Art and Revolutionary Imagination

from the writings of Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #952, April 12, 1998

"Revolutionary culture is a powerful revolutionary weapon for the broad masses of the people. It prepares the ground ideologically before the revolution comes and is an important, indeed essential fighting front in the general revolutionary front during the revolution."

Mao Tsetung

All the dark forces harming the masses of people must be exposed and all the revolutionary struggles of the masses of the people must be extolled; this is the fundamental task of revolutionary writers and artists.

Mao Tsetung

In this issue we present some thoughts on revolutionary art from RCP Chairman Bob Avakian--focussed on the relationship between art and politics, between realism and imagination.

I think people recognize, or should recognize, that art does have a political character to it; it's either going to serve one kind of politics or another. In other words, I don't think there's such a thing as art for art's sake, art that's pure and above politics and doesn't represent the point of view ultimately of one class or another and one way or another of viewing how society is and how it ought to be. Even the most subtle things, for example things that may influence politics indirectly and express a viewpoint indirectly, do so nonetheless, and sometimes the more subtly they do so the more powerfully they do so exactly because it's not overt.

Now that's on the one hand. On the other hand, art is different than politics per se, and it's good that it is. People need politics--politics is the lifeblood of society, if viewed in the correct way that politics is the struggle over what direction society and the institutions and people in it should take and how they should be shaped, in relation to the world around them. But nevertheless, art is a distinct sphere that's different than politics per se. Even though ultimately it can't be independent of or escape the realm of politics, still it is not the same thing as politics per se and when it is it is not good art, in general. It has its own laws, that's why there is aesthetics, it does speak to those laws and the specific character of art.

But in the final analysis art plays a role for one class or another (in class society); it always plays a social role.

Bullets; from "Art and Politics," excerpts from a June 1982
interview on WRFG Atlanta, RW No. 190, January 28, 1983

A work of art must be more intense and concentrated than life itself; it cannot passively reflect life; a play, novel, song, etc., cannot just reflect the minute-by-minute life of someone--there would be no point to it. Art must concentrate and intensify life, must raise it to a higher plane.

Bullets; from "Culture and the Superstructure," Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions

Revolutionary cultural workers, Mao insisted, had to get to know the people--what their feelings were about things, how they saw the world, how they were actually carrying forward the struggle.

"Culture and the Superstructure," Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions

If you want to produce music that is inspiring to people and that takes the various forms--and even develops new forms--and imbues them with content that takes people's highest aspirations and concentrates and directs them toward changing the world and criticizing and challenging things, then you have to know the people.

Bullets; from "One on One with Bob Avakian," excerpts from
1979 national speaking tour, RW No. 17, August 31, 1979

When I say revolutionary art I don't only mean art that overtly and directly popularizes the need for revolution, I think art that does that and does it well, that is really art, is very important. But revolutionary art is certainly not limited to that. There are other forms of art that criticize the system, which dissect and expose certain of its more outrageous features and crimes, which call people to question the established order--all these kinds of things, on many different levels and different forms, can certainly make an important contribution to building a revolutionary movement. Certainly the consciously revolutionary artists are something that the proletariat, the Revolutionary Communist Party and revolutionary communists generally cherish, but even they should not confine their work to art that directly points to the need for revolution, nor certainly should any of their work, whatever its theme, fall into being mere propaganda or attempt to be, or replace, politics per se. And we must recognize the important role and contributions of many people who are not communists, who don't agree with us completely, perhaps are not themselves convinced of the need for revolution or are not very clear what that means, but who do in fact challenge the established order and who do call on people to question and rebel in various different ways against it, often very indirectly as well as sometimes more directly through their art.

Bullets; from "Art and Politics," Jan. 28, 1983

Is there such a thing as "proletarian art"? In my opinion, there is--and there isn't. There is not such a thing in terms of form; that is, there is not one particular form that alone characterizes and expresses the interests of the proletariat in the sphere of art, there is no form that is quintessentially proletarian and that must be employed to the exclusion of all others; nor is it helpful to try to find or fabricate such a Proletarian Form. But there is proletarian art in terms of content: it is art which, through many different forms, reflects--as art--the outlook and interests of the proletariat, and in that way contributes to the realization of its revolutionary goal.


The fact that a work of art is created as part of revolutionary practice, and is used to help change reality, does not mean that it doesn't reflect truth--for in fact truth can only be reflected through the process of changing reality, and the deeper and more essential truths about history, society and human beings can only be arrived at through the process of changing reality in a revolutionary way.

