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Art & Culture: Who Do We Learn From? Who Decides?

Posted by Mike E on July 1, 2008

by Linda D.

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.

One night el señor asked me…”¿Leeenda, they say you are a painter, an artist. What does that mean exactly? What do you do?”

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.

* * * * *

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?

How do we, or do we, judge Francisco Goya because he both was a painter in Spain’s king’s court, as well as producing such classics as The Caprichos?

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.

25 Responses to “Art & Culture: Who Do We Learn From? Who Decides?”

  1. Linda D. said


    would like to direct people to this website re Barenboim. His Western/Eastern Divan orchestra has made tremendous contributions to the people to people relations bet. the Palestinians and Israelis via music. A very moving documentary about when the orchestra performed in Ramallah is worth a look.

  2. zerohour said

    Linda –

    Two questions for now: does art for art’s sake really exist, and why do you disparage it?

  3. What makes a work of art revolutionary?

    I’m currently reading a book by Thomas Mann called “Joseph and His Brothers.” Mann was initially a conservative (a reactionary even) who later became an anti-fascist liberal.

    “Joseph and His Brothers” is a 1500 page (in very small type) novelistic retelling of the later chapters of the Book of Genesis.

    It’s arguably the most revolutionary work of art I’ve ever come across.


    Mann was a classic member of the high bourgioisie. He had time, leisure, deep erudition. He lived in a world that moved to a rhythm that was nothing like our current world of 24/7 cable news, 15 minutes of fame celebrities, and cookie cutter pop culture (Amy Winehouse is on drugs? Well. Just find another white women who can sing black and call her Duffy).

    In order to read “Joseph and His Brothers” you have to transform your rhythms into those of a European upper class man circa 1930. The very act of doing this calls your current American existence into question. I can usually sit down in a Starbucks or in my study at home and zip through a 500 pages book in a day or two. Not so with Joseph and His Brothers. When I’m reading this book I’m aware of the college girls 10 feet away from me studying for their CPA exams. I hear the TV on upstairs. When I successfully immerse myself in it for a few hours, I come away realizing the jerky, staccato, shallow rhythms of American culture in 2008. It’s as far away from a movie trailer (something that short circuits your brain) as possible.

    And yet there was nothing overtly revolutionary or even radical about it.

  4. Linda D. said

    Very tricky. IMHO–the notion of art for art’s sake has been elevated to absurd heights in the extremely bourgeois art world (am talking about critics, venues, that kind of thing) to justify a lot of individualism, elitism, etc., separating the artist further from society. Anything goes. And because art is a commodity anything that is saleable really has sway. (Often times a market is created around some artist who was relatively unknown. “Have you seen the latest Joe Schmo? You really should.”)And the idea of art for art’s sake is political, but the artwork isn’t necessarily political or stamped with a class outlook. On the other hand, I think historically rev. c’s have had a dogmatic view of what constitutes art–and decide what’s good and bad art–strictly based on their politics. I like to think that Mao was right–in a poetic sense, that “art is higher than life.” That doesn’t mean that the artists are part of some elite.

    Art to me is kind of a microcosm, or reflection, of the society at large. There are different forces and levels of “consciousness”, social and political awareness and a myriad of life experience that can be expressed through the vehicle of art and culture. And aesthetically there can be art that can also be simply appreciated because hey–it’s beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and touches some sort of human spirit or art spirit that is not all that easily defined.

    Robert Henri, who was a renowned art teacher at the turn of the century and up through the 1920s, wrote a liberating book–“The Art Spirit.” He let his students “fly” and was more interested in his students tapping into their creative spirit rather than telling them “how to” draw or paint, etc. In his book, he kind of captured that sense of “higher than life”:

    “He paints like a man going over the top of a hill singing…”

    Ultimately the idea of art for art’s sake (which very much exists in bourgeois society and art circles) can be just as stifling to the artist as a dogmatic assessment of art as strictly politics. Both can hinder the artist’s honest ability to create something new, imaginative, etc. Both views put their own kind of shackles on the creative mind.

