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Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art

Part 4: Art as Harbinger of the Future

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.

In general a deeper sense of the distinction of politics and ideology as pertains to art should help us to more correctly assess the social impact of any given work, including works from the past, other classes, various cultures, etc. All works of art, of all times, continue to have some social significance, if only because they are part of our historical legacy, snapshots reflecting the interests of various social forces and recording the continuity and ruptures of our social life through time. And in that sense it is never true that there is nothing to be learned from a particular work.

Most works of art (and most scientific works as well) do not maintain great social impact over long periods of time, and eventually fade into obscurity. (And of course some never have much impact to start with!) This is not primarily because society can't absorb the growing stores of artwork in some kind of quantitative sense, or because the new banishes the old in some absolute sense. It is because the social relevance (to resurrect a useful phrase from the '60s!) of a particular work-including its aesthetic impact-on different social forces, in different social contexts, will change.

Vanguard and visionary art that was deemed "too radical" and outrageously controversial in an earlier time may become broadly accepted, or even be co-opted by its former detractors, when overall societal conditions change. In addition, the sphere of art, as well as other spheres of human activity, is littered with "experiments that failed" (at least ultimately) and pathways that led to dead-ends, regardless of how "important" or "successful" they may have appeared to be in their times. Then again, some works of art from other historical periods, or produced by classes which are no longer vanguard social forces, may maintain "social relevance" even if the content of that social relevance is no longer exactly the same.

Of course it is not just the social characteristics of the art which ensure its preservation: after all, barring some instance of cataclysmic destruction, it would have been difficult for the awe-inspiring pyramids of Teotihuacan to "vanish from view," whereas ancient scrolls or bark paintings for instance would be much less likely to survive the passage of time, regardless of their social characteristics! But such obvious differences aside (and including the fact that contending social forces also have sought to suppress and eradicate art works deemed to concentrate opposing ideologies) it seems that some works maintain great social relevance in large part because of their high level of artistic standards, their "power" as art, meaning by that primarily their ability to sharply capture, concentrate and typify some contradictions in nature or society, returning them to society on a higher level, "nearer the ideal."

Such powerful works of art, which of course may be more or less in line with various social interests at any given time, become part of our global social experience as human beings-chroniclers and purveyors of that historic legacy-and this, I suspect, is why they can be drawn on ideologically and appreciated aesthetically (although usually in very different ways and for different reasons, etc.) by even politically opposed contemporary class forces. All this says there is much we can gain from the art of past times or of other social forces, and that it is not necessarily wrong, and often very correct, to deem such art "beautiful" and not just dryly "instructive."

But this doesn't change the fact that we need more than the best of the art of past times and opposing social forces. We need art which corresponds to our own particular social perspectives and interests, and which corresponds to and aids the pursuit of our own social objectives. We need, today, the art of the future-that is, art that calls forth the future. As that Party document (previously referred to) powerfully puts forward, it is part of the magic of art that we can do in this sphere what is not yet realizable in the sphere of material social relations. Lending material expression to our dreams in the form of artistic works will contribute to laying the basis for these fundamental social transformations we aspire to.

Today the bourgeoisie also needs art. It needs art which can contribute to the maintenance of the social (especially political and ideological) status quo, and which fires off missiles against any signs of breaking ranks in either sphere. The proletariat needs just the opposite: art which reflects, portrays and, most importantly, helps to forge, a whole new worldview and outlook corresponding to the interests of what are objectively the vanguard social forces; art which acts as a harbinger of the future, which anticipates and calls forth a whole new social life-and in so doing contributes to its realization.

The problem in the past with much of so-called "proletarian art" is not that attempts were made to create specifically proletarian works, themes and characters, etc., nor that some of those works were declared to be models: the problem was often that the content (and form) of these works did not in fact correspond to the highest historical aspirations of the proletarian class. Perhaps art derives much of its ideological power from the fact that it doesn't have to be "accountable to reality" in the strictest and most immediate sense, but its "departures" from reality should at least serve to distill the complexity and richness of social life and highlight aspects (contradictions) which encourage broad and sweeping vision, which challenge and provoke, call for the casting away of old ideas and so forth...