"Culture and the Superstructure," Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions

What, then, does revolutionary art do? Mao sums it up succinctly: "Revolutionary literature and art should create a variety of characters out of real life and help the masses to propel history forward."

"Culture and the Superstructure," Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions

The arena of art is tremendously important in terms of influencing people one way or another--for revolution or against revolution, for the status quo or against the status quo speaking more generally. Art not only influences politics tremendously but there is also a sharp struggle in the realm of art over what will be produced, what will be supported, and there are many different ways that the bourgeoisie, the ruling class, has of controlling art. In fact, in the U.S. at this time, they prefer to do it without having to show a heavy hand to the degree that this is possible. They prefer to do it by pretending to have pluralism just as they pretend to have it in the political sphere--that there is no political character, no class character to our art, just different viewpoints, expressing people's different ways of looking at the world. But it's like a Newsweek magazine article. Newsweek specializes in the eclectic style, they say almost everything, apparently, but by the time they're through they've gotten the point they want across and they've told you what the acceptable conditions and framework of the argument are.

But they have other ways of controlling people, they will use the iron hand and they will use murder if people don't get in line, among artists as well as others. And that's something we've seen in the past. But at the same time, they prefer to get people with the weapon of cynicism, to get people with the weapon of demoralization, particularly people who are trying to do something with their art that is different than talking about all these rotten themes that leave people feeling demoralized or worse. With people who are trying to stand up, and even without knowing clearly where to go, say this whole order stinks and there's got to be something better out there, they try to convince these people that they are all alone, that nobody supports them, that people don't want to hear that, that you can't sell records or you can't sell tickets at the movie theater, or you can't keep a TV rating up if you do that kind of art. No, "you've got to be realistic and recognize that people just don't want to hear that and you're up against overwhelming odds in trying to do it. Not because we, the imperialists (or the democratically elected leaders of the country, as they call themselves) don't want you to do this or will prevent you from doing it or forcibly suppress you when you try to do it, but because the people out there are too uninterested, apathetic and so on and don't want to hear it." So I think these are some of the problems that progressive and revolutionary artists come up against; as well as outright suppression, they have to deal with all the more subtle influence that is directed at them by the ruling class.

Bullets; from "Art and Politics," Jan. 28, 1983

It is not possible to carry out the socialist revolution and the transition to communism without creating a whole new culture, including literature and art, which for the first time in history puts forward the outlook and promotes the interests of the proletariat in overthrowing everything reactionary and revolutionizing all of society."

Bullets; from Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions

When Mao called for combining revolutionary romanticism with revolutionary realism, in art and more generally, he was precisely rejecting mechanical materialist tendencies and speaking to the need to inspire people with the most lofty vision, and to do so in ways that unleash the imagination together with giving people a most profound understanding of reality and of the means for revolutionizing it."

"Putting An End to `Sin,' Part 6: Freeing the Spirit," RW No. 846, March 3, 1996

It is one of the characteristics of art that it does not, and should not be required to, adhere strictly to reality. In other words, in movies, plays, paintings and other kinds of artistic creation, quite often the artist does not present reality as it actually is, but in a different way, precisely in the final analysis in order to get the audience and people more generally to look at the world and at reality in a deeper way."

Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism, 1992

While much of art requires "the suspension of disbelief"--the willingness to accept that things which do not actually exist and are not actually happening are existing and happening--it requires this only in a limited and relative sense, only in relation to the work of art itself. Religion, however (including religious art), requires and demands that people do actually believe that its fantastic representations of beings, things, events and forces really exist, when in fact they do not. Of course, certain forms and works of art (documentaries being a clear example) do attempt to portray real events and people, although here too the objective is to present this in a way that is "higher than life."...

The communist revolution and the communist world it will bring into being will give flower and give flight to art and to the imagination--to the "human spirit"--on a far broader basis and far higher level than ever before in human history, and it will remove the shackles of religion and all superstition. It will, in the words of The Internationale, "free the spirit from its cell" and allow it to soar to heights unseen, and unimagined, before. This it will do as part of the increasingly conscious and voluntary struggle of the great majority of humanity--and ultimately of humanity as a whole--to change itself and the objective world.

"Putting An End to `Sin' Part 6: Freeing the Spirit," RW No. 846, March 3, 1996

Can we do without myth? Yes--and no. We can and must do without myth which presents itself as reality, which is another way of saying religion....