    There is a difference aesthetically and politically say between Monet’s “Water Lillies” and Mapplethorpe’s “Calla Lillies.” To me, each has a role to play in how we view nature, our environs, etc. Scientifically we know the earth isn’t flat, but sometimes art is viewed flatly and pattenly.

    Rather than just the artwork, I love to read about artists and their lives. What experiences have they had that have helped shape their art or music, etc. Kind of gives you a different level of understanding and insight.

    So maybe the question isn’t so much is there such an animal as art for art’s sake, but more so is there a human and artistic spirit? or is this just a lot of metaphysical yak yak?

    What do you think? What artists, musicians, etc. appeals to you?

  5. Linda D. said

    Thank you Stanley. Have never read “Joseph and His Brothers” but think that Mann’s “Magic Mountain” (some of his humanism and allegory for the decay of society–i.e. German society) and even “Death in Venice” (more a struggle over his own sexual preference) reflect a lot of his political transformation. It is interesting to note that he started this transformation and shift in politics starting with his support of the Weimer Republic, especially concerning the flourishing of art and culture. He vehemently denounced “National Socialism” and the Nazis, and ended up leaning toward socialism and communism, influenced no doubt by his fellow German exiles and their community in Calif.–e.g. Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Brecht.

    However, I think it would be a disservice (and flat out not true) to the youth and the culture of today in the U.S. to make it seem like most are studying for their CPA exams and that there isn’t a hell of a lot going on in the cultural sphere besides the more vapid likes of Britney Spears. On the other hand what was shocking to me was a friend was taking some extension class on business/economics and Budd Shulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” (written in the early ’40’s) was part of the required reading. And a lot of the students thought Sammy Glick a really cool guy. (Sammy Glick the epitomy of capitalism’s dog-eat-dog, individualism, me first.)Bet Budd Shulberg did a few flips in his grave at that, especially since he was blacklisted.

  6. thanks for posting this.

  7. However, I think it would be a disservice (and flat out not true) to the youth and the culture of today in the U.S. to make it seem like most are studying for their CPA exams and that there isn’t a hell of a lot going on in the cultural sphere besides the more vapid likes of Britney Spears.

    The reference to the college students studying for the CPA exams wasn’t a comment on youth, just a comment on how difficult it is to find the right kind of leisure and isolation to read someone like Mann (or Tolstoy or George Elliot) at the rhythms demanded by the work itself.

    Ring. Cellphone. Ring Cellphone.

    And we haven’t even considerded the Internent on its own terms. For as much time as I spend on the internet I think it’s a hugely negative development as far as culture goes. I’m thinking of the Lewis Mumford book “Myth of the Machine.” Use a machine and the machine uses you. Use the Internet and you start to think like a machine.

    Ring. Cellphone. Ring. Cellphone.

  8. andreimazenov said

    Thank you for this piece, Linda.

    When I was in the RCYB, I felt that Avakian and Skybreak’s line on art was too liberal and really watered things down and defended the Trotskyist line of letting bourgeois-style art run free across society as long as it wasn’t overtly reactionary; and while I was in the RCYB, I often struggled against it by taking up the line of Jiang Qing and the Cultural Revolution because I felt that Avakian’s line would fall (sooner or later) into bourgeois liberalism. While I personally enjoy a lot of “apolitical” art (in fact, I’d say I enjoy apolitical music faaaaaar more than most “political” bands today) still feel in deep agreement with the old Maoist line on art, in that I fear that if we were to allow people- in a socialist society- to run amuck with all sorts of bourgeois romanticism that it could end up causing very bad things to happen in the cultural sphere.

    Regardless of what form it takes, ALL art is political and has a class character. In a revolutionary situation and in key points of the dictatorship of the proletariat, I think that there are times where all art MUST openly reflect proletarian politics, especially in times like the Cultural Revolution where many things were “on the line”. Art must be a weapon, and sometimes the proletariat will have to use it “full throttle” when there’s no time to dilly-dally around painting pretty pictures of tulips.

