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Part 1: Art and Human History

Editors' Note: In the early 1980s, a line was put forward within the RCP that the social role of art should be simply characterized this way: "art is entertainment." This led to discussion and debate within the Party, and through this process the "art is entertainment" line was criticized and rejected. Since that time, there has been ongoing discussion among people, both inside and outside the Party, about the social role of art. The following comments, written a number of years ago by Ardea Skybreak, author of the book Of Primeval Steps and Future Leaps, were a contribution to this process.

In these comments Skybreak speaks to what is wrong with the notion of "art is entertainment" and raises a number of important questions related to this and, more generally, to the social role of art. These comments were not written for publication, and in fact were more in the nature of some initial and somewhat informal thoughts, musings, etc. But we feel that, in the context of the widespread distribution and discussion of the RCP's new Draft Programme, as well as in an overall and ongoing sense, the points raised in these comments remain very relevant and can help stimulate further wrangling, within the Party and among others, around these and other important questions. For this reason and with this objective in mind, we requested and received the permission of the author to publish these comments. It is our hope that their publication will indeed stimulate and—in the best sense—provoke further wrangling with and lively debate and exchange around the questions addressed, and we welcome and encourage correspondence that in this same spirit seeks to contribute to this ongoing process.

These thoughts for discussion were serialized in the Revolutionary Worker (RW) as: Part 1: Art and Human HistoryPart 2: Art and SciencePart 3: Art and Politics and the Particular Role of Revolutionary Art; and Part 4: Art as Harbinger of the Future.

Although man's social life is the only source of literature and art and is incomparably livelier and richer in content, the people are not satisfied with life alone and demand literature and art as well. Why? Because, while both are beautiful, life as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.

Mao Tsetung, Yenan Forum,
Selected Works Vol. 3, p. 82

This statement by Mao remains one of the best formulations of the distinguishing characteristics of art. A few years ago, in the context of a very necessary struggle on the part of the RCP against the tendency to confound art with political agitation and propaganda, attempts were made to grapple further with the question of the social function of art. Having had the opportunity to review and reflect on some of the documents circulated within the Party as part of this process, I wanted to write up some of my own initial thoughts on this, in the hopes of contributing to further discussion and debate of the important questions involved.

One view put forward within the Party—which was ultimately rejected—is the formulation that "the role of culture in society under the present and foreseeable conditions, including well into the transition to communism, can be summed up in one word. It is entertainment."

This characterization of the social function of art—"art is entertainment"—was presented as being essentially in keeping with Mao's view of art, and merely a further expression and development of our understanding of the social role of art, along the same lines. For instance, in defending the "art is entertainment" formulation, it was said that the very quote by Mao (cited above) "implies that people wish to escape everyday life (even sometimes when everyday life is a revolutionary upsurge, a 'festival of the oppressed') and that art is a means of doing so. This is the bottom line." This was the basis for an attempt to reconcile Mao's formulation with the "art is entertainment" formulation. But in criticizing this "art is entertainment" formulation, it was correctly pointed out that "to arrive at a correct understanding of the relation of art to politics it is necessary to have a correct understanding of the social function of art," and that the term "entertainment," even very broadly defined, "does not express the entire social function of art: it is not sufficient as an explanation of that social function, and if that is all we say about art's social function—that it is entertainment—we will fall into some significant errors (largely at the opposite pole from the error of treating art as agitation and propaganda)."

I think this is indeed very true. What I will try to do in what follows is to develop this point and characterize some of my own exploration of the question of the social role of art—a process which has led me to conclude even more strongly that the attempt to capture the essential characteristics of the social role of art in the formulation "art is entertainment" is really quite wrong, and that in fact this formulation stands in very real opposition to the largeness of mind and sweeping view of art concentrated in Mao's formulation cited above.


It is useful to step back for a minute and think of history. What role has art played in different societies throughout the ages?

Art has always been a social activity, engaged in by social beings, in a social context. It has therefore been imbued with social meaning throughout our history. But social contexts (predominant modes of production and corresponding forms of social organization) have undergone profound changes in the course of human history, and these have no doubt been reflected in (and affected by) changes in the social role, the social meaning, of art as social activity. A study of these changes, and of the aspects of the artistic process which have not changed, would greatly enrich any attempt to get a handle on the social role of art in today's world. While an extensive exploration of this subject is obviously out of the question here, a few things can be suggested from even a superficial look back in time.