Certainly all those godawful icon-like pictures and statues of "The Workers" with bulging muscles and a breadth of vision defined by the sweep of their hammers and chisels accomplish none of this! And here it is not just a question of primitiveness (of technique, etc.) but very clearly a question of the influence of an incorrect political line, or incorrect political tendencies, concerning the nature of these aspirations, the means to bring them to light, and so on. The problem is not that "politics is in command" of the art in such cases (it always is-the point is to be more fully conscious in our understanding and application of this basic truth), but that in such cases the politics in command are wrong or flawed.

On the other hand, we really should not fall into the view that says, woe is us, look at all the garbage produced under the influence of communist politics in the sphere of art. For one thing, in this sphere also, we should have the attitude that "if there are problems, let's solve them!"; but beyond that it would be completely wrong to fail to take stock of the widespread radical experimentation and realization of some very real breakthroughs accomplished in the course of the history of the international communist movement, including in particular in revolutionary China.

Crucial advances were certainly made in the realm of theory (the Yenan Forum) represents a watershed work in this sphere) and in the realm of practice as well. Yes, there were some weaknesses and errors, stemming from a certain influence of nationalism and some mechanical materialism and left-economism, but nevertheless some very real, if beginning, radical ruptures were effected, and these need to be built upon and not lightly dismissed. Anybody who thinks that the ballet "The Red Detachment of Women"-with, among other things, its casting of forceful women leading characters (in a ballet no less, and in China, one generation or so away from bound feet!), and its strikingly new and inspiring movements which, in their daringness, influenced ballet and modern dance internationally in the '60s-is not revolutionary in content and in form and was not a clear advance in the sphere of revolutionary art as art, needs to ...well, look again!

Is Art More Powerful When Artists 'Conceal Their Views'?

This raises another important point of controversy. As was said before, revolutionary art does not have to be explicitly political in content. But what should be said concerning, for instance, Engels' statement that:

"The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art" ("Letter to Margaret Harkness," 1888, reprinted in Marx and Engels, Literature and Art, Progress Publishers 1978, p. 91).

As any kind of general principle or guideline, this is quite simply wrong. In all fairness to Engels it should also be said that in the context in which this statement appeared he was particularly concerned that things be left a little more "open-ended" for the primarily bourgeois audiences the novels being discussed were aimed at than they might be for an audience starting off with a much greater degree of understanding and unity with a full revolutionary programme. And in other passages, such as in an 1885 letter to Minna Kautsky (see p. 88 of the same book), you get the sense that Engels is more justifiably critiquing didactic sledgehammer approaches to infusing art with politics and confounding art with political propaganda. He makes the point that the broader social purpose "must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and...the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution of the social conflicts he describes."

While this is not fully developed I think Engels is here grappling with the need to preserve the characteristics of art as art and not confound it with political agitation and propaganda. Nevertheless it seems he was going too far on this: the point is not that artists should never point to ultimate solutions, etc., but that this must be done in accordance with the characteristics of art, which are different from those of politics. The point is not to "conceal our views" but that these views must be presented well, again, in keeping with the characteristics of art as art, as distinct from politics. The audience for art, and revolutionary art in particular, wants neither pablum nor sledgehammers, but art which is rich, complex, and again, which presents life "on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life."

The notion that in order to be effective, even in a political sense, art should necessarily make a principle out of staying away from political themes and current political events in particular, is also wrong. It is one thing to say that it is difficult to do such art well, or in a way which can have lasting value. This is largely true, mainly because of difficulties in getting profound insights and "perspective" when close upon some newly arisen question, but it is certainly not impossible! And it is also true that even where such art doesn't reach the highest standards, it may still be very good and necessary, even if it doesn't have lasting social significance.

I think this is important and has to do with a question of levels. There is a tendency, when discussing art, and particularly art with a specific social focus such as revolutionary art, for people to absolutize and homogenize things too much. Even within what can justly be considered revolutionary art in a given social context there exist different levels of art (and of artists!), both in terms of standards (a question of differences in abilities to produce more or less "powerful" works) and in terms of scope, or range, of social content.

Art on Different Levels

Do we need only "big works" of revolutionary art which concentrate profound truths in the most powerful and lasting manner? Or do we need only ephemeral "quick sketches", hot on the heels of topical developments? I would say we need both. And in its efforts to contribute to the development of a revolutionary worldview, should revolutionary art make a principle out of staying away from topical events? Or conversely make a principle out of relating only to topical events? No, we need (and can do) both. Should its subject matter always be explicitly political? Never be explicitly political? Again, we need both. The question of who does what at what time, and which works get emphasized and promoted, is primarily a question of division of labor and of what is possible and most needed at any given time, as assessed both from a short-term and from a long-term view of the revolutionary process.