  9. Listen to yourself, Andrei…

    ‘if we were to allow people- in a socialist society- to run amuck with all sorts of bourgeois romanticism…’

    Just WHO is the WE that does the ‘allowing’ of PEOPLE? If they decide to ‘run amuck’ (whatever that is) without asking anyone’s permission, how do WE (you, really) propose to stop them?

    I’d watch out for those ‘MUSTS,’ too. They’re full of irrationalism. There’s no law of the universe or any of its subsets whereby artists MUST do things your way, rather than ‘dilly-dally,’ like Van Gogh, with starry nights or fields of grain.

    Some of the key reasons the Gang of Four came to a bad end are all right in your post.

  10. zerohour said

    “Regardless of what form it takes, ALL art is political and has a class character. In a revolutionary situation and in key points of the dictatorship of the proletariat, I think that there are times where all art MUST openly reflect proletarian politics, especially in times like the Cultural Revolution where many things were “on the line”. Art must be a weapon, and sometimes the proletariat will have to use it “full throttle” when there’s no time to dilly-dally around painting pretty pictures of tulips.”

    I agree with you that art is marked by the social context in which it exists but to prescribe what art, as a totality, MUST do is a dangerous position to take. Imagine if I were to argue that “imagination MUST serve a purpose.” Obviously it is not realistic and subsequently you are arguing for suppression of expression. Art can be political in the most obvious overt sense, but it is also political in another way. It is also a means of individual expression, which does not necessarily mean “individualism.” Even in its reactionary forms it can reflects= a utopian longing for “something better” [refer to the unjustly neglected thinker Ernst Bloch for an understanding of this dynamic.] Many of these utopian longings, for community, transcendance, openness, etc., are the same ones underlying communist politics.

    Can and should art be used to further the revolutionary aims of the proletariat? Of course. Should that be its only function, or reason for existence? I strongly disagree and think we need a more nuanced view of culture than mere functionalism. Aesthetics communicates politics too. In our logocentric culture, we need to re-develop a more subtle way of listening but without this, how can we appreciate something like jazz?

    But in terms of political art, I’ll provide two examples from popular culture: Rage Against the Machine and The Clash. On the overtly political level Rage were far more developed and consistent than the Clash. Aesthetically, they were far more backward. Their sound consisted of an amalgam of hip hop, metal and punk and could, at best, express rage and anger. The Clash’s sound and subject matter reflected humor, sadness, compassion, internationalism AND rage. They better exemplified Marx’s dictum that “nothing human is alien to me.” Rage was one-dimensional while the Clash recognized that revolutionary politics was driven by desire too.

    “could end up causing very bad things to happen in the cultural sphere.”

    Like what?

  11. zerohour said

    I said “Aesthetics communicates politics too. In our logocentric culture, we need to re-develop a more subtle way of listening but without this, how can we appreciate something like jazz?” That’s obviously focused on music, but I think it applies to all the arts, we need to understand that “form” is not just an empty vessel carrying messages but that it is a crucial part of the communication.

    Going back to music, think of how Reagan wanted to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign song. Despite the fact that the song is overtly anti-patriotic, the sound itself conveys fist-pumping jingoism. Her we have overt content conflicting with, and potentially undermined by, aesthetic content. What takes precedence? To understand something like this requires a serious study of ideology and culture.

    Also, any quesion of art can’t just be confined to the artist and the art, but also to the art world. The buyers, promoters, consumers also “create” art in a sense by defining it as such and, at the same time, excluding things as “not art.” Also, we should question whether the “meaning” of a piece of art has to be exclusively defined by the intent of the artist. Why is Damien Hirst an artist? For those who don’t know, among other things he displays animals, sometimes dissected. Is it because his work conforms to some metaphysical called “art” or because the art establishment says he is? Philosopher of art, Arthur Danto raised the same issue with Andy Warhol. Why are his Brillo boxes considered art, while actual Brillo boxes in supermarkets were not? Not to mention that the original designer of the Brillo boxes is not well known and is not considered a great artist even though the conception and design were his. I am not saying that Hirst and Warhol were not artists or that there is no value to their work, just that the “artist and artwork” framework is limited.

