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We have all heard it. Every Bernie supporter has said it at some point. Whether it be about his vote for FOFSTA or his near sighted comments about the border, every Berner has had to say these words at least once. “Bernie isn’t perfect.”
However something needs to be made clear, I am not giving Bernie a free pass on his shortcomings when I say that. Some of my fellow Bernie supporters are but that is a folly in my opinion. When I say “Bernie isn’t perfect” I am not saying we should ignore where Bernie needs improvement.
What I am saying is that his shortcomings are where we as a base need to build our own popular power. We can count on Bernie for certain material gains, but we can not count on him to solve all of our problems. It is not he who will change everything, it is us, the sullied and ignored masses. Bernie’s short comings are where we must organize the most, where we can strike where the iron is hottest.
I do not think Bernie is a saint, he has made several comments over the years that can only be responded to with a Captain Picard face palm meme. Nor do I think he is the patron saint of socialism, Bernie is definitely more of a social democrat than a democratic socialist. However I do think that his candidacy increases the odds we can answer some of the most immediate material needs of the modern day working class, the biggest being our need for healthcare. I think it can be said without much debate that Bernie has been solid on the medicare for all part of his platform as well as an increase in social services, meaning a Bernie presidency can be a catalyst for ending privatization. Yet there are several other issues such as his reinforcement of an imperialist dialogue and his lackluster stance on sex work.
Bernie’s comments on Venezuela and open borders are disappointing to say the least and his votes in favor of Sosta and Fofsta were genuinely damaging to the lives of sex workers. However, as Bernie himself states, this momentum that is becoming a genuinely left movement in the country is about us, not just him. Where Bernie falls short is where we, the socialists and the organizers, must step up.
Bernie’s stance on social services is solid, but his stance on sex work is vapid, it is therefore the duty of the left to assist the organization of sex works. I am not suggesting we step into their lives with a savior complex, no, we must build an environment where sex workers can organize themselves. It is the duty of leftists and labor organizers to foster self determination and democracy, and that can be achieved through genuine bottom up organization that we know will be forsaken by Bernie, not because of a lack of concern but because of alack of attention on his part. I do not think Bernie hates sex workers but I do think that he is focusing his energy where he knows he is most capable. The fact is no matter how much Bernie can help us make gains he cannot fix everything, no single person is able to do everything, period. While Bernie focuses on one avenue of material gains, so shall we focus our efforts wherever he falls short or wherever we cannot count on electoralism to give us a material win. It is there we will build communities and help others to build theirs. This is the ultimate truth of the inside/outside strategy. We must put equal energy to both the in and the out.
Another example of where we can build a genuine base is through international solidarity. I do not think we can count on an inherently imperialist office, I.E. the U.S. presidency, to be an agent of ending imperialism.
I do think that having a president like Bernie can increase the odds that our over blown military budgets will stop, but will he bring justice to the Indigenous? Will he account for our contributions to colonization? And how will he approach Venezuela, DPRK, or Cuba as president?
I have no doubt that Bernie will continue to disappoint with his international stance but I do think 1. His presidency would reduce the odds we will carry out constant, devastating interventionism and 2. His presidency would allow us to redirect the excessive funds received by the military into the social programs he wants to enact. Yet when it comes to solidarity, true solidarity with the working class in nations such as Syria, Palestine, or Venezuela, it is our duty to elevate the voices of those organizing for liberation.
Cliche though it is, I do agree with the sentiment that where there is crisis there is also opportunity. There are harsh realities to deal with when taking about Bernie’s candidacy. I acknowledge that FOFSTA and SESTA are not just policy talking points, we are talking about peoples lives. The same goes for the effects of American interventionism, this is not just a policy talking point, lives have been destroyed in Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Venezuela, and too many other nations to list.
We can depend on Bernie for increasing our odds of serious material gains, especially when it comes to healthcare, but we must still and always depend on ourselves to be the true agents of community and organization. Those efforts of community and organization must be directed where Bernie or public servants like Bernie fall short.
This is our duty no matter who is running or who is president. Where there are needs to be met, leftists must be there to foster community and organization and work to elevate the voices in the midst of the hardest part of that work. Sex work and internationalism are simply two places where we as leftists have a duty to work, as we have a duty to get medicare for all and college for all. When I say Bernie is not perfect, I am not saying we must forgive him or ignore those imperfections, I am saying that these shortcomings are arenas for genuine base building. When I say Bernie is not perfect, what I am really saying is, “We must never stop organizing.”
