There has always been a broad affinity between progressive politics and the arts. On the one hand most, though by no means all, artists tend to be leftwing in their sympathies. On the other hand many people on the political left are interested in the arts and are often keen to enlist their support. This affinity is as it should be since both art and progressive politics are concerned with the development and enlargement of the human personality – in the final analysis, with human freedom.
However the precise relationship between art and politics has been the subject of much debate and controversy over the years, some of it bitter and some of it even with a gun or jailor’s key in hand. This article cannot review this whole debate but what it will do is argue against two common conceptions about politics and art – conceptions with are opposites but both of which hinder fruitful cooperation between artists and the left.
The first of these is the idea that “true” art must keep itself free from association with overt politics for fear of compromising its artistic integrity. The second is the idea that art is obliged to be explicitly political and directly support political causes on pain of being dismissed as reactionary or decadent.
The first view developed originally in the 19th century and is often associated in people’s minds with the slogan “art for art’s sake”. It is rooted in a highly individualist conception of art as the more-or-less “pure” self expression of the artist’s unique inner vision. It tends to trade on popular distrust of politics as a rather dirty business mostly about power and manipulation and is also partly a reaction to the – very real – historical experience of left organizations and governments, primarily those associated with the Communist/Stalinist tradition which attempted to impose a political straitjacket on artistic production.
The Stalinist experience I will comment on later but this extreme individualist view of art is flawed. Art is never pure self expression. Artistic production is always affected by a multitude of economic, social and political conditions which range from the crudely practical (“can I afford the canvass and paints?”, “will any theatre stage my play?”) to the question of state or religions censorship and to the pressures of all the ideological currents of the time. Even more fundamentally it is flawed because the very “self” which the artists seeks to express is itself a social product, the result of the sum total of that person’s experience i.e. their interactions with other people, with society. And if all art is unavoidably social and ideological why should it not tackle directly political themes alongside other social themes such as love, relationships, ambition, relations with nature and so on?
However the decisive argument for the possibility of authentic overtly political art is not given by theory but by experience. The simple fact is that across all the different art forms, over many centuries, in many countries and cultures, large numbers of indisputably powerful works of art have been inspired by political events and tackle directly political issues. Standard art history, literary and cultural criticism etc. does its best to obscure this by separating “great works” from their historical context, but even so, obvious examples abound.
In visual art there is Michelangelo’s David, commissioned by the city of Florence with the explicitly political purpose of celebrating the expulsion of their tyrannical Medici rulers. There is Jacques-Louis David’s painting of The Death of Marat (left wing radical in the French revolution, murdered by a counter-revolutionary). There is Goya’s Third of May 1808 which depicts the execution of Spanish peasant insurgents by the occupying Napoleonic army, with unconcealed sympathy for the insurgents. There is Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People based on the French revolution of 1830. In the 20th century we have the openly political work of the Russian avant garde – Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin etc.- inspired by the Russian revolution; the antiwar art of Paul Nash, Otto Dix and others, the anti-nazi photomontages of John Heartfield and, of course, Picasso’s Guernica protesting the bombing of the Basque town by fascist warplanes in the Spanish civil war.
In literature the examples of overtly political writing range from the English romantic poet Shelley whose greatest poem The Mask of Anarchy is perhaps the most savage denunciation of a government ever written to the great German poet and dramatist Bertold Brecht whose output was almost entirely political. The French novelist Emile Zola wrote Germinal about a miners’ strike; the American novelist John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath about the struggles of the rural poor in the Depression, and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg devoted a long poem, Wichita Vortex Sutra to the Vietnam war. WB Yeats, Ireland’s foremost poet, wrote Easter 1916 to commemorate the Easter rising against British rule and Chile’s Pablo Neruda repeatedly used his poetry to attack the role of US imperialism and its puppet dictators in Latin America.
In music we have Mozart’s The Magic Flute dealing with freemasonry (then a serious revolutionary force in Europe) and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Egmont Overture, both about the struggle for freedom in the Napoleonic era. In song there is the extraordinary voice of Paul Robeson, drawing on political songs from around the world, the immortal Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday attacking lynching in the US south, the political work of Bob Dylan (Hard Rain, Masters of War, Only a Pawn in Their Game,etc.) and Bob Marley’s great anthem of liberation Redemption Song.
In film we have Eisenstein’s masterpieces Battleship Potemkin, Strike and October, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and The Great Dictator, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Quiemada (about a slave revolt in the Carribean) and Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom about the Spanish civil war.