Have human beings always engaged in art? I believe we have. I believe professional artists—occupying highly specialized social roles—appeared only with the emergence of strict hierarchies and class divisions in societies, but that art—as a social activity—goes back to a much earlier time. Interestingly, the Russian socialist Plekhanov criticized Bucher for suggesting that "play is older than labour" and "art is older than the production of useful objects." Plekhanov countered that one must recognize the ultimate "dependence of art on economics," rather than the "dependence of economics on art."* While it is indeed correct to point out that all human activities in the superstructural arena ultimately rest on society's base of human productive activity, and would not even be possible in the absence of such activity, the response given to Bucher seems marked by more than a little mechanical materialism. This actually obscures our understanding of the social role of art since its inception as human social activity.

I suspect human beings engaged in some forms of art from the beginning of human society, again, long before classes, or even the earliest hierarchical stratification of society, appeared. I base this belief on the fact that, as soon as the basis emerged for human beings to accumulate some kind of material surplus (perhaps simply through the storage of gathered food resources), the material basis would have existed for the emergence of human activities not directly tied, in the most immediate sense, to activities aimed at procuring the basic requirements for the sustenance and reproduction of life. The accumulation of the slightest material surplus above and beyond what was needed for immediate consumption would have provided at least the basis for the earliest experimentations with a division of labor among human beings, and provided a qualitatively new basis for exploration and transformation of the external world.

This had to have a phenomenal impact on the development of social organization and consciousness as well! The material basis would now exist for human beings to engage in productive activities not related to survival in the most immediate sense—a wide variety of experimental forays and investigations which were not guaranteed to produce palpable results could be engaged in (such as perhaps going off on long hunting treks that might or might not produce a return in game animals, or experimenting with the fashioning of some tool, etc.).

As our ancestors increasingly moved away from the confines of a hand-to-mouth existence, the basis would also have existed for them to experiment with new ways of interpreting and analyzing the increasingly complex information provided by the external world (and human society itself) by engaging in forms of manipulation of the external world, again not so closely tied to immediate survival. There was therefore a basis for art in one form or another.

We can't say for sure that art as a social activity emerged as soon as the basis for such activity presented itself, but does anyone seriously believe that there could long have been speech and language before there were stories and songs, for instance? Social life does not directly fossilize (at least not in the conventional archaeological sense!), so it will never be possible to exactly re-create the earliest artistic endeavors of our ancestors, especially given the fact that many of the products of such activity (made of perishable materials) would not generally be preserved much into the future.

We can however gain a few insights into artistic activity and its social function in pre-class-based societies by examining such activities in modern peoples living in societies characterized by very minimal development of productive forces and the absence of strict social hierarchies or class divisions, such as the few remaining foraging societies (gatherer-hunters) living in various parts of the world. Typically such societies don't have any specialized "artists," any more than they have specialized political or military "chiefs" or religious "priests," etc. Such specialized social functions historically have emerged when the further development and increased complexity of productive activities have demanded a more complex and formalized division of labor, as is evident in all pastoral, agricultural and industrial societies. But I don't think this means there is no "art" in foraging societies.

Some will protest that one really can't speak of "art" in such societies, as evidenced by the fact that it is quite common for such societies not to even have a word for art in their vocabularies. So what? The Inuit peoples, of Alaska and elsewhere, have no single word for "snow," as far as I know, but no one would suggest they are not familiar with the stuff! In fact they have many different words in their language which refer to the many different kinds of snow which they distinguish, and which have very different social implications in relation to their various activities.

Perhaps the analogy is a bit stretched, but I suspect that, in many cases, foraging societies don't have a single word for "art" (as a highly specialized and highly circumscribed social activity) and certainly no word for "artist" (as a person primarily engaged in art), and yet may routinely engage in many artistic activities and have many and sundry words for the results of such activities. In following up this hunch (and perhaps all this is well known and understood by many people, but it was for me a new exploration), I turned to reports about the lives of the !Kung San people, whose traditional (although now fast disappearing) foraging societies have been extensively studied and described.

The Stories of the !Kung San People

The worldly possessions and productive implements of the traditional !Kung gatherer-hunters go little beyond such things as digging sticks for the collection of roots, etc., and they have no strict hierarchies or chieftains, living as they do in small mobile groupings in which social decisions can be arrived at through relatively informal struggle and consensus. They do, however, have a rich oral history—collections of tales and myths passed on from generation to generation and which clearly perform an important social function.

In a way all !Kung are storytellers, since all will, on occasion, engage in the telling of stories. But on the other hand, their language has different words for different kinds of stories, of seemingly different social importance. For instance, the term n=wasi refers to "ordinary stories" (such as about hunting, general historical stories, etc.) and these stories are told by many different people. But the term n=wasi o n!osimasi refers to the "stories of old people," a collection of more important tales and myths which are passed on from generation to generation and which, while widely known, are told and retold almost exclusively by the older people. The younger people often assert that they simply lack the necessary experience to relay these stories.