A classic song screams out through my radio,
“We won’t get fooled again!”
Unless we don’t pay attention in history class,
Or worse, when we don’t bother to ask any questions.
Do not let your words enable “deconstruction.”
Fight on weirdos, fight on freaks,
Stanza 2, the part where the poet keeps rambling,
Not this time.
My poems are no longer mine,
No longer for me,
No longer needing to be justified or validated.
Poetry itself is justified.
Does the president get it?
Of course not,
Evil is as evil does.
Evil has no humanity,
Do not appeal to where there is no court.
Why do so many legitimize evil
by doing nothing?
Denial, easy to do
when ICE or the B.I.A isn’t kidnapping your child
and beating up your grandmother.
Brainless professional bootlicks
and we give them badges and parades.
If they failed at high school football
why trust them with the law?
Cruel reality, not everyone is on your side.
Cruel reality, our lenses can be skewed
and skew our view.
Cruel reality, people are not always what they seem.
I could go on for days about this world’s cruel reality.
And I will.
I need to.
Cruel reality, an idea is an idea in of itself.
It’s all inane, but it’s all very interesting to.
Yes, and neither.
Good. That’s step one.
The next is controlling
the inevitable frustrations.
Your microwave will kill you
faster than a diseased box
and the cops are bloodthirsty.
Long live reality T.V.
Max Headroom was no metaphor,
Tangent words begin again
reps and senators
Hot sex live 24/7
And the millionaires whine more about it than we do.
That’s nice but please sir,
May I have some more?
No, well, can I have my life back?
Can I at least live?
Why are the puppies begging eyes
only effective when they are blue,
And all the other masturbation aides?
Well, congrats jerks,
While you were hate tweeting about whatever it is,
Tyrone got shot,
Maria was deported,
And Mohamed is stuck in LAX.
Good luck replacing all three.
Flags make good cum catchers,
And even our soldiers are tired of being props,
Sick of being human flag poles.
Don’t use the used to justify you.
Facts to suit theories not theories to suit facts.
Have I limited myself?
Is grammar so important?
What do order and style
have anything to do with truth?
When did “MAGA” become “Zig HEIL!”?
It always was.
A big, round planet
that no empire could ever keep covered.
Caligula had to come sometime
but a horse in the senate would be fitting
since it is already full of jackasses.
Thank you good night!
You’ve been a great crowd!
Don’t forget to harass the waitress on your way out.
Integrity can fall short,
And supremacy hinders the so called “supreme.”
Proustian memories triggered not by a cookie, but a beer,
A familiar scene, my local pub and brew.
A dad trying,
A bored teen,
A hungry young sister,
Convinced she “isn’t hungry daddy!”
It is her standing rock, she will not be moved.
A sweet scene, tainted by the world it exists in.
Not everyone on the same side
is actually on the same side.
One man can destroy democracy.
One can always interfere,
But one can never stand in the way of truth.
Cruel reality for them,
The truth is always there,
And will always haunt them.
We can never be free from the haunt of memory.
Nation captive to nation,
The profit in pain.
Kids don’t care about the carbon-dated world
of colas and silver screen stars.
A question for the philosophers, not the poets.
Cruel reality for the enemy,
Is that the game is a state of mind.
But the game ain’t saying nothing.
Today the masses say it,
Cruel reality for the enemy,
The eye of integrity,
Karma and big brother
Are on them like never before.
Cruel reality for the enemy, but we all got game.
Cruel reality, what is happening here
Is perfectly clear
And it always has been.
Racism is not just for the racists,
But even the “good” people.
Cruel reality for me,
Though frustration is real
The tedium of this world,
The pain and suffering
Is more real than ever today.
Cruel reality, that isn’t too cruel when you think about it,
But the time, the chance, to step back,
And give others a space, a time, a home.
Cruel reality, pretty blond pornstars
Have gone political,
And trust me when I say
It isn’t pretty.
Won’t someone pass me a pill
Since joints are a sin?
Pass me a pill so that I may sink
So that I can forget
So that I can ignore these days,
So that I can ignore
our cruel reality.
I have been swamped with personal errands and DSA tasks the last week so I am not able to make a video this week, but I forgot to share my video from last week so here you are.