    This is why I challenge the idea of “art for art’s sake.” It does not, and cannot, exist and the effect of this notion is to forestall any deeper understanding of art beyond its formal properties. We should not let ourselves be limited or fooled by this.

  12. Linda D. said

    “I think that there are times where all art MUST openly reflect proletarian politics, especially in times like the Cultural Revolution where many things were “on the line”. Art must be a weapon, and sometimes the proletariat will have to use it “full throttle” when there’s no time to dilly-dally around painting pretty pictures of tulips.”

    I would like to ask Andreimazenov what he thinks proletarian art looks like, or proletarian music sounds like, etc.? Even if one were to concede that art (you’re saying “all” and I’m not sure about that) has class character, how do we view the proletariat? As some monolithic and amorphous blob?

    If we think about it, and if we have such a pureist, dogmatic, robotic but oh-so-politically correct line, we could probably find something to criticize about every ever book written, every piece of music played, every painting or sculpture produced. Does that mean we dismiss the art outright? I hope not. (And while “we” may dismiss it, the masses won’t.) My point about say the Peasant Paintings was precisely a new direction in the transformation of the people themselves. The peasants’ artwork, at the height of the Cultural Revolution was not overtly political. Was it proletarian art? Was the line in command proletarian in terms of content?

    And I have to ask, because this kind of thing spills over into many facets of “revolutionary communist politics”–what are afraid of? That if the proletariat, under its dictatorship and leadership of the party, sees a painting of tulips, that there is going to be a reversal? Is the d.o.p. that fragile? and more so, is the proletariat that one-dimensional that they can only appreciate some poster and slogan style?

    In China during the CR, and specifically in terms of dance/ballet, I would uphold “The Red Detachment of Women” or the “White Haired Girl”–not because I think that the performance was more profound than watching Margot Fonteyn, Maria Tallchief or Rudolf Nureyev, but because these ballets were an ATTEMPT at a radical rupture with both form and content, in that realm and at that time. But hadn’t someone like Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey or Merce Cunningham set some of the groundwork in a radical rupture in dance before Chiang Ching (old spelling) was Minister of Culture. If you follow her line to the letter, you throw out the baby with the bathwater. Ironically, I like a lot of Mao’s poetry and there is some romanticism as well as more subtle imagery therein.

    Some of the greatest writers have been satirists. People remember satire lots of times more than some straight-up propaganda piece, or some piece of literature that is dry, while being “correct”. I love your name Andreimazenov–because I forever have a love and fascination with Russian literature. Lenin read Chernechevsky’s NOVEL, “What is to be Done?” 14 times. I only read it 2x. Chernechevsky was not a Bolshevik. In a more subtle way the theme of his novel was about human relations, and the liberation of women but told through a “romantic” story. While I obviously loved this work, even though it was somewhat stilted and arid, it was not on par writing-wise with Gogol (one of the greatest satirists of all time), Turgenev (who was branded as a nihilist), Gorky (who fell in and out of favor), Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, even Pushkin, etc. Why have these writers had such an impact (still to this day) on humankind?

    I think the problem isn’t just how we look at art and culture, but how we view the proletariat and human beings.

    BTW Zerohour–I still LOVE The Clash! but is interesting to note the line struggle bet. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones over “cultural imperialism.”

  13. andreimazenov said

    I think you are all making some very valid points, but frankly… I can’t stand liberalism in the battle of culture. It undermines the need for being militant and set-on-our-goals in the realm of culture.

    I am not arguing that art should ALWAYS be overtly political proletarian works of art, but in a revolutionary situation and in critical junctures like the GPCR it is necessary to unleash all resources we have. What I am saying that we should unleash the masses to root out bourgeois liberalism and romanticism that may retard the growth of socialism in key times where the dictatorship of the proletariat’s life is on the line.

