Art & Culture: Who Do We Learn From? Who Decides?
Posted by Mike E on July 1, 2008
Must the artist have direct experience in order to better express and communicate their art? What role does art and culture play in society? How do we unleash the masses in this sphere? Is all art automatically stamped with a class outlook, or is there not room for various forms of expression?
Regarding the last question, and in terms of our experience within the revolutionary communist movement, I would have to say that more often than not, art and culture come under such scrutiny that most creative work is sapped of anything new, original, imaginative or even passionate.
“Socialist Realism” comes to mind full blast. Within that, often times many revolutionary organizations tail after some artist who has gained some notoriety because they appear to be rebellious.
Peasant Paintings & Campesinos
I remember having a disagreement with a comrade, as he was critical of the peasant art that came out of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. “It’s so stilted, amateurish,” etc. I wasn’t necessarily defending the art per se, but what always struck me about the development of the peasant paintings was that peasants, who had solely thought of themselves as toilers of the soil, would be encouraged to explore a whole other level of themselves and their capabilities; actually take up the brush as well as the spade.
My own personal microscopic experience was in some ways similar to the peasants who solely thought of themselves as peasants. It wasn’t until my 40s that I actually re-explored my own creativity, and before that simply thought of myself as strictly a “worker bee.” I am not blaming my years in the RCP for this, but their division of labor, for one thing, helped to reinforce what bourgeois society had already instilled in many—the “one dimensional man/woman.”
I have been told 100s of times, “I really like your paintings, but I don’t know anything about art.”
This is a reflection of the fact that not only has art been traditionally treated as a commodity, especially in bourgeois society, but that it is something for the “elite.” The Chinese Peasant Paintings broke down a lot of the myth, and gave “mere” peasants confidence that they too could create something outside their normal realm.
When I first moved to Mexico, year’s ago, was all by my lonesome, except for my bulldog Dizzy, not knowing hardly a soul, and lived in an all-Purépecha indigenous pueblo for a year. All the pueblos around the main lake are renown for certain artesanias. “My” village was all campesinos and it was an ejido. (Idealistically kept thinking…wow, this is as close to socialism as I’m ever gonna get.)
I was the first, and think, the last “foreigner” to live there. Took about 3 weeks to ingratiate myself but once I did, had one of the most incredible and humbling experiences of my life. Everyday the villagers would go to work the fields at 5 a.m. Upon their return around 8 p.m., they’d pass by my door, ring my little bell, and offer me something from the day’s harvest. To reciprocate their kindness, I would cook up whatever they had offered, and pass by several “houses” with cazuelas.
And every Sunday we would all eat together on long benches, in the midst of the rough and tumble cobblestone “street”, breaking bread (actually tortillas) swapping stories. Usually sat across from an elderly couple.
So I asked his señora if I could borrow him for a few minutes…that was perfectly fine with her(!), and the man and I walked to the end of the road, where my place was. I pointed to the vast fields of their crops. “See the rows, the beautiful design, the colors,” etc. “Well, that’s a form of art…so you and your compañeros are artists too.”
When we returned to el pueblo, you would have thought I’d anointed him Pope. From then on most Sunday discussions had something to do with art. And I kept thinking of the Peasant Paintings…and somehow in my twisted logic how Mao’s call to go to the countryside, breaking down the barriers, goes both ways.
Not “Art for Art’s Sake” but…
In his autobiography, Tennessee Williams basically said that it is “the responsibility of the socially conscious artist to COMMUNICATE with his or her audience.”
Needless to say, what the socially conscious artist is communicating varies and is open to interpretation, but I think his main point was: that the creation of art should not be limited to the individual artist, or for the individual artist’s own edification. Interestingly enough, Tennessee Williams was a very conflicted artist whose social circle consisted of mostly southern white writers such as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. Meanwhile, around the same time as Williams was reaching his peak, the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Paul Robeson died in obscurity.
I have found that sometimes what you don’t say on canvas, is more powerful than what you do say. Lots of times people will ask, “Is your painting finished?” And my reply is “Why don’t you use your imagination and fill in the blanks?”
I am in no way talking about art for art’s sake—au contraire.
But what I like to see is when artists have some faith in the intelligence of their audience to be able to bring their own experience and imagination to the work. At the same time, while trying to communicate with my audience and touch a few souls—am hopefully giving them a voice and a vehicle for their own expression. I may never meet these people face to face, but hopefully via the art, we can have a dialogue and an impact on one another. I certainly don’t believe that my approach is the only approach. That would be more than pretentious.
Art and culture is an important aspect of our overall struggle and can play a significant role in the process of the transformation of the people ideologically, on various levels; and there’s a positive role for cultural workers to play, both inside and outside a revolutionary party or organization. But moreover, there has to be art, music, literature, poetry, dance, various forms of culture, in society. People crave it. It’s part of our life blood. And there is room for lots of different types of expression within that.
There are thousands of people who could contribute their creativity to the world at large, but unfortunately for most, they either don’t have the opportunity to explore their talents and potential, or they are so beaten down by just trying to survive, they strictly think of themselves as plebeian…”nah, art is for those other guys (and gals)…” —Art equalling either some intellectual exercise, or for the elite.