Did you know that Zero Mostel was a leftist who got blacklisted twice! He even called MGM a racist studio and openly challenged Senator McCarthy’s witchhunt! #solidarity am I right!?
It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to reject or accept a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was made a demand for such an artistic form… – Literature and Revolution, pg. 150
Recently I was attempting to answer the question,”what is socialist art?” as a theoretical response to Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution. I had just finished the book and was working on a piece that would be an attempt to expand his application of a Marxist lens towards the arts by contemporizing it for socialists here in the 21st century. Originally I started off with the question, “what is socialist art?” However I found that I could not answer the question until I answered a more pressing one, “what is arts place in the Revolution?” Since I have now established that art indeed has a place in Revolution with my previous blog post, I will now attempt to answer my original question. What is socialist art?
Arguably Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution is the most influential piece of Marxist literary theory. It was arguably the first application of Marxism towards the arts and it paved the way for the likes of Terry Eagleton. Communists such as myself who came to leftism through their study of literary theory owe the existence of their Marxist lens to this text.
Although it was written almost a century ago, Literature and Revolution still provides us with two central principles that can be applied if we are to look at art through a socialist lens. In order to determine, “what is Socialist art?” we must look at art as socialists. It should be noted that the terms Marxist, socialist, communist, and leftist are used interchangeably in this piece, as they are in most of my work. It should also be noted that Trotsky uses the term “proletarian art” as opposed the term “socialist art.” In this piece the terms will be used interchangeably because art that is inherently proletarian is art that in-turn inherently socialist.
Literature and Revolution offers use two principles that can be used to determine what is socialist art. The first is that the proletariat are capable of understanding art, and that it is the bourgeoise who have controlled the economy of art, but their control does not mean the proletariat are not interested in art.
In addition to that, Trotsky’s work demonstrates art, like anything in historical dialectics, are subject to the economics of its time and place and therefore serves as a reflection of history and culture from where the art comes from. Therefore proletarian art will reflect proletarian culture. Trotsky argues that this proletarian culture needed to be developed by the proletariat after Revolution was achieved. However this is not so today. Unlike Trotsky and the bolsheviks who were rebuilding a culture from scratch, there is already a rich existence of anticapitalist traits in contemporary art.
Proletarian art is one that is reflective of the proletariat in the time and place they exist. Whereas bourgeoise art is always indulgent for the sake of indulgence proletarian art is always one that is expressive. Consider the artists who create for arts sake versus the working class artists who produce art not for profit but for the sake of their own self expression, or for the reclamation of their colonized culture.
Jeff Koons and Damien Herst are more likely to produce indulgent and pretentious sculptures for the sake of a high price tag, whereas a Chicano or Chicana street artist is likely to graffiti a mural to express their outrage over their coopted or ignored cultures. Another fine example of anti capitalism in art is the legend of Banksy, a person who shreds his art if it ever appears for sale at Sothebys. Proletarian art is art that rejects the bourgeoisie or the racist patriarchy they uphold, rather than cater to them.
However what is most important to consider is the amount of people who draw, write poetry, blog, make videos, jam with friends, all without seeking a profit. The fact that art is a form of therapy, a form of community, a form of cultural reclamation, a form of resistance, and a form of self expression demonstrates that the masses, and therefore the proletariat, are both interested and capable of being involved in the world of art. Therefore the “art world” should not be controlled by a single class but should be something that benefits the collective.
Proletarian art is about radical self expression, bourgeois art is self expression to appease an already affluent class. Proletarian art is not just self expression of an individual artistic proletarian but rather it is a self expression that rejects bourgeois influence and the oppressive systems within that influence. Art that rejects the bourgeoisie and the systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism are all arguably manifestations of socialist art.
Bourgeois art however is expressive of the artists individual politics through its indulgence. To put it plainily, art for arts sake is art that is art that accepts the status quo. Since the status quo is one of oppression, indulgent bourgeois art is art that is complacent with oppression. For example the art of the impressionists, while technically masterful, were created to appease a petite bourgeois art world. In Literature and Revolution Trotsky points out that while bourgeois artists are often obsessed and even mystify the peasantry, they ignore the reality of their industrial proletarian neighbor. “Our old literature and “culture” were the expressions of the nobleman and the bureaucrat, and were based on the peasant.”(pg 30)
In other words bourgeoisie artists romanticize elements of the working class but refuse to incorporate the reality of their struggle into their world. This is still true today and can be seen in the bourgeoisies co-opting of street art and graffiti art.
