importance if it were simply a question of the concerns of a handful of professional intellectuals, but the matter is rather more serious than that. The areas of debate which our comrades define are in fact very widespread both in society and in the working class movement.

I recall, not so long ago, standing in the freezing cold outside of the Tate Gallery in London and collecting placards from low-pay demonstrators. As it happened, I was also arguing about art with a member of the Central Committee of the SWP – the very vanguard of the vanguard. In the course of this debate I expressed the opinion that it would matter little to the working class if the place was razed to the ground, its paintings along with it. At this, horror was expressed. Although the comrade in question is not noted for his deference to Members of parliament, police officers, managers, trade union officials, or any other dog in office, he was scandalised by the suggestion of an attack on Art. He was, of course, right but, in the course of the discussion, admitted that he himself had never been into the place. This attitude of reverential awe for the name of Art and practical disregard for some of its more interesting products is, of course, widespread.

Its roots do not lie in philistinism, ignorance, or anything pejorative but rather in the rooted belief that art, while valuable, is not really a living activity which is available to workers. Its products are dead fetishes hanging in aesthetic mausoleums and approached, if at all, in attitude of religious deference.

At the same time, millions of workers look every day at other artefacts which are every bit as interesting as those quaint survivals of pre-industrial artisanal artistic production which hang in the Tate Gallery – they are called Television Programmes. It is only the vulgarest of prejudices which denies them the status of art.

Of course, the artefacts are the products of highly rewarded servants of capital distant in their lives and concerns from the working class. Certainly, their very evisceration is the mark of their subservience to capital. Of course, the rare programmes which have a revolutionary intent are buried under a mountain of counter-revolutionary filth, and are greeted with howls of outrage from William Deedes and the like. But, nevertheless, they are living proof that complex artefacts can be a matter of passionate interest to workers.

And if their consumption can be of interest, then so can their production. If the first concession to bourgeois ideology is to admit that the commonplace definition of art, which can be shown to be very exactly a product of the bourgeoisie, is both right and natural, then the second is that the consumption of artefacts is the proper concern for ordinary mortals, while their production is a matter for special people.

The bourgeois definition of what art is, and the bourgeois definition of how it is made, are two of the lesser chains upon our mind. They are obstacles to the self-activity of the working class, they are designed to make the mass of people think that they are ignorant, inferior, stupid, incapable, and generally fit only to be ruled by somebody else. They are chains which must be broken.

How to break the chains? Certainly not by selling the pass in the manner of Birchall and Collier. It is not that the questions that they wish to discuss are not important. It is not that people should stop reading John Donne or John Dos Passos. It is not that we should outlaw easel painting. Rather, it is a question of finding out what can actually be organised in the way of working class people producing their own artefacts. The debate about the formal properties of such artefacts, about their aesthetic excellence, even about their revolutionary efficacy, only really has any meaning if it is embedded in the practice of their production.

Of course, for a tiny party with slim resources, the possibilities are few and limited. Any beginning has to be a modest one. Any experience is worth examining closely. No matter how distant it may be to radicalised bourgeois intellectuals like me, Birchall and Collier, Rock Against Racism is a much more fruitful subject than Proust.

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