But we can't do without--humanity never could do without and we don't want to do without--myth in another sense. To put it another way, we can't and don't want to do without metaphor--in art, and in life more broadly. Which is another way of saying that we can't, and don't want to, do without the imagination. Certainly in art, there is a need for metaphor--there is a need for presenting things which are not the same as reality, which are higher than life, and more concentrated, as Mao said. There is a need for fiction, there is a need for metaphor--in art and, more broadly speaking, in life.... Myth that presents itself as reality, however--myth that takes on, in one form or another, the character of religion--we can and must do without.

Previously unpublished

Mao Tsetung said: "If you are too realistic you can't write poetry." Here Mao is expressing the dialectical relation between realism and romanticism. He says if you are too realistic you can't write poetry. He's not calling for idealism in place of materialism. But his statement is emphasizing from another angle the importance of the imagination and giving flight to the imagination, as well as the importance of poetry, and all that poetry symbolizes or represents... A Marxist movement, a revolutionary struggle and its MLM vanguard, a socialist state and its leadership, must have a poetic side and a poetic spirit at the same time as they are thoroughly grounded in a scientific appreciation of reality and its motion and development.

Previously unpublished

Communism is not about doing away with "spirit"--in the materialist sense. It is not about doing away with the imagination, and with awe and wonder. Without degenerating into bourgeois theories of "human nature"--we could say there are certain qualities that define human beings in a broad sense. Understood with dialectical materialism, there are certain qualities about human beings that flow from their character, from the character of the species, and its intellectual abilities as well as its material conditions. One of these qualities is what could be characterized as "the need to be amazed..."

People look at what religion calls "the heavens." They look at the stars, the galaxies. They can see a small part of the vastness of the universe, and they can imagine the greater vastness of the universe. Or they can look on a small scale, look with a microscope and see a small microbe or whatever, and be amazed by what goes on internally within that. They can ponder the relationship between what you can see with a microscope and what you can see with a telescope. This is a quality of human beings. Human beings will always strive for this. Far from trying to suppress this, or failing to recognize it, we can and should and will give much fuller expression to it.

Communism will not put an end to--nor somehow involve the suppression of--awe and wonder, the imagination, and "the need to be amazed." On the contrary, it will give much greater, and increasing, scope to this. It will give flight on a much grander scale to the imagination, in dialectical relation with--and in an overall sense as a part of--a systematic and comprehensive scientific method for comprehending and transforming reality.

We have to understand that there is a unity there. Yes, it is a unity of opposites, but overall there is a unity between a systematic and comprehensive scientific method for comprehending and transforming reality, and giving flight to the imagination and giving expression to the "need to be amazed." Communism can achieve and continually re-achieve a much higher synthesis on that than anything previously in human experience.

Previously unpublished

All-around dictatorship by the proletariat does not mean crude imposition of whatever the current policies of the government are. It does mean that the Marxist method must be in command and leadership must be in the hands of those who have demonstrated the ability to grasp and apply it--in a critical way, without turning it into a static, sterile, state religion. This too will be a question of sharp struggle. Take, for example, how we will deal with something like graffiti art and artists under socialism. Certainly we will not seek to suppress them and to wipe away their works; but neither should we try to "pacify" and "sanitize" them by simply giving them assigned places to do their work, etc.--though there will be a place for that. But beyond that, we should enter into this arena with them, seeking to learn and criticize, right on the same walls and other places where they are creating--if their shit's no good, artistically and/or politically, then let's tell them and everybody so and make it a mass question if they don't dig our criticism; and especially if it is good, artistically and politically, let's let everybody know that too and support and popularize it, without "legitimizing the life out of it"! Variety, diversity in art is very important; without this, creativity would be stifled, and on the other hand creativity will bring forth variety and diversity--though the artists' self-expression is not more important than the content and social effect of their art (which are principal and decisive through all the different forms in which art is expressed).

Either the Marxist method and proletarian forces will be in command and leading in the arts and sciences (and the superstructure generally) or the opposite methodology and forces will: classes do and will sharply contend over this, so long as classes (and their social basis) exist. One class or another must win out. There is no "pure" knowledge or search for knowledge (and no "art for art's sake" standing outside or above class contradiction and struggle), just as there is no "pure" democracy (without class content). But fortunately, one of these methodologies does provide a comprehensive basis for arriving at, and making a powerful material force of, the truth: the outlook and interests of the proletariat do correspond to the further emancipation and enlightenment of humanity, in a qualitatively greater way than ever before.

Bullets; from An End to the Horror

What Lenin said about how communism springs from every pore of society also applies in the realm of art. Rigid formalism, resistance to innovation, ready rejection of nonconformity--all this is an obstruction to the flowering of artistic creation. But more--it is an obstruction to realizing the goal of communism.


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