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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 33DECEMBER 1994

Significance of the Arts

by Rob Gowland

“Art is not a goal, but a medium to communicate with mankind.” — Moussorgski

The human animal evolved beyond its animal competitors to develop a greater capacity for reason than any of them. It developed communication skills beyond compare and it developed a capacity for imagination and compassion. The capacity to feel compassion surely is one meaning of the word humanity.

Are not the communists totally concerned with humanity? With ending inhumanity? With freeing humanity to develop to the full – physically, intellectually and culturally? The revolution that we want has a cultural dimension.

And yet there are people in the communist movement (including some in the Socialist Party of Australia) for whom an interest in the arts is a sign of bourgeois affectation or middle class trendiness. The arts are seen as the field of “artie farties” rather than true revolutionaries.

Struggle of ideas

Art does not exist in isolation from society or in isolation from reality. Art reflects, interprets and comments on reality. It deals, as Moussorgski says, with ideas. It is part of the struggle of ideas.

Sydney’s New Theatre, begun by the communists in the 1930s, had a banner over the stage for some years with the slogan ”Art is a weapon”. They meant a weapon in the class struggle, of course, a weapon in the struggle for ideas in the world. 

At the Sydney District Conference this year, the Socialist Party of Australia President Hannah Middleton, spoke of the role of literature in bringing people to the communist movement. We should remember that a passionate, true depiction of reality can open eyes and open minds, not just in literature but in all the art forms.

It is why reaction always attacks progressive artists and destroys or marginalises their art.

Look at the Nazis with their infamous book burnings, arrests and concentration camps.

Look at East Pakistan and its struggle for national independence as Bangladesh. The Pakistani reaction was to slaughter the intellectuals, including and especially the artists, who could unite the people.

Look at the United States during the infamous McCarthy period when artists were hounded out of work, hounded out of their ability to create, jailed, driven into exile, denied access to halls, TV, publishers or the press.

Why? Because art is a powerful weapon. If we think of the arts as a form of mass communication of ideas, then I think we should be able to appreciate not only its significance but also why communists must of necessity take an interest in it.

If we think of the arts as a form of mass communication of ideas, then I think we should be able to appreciate not only its significance but also why communists must of necessity take an interest in it.

Lenin advised the Bolsheviks not to discard all previous culture but to “take the best” from bourgeois culture. 

Why did he do that? Why didn’t he just toss it all out as the culture of a decadent system that was being replaced? Why did he want to take anything from it?

I think “the best of bourgeois culture” consists of two elements.

Progressive social forms

There is the art that derives from the progressive stages in social development, the art that represents the new social form emerging from a previous system. For example, the art that is the cream, the best of ancient Greek thought, was the product of the progressive stage of slave society.

As each new social form takes shape and replaces the preceding one, it has a progressive stage. Later it becomes moribund and then decadent and is in turn replaced – as slave society was succeeded by feudalism, and feudalism by capitalism, and as capitalism eventually will be by socialism. 

The second element is the work of the actual artists, craftsmen, artisans who worked to create the great temples and churches, who painted the frescoes, who sculpted the reliefs and statuary, who built the palaces, who made the jewelry, the silverware – the master craftsmen and their helpers who worked to bring to life the dreams and aspirations of the new ruling class. 

They may have been restricted by the strictures of their class society, but we can still admire the talents of these very often nameless artisans, craftsmen and toilers.

For the people

I once went with a Party delegation to the Soviet Union. One of the people in our group, a young comrade, was academically training in painting.

When we visited the Russian Museum in Leningrad, he did not want to be bothered with any of galleries containing pre-revolutionary art. He described it as “elitist” and expressed a positive disinterest in it for that reason. And yet this “elitist art” was being preserved and displayed by the communists of the USSR.

In the sense that it was – and is – kept for the ruling elite, the best of bourgeois art is elitist. It was – and still is – created for their enjoyment, not the enjoyment of the masses.