For instance, the RCP has been giving emphasis to breaking with the view that confounds revolutionary (and particularly proletarian) art with political agitation and propaganda (denying the particularities of each and reducing the power of both), and in my view it is important to continue to wage a campaign of "destruction" vis-a-vis this perspective because it seems that its roots are deeply planted in the soil of the international communist movement. Doing so should help to clear the way for the production and dissemination of great works of art in their own right, which will contribute all that much more powerfully to revolutionary advance. We certainly need such "great works" and many are thirsting for them.

But does this mean that there is no need for revolutionary art which is of somewhat more modest scope or more limited standards? Should we not in fact encourage a flowering of art of many different types and at many different levels? Reducing and limiting all revolutionary art to a "poster-and-slogan" style and getting highly developed artists bogged down in producing primarily "art for demos" is indeed a crime, but does this mean we should not seek to have artistically powerful posters and slogans?

Do we have to reconcile ourselves to the notion that all such forms (which spring up in relation to and pertain to specific topical events in most cases, i.e., which are more "agitational" in form) must necessarily be artistically weak and correspondingly ineffective, simply because the particular work is likely to be relatively modest in scope and perhaps of no great lasting value over time? Should we strike a stance of "why bother?" in relation to raising standards at these levels (or redefine these works so as not to consider them real "art")?

I believe experience has shown that it is well worthwhile to raise the artistic standards of art which may have a more ephemeral character and perhaps a much more restricted scope than revolutionary "great works"-think of the difference of social impact of high-standard posters, book jackets, slogans, graffiti styles, journalistic photographs, etc. We already know this from the political sphere, where it is correct and necessary to distinguish between different levels of political activity in relation to theory, propaganda, agitation, and seek to achieve high standards in each. Shouldn't we be making similar distinctions in revolutionary art, strive for high standards in each of the levels, and develop our division of labor accordingly?

Of course, it is not correct to slam the door on primitivism in the artistic sphere any more than in the political. If, for example, only leaflets were produced which met the highest standards of political agitation, much too little would be produced, and many opportunities would be missed to influence public opinion (and raise standards in the process!). The same goes for revolutionary art. Less developed and not-so-polished wall scrawls, banners, songs, poems, skits, etc., are still fine, if they contribute to the development of public opinion in a way which undermines the status quo and lays a basis for the future. Standards get raised in the course of practice, and with the further development of the revolutionary division of labor, but high standards in art will always co-exist with the less developed because this latter is what characterizes much of what is newly arising (including, and this is important, many of the initial contributions of the masses in this sphere).

To digress for a moment on the question of raising standards vs. popularization: both aspects are clearly important and related in the sense that one should always seek to "raise standards" but in order to do so, one must know from what basis, from what level, they are to be raised (to paraphrase Mao, to raise a bucket you have to know where to raise it from). But this doesn't mean one should feed artistic pablum to the basic masses who have usually been kept very ignorant and unaccustomed to holding their own in this sphere as in all others. For one thing, many of the relatively "untrained" are not without a great deal of social complexity and basis for complex appreciation of any and all social phenomena, including in the sphere of art.

But in order to raise levels, artists have to be aware of, and take into account, the level of those they want to reach (for instance, in revolutionary Yenan, artists had to deal with the fact that most of the masses were illiterate); but starting from this, the objective still has to be to provoke, challenge, jolt awake (in some sense aesthetically, if not necessarily directly politically) the audience, in order to rip the veils of customary habits and modes of thinking. And in seeking to better understand from where to attempt to raise levels, artists would do well to study and learn from popular forms of aesthetic expression which are usually very closely tied into the living experiences of their audiences, and which, while often elementary in form and restricted in scope, can provide the professional artists with important clues as to the questions needing to be addressed, the forms in which to do it, and the directions in which to channel the "viewer's eye", so to speak.

All this is particularly relevant for revolutionary artists who must avoid the pitfalls of holding a mirror to the masses' posterior in the artistic sphere as well, but who nevertheless must gain a materialist understanding of what level they are starting from, in their attempts to provoke leaps in consciousness and understanding among their audience. Artists can, and should, expect to make their audiences "reach" and work a bit (to "get it", etc.) but they-as well as politically and ideologically advanced forces generally-should seek ways to assist the audiences in this process.

