Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Frequently Asked Questions

This page aims to provide succinct answers to the questions that most interest people regarding Marxist aesthetics. More detailed answers can sometimes be found in my articles, which I give links for when possible.

I will add more questions, answers, article links, etc to this page as we go along. Readers are welcome to suggest questions for inclusion.

1. What is art?
2. May art be political?
3. May art be used as propaganda?
4. Does Marxism advocate Socialist Realism?
5. Do Marxists want to dictate what artists are allowed to do?
6. What is this human ‘essence’ that is objectified in works of art?

1. What is art?

Art is a form of labour unique to human beings. Through our labour, we fill the world with our objects, in which are concretised all our powers and contradictions. Art and work are commonly perceived as opposites, but both are a creative process by which we objectify our humanity and see it reflected back to us. Through all production we give our human essence a concrete, sensual form, affirming it in external objects we can see and touch.

There is no firm dividing line between what labour counts as ‘art’ and what doesn’t, but art is a form of labour in which spiritual values are particularly important.

For more detail: See my four articles on the origins of art, starting here, and on the development of the aesthetic sense here.

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2. May art be political?

Yes: there is no incompatibility per se between art and politics. Artists take their materials from human experience. Politics is just as much a part of that experience as Grecian urns, romantic love and so on, and may be explored in art. Like all people, artists have — to a more or less conscious extent — political views, and these will often find expression in their work. From the stelae of ancient Mesopotamia to Emin’s My Bed, art has always contained both overt and subtle political messages.

However, politics should not be forced on works of art from outside, either by decree or by artists themselves, even with the best intentions. Politics should be an organic part of the work and arise from the artist’s own personal conviction.

Even the most political artists should be under no obligation to treat political subjects if they do not feel like it. The choice of theme must belong to the artist. There is nothing in Marx’s writings to say that art must be political.

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3. May art be used as propaganda?

Many fine works of art convey a very deliberate political message. Take two ‘iconic’ works of Western art. Michelangelo’s David was commissioned by the city of Florence as a symbol of their political independence from the Medici and other enemies; Picasso’s Guernica was a statement against fascist violence. Every statue of a pharaoh conveys a message in support of the ancient Egyptian ruling class. Did these works have a propaganda purpose? Certainly. Does this detract from their qualities as works of art? Not at all.

The problem is more how propaganda roles are played by particular works in particular cases. If the political message dominates over aesthetic quality, or is imposed from outside upon an unwilling artist, then politics and art are likely to be in contradiction. If however a work’s propaganda message is an organic part of the work as a whole, then there need be no contradiction. Nowhere do Marx and Engels demand that artists must create propaganda for the struggle. Again, the choice of theme must belong to the artist.

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4. Does Marxism demand that artists practice Socialist Realism?

Not in the least. In its early years, the USSR was founded on direct workers’ democracy and was the home of a great diversity of experimental artistic movements. Socialist Realism was a mediocre brew concocted by the Stalinist bureaucracy which, for various reasons, rose to power from the mid-1920s. This bureaucracy distorted Marxist ideas to serve a philistine agenda, and insisted upon controlling what artists and others were allowed to say.

Socialist Realism’s real roots lie in nineteenth-century Russian realism, i.e. it draws its highly conservative aesthetics from pre-revolutionary art. Some artists still managed to create true art within its confines, but the imposition of standards upon artists is unacceptable and there is no reason to claim that Marx would ever have supported it.

In fact, Marx and Engels never advocated any artistic style in preference to others. There is no such thing as a ‘Marxist style’ in art. The early Soviet leadership, including Lenin, Trotsky, and culture minister Lunacharsky, agreed that artists must find their own way. Many progressive artists who do not or did not practice Socialist Realism, from Breton and Picasso to street artists in contemporary Cuba and Venezuela, have found no contradiction between their art and their socialist politics.

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5. Surely Marxists want to dictate what artists are allowed to do?

Absolutely not. It is a common error to equate Marxism with Stalinism on this issue, and bourgeois commentators cannot be relied upon to represent the Marxist position correctly. Although Marx made no explicit statement on artistic freedom, he did write early articles supporting freedom of the press, and it is no misrepresentation of his general outlook to extend this commitment to the arts.

Lenin and Trotsky, amongst others, later explicitly insisted that the state should not interfere in the arts. The only caveat was that work should be suppressed which might assist counter-revolution in the period when the revolution was not yet consolidated. In this, they thought no differently to bourgeois revolutionaries before them, including the English poet Milton. Once the revolution was safe, restrictions could be lifted and complete freedom granted to artists. This never occurred in the USSR, because the Bolsheviks were replaced by bureaucrats who tragically distorted Marxist ideas.

