Monday, September 29, 2008

Why is Bacon's Pope Screaming?


Francis Bacon: major retrospective at Tate Britain, 11 September – 4 January.

For Socialist Review magazine, October 2008.

Reviewing an exhibition is an invitation to comment both on the exhibition as such and on the art presented.

Since performing both tasks satisfactorily is impossible in the space available I shall concentrate on questions raised by Bacon’s work and say only this about the exhibition. Bacon is now widely proclaimed the greatest British artist of the 20th century and this show offers a selection of his best paintings from each phase of his career – it contains all the really ‘iconic’ works such as the Screaming Popes, the ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, the Dyer triptychs, the Self Portraits etc. For anyone interested in modern art this is definitely a show to be seen.

Regarding Bacon’s overall standing I would say that he is not one of those artists, like Picasso, Duchamp, Mondrian, or Warhol, who drove modern art forward to new forms of visual representation, and changed it so fundamentally that it became possible to conceive of an athlete sprinting through the Tate Britain as a work of art. He is, however, one of those like Soutine or Giacometti, who, while using relatively traditional methods, i.e. figurative oil painting, made images of exceptional emotional power.

The source and nature of this emotional power remains much debated. One can point to a number of influences – Michelangelo, Velazquez, Goya, Picasso, Giacometti, the photographs by Muybridge etc – and to certain repeated techniques and devices. For example, the way he uses cage structures to suggest his subjects are prisoners or creatures on display; the way, often, they are placed on plinths, or beds, with a sense of space around them, so that they appear served up like meat or specimens on a dish; or the way he used cubist forms, in his portraits, to knead the flesh round the bones of the skull. But if these are some of the means by which Bacon achieved his effects they leave the driving force of those effects unidentified.

In other words, why is Bacon’s Pope screaming? Alternatively, what or who is he screaming at? I pose this question not just as a means of interrogating Bacon’s best known image but also as a way into discussing the general purport of his work.

We don’t get a clear answer from Bacon himself. Like many artists he preferred to let his paintings speak for themselves, and his response to questions of this nature was to cite the visual sources of his imagery (Velazquez’ Pope Innocent X, the nurse’s scream in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin etc.) while saying nothing about its emotional sources.

Nevertheless, there is a range of plausible answers on offer. The Pope is Bacon himself screaming at the fear and loneliness of being a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still a crime. The Pope is the Pope/Bacon screaming at the horrors of the world at the end of the war (Auschwitz, Hiroshima, etc.) The Pope is the Pope screaming at the wreckage of his faith in a godless world. The Pope is Papa, Bacon’s brutal father, who attempted to beat his homosexuality out of him. – this is the obvious Freudian interpretation and was put to Bacon directly by the art critic, David Sylvester in one of their famous interviews; Bacon simply deflected it. The Pope’s scream, like the figures at the base of a crucifixion, is Bacon’s visceral response to the human condition in toto – a world of violence and despair, hopelessness and terror, essentially meaningless, in which we are all simply ‘meat’. There is probably truth in all these answers. Artists often choose images precisely because they are overdetermined and carry multiple associations.

However there is no doubt that the final reading is the one favoured by the art establishment and by the Tate Britain. This is because it enables them to assimilate Bacon to Michelangelo, Rembrandt etc. as a producer of ‘timeless’ truths about life and because it dovetails with the notion of an unchanging human nature. The bourgeoisie has a place for art that shows the horribleness of life, so long as they can also claim it shows that nothing can be done about it.

For this reason many on the left, including John Berger, have long been suspicious of, even hostile to, Bacon. And, it has to be said that much of Bacon’s outlook was reactionary: he was a kind of Nietzschean, adhering to a sort of ‘exhilarated despair’ and a positive supporter of social inequality as part of ‘the texture of life’ (see the final Sylvester interview).

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the left should reject Bacon’s work, as opposed to his views, and I’m pleased that Berger has recently revised his judgment (in his book Hold Everything Dear). The horror Bacon so powerfully expressed is in reality a product not of human nature but of alienation, in all its aspects, internal and external, and that can be changed. Moreover those artists, such as Kafka, Beckett and Bacon, who look into the abyss, who take on the horror and stare it down, do, through their work, make a form of resistance, a defiance, from which we can benefit and draw hope, whether they did or not.

John Molyneux

Are the Media all Powerful?


Are the Media all Powerful?

One of the immediate problems faced by socialists everywhere is that everywhere the vast bulk of the mass media is hostile to socialism and uses its considerable power to defend the status quo i.e. capitalism.

Sometimes this bias is absolutely blatant and includes not only pro- capitalist but also pro –government propaganda as in most of the world’s dictatorships or Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in America. Sometimes it more subtle and, as with the BBC, hidden beneath a veneer of impartiality and commitment to political neutrality and the representation of different points of view. But always the fundamental stance is the same: capitalism is the sensible, natural and inevitable way of organising production. Anyone who thinks otherwise is at best an eccentric and most likely a wicked ‘extremist’ because ‘everyone knows’ that ‘moderates’ are good and ‘extremists’ are bad and that anyone who wants to abolish capitalism is an extremist by definition.