    Pastoral scenes, for example, often represent bourgeois idealism- a perfectly ordered world. At key times we must avoid making new works like that when we could be using art as a means of rallying our forces to make revolution or to stop reactionaries within the superstructure. Honestly? I would LOVE to see works of art that aren’t overtly political under socialism- it sounds like it would add to the vibrancy of socialism, in fact, I think that much of the time there will be room and time to do that. However, there are also times where you have to choose between what you want and what is good for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    I think that to deviate from it would inevitably lead to the mindset “art for art’s sake”. “Art for art’s sake” is a bourgeois concept to prevent investigation into culture and a focus on surface form. Pastoral scenes and pictures of flowers (for example) usually DO focus on surface form! Simplistic, idealistic mindsets that prevent an investigation into true culture- uphold a static idealistic dream of life that the bourgeoisie idealize.

    In the realm of ideology and art we must never ask for peace or tranquility! That denies contradiction and the fact that contradiction is what moves society forward.

    Honestly, I would love to be proved wrong, I would love to see how the masses can make such art without falling into liberalism.

  14. Linda D. said

    Apologies to Andreimazanov as I am pressed for time…but just one question/part. You say:

    “I think you are all making some very valid points, but frankly… I can’t stand liberalism in the battle of culture. It undermines the need for being militant and set-on-our-goals in the realm of culture.”

    How do you see–“set on our goals in the realm of culture”? What are our goals in that realm? What are our goals in the superstructure and ideological sphere under the d.o.p.? Under the d.o.p. and the building of socialism, are we supposed to be in a constant state of militancy? war communism footing? How can art and culture serve the people without bludgeoning them to death with some canvas?

  15. Libertarian Lurker said

    Citing Trotsky on a Maoist website might just result in stirring up the hornet’s nest, but I’ve always found his views on art to be a fascinating contrast to how Stalin and Mao approached things. Linda, you seem almost to be closer to the view Trotsky took on these matters than the view Stalin, Mao, and the Gang of Four took. Thoughts?


  16. andreimazenov said

    Once again: I do NOT see the need for art to serve political purposes at ALL times during socialism; just during key points.

    For example: times like the 100 Flowers Campaign was a time where vibrancy, variety, and room for exploration of non-political things was good and necessary; during those times we need an open, vibrant environment for artists to practice their works.

    However, in times like the Cultural Revolution (and even, as you said, War Communism) such concentrated campaigns in the artistic world are necessary. What I am calling for isn’t bludgeoning the masses to death a with a canvas; I’m calling for the bludgeoning and smashing of the old world with millions of canvases.

  17. Linda D. said

    Very sorry Lib. Lurker & AndreM. I really can’t respond — probably not until Friday. Not that what I have to say in response is the end all be all so am hoping by Friday others will have added their comments.

    Will also try and read the articles by Trotsky that Lib. Lurk. pointed to. Shocking as this may seem I am not necessarily adverse to everything ol’ Leon had to say.

    But just one quote from AndreM. that I found contradictory with your former comments:

    “room for exploration of non-political things was good and necessary;”…

    So are you saying that not everything is political? stamped with a political outlook, etc.?

    Hope we talk soon…

  18. onehundredflowers said

    Andrei –

    I think it’s fine to mobilize and win over artists to a political line or initiative, and I think a revolutionary state should be able to do so. It’s justifiable to primarily use such art in those situations.

    However, I think it is wrong to generalize it into a policy which governs all artistic production.

    Your historical references, War Communism and the GPCR, are important to learn from, but we can’t ignore a significant difference here, and in the rest of the western industrialized world: the pervasiveness of media and mass culture.

    Not only do the masses consume “culture” every day, but we can create it even without much, or any fomral training. One way this manifests is the proliferation of subcultures in which young, often working class kids create their own cultural codes, styles of dress, modes of interaction, slang and artistic expressions. Who taught the creators of punk or hip hop?

