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Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art

Part 3: Art and Politics and the Particular Role of Revolutionary Art

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.

If we can agree on the tremendously important role art plays, as art, in the ideological sphere, its relation to the political sphere can be more clearly understood. Politics is the arena of the superstructure of society which is primarily characterized by the contention of different social forces (i.e., classes) for political power, and it is where such struggles are concentrated. Politics is in fact the decisive arena of the superstructure because, in class society, the question of which class forces actually run society, in whose interests and in what direction, sets the terms for all other activities in the superstructure and is the principal aspect responsible for either the preservation or revolutionization of the social relations characteristic of that particular society.

But recognizing the fact that it is in the political sphere that class struggle is most concentrated, and that this is where the resolution of class conflicts is fundamentally achieved (ultimately through military struggle), in no way denigrates or underestimates the tremendous importance of art, and the ideological sphere generally, in relation to societal changes, including revolutions. Art has always contributed in very important ways to the preservation of social continuity (through the preservation and transmission of established values and outlooks), but it has certainly contributed at least as much to the development of social ruptures.

While no truly qualitative changes in social relations can occur without political revolutions (involving the actual seizure of power by the revolutionary forces) it is also true that such a qualitative leap in the political arena could not take place without the anticipatory development of guiding philosophies and ideologies of a new type. And, as I have been emphasizing repeatedly, art plays a crucial role in precisely this—the forging of new outlooks. This is true whether the subject matter of art is explicitly political or not.

It is not difficult to understand why there has been a historic tendency among Marxists to confound art with politics per se, and particularly with political agitation and propaganda. For one thing, Marxism itself arose in the bourgeois era (to which the world as a whole is still confined) and in this era in particular the social role of art and artists tends to be greatly obscured, given the extent to which the ultimate dependence of art (and other spheres of the superstructure) on the social relations of production have been masked. Therefore, artists and their works do appear to many to be floating about in a vacuum, severed from the most fundamental activities of social production and somehow totally "outside" the integrated network of social relations characterizing the society. This is an illusion, but one which is not easily done away with.

No small wonder then that most artists in bourgeois society itself have little appreciation of their social role and of the tremendous social importance of artistic creations. They often insist that their art has no overall social effect beyond an aesthetic impact rather narrowly understood, and that they have no particular social responsibility, at least in relation to their art and its effects. They find the sole justification of their artistic activities in the manifestations of this activity (the works themselves) and in their personal relations to them (e.g., whether or not they have been true to their own aesthetic principles, etc.).

No wonder then, as well, that those fighting for a dialectical materialist outlook have had to wage an uphill battle to bring out the ultimate connection of artists and their work to social relations overall and ultimately to the underlying relations of production of the society. There is no denying that this "intimate connection" has often been portrayed mechanically, but there is also no denying its existence and the fact that there is a great need to bring it out! Like it or not, all artists are social beings (no matter how individualized their work) and their work has a great impact on the ordering of society—principally, as we have said, through its ideological impact.*

Thus, through its ideological impact, art can in very important ways impinge on the future course of human society—both by helping to shatter the old and by helping to bring in the new in the ideological sphere generally (i.e. helping to forge new outlooks) and through its impact (again, primarily through ideological means) on the political sphere itself. All this has been put forward powerfully and dialectically by Bob Avakian, in the following passage from Bullets (pp. 218-219):

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 from 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.

"Art and politics," excerpts from
a June 1982 interview on WRFG Atlanta,
RW, No. 190, January 28, 1983, p.8

Revolutionary Art

Once again, then, art is primarily ideological, although in its social impact it impinges onto the political arena. But if one recognizes the tremendous importance of art in the overall ideological sphere (affecting social consciousness, creating public opinion) and in its (ideological) impact on the political struggle, the question becomes, what are the distinguishing characteristics of specifically revolutionary art? How does such art actually contribute to revolution? And, given that art does have its own separate social identity, what does it mean to "put politics in command" in the sphere of art, and how can this be done without ripping the "ideological heart" out of this activity and destroying its usefulness vis à vis revolutionary advance?

Once again Bob Avakian has provided what I think is a very correct and very concentrated formulation of just what should be deemed "revolutionary art":

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 some 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 in 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.

"Art and Politics," excerpts from
a June 1982 interview on WRFG Atlanta,
RW, No.190, January 28, 1983, p.9.

This view of revolutionary art is a welcome break with the suffocatingly narrow definitions of revolutionary art put forward by those who seek a one-to-one correspondence between politics and art and recognize the value of a work of art only to the extent that it has a direct and immediate connection with the political struggle ("art for demos" and the like). The view represented by the quote just above from Bob Avakian recognizes, from a very materialist standpoint, that works which contribute ideologically to the marshaling of social consciousness in a way which objectively promotes breaking with the old relations of society and bringing in the new is in fact revolutionary art, even if its social impact is achieved quite indirectly, rather than through direct political expression.

As was pointed out in one of the Party documents on art: "In sum, all art is political because and in the sense that it has an objective effect in creating public opinion in favor of one social force or another (one class or another in class society). This is true whether the subject matter of a work of art is political struggle, or the work of art is an abstract painting whose objective effect in creating public opinion lies in creating a ‘mood’, or ‘feeling’, through its use of color, intensity of brush stroke, etc.—all such `moods’ and ‘feelings’ etc. will exist in socially determined circumstances and have, accordingly, an objective social effect, and thus can, however partially and indirectly, contribute to revolution."