There are in fact many different words for these "stories of the old people," including "stories of long ago," "stories of the beginning," etc. And again, while there are many people in traditional !Kung society who "tell stories competently," the young tend to defer to the elders in the telling of these special stories, while on the other hand "virtually every old person is able and usually willing to tell" these stories. Hence, "though there is no special priestly or otherwise distinct group entrusted with the stories in San culture, the old people do, in effect, have something of a monopoly" in this sphere. (Source: Megan Biesele, "Aspects of !Kung Folklore" in: Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers, ed. Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, Harvard University Press 1976, pp. 306-308 especially).

It is not completely clear why these stories are so much the province of the old people, but it seems to have a lot to do with the fact that they are considered to have accumulated enough social experience over the years to know about these things and to properly relay (and perhaps occasionally modify?) these stories which seem to play an important role in the preservation of a sense of social continuity among the !Kung. As one old woman said: "The old person who does not tell stories just does not exist. Our forefathers related for us the doings of the people of long ago and anyone who doesn't know them doesn't have their head on straight. And everyone whose head is on straight knows them!"

"All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy"

All this suggests to me that artistic expression has always been not only a means of entertainment (and yes, the traditional !Kung stories are apparently very entertaining and told and retold with a great deal of relish!), but a means of capturing, concentrating and communicating some crucial aspects of social experience, including such things as wonder at the unknown, preservation of what is known, and anticipation of the future. And it is not just in the stories. Think of all the songs, music, body painting and decoration, decoration of containers, tools, shelters, etc.... Think of all the dances produced in all the societies which have limited development of productive forces. Is all this really reducible to "entertainment"?

Again, even if one seeks to "reclaim" the word entertainment and rid it of its common connotations of mind-numbing distraction and frivolous amusement (the one-sided emphasis favored by pragmatic philistines everywhere, and particularly cultivated and promoted by the U.S. bourgeoisie), the problem with the formulation "art is entertainment" remains. The word itself does carry a double connotation of amusement or pleasure, and of being distracted or diverted (e.g. as in the French word for entertainment, "divertissement") from usual concerns.

But even this latter aspect has tended historically to have a connotation of diverting people's attention not only from everyday concerns (perhaps the better to break the pull of spontaneity and drudgery and lift their sights!) but also from essential (cardinal) questions, which they should be concerned with! The 17th-century philosopher Pascal was said to have remarked that "le divertissement nous amuse et nous fait arriver insensiblement a la mort" (entertainment amuses us and leads us ever so gradually and painlessly to our deaths). While it would certainly be wrong to adopt a dogmatic and ascetic stance towards entertainment (which does in fact fulfill a very important social function), we cannot simply discount the aspect of the term which connotes distraction away from the more essential questions of life.

Just to be clear, the point is not that there is anything wrong with entertainment. People need entertainment, which is to say that we need to be periodically, momentarily, distracted from daily concerns, be they petty or lofty in character. We all need to play, to relax, to engage in many different forms of recreation, precisely in order to be able to re-create, to return to whatever it is that we need to be doing more rested, and perhaps with fresh perspectives. The old quip "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" is certainly true, and is something which even revolutionaries with seemingly boundless and limitless energy and determination have to take into account, often especially in times of the most intense struggle and activity.

Contrary to the viewpoints of dogmatists, the need for entertainment is not an inherent indication of social decadence or weakening resolve to carry on with social responsibilities! As with any other social activity, any particular form of entertainment occurs in a social context and has a social impact. Therefore both the content and the form of any particular means of entertainment at any given time are imbued with social meaning, which can be evaluated as relatively positive or negative (or perhaps even relatively insignificant) in relation to particular social interests and objectives. And the same evaluation can be made of any particular work of art.

But while art can be a very important form of entertainment (both for the artist and for the "audience" in the broadest sense), art and entertainment are not one and the same. The creation, and the appreciation, of a work of art can certainly be a welcome form of "divertissement" away from everyday thoughts and activities, even when the subject matter or theme is not particularly pleasant or amusing. A work of art which succeeds in being moving, challenging, provocative, etc., should certainly be deemed to be "entertaining" in the broadest sense, precisely as a result of these very qualities. In the final analysis, whether a particular work of art is deemed entertaining or not (in the broadest sense) is a measure of its "success" and is primarily a question of standards—both of the artist and of the "audience" in interpenetration with each other. A work of art will have little value as entertainment if the artist(s) has not met the essential criteria for art outlined in the quote by Mao cited earlier (criteria re concentration, typifying, raising to a higher level aspects of life, etc.), and a work of art will also not be deemed entertaining (no matter how well it has objectively met these criteria) if the level of the audience is out of step with the level of the work (or vice versa) and no means have been found to bring the two into correspondence with each other.