Proletarian art is also art that is created in response to the bourgeoisie power and all of its manifestations, whether it be colonization, patriarchy, or the overall class system. The murals of Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr, Harriet Tubman, Zapata, Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta that grace the walls of buildings in Compton, Watts, East LA, Oakland, and South Sacramento are all examples of the modern working class using art to fight bourgeoise oppression. Indigenous and African artists who are keeping the arts of their colonized people alive should be welcomed as socialist art as well. The fact that art is used by so many for so many different purposes reflects the truth that the proletariat are both capable and interested in the intellectual properties of art.
There is also the agitational element of political street art like Banksy’s or in the cultural expressions of non white street artists. There is also the agitational effort we see in feminist art. Art that puts the reality of sexwork or the reality of attacks on women’s bodies should be included in our definition of proletarian art as well, for women are the most exploited of workers and any art that reflects that reality is inherently a rejection of the bourgeoisie definition of art. The same goes for art produced to agitate and express the realities of being trans, non binary, or gay. All art that is born out of a rejection of capitalist oppression must be included in our definition of proletarian art.
If socialist art is art that rejects the bourgeoisie’s control of art, then socialist art should elevate oppressed cultures and people. This is because art is a reflection of the times and place it is produced no matter what. Considering we live in explicitly racist, sexist, transphobic, and queer-phobic times, proletarian art should both reflect that and reject the status quo that enables these cultural constructs of capitalism. There is also the reality that art and cultures have always been around but all in someway or another all cultures and art forms have been forced to respond to capitalist oppression. That is proletarian art, black poetry slams, indigenous art, street art, or any art that exists because of a rejection of the capitalist status quo.
Unlike Trotsky in the USSR we do not need to re-define art we need to use it to elevate our working class. We simply must reject the notion that the art we put up in galleries and museums to honor famous artists is the only manifestation of art. All we need to do to determine “what is socialist art?” is to bring in the arts that have already been born out of their rejection of capitalism. This is not only possible but it is already happening, artists have been creating to reject capitalism even as Trotsky was writing Literature and Revolution over a century ago, what has not been attempted is a general contemporary categorization of socialist art. However even Trotsky himself pointed this out in the text;
“themes migrate from people to people, from class to class, and even from author to author. This means only that the human imagination is economical. A new class does not begin to create all of culture from the beginning, but enters possession of the past, assorts it, touches it up, rearranges it, and builds on it further. If there were no such utilization of the “secondhand” wardrobe of the ages, historic processes would have no progress at all.” – Literature and Revolution pg 149
In conclusion, the proletariat are already creating their own art for means of self expression, political agitation, therapy, and cultural resistance. Whereas Trotsky’s Revolution had to create a proletarian culture, today a proletarian culture already exists in the numerous oppressed peoples under contemporary capitalism. Therefore our proletariat art is the art of our oppressed masses, of people who have either been denied their culture or denied access to the culture created by the bourgeoisie. Socialist art can be any medium, but it must either be about reclaiming culture or rejecting the oppressive pillars of capitalist culture. So the ultimate answer to my question, “what is socialist art?” is art that actively works to reject capitalism and the oppressive structures that capitalism brings.
I am making a special post outside of my regularly scheduled content to bring you a very important message. A message that will upset some of my fellow leftists but I think it needs to be said.
I think leftists should stop supporting Julian Assange. We should not be focused on one mediocre white man. We should be focused on a multi racial and international working class that is actively fighting patriarchy.
I do not support the arrest of Assange nor do I support his extradition to the U.S. I do think Wikileaks did the right thing by releasing the footage exposing atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq and exposing the DNC’s insider game against Bernie. I think Chelsea Manning is a beacon of integrity as well.
All of that said, the amount of support that some on the left are giving to Assange is infuriating to me.
Here are some things about Assange we must consider when talking about his case:
1. Assange is not a leftist, he hates the left. He released a video in 2014 that revealed he was a Ron Paul libertarian and that he is blatantly misogynist. He is vocally against a woman’s right to reproductive choice, which in my opinion doesn’t help his defense against sexual assault since the allegations revolve around him using broken condoms.