    Any attempt to suppress artistic expression or force it into a box, will most likely drive it underground where it can manifest later in hostile forms,

    I don’t know what a “cultural revolution” in the US will look like, but we can’t assume that it will take on the same contours as that of the past. Especially in the US where there is so much heterogeneity i the population; the very definition of “art” is highly contentious and bound up with so many other contradictions: race, sexuality, technology, commerce, etc., that the “class” approach we’ve inherited from the ICM is inadequate to the task

  19. carldavidson said

    Andrei and others:

    I was in China under the Gang, as well as twice later.

    During the first visit, one night we went to see the ‘Red Detachment of Women’ at the Opera.

    After it was over, my guides asked me how I liked it.

    ‘It was terrific, very inspiring,’ I said.

    ‘But I have one question. China has nearly one billion people. Why are there only eight approved operas?’

    There was lots of discussion among them in Chinese. Finally, one said, ‘It’s complicated. We will get back to you on that.”

    They never did. A few year later when I visited, they were all gone, and there were many, many operas. One thing I noticed on that trip, though. Nearly every party leader and official I met was an ex-convict, recently released from prison. Some, though, didn’t make it, and had perished. Chou En-Lai had protected many, but he couldn’t protect them all.

    If you think all art is stamped with the brand of a class, you either have a very narrow view of art, or an insufferably metaphysical view of class. In the end, both your art and your politics suffer for it.

  20. Linda D. said

    I lied. Said I would get back to you on Friday but here I am at 6 a.m. on Thursday. This discussion is wrecking havoc with any sleep I might have gotten. But so what?

    Think we have to backtrack a little.

    Don’t faint Carl, because I’m going to agree with you on something you said:

    “If you think all art is stamped with the brand of a class, you either have a very narrow view of art, or an insufferably metaphysical view of class.”

    In tandem with that, think it was OneHundredFlowers who asked are we talking about artists or art?

    I’d like to break this down a little more in what most of you might think are pretty unsophisticated terms–but here’s how I see it.

    Andre said, “I think it’s fine to mobilize and win over artists to a political line or initiative, and I think a revolutionary state should be able to do so. It’s justifiable to primarily use such art in those situations.”

    Well, don’t we have to mobilize and win over a lot more than artists to a correct line or “initiative”? But we cannot do that if we don’t have a handle on the objective situation, and the subjective forces. Why was Mao able to mobilize millions and initiate the Cultural Revolution? He made an analysis of both the objective situation, and the party itself. He relied on the masses and mobilized them to BEGIN TO break with old ideas, some heavy-duty ruptures in the ideological sphere, etc. One stark example is what I was trying to point to ala the Peasant Paintings: at the same time that intellectuals, artists, students, etc. were not above class struggle, workers and peasants were not just about working in a factory or tilling the soil.

    What does it mean to let a hundred flowers bloom? (Sorry AndreM. but I think you reduce that concept to some sort of sloganeering.) People from all over united around the Cult. Rev. because they had a stake in building a new society. We’re not going to win anyone over just because we tell them what to do, how to think, what kind of art to make–this is a struggle and part of class struggle — and as Mao pointed out, a fierce class struggle that continues under socialism, and in this case primarily in the superstructure. How it all fell out can certainly be debated.

    Re artists: Hey, they’re cultural workers. They’re part of society. They have a role to play in both making revolution and building socialism. The problem with a lot of artists in a capitalist society (and the notion of art for art’s sake) is ideologically they’re fed this b.s. that “they” are above classes, that they are somehow special. But to get real, for most artists under capitalism this is illusory! (Like they’re part of some elite except the majority of artists are struggling along with the rest of us.) Art in this society is a commodity and extremely competitive, and most artists are slaves to that whether they’re “successful” or not. And in the “normal” machinations of the “art world” (that term alone separates the artist from society) a lot of those people who decide who is a good or bad artist are usually a bunch of commercial dilettantes, who want to preserve their own position. But within the “artist community” there are many, many rebels and people who both see themselves as revolutionary, progressive, (at minimum Bohemian) etc. and wonder how their art can contribute to both the struggle and society or movement. And they are won over because they too see what is happening in the world, in society, etc. and that they are part of this world and society! The majority are not living in some ivory tower. But in capitalist society they are often times isolated, and the notion that they are somehow special isolates them even more. (Not that dissimilar to the “intellectuals”.)