In any case, the "entertainment value" of a work of art (or of the creative process) is far from encompassing its essential characteristics as art, and in particular in terms of social function.

I cannot think of a single society at any time in history where the formulation "art is entertainment" would have applied in any kind of essential sense. The social function of different artistic expressions has often been complex, art having been used as a direct aid in production; as a way to represent the external world; as a means of recording and transmitting social history; as a means to anticipate—and often to "prepare"—the future (as just one example, think of all the dances "for the renewal of life" common to so many cultures).

In all cases it seems that art as a social activity is intimately involved with capturing, and affecting, socially perceived contradictions in nature or society. How can this be termed essentially "entertainment"? How can "entertainment" explain the myriad stories, painting, songs and dances seeking to interpret and make known a people's origins and place in the universe, the origins and histories of the plants and animals, or of various "spirit worlds," or of existing social relations? How can this encompass the use of art when, with increasing social stratification, art is also used to ascertain an individual's "place" in society, to proclaim social identity, and to distinguish the rank and status of different social groupings (e.g., some of the earliest examples of this were probably the different "styles" of ornamentation of bodies, of tools, weapons, etc.), for proclaiming social intent (e.g., war paints or peace tokens), for recording genealogy and status (e.g., totem poles etc.). Aren't all these creations art—and can any of them really be reduced to entertainment?

Of course, for most people throughout history (and continuing today, despite the advances of the materialist outlook!) the lines between fantasy and material reality have often been blurred. This explains the frequent intimate connection of art to ritual and religion in one form or another. Songs, dances, recitations, etc., have commonly been used to call forth, unleash, appease, or seek insight from, the imagined spirit world, be it peopled by plants and animals or by bearded old men and fat cherubs! Much of the great art surviving over the ages is testimony to people's attempts to defend themselves against, or seek to influence, some of these supposed spiritual forces, in much the same way that art is also used to grapple with, and influence, real material forces, including social relations.

Art as an Expression of Worldview

Not every work of art stemmed (or stems) from a fully developed world outlook or seeks to promote such an outlook. But every work of art has contributed to doing just that.

This is true even where the connection of the art to the sphere of production is very tight, as in, say, the decoration of a pot used to hold grain. How else could one explain the beautiful intricate designs of the painted clay pots of the Anasazi (ancient Pueblo) peoples and of their modern-day descendants? Or of the Pomono Indian woven baskets which involve much elaborate beadwork, the weaving of rushes with other natural materials for color, and intricate designs. One such basket I have admired through a photograph incorporates many repetitions of a complex horizontal design, which is interrupted in only one spot, "so that the maker wouldn't be struck blind"! Yet another comprises 10,000 individual stitches and a pattern of stylized human figures. Its title: "We assemble to discuss the happy lives of our ancestors." Does "entertainment" even begin to get to the heart of all this?! What is being recorded, concentrated, and transmitted, is part of a way of life, of a worldview.

Or consider the famous cave paintings of Lascaux. It has, on occasion, been suggested that these cave paintings may have been essentially bookkeeping devices: records of animals killed, or to be killed, in the hunt. The implication has been that these should not, after all, be considered "art." This has always struck me as ridiculous. It is not just the remarkable beauty (admittedly to my modern-biased eye) of the Lascaux cave paintings which makes me feel this way, nor even the observation that the careful stylization of people and animals, and the complex mixing of pigments for varied coloration, seem like an awful lot of trouble to go through to put together a mere laundry list of sorts. There is more.

These ancient paintings of people and animals, in some way which we don't fully understand anymore, express something about the way of looking at things, about the worldview, of these long-ago peoples, and their attempt to communicate this view to others, be they people or spirits or whatever. And this would be the case whether the paintings of Lascaux did in fact comprise a listing of game, the chronicle of a particular hunt, someone's idea of a bit of fun on a rainy day, an invocation for the future, a record of some elaborate myth, or any combination of such elements. In some way these paintings encapsulate part of the worldview of those times, part of the way some of those long-ago people sought to interpret, and affect, the world around them. And it is this—both what is left of this effort, and what is forever lost—which moves us still.

The Role of Art in Human Society

But what about art today? This is in fact what we need to grapple with more deeply. But hopefully some reflections about the past of art (even relatively brief and superficial ones as have been presented here) can aid us in this task by dislodging some of the ossified ways of thinking about art which are so commonplace, and so heavily promoted in bourgeois society.