Conversely, the audiences should be willing to work for something worthwhile, and make every effort first of all to "enter the work on its own terms," before deciding whether to accept it or reject it in terms of form, content or both. Audiences need to develop-and need to be given leadership to develop-the ability to criticize the artist's work, and themselves as well, in this regard. Again, all this is particularly relevant in relation to revolutionary art in today's world, where both artists and audiences should reflect on the fact that "rigid formalism, resistance to innovation, ready rejection of non-conformity-all this is an obstruction to the flow of artistic creation. But more-it is an obstruction to realizing the goal of communism." (Bob Avakian, Bullets, p. 226).

And certainly the distinction between primitiveness and high standards should not be made to correspond to the degree of explicit political content of a work! It is possible to do great work in relation to specific political material and even current political events. Consider, for instance, the tremendous numbers of photographs taken during the Vietnam war: they are all part of a particular form of art, photojournalism, most of which is done at a relatively low level of standards, serving the function of visually chronicling certain events and developments and influencing public opinion, but, in and of themselves, in a relatively immediate and short-term way. However, some journalistic photography crosses over into "great art," exactly because of its ability to concentrate, typify and raise to a higher level some portion of social experience, in a way which is deeply affective and which therefore has lasting value.

Years later many (most) of the particular photographs of Vietnam have faded from memory, but a few have burned themselves into the collective social consciousness (even on an international level): who could forget the famous photo of the little girl running naked and crying down a village road, burned with napalm? That photograph was and remains great art precisely because of what it concentrates, typifies and raises to a higher level about a specific social experience (the Vietnam war) and even war more generally (in one of its aspects). Its social impact is of an enduring nature, even though it was very much "topical art" at the time.*

Picasso's Guernica (painted in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and which is spell-binding to this day) is another such example of "great art" which arose in relation to topical political events.

I am tempted to say simply that, in addition to "great works" which contribute deeply to the formulation of revolutionary worldviews and are of enduring social value, we should also recognize the importance of "disposable art," of a revolutionary character and the highest possible standards, which is self-consciously "topical art" and essentially agitational in character, and that our understanding of what distinguishes art as art (as opposed to agitation in the political sphere) should be applied here as well.

Red and Expert

This touches on the question of the division of labor. It will often be the case, as the revolutionary movement develops, that professional artists who are revolutionaries (professional or not) should devote most of their efforts to creating revolutionary works of high standards and developed social content and hopefully with correspondingly great social impact (whether or not the works are explicitly political in subject matter and theme and whether or not they are linked to any specific "topical events"). At the same time, some of the art which is agitational in form and function (including what I have called "disposable art"), arising hot on the heels of topical events and in relation to more immediate short-term needs of the revolutionary struggle, can be undertaken by non-professional artists. Graffiti, rap songs, etc. done by non-professional artists are examples of this, while at the same time there are highly professional graffiti, raps, etc. which are done by professional artists-and again, both have a role and are part of the overall division of labor I am speaking to.

But, on the other hand, we should seek not to erect impenetrable walls in the course of developing this division of labor. Professional revolutionary artists should not be limited to "art for demos," but they should be concerned with developments at all levels of artistic endeavor, and should sometimes directly aid in the development of levels other than their own (e.g. through theoretical and/or practical guidance of others). And of course they should themselves be open to criticism and guidance by non-professionals (including revolutionary political leaders and the advanced masses as well). We should be particularly careful not to develop a view that "only experts may speak" on questions of art, or of reversing the correct overall relationship of art to politics, keeping in mind that politics overall must be in command if the objective is revolution.

And we must also completely break with the view that, on the other hand, professional artists (at least if they are not also professional revolutionaries in the political sphere) should know their place and not try to "tell people what to think." This view is sheer poison!

All of art contributes in one way or another to how people think. Artists always do tell people what to think through their art, whether they (or their audiences) are conscious of this process or not. So to tell them "not to tell people what to think" is tantamount to telling them to do their work but be sure to do it blindly. Which doesn't mean of course that a conscious revolutionary artist should seek to "speak" through an art work by inserting political speeches into songs, plays, etc.: Communists should not confound art with political agitation and propaganda, and neither should noncommunist revolutionary artists!