I say “let a hundred flowers bloom.” Frankly, those same flowers are going to blossom whether or not we’re dictating what the artist’s art should be like anyway.
Form & Content/Direct & Indirect Experience
While still living in the U.S., I had done a painting about my feelings about AIDS, called “At the Quilt.” At the time, there was much ignorance about HIV/AIDS, and those who had contracted the disease (or were HIV positive) were so stigmatized—I was outraged.
Decided instead of having At the Quilt hang in some gallery, or worse, plotzed in my studio, would donate it to some AIDS org. to sell, if they could, to raise $$ for people with HIV/AIDS.
Lo and behold, met a gallery owner who happened to be on the board of an AIDS org. and they were having a fundraising dinner, with a silent auction. “Cool…take it, it’s yours.” Was invited to the dinner, and watched on and off for 3 hours, while two different people haggled over this painting, crossing and re-crossing out the other’s name on the silent auction list. Finally went up to the guy and said, “Oh, you’re Kevin.” With this, he got very surly—“Are you the woman who keeps crossing out my name? I am gonna get this painting!!” “Ur, uh, no I’m the artist.”
With that, he threw his arms around me, started to cry (!) and asked, “How do you know me? How do you know how I feel about AIDS?” Well, he ended up with the painting, and then not only invited me to his home, with a bunch of his friends, but he went to all my shows, and we kept in touch for 10 years. Could have been the most moving experience I’ve had as “an artist,” dahling.
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Recently, Stanley R. raised a dialogue that took place between Zinoviev and John Reed (from the movie REDS by Warren Beatty)—and whether or not Zinoviev and the CPUSSR had meddled with what Reed wrote in an address to rebels (and jihadists) in Baku/Azarbijan. Unlike Stanley, I thought in part, Beatty was posing the question—how much should the party be able mess with the individual artist’s work?
Who decides what is art or propaganda, proletarian art vs. bourgeois art, whom does the art serve, etc.?
What’s more important (or principal)–form or content? or is there a relationship between the two?
Do we have anything to glean from say “the muckrackers” such as Upton Sinclair, or are we strictly pureist and/or dogmatic in our view of art and culture?
How have the “novels” of Stendahl, poetry of Pablo Neruda, satire of G.B. Shaw, or the poignancy of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” or “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry, touched many people’s lives, without being overtly “political” ?
Is there anything of value in the works by the Impressionists (like Monet or Renoir), whose content was not revolutionary (mostly depicting the petit bourgeois or bourgeoisie at around the same time as The Paris Commune), but who had made a radical rupture with form at the time?
In The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, Goya attempted to “perpetuate by the means of his brush the notable and heroic actions of the insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe” (the French Napoleon) (Goya by Robert Hughes, Knopf, New York, 2004.).
Goya didn’t witness this incident; rather it was meant as more abstract commentary on the horrors of war, the battle of the insurrectionists, even their assassination. Some might interpret this particular work as “defeatist”—while others might be moved by the complexities of war and revolutionary struggle. Did Goya capture something universal in this single painting? Is it necessary for the artist (writer, musician, etc.) to have direct experience in order to portray the experience of others? Is art solely subjective?
For me, Salvador Dali was a master technician, but his subject matter was reflective of his political outlook. (He aligned himself with Franco and the fascists in Spain, juxtaposed to Federico Garcia Lorca—whose poems and plays were not blatantly revolutionary or anti-fascist, but at the same time, creative works that reflected his politics.)
Is there anything worth noting about Dali—besides the fact that most people think of him as famous (others think of him as infamous), and somehow because of his notoriety, they should like his work?
Picasso, who is thought to be the quintessential visual artist of the 20th century (amongst mostly bourgeois circles), produced Guernica. Guernica to me is Cubism with a conscience. Thereafter he joined the French CP (while remaining a “pacifist”) and even though he never renounced his membership, was at first lauded by the CPSU, and then fell out of their favour once he’d done a portrait of Stalin—which was criticized as “insufficiently realistic.”
In the world of music, I was raised on jazz. Jazz was and is my “mother’s milk”. Many forms of music move me no end, but jazz speaks to my very core, heart and soul. Once had an argument with someone re jazz. This person, who was influenced by prominent lines of China’s cultural revolution, was against jazz’s propagation and promotion as an art form. (Without getting into all the things around jazz, e.g., its roots, its profound impact on U.S./worldwide music) my argument with this “chap” was—He was proposing that jazz, by its very “nature” was individualistic, therefore counter-revolutionary.
I was arguing the opposite. In say classical music, the orchestra or musicians are reading a score. Their “product” can be beautiful, but they’re each reading their own musical part. In jazz, while there is lots of improvisation (and individual solos), if those same jazz musicians aren’t connected spiritually, intellectually, artistically, their piece falls flat. In other words, there is something very collective in the jazz experience, while superficially it is seemingly not a collective effort. And if you look at jazz historically, it was/is one of the few mediums that broke down all racial (and some national) barriers – musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman by way of example. Music, and in this case, the art of jazz, has transcended some seemingly insurmountable barriers, and in the process people’s lives, in important ways, have been transformed.
Like I said in another post: art can be a powerful weapon in the people’s arsenal. How we wield that weapon is a discussion up for grabs.