2. Assange has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. This is often ignored by his supporters because it defeats the narrative that he is purely a victim of state oppression. What is even worse is that some will decry the allegations against him as a conspiracy by the CIA, totally removing his victim’s agency. If you call yourself a leftist but you refuse to believe victims, even victims whose stories hurt your narrative, you are not an agent against patriarchy and therefore you are not an agent against capitalism. We can not pick and choose which victims we support, truth is more important than narrative, period!
3. The DNC wikileaks release doesn’t make up for Assange’s misogyny, and yes the DNC leaks did help Trump win. It wasn’t the only thing that helped him win, but it did help him win. I am glad that the corruption of the DNC power play against Bernie was exposed, however the way it was framed inevitably helped to paint Trump in a positive light when compared to Hillary Clinton. Assange released nothing about Trump because he said what he had on Trump, “was no more embarrassing than what Trump has already said publicly.” This means that Assange had information on Trump but didn’t release it or it means that he wasn’t looking for it as actively as he was for information against Hillary. Even if what Wikileaks had on Trump (if they indeed had something) was inconsequential, it is bad optics and just bad journalism to be selective about who and what you expose. I am not saying it is the Wikileaks DNC leak that made Trump win, I do not think there is any single reason Trump won. Had that story come out with Bernie as the winner of the nomination he would have been painted as the man who defeated corruption in his own party. It cannot be denied however that the DNC leaks helped Trump’s narrative more than they helped Bernie’s. Despite the DNC corruption, Bernie supported Hillary, that speaks to his integrity and dedication to defeating the right. You do not have to defend Assange to believe the DNC Wikileaks info release.
4. Are we really going to stop everything and demand the release of one mediocre white guy who had lived and ate for free in the Ecuadorian embassy for years while children are detained, war refugees created, and black lives are shot, beaten, and jailed daily!? If you are marching in the streets for Assange and rallying for his release while there are still people rotting in jails across the planet for minor drug offenses, most of whom are black or non white, then you have terrible priorities. Also I would like to remind everyone that there are already multiple political prisoners throughout the world who need our support. Mumia Abul Jamal, Leonard Peltier, numerous LGBTQ people in oppressive anti-queer states, and countless others, but we are going to sidebar them for one white guy who did his job? I call bullshit.
5. All Assange did was his job, a journalists job is to expose harsh realities, but that does not make him a hero of the leftist movement! Releasing the info he had on the DNC and the war in Iraq was his obligation to do so as a journalist. I’m not about to praise someone for merely doing what they are supposed to be doing, especially not someone with the societal privilege that Assange has. What also frustrates me about people leaping to his defense is that several are acting as if governments like the U.S. or U.K. have never used state power to suppress journalism before. Have we already forgotten the Pentagon papers? Watergate? The Bush Administration banning photos of soldiers coffins? Instead of being outraged that Assange is being prosecuted under the Espionage Act, shouldn’t we be outraged about the fact that the law has existed for a century!? Why are we outraged about the person being prosecuted and not the fact that the avenue for prosecution has existed for a century!?
6. Assange let Chelsea Manning take the fall for Wikileaks, period. I applaud Chelsea Manning for her integrity and refusal to snitch on Wikileaks, however her integrity is not Assange’s integrity. When they came for Chelsea, Assange did not stand by her, he ran. He ran like a coward and he ran far! Now I do not blame whistleblowers like Edward Snowden or others for running away and seeking asylum when they can find it. However I will blame people who leave their fellow whistleblowers to rot and Assange left Manning to rot. He used her as a source, then left her behind. A journalist with integrity would never do that.
7. Some acknowledge that he is an asshole but are still rallying for his release because his arrest might set a dangerous precedent for censorship. However I disagree with this analysis because the precedent was always there and has been there as long as we have had capitalist governments. The Espionage Act, as I have already stated, is a century old. This means that the U.S. government has had the legal authority to suppress journalism FOR 100 YEARS! Assange’s case is nothing new. Stop acting like the state has never done this before just because some of the stuff he released helps the leftist narrative against the American state.
I do not support Assange’s arrest, in fact I think it is despicable that once again the state is using it’s power to retaliate against journalists. However, as long as there are black lives being lost, children being detained, war refugees ignored, you will not hear me rally for Assange anytime soon. My priorities are with the multiracial multi gendered working class, not with one white guy who did his job. Assange is no hero, he is a coward who abandoned the people who gave him his information. We should repay him in-kind and abandon him.