    However, I think Carl’s right. When it comes to ART you have a pretty narrow view. And as “an artist” (in my case probably more revolutionary first, artist and cultural worker second–but I don’t see this as contradictory) I don’t particularly want to live in the society you envision. For starters, I don’t think it’s visionary. Instead I think your idea of a revolutionary society is mechanical. Comes with a lot of preconceived ideas, and more fetters on the minds, creativity and potential of people. Art is a vehicle for expression, not just an expression of what is immediately obvious, but can tap into and evoke people’s “emotions” about their (and others) experience, their hopes, dreams, etc.

    Sure within that there are contradictions. Do we automatically endorse all hip-hop and Rap because in the main it is art that is a concentrated form of expression originating amongst the most oppressed sections of the people? No. I think we have to be critical of some Rappers and their focus on bitch bitch bitch, pussy pussy pussy. But to me, hip hop (and really starting with the Revolutionary Poets/Gil Scott Heron) is musical poetry. And unfortunately like just about everything in bourgeois society, a lot of hip-hop is being co-opted. That’s not surprising if you think about the music industry–industry being the key word. But what I also like about a lot of art, that may not be politically astute in your view is when it’s imperfect because we live in an imperfect world–and probably always will. Even your reference to pastoral scenes–which you classified as idealistic–if you really study that art form, you will see imperfections. Cezanne, who was really the father of Expressionism,–his countryside/nature paintings were a radical rupture with the art schools that had been dominant. His pastoral paintings are vibrant, tumultuous, evocative, etc. Even within some, you can feel the struggle bet. “man” and nature. That is if you look for it and don’t just automatically dismiss him because he isn’t painting about some bumper crop.

    And then there’s someone like Spike Lee (who is very politically and socially aware) but makes films like “Malcolm X,” “Do the Right Thing,” Katrina Docu., as well as “She’s Gotta Have It”, “25th Hour,” “He Got Game.” Personally I really like the majority of Spike Lee’s films but they’re different and not always provocative or super controversial. But then I also like a lot of Buñel and Fellini. Fellini reminds me of what Carl was saying about Thos. Mann. Fellini is a master at helping expose the ruling class even though we are almost transported into a dream like state, plus his irreverant view around religion and Catholicism in particular can’t be overlooked. And there’s Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, ad infinitum. Godard started to lose me when he made La Chinoise. Mental dogmatic torture.

    Want to give an example of how art can be universal, criss-cross fronteras, experience, etc. As a painter I wanted to try and do something about (albeit in a microscopic way) taking a stand against the Iraq war, racism, the extreme poverty that I see every single day, etc. These days I have art to rely on. I’m not in any organization anymore. And there’s not a lot happening where I live in terms of demos., etc. What can I do? So I put together a show, called it “No Más Guerra, Racismo ni Pobreza” and exhibited 30 paintings. I am happy to say that this show caused a big stir. And am also happy to say I sold a lot of pieces–really for cacahuates. But the one painting that sold that surprised me was called “Cabrini Green,” something I’d done over ten years ago. The guy who bought it ended up being a great amigo…but he knew absolutely nothing about Cabrini Green and subsequently has read as much as he can about it (in Spanish), as well as Bedford-Sty, Harlem (and the Harlem Renaissance), the South Bronx, etc. None of this is part of his world, but his world got expanded just via this little painting. I find that amazing and makes me hopeful.

    Elaine de Kooning wrote a wonderful book–“On Abstract Expressionsim”. In it she said, “there are those who are driven to art, and there are those who are driven BY art.” I think there is something to that. Humankind has been making art since the beginning of time. Why? (Can hear some kid telling his Mom–“please don’t Pine Sol my pictograph” on the wall of some cave.) There is a great anthropological museum in Puebla, MX whose exhibits are all based on art from various societies, including Iraqi art. A very vivid way to learn anthropology, don’t you think?