Where television, the most important mass media, is concerned this basic stance affects not only news bulletins but also the choice of panellists on discussion programmes, the themes of and commentary on documentaries, the story lines and characters in soap operas and drama series, the nature and tone of game shows- in short the total output. And obviously it is the same with newspapers. Their pro-capitalist standpoint is reflected, first and foremost in what is and, most importantly, in what is NOT reported, as well as in how it is reported, how it is commented on in editorials, and opinion pieces, and again it runs all the way through to the cartoons and the sports coverage. Nor is the basic position any different in thefilm industry, radio or any of the other forms of mass media.

This should not surprise us. Mass media are forms of communication which enable small groups of people to communicate simultaneously with vast numbers of other people. They all involve considerable capital outlay and are therefore owned either by people with lots of capital i.e. capitalists or by states which at bottom represent the interest of the capitalist class. The pro-capitalist bias of the media is therefore, under capitalism, absolutely inevitable. It is one part of the general phenomenon of ruling class ideological dominance noted and explained by Karl Marx in 1845 (before most of the modern mass media even came into existence)

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. (The German Ideology).

The questions that arise therefore are how much does this ruling class control of the media matter, and how can it be challenged? Let’s take the second question first. It is obviously vital that socialists should develop their own means of communication - newspapers such as Counterfire or other forms such as posters, leaflets, magazines, websites, blogs, films etc – and they should also try, wherever possible, to get their ideas across in the capitalist media. However, while capitalism exists and the capitalist class remains in power, socialist media will not be able to displace the bourgeois media, and socialist ideas will not be able to obtain more than marginal representation , anymore than it is possible for socialist education to replace state schools and bourgeois universities. Thus the crucial issue becomes how strong is the grip of the bourgeois media on the minds of the majority of working people and how can that hold be broken?

Clearly the media, taken as a whole, are very influential and sometimes it seems like they can manipulate people at will, stirring up xenophobia and racism one minute, whipping up war fever the next, and always blotting out any challenge to the system. But it is important to understand there are always definite limits to the media’s power.

For a start there are always some people in society (albeit a minority) who reject the media view of the world pretty much as a whole. If you are reading this article it is likely that you are part of this minority. Moreover, we (I am part of it too) are not in any fundamental or innate way different from other people who don’t (as yet) reject the dominant view – it is simply that we have had experiences that have led us to question the system more than others.

Secondly, the vast majority of people who accept much of what the media says, nevertheless remain sceptical of some of its messages. For example, in Britain, throughout the twentieth century the large majority of newspapers supported the Conservative Party and only a small minority backed the Labour Party but this did not stop Labour winning a number of general elections. And in America today the media is overwhelmingly behind the Bush administration’s $700 million bail out of Wall St. but this doesn’t stop it being highly unpopular with the American public.

Then there are things which are so unpopular that the media themselves know they would be wasting their time trying to sell to people - for example, mass unemployment. There are times when the ruling class, privately, thinks that a dose of mass unemployment would be just the thing to undermine the unions and break working class resistance, but they know they can’t say this openly. The best they can hope for is to convince people that some scapegoat (immigrants, refugees, greedy trade unions etc) is to blame, but they always have, at least to pretend to care about unemployment.

In general it is clear that where media influence is at its weakest is when reality diverges most radically from its preferred message and especially when the issue is one which affects people directly as part of their everyday experience. One of the reasons why capitalist economic crisis creates opportunities for socialism is not just that workers are radicalised by the suffering inflicted on them but also because the crisis dramatically exposes and undermines the story the capitalist class wants to tell about itself.

However, the circumstance in which working people are particularly likely to see through and reject the lies of the media is when they are engaged in collective struggle, because then they themselves become the news and their own actions and experiences are what is being lied about. When the collective struggle is also a MASS struggle, when it starts to involve the majority of the majority of the working class in action, for instance in a general strike, then the hold of the mass media really starts to break down., especially as this is also a situation in which the working class gets a sense of its own power and develops the confidence to look for alternatives.

Combine conditions of crisis with mass struggle and one further ingredient is needed, the mass revolutionary workers party with its own media to articulate an alternative socialist worldview. Include that in the equation and we will break not only the grip of the media on the minds of working people but the power of the capitalist class as a whole including its power over the media.

John Molyneux

29 September 2008

Should workers cooperate with employers to make their firms successful?


Should workers cooperate with employers to make their firms successful?

In times of economic difficulty or recession employers frequently turn to their workers and say something like this: ‘Times are hard; we all need to tighten our belts and sacrifice a bit at the moment, but if we all pull together the company will soon return to prosperity and that will benefit us all in the long run’.