The Artist as the Revolutionary
Art for art’s sake
was the most selfish and lazy philosophy
Art for art’s sake,
Art is an available tactic,
a potential means to the ends
Art that only exists for itself
Art is a means,
a means of production,
and all means,
belong to the people
not the patrons.
when it’s expression just for expression’s sake.
I do not scorn the schools of art,
I simply point out truth,
as all artists should.
The personal is political
and art, good art at least, is very personal.
Art must be, nay, Art is,
more than an outlet,
it is a tool,
escapist art is a distraction.
has a duty to their public.
Art is revolutionary
and so should be the artist.
I was in the midst of writing a new essay for this blog titled “What is Socialist Art?” which is going to be a review and response to Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution. The book offers an incredible degree of insight into what the effects of class revolution can be on poetry, literature, and art. As I was beginning to write my essay another question arose, and the more I tried working on my original question the more this other question gnawed at the back of my mind. This question needs to be answered before I can properly answer my first one. The question “What is socialist art?” cannot be answered until we solve another riddle, “What is art’s place in the revolution?”
Since April is National Poetry Month and I think this is the perfect time to address this topic. I have written multiple poems about art and revolution and in conjunction with National Poetry Month they will be published here in the coming weeks. This article is my humble attempt to answer the question “What is art’s place in the revolution?” with the same socialist lens that Trotsky applied to poetry and painting in Literature and Revolution, my poems shall be the praxis form of my theory. It should also be noted that the terms Marxist, socialist, leftist, and communist are used interchangeably in this piece of dialectic, but enough jargon for one paragraph!
Art clearly does have a place in the revolution because revolution is nothing more than the overhaul of society, not the abolition of society itself but the abolition of the society as we have come to know it. Art, as most Marxists would interpret it, is a key historical reference used in our analyses to help us define the class relations of the society where that art was produced. Art is always a product of it’s time and place and therefore inevitably has a place in times of upheaval and revolt. Art has a place both in the overhaul of society and use as a reference when discussing or reflecting on that society or the progress towards that society.
Art in the time that Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution was significantly more conservative than today. Literature and Revolution was written in the early 1920’s when “the arts” were understood to be theater, poetry and novels, painting and sculpture, and architecture. Film was just coming into it’s own as an artistic medium and the radio broadcasts which later evolved into television were just starting. Literature and Revolution was written almost a century ago, and within that century the number of mediums of art have exploded in addition to film and broadcast mediums. In addition to what we might call the “traditional arts” we now have graphic design, 3D printed sculpture, street art and graffiti, and an endless list of music genres or painting styles. This is a self evident aspect of art, for while it is a reflection of its time and place art itself evolves and grows on its own terms. The laws of art are different from other natural laws because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of categorizing them completely. Art is its own entity and the explosive growth of artistic mediums in the last century reflects that.
So the question “What is art’s place in the revolution?” requires us to answer not just for a handful of artistic mediums, but an entire dimension in of itself. While we can study art through the Marxist theoretical lens, we can only understand it through the lens of art itself because art exists within it’s own natural laws. So within the context of looking at art through a socialist revolutionary lens and acknowledging that because art is so autonomous this list can in no way be totally conclusive, it can be argued that art has at least three places in the revolution. They are agitation, the fostering of democratic participation, and subversion.
The whole point of agitation is to foster debate so that revolutionaries may educate the classes they seek to organize and inturn motivate into action. Art has always shown it has the power to foster debate and motivate people into action, for better or worse. There are several examples in history that record people getting into fist fights, even rioting in the streets, as a reaction to artistic endeavors.
Consider the composer Igor Stravinsky and the stories surrounding the debut of his ballet the “Rite of Spring.” While the accounts of the event vary in their details about the severity and violence that broke out, the overarching detail of all accounts is that there was a violent reaction to the performance by the audience. The ballet caused fights to break out when it premiered in Paris because of the divided audience reaction. You either loved or hated the performance and would fight to defend your view, there was no middle ground for the Parisian’s who attended the legendary performance.
By modern standards a fight over a ballet performance seems trivial and unlikely, but what the mythos of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring demonstrates is that art can foster massive reactions by the public, even to the point of violence. It also demonstrates the power that art has to foster debate and how far that debate will go.