    Sorry…gotta run…

  21. andreimazenov said

    I think you’ve really made me rethink a lot of things… and I really want to agree with you, Linda. I really, truly do. But I just can’t envision such things being possible under the dictatorship of the proletariat (under communism yes).

    …Then again, would such “mobilization” of the masses be in fact not an unleashing, but a commandist campaign?… Would my idea of struggle end up amount to “supervising” the people as if they were little children (and force the people to be eternally on a war-footing)? Maybe Avakian was right when he said that we must “fly high without a safety net”.

  22. Eddy said

    “If you think all art is stamped with the brand of a class, you either have a very narrow view of art, or an insufferably metaphysical view of class.”


    the statement poses the question: can there be such a thing as symbolic activity that is apart from ideology? is there such a thing as thinking that is completely separated from being?

    and so, in a stratified society…

  23. There’s plenty of thinking apart from ideology. Science, for instance. But then you would see ideology as Marx did, as the ossified ideas of the old order, and counterposed to science.

    I realize that’s not what Stalin and Mao held, and even Lenin, to a lesser degree. That’s another matter. But it’s the way Marx looked at it, and I think it’s fine.

  24. Linda D. said

    AndreiM. and of course others:

    Andre: “I think you’ve really made me rethink a lot of things… and I really want to agree with you, Linda. I really, truly do. But I just can’t envision such things being possible under the dictatorship of the proletariat (under communism yes).”

    I am not exactly sure what you meant about commandist, etc. But coming off of your paragraph above…What do people think artists can (or should be) doing today? “Under socialism, under communism” is a bit speculative, don’t ya think?

  25. Linda D. said

    Hola Lib. Lurker. Have made it through about 1/2 the suggested reading by Trotsky on art. Think verbosity should be something we should do away with the advent of socialism. ¡ay caray!

    Am not sure how you see the Trotsky connect. So far I think he’s a little of this, a little of that…maybe that’s the connect? But from what I can understand so far, Leon does talk about the creative spirit, and I think he also gets into FAIRLY concrete and less vague reasons why that creative spirit would be further inspired (theoretically) under socialism. Personally I welcome you’re opening up a supposed “hornet’s nest.”

    In light of that will take on a sacred cow–not literally cow, but these days pretty much sacred. Frida Kahlo. To me we can learn something from her life, personal struggle, and even political involvement (which was a back and forth) but “artistically” I don’t like her work, neither in form nor content. Think a lot of Goya’s work was more progressive, especially given Ms. Kahlo’s background and the period in which she lived. But what always blew me away was, in her house in Coyoacán, the last canvas she was working on atop her easel, just before she died is a portrait of Stalin. omg–it’s nothing and if you compare it to Picasso’s portrait of JVS, it looks like “paint by numbers.” How ironic that she and Diego were so tight with Leon before he was assassinated.

    Even though he later became much more conservative (some would say reactionary) Octavio Paz wrote essays concerning the Mexican muralists (the more famous four–Tamayo, Orozco, Siquieros and Rivera) that is very eye-opening. “Essays on Mexican Art” (Harvest pubs.) In one part he compares Rivera’s murals to Orozco’s–especially during Rivera’s CP days, and how his work became pretty flat and very formulaic; then there’s Orozco, who was not a communist, and whose murals were so strong, wrenching, etc., and how both of them were depicting the same subject matter.

    (BTW want to recommend who I think has found a “fine balance” between something new and creative, at the same time more revolutionary–Rupert García, a now older Chicano artist. His more overtly political (and smaller) posters were a great tool in the struggle e.g. around South Africa/against apartheid. BUT it’s his murals and triptychs that are extremely dynamic and jarring– anti-imperialist, anti-Catholicism, but without being the least bit dogmatic. You’re not just an observer but are so drawn into his art, you have an entire experience–and at the risk of letting those hornets run amok, his work is almost an epiphany.

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