This is an extremely popular argument which virtually unanimous support – among employers. In fact I doubt there is an employer on the globe that doesn’t claim to want the cooperation of its workforce.

This is hardly surprising. Oppressors through out the ages have urged their victims to cooperate. Doubtless the Egyptian Pharaohs were pleased when their slaves cooperated in hauling the vast stones that built the Pyramids. The slave owners in the Americas showed their appreciation of cooperative slaves by making the ‘house’ slaves and granting them small ‘privileges’ relative to the ‘field’ Negroes. The SS secured the Jews’ cooperation in boarding the cattle trucks by not telling them their true destination.

The problem with the ‘cooperate with company’ argument, however, is that it is widely accepted not just by bosses (and their allies in government and the media, of course) but also by many workers. Evidence for this can be seen in the way trade union officials so often bend over backwards to appear ‘reasonable’ and to stress that it is the management who are being uncooperative. Indeed the argument can be made to sound like simple ‘common sense. Let us confront it in its strongest form.

Company X, which makes widgets, is in trouble. It has just announced huge losses for the last two quarters and the management admit they are on the verge of bankruptcy. It is a multinational company and there is also the possibility it will close its operation in South Korea and shift production to the Philippines where wages are lower. If, however, the workers will accept a pay cut of 10% and a no strike deal for two years, management pledge to keep the factory open and say they are confident of winning new orders. The Government is backing the deal and there are rumours, if it is accepted, of massive investment. Besides unemployment is high and if Company X closes its workers will struggle to find new jobs. Surely, in these circumstances, it makes sense to cooperate?

There are parts of this argument, which as any decent trade union representative will know, have to be challenged immediately. How real is the threat to move production overseas? Multinationals are always trying to blackmail their workers this way, when often the costs and disadvantages of relocation are prohibitive (which is why they are in South Korea, not the Philippines, in the first place). What guarantees are there for the promises about the future? What is stop the management from coming back in six months time and saying we are very sorry, we meant what we said at the time, but things have changed and now we are closing anyway, or we want another 10% cut?

PLUS what about management salaries ETC

However these points do not really get to heart of the matter. Let us assume for the moment that the employers are, broadly speaking, telling the truth, at least as they see it and as far as they can know it (I strongly advise against making this assumption in practice). Then let us ask what Company X being ‘in trouble’ and facing closure really means. Obviously it means not making a profit or not making enough profit and the most likely reason for that is either: there is another company, Y or Z, capturing the widget market by making them better or selling them cheaper; or there is a decline in the widget market, due to other companies or the public being less willing to spend their money on widgets; or some combination or variation on both these reasons.

Now let us assume that the workers of Company X agree to the 10% pay cut demanded. This will give the profits of Company X a boost and restore its competitive edge over Company Y. Now it will be Y’s turn to be in trouble and Y’s workers turn to face redundancy. Obviously the Y management will say to their workers, the X workers over there took a wage cut, you must do the same or we will be uncompetitive. But if the Y workers follow the example of the X workers, all it means is that the relative competitive positions of Companies X and Y will be restored with both their workforces earning less. This ‘race to the bottom’ has been the essence of neo-liberal globalisation adopted by ruling classes nearly everywhere in their drive to raise profits.

If we look back over this ‘workers should cooperate argument’ it is clear that workers’ ability to see through it is bound up with their ability to see beyond themselves as workers in one isolated workplace and look also at the workplace and workers down the road and ultimately round the world. For the only real answer to the bosses’ strategy, and it is a strategy as well as an idea, is for the workers of company X to link up with the workers of Company Y (and Z etc) and together reject wage cuts and redundancy. It should also be clear that workers ability to do this is a matter not just of their intellectual understanding, their consciousness, but also of their confidence and organisation. For workers the crucial question is not just the abstract argument, but the calculation: if we here at X resist will the workers at Y and elsewhere fight with us?

This why trade union organisation is so important, so that workers in one workplace, then across different workplaces, and ultimately across the class as a whole are linked to each other and can take action together.

It is also why a revolutionary party is vital. In practice in most workplaces there will some workers whose whole inclination is to accept the bosses’ cooperation argument and others who consciously reject it. Between these two poles there will be those, probably a majority, who are unsure. What actually happens, the course of the class struggle, depends on which pole is able to win over the waverers. The revolutionary party is simply an organisation of the rejectionists, in every possible workplace, across all boundaries, to increase their ability to win the argument against the collaborators and lead the majority of the class in struggle.

Thus we see that this single argument contains in essence the whole logic of the class struggle. Either collaborate with the boss and compete with other workers, or join with other workers to fight the boss. The first road leads, in the end, to racism, nationalism, war and fascism, i.e. to barbarism. The second road leads to socialism.

John Molyneux

1 September 2008