What these examples, which could easily be multiplied many times over, demonstrate beyond doubt is that there is no incompatibility between explicit political commitment and art work of the highest order.
Since it is clear that such work aids the radical or progressive cause both by winning hearts and minds on particular issues and by raising consciousness and morale in general it is obvious that the left should support, encourage and make use of it wherever possible. But there is another side to this argument which is equally important. If directly political art should be encouraged it does not at all follow that nonpolitical art should be disparaged or condemned.
Art cannot and should not be reduced to political critique or propaganda. Art reflects and responds to the whole range of human needs and experience: birth, death, love, sex, the quality of light or rain, feelings of personal despair or hope, the look of hills and trees, the lines and colour of buildings, the play and pain of children, the drama of the sky and of the streets – everything. Of course it is true that in the final analysis all these things are profoundly conditioned by politics but that does not mean that every artistic expression of these themes needs to be outwardly political. And insofar as that expression is powerful, moving, beautiful or original, and develops or refines our means of communication (visual, linguistic or musical) it is a benefit to humanity.
Many of the artists cited above as producing directly political work also produced much work without overt political content. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for the pope; WB Yeats wrote not only Easter 1916 but the nature poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree; alongside Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday sang the love song Fine and Mellow; before Guernica Picasso developed cubism by painting men with pipes and guitars. It would be gross stupidity to praise Strange Fruit and reject Fine and Mellow, to applaud Guernica but deplore cubism – especially as Guernica could not have been painted without the prior cubism.
Political art is to be encouraged but it must be the artist’s free choice. Any attempt by political parties or governments to impose particular subject matter or style on art - as was the case with so-called “socialist realism” in the Soviet Union under Stalin (though not, it should be noted, under Lenin),in Mao’s China and in other Stalinist states and, to some extent in the international Communist movement as a whole - results only in depriving artistic production of all its vitality.
A further point requiring consideration is the fact that artistic work is often implicitly rather than explicitly political. When Rembrandt produced his deeply sympathetic etchings of beggars there was an implicit defiance and critique of the hostile attitude to beggars and the poor characteristic of 17th century Dutch capitalism. When in the 19th century French artists turned from painting grand mythological scenes and portraits of the nobility to the portrayal of the daily life of the people there was an implicit rejection of the whole aristocratic/bourgeois established order. When Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis play modern jazz and Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday sing the blues, every note, every phrase, speaks of the sufferings of their people and denounces racism. This is of particular importance, because mainstream cultural commentary tends wherever possible to ignore or downplay such implicit politics preferring to present art as “universal” or “timeless”. Radical cultural commentators therefore have a responsibility to bring out this element by insisting that works of art can only be fully understood in their social, historical and political context.
Finally it is necessary to stress that even artists with conservative and reactionary worldviews can sometimes produce work of real value. An example is the English Victorian writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, who was an out-and-out imperialist. Kipling was the author of the phrase “the white man’s burden” and of a dreadful poem of the same name and yet he also produced a number of poems and stories of genuine power and insight such as The Barrack Room Ballads. Then there is T S Eliot who was a rightwing, anglo-catholic (a very conservative version of Christianity) royalist who flirted with fascism and yet he wrote The Waste Land which both used language in a new way that has influenced the whole of modern poetry and was a profound critique of the spiritual emptiness of western capitalist society after the first world war.
There are two main explanations for this apparent paradox. The first is that a deeply held conservative position does offer a certain vantage point from which to mount a strong artistic critique of the shallowness, grubby commercialism and alienation of capitalist social relations, even if politically it offers no way forward. The second is that the making of art is a complex contradictory process not always completely under the artist’s conscious control, so that sometimes the art transcends the limitations of the artist’s ideology. Of course in such cases progressive commentators need to point out, not conceal, that nature of the artist’s ideology but their hostility to that ideology should not lead to blanket rejection of good work when it is done.Thus, for example, Karl Marx praised highly the depiction of French society by the novelist Balzac, who was a conservative monarchist, despite his total opposition to Balzac’s political position.
In conclusion the lively interaction and collaboration of radical politics and art in all its forms is mutually beneficial and much to be desired. For it to be achieved artists must escape from the bourgeois myth of art as asocial and nonpolitical and this must be complemented on the part of the left by a non-sectarian, non-dogmatic approach to art based on a real understanding and sensitivity to the complex ways in which art develops.
This article was written in April 2006 for publication by the Centre for Socialist Studies in Egypt.