Is it not revolutionary to make that art, that elitist art, available to all the people, to provide a level of education and cultural awareness to all the people so that the mass of the people can in fact not only see but enjoy and appreciate that formerly elitist art?

In Cuba before the revolution, the principal theatrical entertainment was cabaret. This was an economic situation. The wealthy American tourists, gamblers and gangsters, for whom the Batista regime catered, together with Cuba’s own decadent ruling clique enjoyed and expected cabaret. They wanted a sort of Latin Las Vegas and they got it.

After the revolution, cabaret remained popular, naturally. But the people were also given the opportunity to experience, to enjoy and to learn about other arts with the result that eventually ballet took over from cabaret as the principal theatrical art and the Cuban National Ballet became one of the world’s great companies.

At the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, I have seen a matinee audience predominantly of children demonstrate by their reactions that they appreciated ballet, they knew what to look for, what was excellent, what was mediocre. They were artistically developed. And why wouldn’t they be? The tickets cost the equivalent of one dollar.

Cynical contempt

The bourgeoisie also provides “art for the people” – as special events, such as Opera in the Park. If they really wanted to make opera available to the masses, they too would simply reduce the price of the tickets to a very small amount, and people would queue up to experience opera in good acoustic conditions, with proper stage machinery and sets.

Instead, people must make do with a once-a-year “treat” in a park where they listen to the performance through loudspeakers in the open air.

Now we have the spectacle of opera performed as a spectacle in the Sydney Football Stadium. It will be a spectacle, quite an extravagant one, but it is possibly the worst acoustic environment for a medium that depends on exquisiteness of sound. 

Look at the comics in daily newspapers. The artists who draw those comics, in some cases – not all by any means – are genuine artists, using their wit to comment on trends in current capitalist society.

But their medium is being shrunk to a tiny size so that the proprietors of newspapers do not have to devote as much of their precious advertising space to the comics. The artists can barely put any information into their drawings because there is so little room for the drawings to be reproduced. 

There is in this a cynical contempt for the mass of the people and for art itself.

Bourgeois interest in art

Nevertheless, the bourgeoisie takes a very strong interest in the arts and the way they impact on the working class. 

Look at the films, the television programs, the pop music, the best sellers in lieu of literature, the comics and (in their serious form) the graphic novels as they call them now, and the provision of spectacle in one form or another that the bourgeoisie provide for the masses. All are marked by commercialism, escapism and false values. 

The provision of art for the masses, of so-called “mass culture” – usually meaning films, TV and pop music – is now itself big business, requiring the adapting of art to marketing needs. 

Merchandising of ancillaries – toys, games, beach towels and so forth – not only increases the profitability of the original but increasingly influences the form and theme of the original.  Creativity has been replaced by the bankable concept.

Circumscribed by capitalism

Humanity, however, continues to struggle. Artists continue to try to expose injustices, to present ideas. People still have talent; they still have minds. They are circumscribed, however, by capitalism.

The high cost of mainstream films, for example, even those made on much lower budgets than, say, an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, necessitates their being released through capitalist-owned distribution ans exhibition companies.

Consequently, although mainstream film makers can be explicitly outspoken about the ills of capitalist society, they cannot portray it as specifically capitalist society nor can they show the exploitative nature of that same social system as the root cause of those ills. They can only make oblique comments. They must deal with generalisations and vaguenesses.

Even at the height of the anti-fascist coalition in World War II, propaganda films that came from Hollywood had to deal obliquely with questions of fascism and war.

Trade unionism and on-the-job labour organising, unemployment and homelessness, the corrosive effects of poverty, these are themes dealt with so rarely in “mass entertainment” that their occasional appearance is hailed as an “event”. 

Politics – or actual criticism of capitalism itself – is generally tolerated only in obscure, guarded or even coded references.

Politically explicit material is usually marginalised to fringe theatre or public television with its strong petty bourgeois influence.