Many modern artists (who unfortunately often seem to show little interest in history, even as pertains to art!) have lost sight of the fact that art is a social phenomenon occurring in a social context, which the art is both conditioned by, and in turn influences. Many artists express a quasi-mystical and very individualized view of the artistic process, tend to worship spontaneity, and seek the justification of their artistic activity only in the resulting work itself, and in their relation to it. This is in large part due to a problem brought out by Engels. In response to the stubborn resistance of many of his contemporaries to the theory that human labor "is the primary basic condition for all human existence," Engels argued that many people had lost sight of the intimate connection of art, science, complex social organization, laws, religion, etc., with their material underpinnings in the realm of human productive activity. He further argued that this was in large part because the increasing complexity of the social division of labor itself often masked this connection:

In the face of all these creations, which appeared in the first place to be products of the mind, and which seemed to dominate human society, the more modest productions of the working hand retreated into the background, the more so since the mind that plans the labour process already at a very early stage of development of society (e.g. already in the simple family), was able to have the labour that had been planned carried out by other hands than its own. All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions from their thoughts, instead of from their needs—(which in any case are reflected and come to consciousness in the mind)—and so there arose in the course of time that idealistic outlook on the world which, especially since the decline of the ancient world, has dominated men's minds. (Engels 1876, p. 289)

Unfortunately the history of the international communist movement has been plagued by a lot of mechanical materialism, including on the question of the relation of art to other spheres of social activity. This is evidenced in particular by the frequent attempts to seek a one-to-one correspondence between art and production, or art and politics, in both cases completely missing the particularities of art as art, i.e., as a social activity with a distinct social role in its own right. Perhaps ironically, the formulation "art is entertainment" has a lot iny common with this mechanical materialist trend, because it seeks to understand art as a social activity by stripping it of all its richness and complexity, and reducing it down to what might be practically termed "the lowest common denominator" of all artistic expression—its potential for entertainment.

Interestingly, while the proponents of "art for art's sake" overtly proclaim the tremendous importance of art (if sometimes only to themselves!) and go on to put forward an idealist notion that sees art and artists as floating about in a social vacuum—and having little or no bearing on, or responsibility towards, the rest of the world—the "art as entertainment" view does place art and artists very much in a social context, but grossly underestimates the social import and influence of art as art—and ultimately the social responsibility of artists as artists—because of a mechanical view of art's social function, here reduced primarily and essentially to entertainment. This ends up promoting the view that art is very social—and, all in all, not very important!

The position that "art is entertainment" can even end up feeding the "art for art's sake" line. This is in part because "art is entertainment" is so far from appreciating the full scope of the objective importance of art, that it leaves the door wide open to those who (correctly) feel that art is a great deal more than entertainment, but who at the same time are apt to deny the social/political implications of art as a social activity, and the attending social responsibility of artists as artists. Furthermore, the "art as entertainment" view promotes the view that, well, if the social meaning of art is in fact so limited (entertainment being its primary purpose), then it's alright to strike a stance that "anything goes" in the artistic sphere. This is bound to fuel the petty bourgeois individualism of many artists in bourgeois society, while at the same time holding back attempts to make real innovations and really break new ground in the realm of art.**

Again, what even a brief look at history provides is an understanding of the fact that the essential function of art as a social activity goes way beyond the momentary pursuit of diversions, way beyond mere recreation, or even the salutatory "clearing of cobwebs" from one's routine way of thinking which can spur thought and action in other spheres as well, although this is certainly part of the effect art can have in society (of which more later).

NEXT WEEK: Part 2: Art and Science


*Plekhanov, "Selections from Letters Without Address," reprinted in Marxism and Art, edited with historical and critical commentary by Maynard Solomon, Wayne State University Press 1979, p. 142. First published by Alfred Knopf, 1973. Plekhanov was a contemporary of Lenin's and a "leading light" of Marxism in Russia, although he ended up in the camp of the reformist socialists (Mensheviks). [back]

**It is interesting to note that, in critiquing the way in which the debate in the artistic sphere has historically been cast in terms of "art for art's sake vs. utilitarianism" in the international communist movement, it was suggested that "Plekhanov should have gone on to ask: if it is true that art for art's sake is an impossibility, then why were these the appropriate terms for the debate, the cardinal question of the debate?" The answer is of course that while there is no such thing as art for art's sake, the line which promotes this view is very real, and prevalent, and exerts a material force on society. The problem was not that this was deemed a cardinal question, but that too often this view was combated with a narrow, economist, productive forces type of mechanical materialism—"utilitarianism" in the most narrow sense. But as suggested above, the "art is entertainment" approach doesn't represent a correct alternative to mechanical materialism. [back]

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