Of Art and Revolution
This an attempt to do something relatively new, at least I have not seen it done before, namely take a body of writing and make it the theme of a visual display, an art show. And before I say anything else I want to express my extreme gratitude to my colleagues, Jacqui Mair and Lynsey Plockyn, who have both done an immense amount of work, with great skill and flair, to put this show on and to whom is due the principal credit for the design and facture of the display. What follows is a brief comment on the relation of the writing to my life.
Art came first. I was introduced to art as a young child by my mother. My early efforts were greatly encouraged, with everything pinned up in the kitchen till one whole wall was covered from top to bottom. We also had a ‘real’ artist – Sheila Fell –living and working in our house in Belsize Park. She had a room and a studio on the top floor and was visited by her patron, L.S. Lowry, and other artists and critics. Then I got taken by my mother to The National Gallery and exhibitions – Van Gogh etc. At school I was ‘persuaded’ to give up art for Greek – big mistake – but in the 6th form they let me give up games for art and since my school was in Victoria, half way between the National and the Tate, I spent most Wednesday afternoons visiting these great galleries. Thus was born a lifelong love.
Next came rebellion, against school, the world, the system – at first fairly romantic, unfocused and nihilistic (I guess I was an ‘anarchist’). This phase, from about fifteen to nineteen, included a short walk on the wild side as a professional poker player which is recorded in the piece in Players.
Then came revolution. I became a Marxist and revolutionary socialist in 1968 on the streets of New York, London and Paris. New York showed me the extremes of wealth and poverty, London the violence of the state (at Grosvenor Square), and the wonderful May Events the possibility of revolution. In June 68 I joined the International Socialists (now SWP) and began a life of political activism.
For awhile activism swept everything else aside, apart from love and children.. Political writing started with the publication of a much edited (by Tony Cliff) version of my PhD as Marxism and the Party (1978) and continued with Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution (1982) and What is the Real Marxist Tradition?(1983). Then I got asked to write a weekly column on Marxist and socialist ideas for Socialist Worker which lasted for fourteen years till I was taken very ill – many of these columns appear in Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism and The Future Socialist Society. This led to translations into different languages and various commissions from round the world.
My love of art remained, albeit in the background, and after working here in the School of Art, Design & Media for a few years I started to write about it. About modern and contemporary art, which I thought needed explaining and defending, including to many fellow socialists, and about my old love Rembrandt.
For me writing about politics and about art are distinct but not separate activities. Firstly, a lot of art is highly political, though this is often obscured in mainstream art history. Secondly I write about art as a historical materialist who respects and cares for art as art. Finally, like Marx, Trotsky and Picasso, I regard both politics and art as aspects of the struggle for human liberation.