Today, many progressive artists suffer under another heavy burden. They are locked out of confidence in the future. They can still see what is wrong with capitalist society but, thanks to the triumph of capitalism in the cold war, they have no confidence in the alternative. They are not sure any more that there is an alternative to capitalism. And this stultifies and undercuts much of what they do.

Confidence in the future

It is our job to encourage artists to speak out about reality, but also to give them that confidence in a new stage of human development in the future.

All that capitalism offers artists today at a mass level is the opportunity essentially to make escapist films or novels or plays, the opportunity to provide the masses with an escape from reality. No answers, just a happy alternative, an imaginary world that is better than this one, something to take their minds off the present situation and their current predicaments.

The result is the proliferation of highly developed art forms based on thrills, incongruity, stupidity and sex. The result is the popularisation of gun-culture, fantasies and a phony optimism which actually encourages the development of cynicism.

Escapism

We should not, however, turn our back on escapism. In the 1930s, Maxim Gorki defended the development of myth, pointing out that it was a manifestation, an embodiment of the people’s belief that there had to be something better than the life they led, that there should be a world in which good won over evil, happiness could be attained, goodness would be rewarded and so on.

This is still a very important aspiration of humanity and in our present circumstances in the world, it is inevitable that works which cater to it will be popular.

But in the decadent period that we are in, this escapism is also marked by characteristics that are anything but positive, by violence, by a cult of sadistic linking of sex with violence, by harping on death as a solution to problems and a subject for entertainment.

Films, plays, stories which make people feel good – and a “feel good play” or a “feel good film” is the current trendy description of such works – are in the spirit, to some extent, of what Gorki was talking about.

Innate goodness

Yes, they take people’s minds off their problems. Yet they do so by expressing the innate goodness of people. They make you feel the way you should be able to feel in real life.

It is not escapism itself which is the problem. It is not escapism itself which should be attacked. It is the bourgeoisie’s purposeful abuse of escapism as a means of preventing people from seeing real answers and real solutions, or even identifying real problems.

Role of the Socialist Party of Australia

Our Party’s approach to the arts needs to be active, positive and multi-faceted.

We need to promote an interest in and understanding of the best, most progressive works of bourgeois culture.

We need to analyse and expose the class bias in the arts policies of governments and arts administrations at both State and Federal levels.

Similarly, the art works of present-day bourgeois culture should be critically reviewed from a working class perspective. Many so-called left or alternative artists today are under the influence of petty bourgeois ideology, which needs to be combatted by exposing the deficiencies, distortions, inconsistencies and errors it leads to.

Socialist culture

It is the responsibility of the Socialist Party of Australia to preserve, defend and encourage the continued enjoyment and study of the art produced under socialism in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and elsewhere. Certainly, no one will if we do not.

We must do no less with the art works that spring from the ranks and experience of the working class under capitalism – the plays and poetry, songs and stories from and of the working class. This particularly applies to the arts of our multicultural Australian working class.

There are, within our Party, people of real artistic talent. We must encourage and develop them. We also need to encourage our other comrades. If you lack soloists, try forming a small choir – people are often much more confident singing in a group. 

We should look for ways to develop and utilise not just singing, but recitations, agitational playlets and skits, dance and of course creative writing. Short stories, anecdotes, reminiscences, poems and sketches (both written and drawn varieties) are needed for The Guardian. They used to be a feature of the working class press and should be again.

Whenever Party branches or committees have the opportunity to present material on community radio or television, if possible don’t restrict our contribution to talk alone. Augment that with songs, skits, poems and the like.

Remember, the arts are a means of expression and a source of pleasure. They deal with ideas and – if used correctly – can be a powerful weapon in the armoury of the working class.

The bourgeoisie uses the arts to help maintain its exploitative rule. It behoves us to develop the alternative approach to the arts: to show the people that they can have entertainment while dealing with real issues, there are real solutions and they do have a future.

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