Thus, as that document also pointed out: " of art that deal with important social contradictions in a way that provokes people to question the reactionary order and its dominant social relations and conditions, or important aspects of them, that stoke discontent with these things, that inspire or propel people into rebellion against them—works of art that do any (or all) these things, and that are not fundamentally hostile to the proletariat and its revolutionary movement, even though they are not guided by a proletarian outlook, can and do make contributions, even in some cases very important contributions, to the realization of the revolutionary goal of the proletariat." Understanding this is key to not blinding ourselves and others to the value of such works and to rejecting dogmatic, straight-line views of the revolutionary process.

But this doesn’t mean we don’t need works of art that more fully embody the outlook and aspirations of the most revolutionary sectors of society. As also discussed in that Party document, in today’s world, while there are (and will be) many expressions of progressive and revolutionary art, the most advanced of these works (in terms of social impact in the direction of revolution) will be proletarian in character—i.e., works which concentrate and typify and promote the most sweeping vision and loftiest aspirations of the first class in history whose objective interest lies in a complete radical restructuring of all social relations on the basis of the elimination of exploitation and oppression of some sectors of society by other sectors of society. Proletarian art is art which meets these criteria, although it will be manifested through all sorts of varied themes and subject matter, produced in all sorts of different forms.

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.

Bob Avakian, Bullets pp.224-25**

Again, works of many different forms, dealing with many different subjects, can be revolutionary in character if they meet the criteria discussed above. But of course this is not a static thing. The "revolutionariness" of a particular work is very much socially conditioned and the social meaning (and impact) of this work can change in different social circumstances. And this applies, I think, to both content and form: for instance, a content which was quite revolutionary at one point in time may cease to have this social impact if social transformations "outstrip" the changes which the piece was heralding, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that the piece then necessarily becomes socially "backward"—it should be seen as marked with its time, and it may either become relatively insignificant, or remain very significant but in a more historically conditioned sense (this is what "classics" often are); or it may even become imbued with new social meaning (for instance through changes in its social use, which is key to its realization as art and to its overall social impact). The whole of the historical process involved in not only the creation of a work of art but also in the realization of its social function in different social contexts must be taken into account in any attempts to evaluate and criticize this work in political terms.

Next Week: Conclusion. Part 4: Art as Harbinger of the Future


* And the fact is that art often does have a tremendous effect on directly "political" struggles—and certainly on current ideological ones. This needs to be understood both in order to correctly assess developments in the objective situation, and in order not to miss possible openings for the class conscious forces to make immediate advances in and through the artistic sphere. However, there is also the question of what is more important; and, with regard to the social role of art, overall it is the cumulative effect of art in creating public opinion in the ideological sphere.

This "cumulative effect" can be spread out over fairly long periods of time or it can be compressed into a relatively short period of time and be most sharply manifested through one or a few works, even if they are not necessarily tied to any specific instance of political or ideological struggle. For example, at his height, Bob Dylan’s impact was particularly great because his evocative imagery managed to powerfully capture and channel certain sentiments and "moods" which concentrated the "beat of the times" so to speak, even though most of his songs did not pertain to specific current events (though some of his most powerful, like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol," did) and even though very often his lyrics would lend themselves to lots of varied specific interpretations by his audience. [back]

** For revolutionary art to have the fullest possible impact we need to have works dealing with a wide variety of subject matters, and in a wide variety of forms, all contributing to one degree or another to the development and promotion of revolutionary consciousness. While most (though not all) revolutionary, and proletarian revolutionary, works will focus on people, their social relations and values, and so on, it is important that the focus in such cases be on typifying social contradictions (including in the development of individual characters) and that the efforts to concentrate and highlight certain aspects of social life not rid it of its living complexity and richness (this is primarily a question of method re distinguishing contradictions).

This applies especially I think to the development of "model characters" in plays, sketches, movies, etc: while perhaps not all revolutionary art dealing with people need have "model characters" (although some characters should be more "central" than others for the work to be effective) it seems that specifically proletarian revolutionary works would in fact concentrate social contradictions through some of the characters presented, and that in that sense some of the characters would reveal characteristics which "point to the future," however indirectly, and sometimes even through negative example. I don't think that all proletarian works should necessarily always include individuals of very advanced social consciousness (although some obviously should) but they should incorporate some characters who are "nearer the ideal," at least in the sense of being "higher than life," often in their very contradictoriness.

In this sense they would be "model" characters whose very existence and motion and development through a work could provide sharp insights into existing social contradictions and, whether through positive or negative example, begin to hint at what the future of society might look like. Thus, we should be treated to a full panoply of complex characters and social contradictions (though not all in one work!), and even central characters or themes which serve to anchor a work and lend it cohesion should not be devoid of contradictoriness. Again, there is a need for positive characters, but even these need not always concentrate the most advanced social understanding of the times. Proletarian art should seek to reveal the motion inherent within the characters, and at least hint at the possibility of ruptures and advance (in accordance with objective reality!) lest the work be imbued with a one-sided cynical and pessimistic view of life. [back]

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