Proof that a socialist revolution does not have to go down the Stalinist path can be found in Venezuela, which is actively building a workers’ state and has not suppressed or dictated to the arts in any way.

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6. What is this human ‘essence’ that is objectified in works of art?

This concerns the debate over human nature. Marx believed that there was such a thing as a universal human nature. This consists of two aspects. Firstly there are characteristics, common to all human beings, which are biologically determined and relatively unchanging: e.g. the need for food, drink, sexual relations, and so on. This doesn’t mean they are fixed forever, only that they change at a very slow, evolutionary pace. Secondly there are aspects that are cultural and historical in character, such as our institutions and intellectual concepts. In fact, even the particular forms taken by our basic biological drives are also conditioned by history.

When we create works of art, we transform the material world into objects in which our drives, our needs, our desires, our ideas, our manual skills, and so on are made concrete. The immense variation in forms across cultures is the result of the immense variety of our social, cultural and historical experience.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Marx quotation that never was

“Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time.”

A multitude of quotations websites will tell you that this remark was made by Karl Marx. I’m not so sure.

When I came across it, I was puzzled. I have read most of Marx’s writings on art, but didn’t remember this phrase. And then there was the unlikely language. The ‘secret confession’? The ‘immortal movement’? It didn’t really sound like Marx. Hardly any of these websites provide sources for their quotations, so they were no help.

The answer to the puzzle seems to lie in a book by one Adolph Bernhard Marx, called The Music of the Nineteenth Century, and its Culture, published in English translation in 1855 by Robert Cocks and Co. Or, to give it its German title: Die Musik des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts und ihre Pflege: Methode der Musik (Leipzig, 1855). Marx, a German music theorist, writes on page 63: “Art is always and everywhere the secret confession as well as the undying monuments [sic] of its time.”

It is not difficult to see how this might have been translated slightly differently to give us the version that circulates unchallenged around the cheap and cheerful websites dedicated to quotations, who haven’t troubled to check precisely which Marx they’re quoting.

It’s only a small matter, but if any readers can prove me wrong, I’d be happy to hear from you.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Street art in revolutionary Venezuela

I reproduce an article by Dale Graden published on www.venezuelanalysis.com. July 30th 2009.

A short ride heading west on the metro from the center of Caracas is the Agua Salud station, which serves as a major entrance into the 23 de Enero parish. The surrounding area is always a busy place, with lots of vendors selling all sorts of products and small buses lined up waiting for riders. A striking first impression is the diverse visual images painted on walls and buildings.

Venezuelan street art #1

Street art plays an increasingly vital role in revolutionary Venezuela: It is a mode of political expression, a form of popular education, and helps build a collective historical memory. Few places show this more brilliantly than the walls of 23 de Enero with its combative spirit inscribed on almost every corner.

23 de Enero has long played a pivotal role in Venezuela’s turbulent political life. When the area was built in the 1950s, it was first christened “December 2,” taking its name from the date General Marcos Pérez Jiménez took power with his military junta.

Jiménez ruled with an iron fist, while the junta stole millions in public funds, depriving Venezuelans of basic services. A popular insurrection, supported in part by disaffected military officers, overthrew Jiménez on January 23, 1958. The December 2 district played a key role in the uprising and was subsequently renamed 23 de Enero in homage to the courage shown by so many its inhabitants. Today, 23 de Enero includes some 40 different barrios with a total population of well over 200,000 inhabitants.

Venezuelan street art #2

Since those turbulent days of early 1958, 23 de Enero has gained renown as one of the most radical urban areas in all of Latin America. In the words of one local resident, “Because of its combativeness and spirit of struggle, this urbanization has always been viewed by all our governments, except for the present one, as a ‘zone of subversion’ or a ‘red zone.’”

The depiction is not surprising given 23 de Enero’s widespread popular mobilization during various critical political junctures: protests against police repression during the mid-1980s, confrontations with army troops during the uprisings of February 1989 known as the Caracazo, votes in support of Hugo Chávez in elections, and the thousands who poured into the streets to demand President Chávez’s return during the coup d’état of April 2002.

Venezuelan street art #3

More than forty collectives have coalesced in 23 de Enero, including the Colectivo Alexis Vive (the Alexis Lives Collective). The collective is named after Alexis González, an activist raised in 23 de Enero who spent five years in Nicaragua participating in the Sandinista rural literacy campaign. During the massive street demonstrations of April 11, 2002, demanding Chávez’s reinstatement, military troops shot and killed Alexis González. Several members of the Alexis Vive Collective are versatile street artists whose work has gained international attention. Their bright paintings are readily visible in several barrios of 23 de Enero.