Furthermore, it would also be very wrong to attempt to close the political sphere to artists, or anyone else! Artists are not machines but all-rounded social beings, and artists who want to be social revolutionaries should in fact strive very hard to enter the political sphere-while also developing revolutionary art-because this is where societal conflicts are concentrated and achieve qualitative resolution, and thus this is the decisive arena in which to make revolution. This is, above all, "the place to be" if one wants to make revolution, no matter what other spheres one might act in (and even if one's professional-and/or professional political-sphere of work is art, for instance). As stressed in the Cultural Revolution in China, revolutionary artists should strive to become both red and expert, and to become revolutionary communists in the fullest sense of the term.

But even those revolutionary-minded artists who stay outside the ranks of the political movement, per se, should not hesitate to try to "tell people what to think," even in the realm of politics! They may have some real insights to contribute, and while they are perhaps more likely to do this well through their art, they may at times do it through direct political expression. And, in any case, especially if their point of view is progressive, or better yet, revolutionary, we should all welcome it!

Consciousness and Spontaneity

In fact, in a related point, we really should strive to break with the worship of spontaneity when it comes to the arts. There is a role for some forms and degrees of spontaneity (especially as pertains to experimentation) but most developed works of art are hardly spontaneous productions (to understate the point!). It is a myth-carefully cultivated by social forces who would be quite content to reduce artists (or many of them) to isolated neurotic automatons with little social consciousness or impact-that the "creative mood" of artists is destroyed by conscious reflection and struggle. Artists think about their art and, as social beings, about a lot of other things too!

The point is that it is not social discourse and struggle per se which can stifle an artist's creativity, it is the content and form of this discourse and struggle -boring, dry, mechanical, dogmatic and generally quite dead methodologies and viewpoints are what can leave an artist (or anyone else!) in a state of momentary paralysis. But wouldn't it in fact be better for revolutionary artists to develop their level of social consciousness and understanding, and their grasp of scientific methodology, rather than rely on some quasi-mystical notion of "instincts" in creating works of art? Couldn't significant advances be made if artists (and their audiences) developed their grasp of dialectical materialism and applied it, consciously, to the creation, appreciation, and evaluation of works of art?

Aren't methodological questions pertaining to the identification of principal contradictions and principal aspects of contradictions, for instance, relevant to the creation of a play, or the mixing of paints, both in terms of content and form? Isn't much of art a play on contrasts? Harmony or dissonance, continuity or rupture, of light, color, texture, line, movement, tempo, pitch, resonance, mood, what have you...aren't these contrasts in fact contradictions which artists explore (consciously or not), to which they (consciously or not) ascribe different weight, and so on?

Even the "automatic writing" (essentially "stream of consciousness" writing) of some of the dadaists and early surrealists-which were, I think, valid social experiments, testing and probing the limits of "sociality" and individuality of artistic production and perception and fulfilling a useful function in the destruction of old and stuffy formalism among other things-even these writings also revealed their own methodological limitations. And they revealed the fact that "freshness" in art is after all not fundamentally dependent on some idealized notion of spontaneity, but on an ability to consciously "skew" things in new and different ways-"change the focus," alter and bend perspectives, to provide fresh views and insights-all of which can only be aided by conscious reflection and struggle.

Even Jackson Pollock's "drip paintings" were carefully dripped, and conscious reflection went into the size and shape of canvas used, the choice of colors, etc. And in a news report concerning a French artist who produces "snail art" (allowing live snails dipped in pigments to trace meandering color tracks on a canvas) the artist expressed frustration at not being able to entice the snails in particular directions with bits of lettuce!

Thus, I believe that the question of "radical rupture" involved in proletarian art involves consciously adopting the method as well as the overall outlook characteristic of the emerging vanguard force in society, the revolutionary proletariat.

Many artists worry a great deal about whether or not they should do "commissioned pieces." What they don't realize is that they already do. But they should do so consciously-and for the revolutionary class, i.e., in accordance with its interests, in the most sweeping sense.


* Later attempts by the bourgeoisie to erase the effects of that famous Vietnam photo by releasing stories and photos showing the little girl grown up, having had reconstructive surgery, etc., etc., can no more reverse the verdict in the artistic sphere than in the political one! [back]

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