The artists of the Colectivo Alexis Vive exhibit their political views through street art. Common are simple statements in support of President Chávez, such as chants or phrases often used at pro-government rallies: “Uh, Ah, Chávez No Se Va!” (Oooh, Aaah, Chávez is Here to Stay) or “Con Chávez Todo, Sin Chávez Nada” (With Chávez Everything, Without Chávez Nothing).

Venezuelan street art #4

The collective encourages residents of 23 de Enero to be involved in political decisions affecting their communities. Articulating such a position is logical, given the thousands of individuals who have struggled to have their voices heard during the parish’s 50-year history.

Venezuelan street art #5Community involvement has helped residents achieve community-driven goals, such as creating educational programs or addressing the major problem of garbage collection. The artists of the Collective Alexis Vive have effectively aligned local concerns with a national agenda. Communal councils, an integral component of the Bolivarian Revolution, have aided this process. One sign (above) erected near the headquarters of the collective reads ‘Alexis Vive Carajo: Avanza hacia la Consolidación del Poder Local’ (Alexis Lives, damn it: Advancing Toward the Consolidation of Local Power).

The Collective’s art is heavily imbued with anti-imperialism. In recent years, critical depictions of U.S. policy in regions outside of Latin America have proliferated. Some paintings denounce Washington’s financial and military support for Israel and its disregard of Palestine. Other artworks rail against the war in Iraq: One work (left) painted on a wall by a gas station reads: ‘Su guerra no ha mundializado el miedo’ (Your war has not globalized fear). More subtle forms of cultural imperialism are also commonly analyzed.

A prominent topic involves the techniques employed by reactionary television and media companies to spread anti-Chávez propaganda. And numerous paintings emphasize the benefits of community radio. These small stations have sprung up in several barrios of Caracas and receive financial support from the government.

Venezuelan street art #6

Some of the art simply offers words and images for reflection. On a wall near the Agua Salud metro station passed by thousands every day, the Radio Arsenal graffito suggests ‘ideas’ and ‘consciousness’ are today’s most effective weapons.

Venezuelan street art #7

The material gains of the revolution and other relevant social issues are also sources of inspiration. Some of the art celebrates the role of the government-funded Barrio Adentro health care program, the benefits of playing sports, the danger of drugs, and the need to assume personal responsibility for one’s actions.

Several murals reinforce the importance of serious study and education, but place the emphasis on pedagogies of social emancipation. The Alexis Vive Collective calls for education that instills a socialist consciousness that contributes to the Bolivarian Revolution. Such sentiments have given impetus to the Boliviarian University system proposed by the Chávez government. In a huge mural, one message calls for the ‘construction of an insurgent’ and ‘revolutionary’ pedagogy.

Venezuelan street art #8

The Chávez government is often criticized for trying to impose a socialist project on Venezuelans from above. The collective rejects this critique, countering that residents of 23 de Enero have been — and remain — a constant source of progressive ideas from below.

Venezuelan street art #9The collective insists that initiatives surging from the urban underclass are a critical pillar of the Bolivarian Revolution. The sentiment is summarized in a mural depicting Che Guevara scrawled with the phrase: ‘El Socialismo se construye desde las bases: Consciencia Vive’ (Socialism is built from the grassroots; Consciousness Lives).

The Collective’s work instills a deep sense of historical memory. Given the long history of police violence inflicted upon the residents of 23 de Enero, artists often pay homage to the commitment of marginalized folk. Portraits remind residents of local heroes from the barrios of 23 de Enero that have met violent deaths on the streets of Caracas, such as activist-poet Sergio Rodríguez, who was killed by security forces, and Kley Gómez, an activist shot by criminal thugs.

The struggles of Afro and Indigenous Venezuelans are highlighted through such icons as the black hero of independence Negro Primero and the sixteenth century Indian leader Guaicaipuro. Famous figures in the history of Venezuela, including Simón Bolívar, Manuela Saenz and Simón Rodríguez are placed alongside other revolutionary icons, such as José Martí, Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, activist-singer Alí Primera, and Salvador Allende. But the art also celebrates political movements more generally, including the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from Buenos Aires and the Basque independence movement from Spain.

Venezuelan street art #10

The artists pay tribute to the courage and ideals of these individuals and groups. By focusing on what might be called a people’s history, the artists shed light on the fact that struggling Venezuelans are not alone — and never have been.

Through this revolutionary art, 23 de Enero’s sense of community has been strengthened, its sense of place enhanced. Artists representing the Alexis Vive Collective have played an important role in articulating the combative ‘spirit of 23.’ Astute observers of the world around them, they have proven adept at linking local concerns to urban, national and international issues, sharing their perspectives and ideals with all who encounter their inspiring art.

Source: NACLA