One must also talk about the world’s most influential medium of art to come out of the century since Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution , film. There are too many controversies surrounding film to list. There is the christian conservative reaction to Martin Scorcese’s The Passion of The Christ. There was ongoing debate in the christian community about how to properly follow and celebrate Jesus when The Passion of the Christ came out. There is the debate about casting diversity and exclusion of trans actors or non white actors for trans and poc roles. There is the ever growing list of actors, directors, and producers who have permanently fallen from grace in the public’s eye as the Me Too movement unfolds. The industry behind the medium of film is so forward facing that it inevitably fosters, and at times even guides, our public dialect. This was true when the Birth of a Nation was released and it is true today.
Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for his public readings of his magnum opus “Howl” is another example of the incendiary nature of the arts. A poem going into vivid detail about drug addicts, poor black neighborhoods, and sexual perversion was shocking for all of America in the 1950s. After years of being ignored the arts gave the dark side of America a spotlight and the conservative capitalist establishment reacted to the poem with censorship and one of the world’s most historic indecency trials. Whether the message of the artistic piece is positive or negative does not effect the incendiary nature of art either way. People heard Ginsberg’s poem and reacted either with amazement or disgust, a sense of disgust which drove many in power to support a very vocal public trial. The trial and the debate about decency in art that came of it is yet another example of how art can and is utilized for agitation. If the capitalist class is so offended by your work that they arrest you for it, you have done something right.
While all of these examples differ in their messages and their politics, the reaction to these pieces are all the same. We see both excitement and anger from the audiences. We see people take action and we see people react to the actions thereof. We see people who are either shocked out of complacency and relieved because of it or they are shocked out of complacency and reactionary. This is the ultimate purpose of agitation. To shock people out of complacency and foster a space for debate, which in-turn fosters democratic participation.
To Foster democratic participation
From agitation we move on to the topic of democratic forums, an essential part of revolutionary organizing. Art allows platforms for people who might otherwise be oppressed or marginalized or flat out ignored by our inherent tendencies to erase certain people. What does this mean in the simplest of terms?
Well to put it plainly, some people might speak up for themselves more through poetry or painting than in democratic forums or dialectical conversations. Consider the popularity of poetry slams and open mic nights. There is also the ancient cultural arts we see being practiced by Indigenous communities, as well as African, Latin, and Asian ones, which are attempts to reclaim what had otherwise been a lost or colonized way of life. The reclamation of culture is a revolutionary act, and some would prefer to focus on reclaiming lost culture than sit through meetings to debate and vote on organizational matters.
Some people might just be more introverted and not confident in their abilities to speak up, often times a person will have an opinion on a topic but does not feel ready or comfortable sharing it in that setting. Where some people might not speak up at a meeting, for whatever reason, they might be likely to express themselves through the reviving of their culture or through a poem shared with other like minded poets.
You might be more likely to hear someone’s point of view at a poetry slam than at your committee meeting. You might see more of the Indigenous perspective in a Navajo sand painting than in a conversation about the Indigenous. You might learn more about the experience of being a person of color or an immigrant in a piece of street art than in a debate on a resolution.
These mediums of art and the perspectives they offer do not have to be stand alone, nor be separate from democratic action. These pieces of art and expressions of culture can foster further conversation. The conversation and perspective generated by people’s reactions to them can in-turn be channeled into our democratic organizations. Art’s place in the revolution includes the reclaiming of colonized cultures and creating avenues of self expression that cannot be achieved in procedural matters alone, socialists and the left need to make sure there is a place for this in our organizing. Art and expression of culture fosters thought, thought fosters conversation and debate, that debate needs to be apart of our overall democratic procedure to insure the widest participation possible.
In other words, art is good for democracy, period.
In the realm of political subversion and art, no medium has been used more in the last 30 years than street art. Street art is a prime example of how subversive art can be a tool for revolutionary organizing.
It is impossible to visit an area that is both predominately poor and non white and not see a galleries worth of street art on at least one building. One sees murals to black leaders such as Malcom X, Angela Davis, Harriett Tubman, Cesar Chavez, Zapata, and Dr. King throughout the neighborhoods of Compton and East Los Angeles. We must also not forget the popularity of street artists such as Plastic Jesus, Blackhat, and the legendary Banksy all of whom to some degree or another are political and subversive. While these are contemporary street artists we must remember that graffiti is nothing new to political expressionism. Since the 1970s and 80s, artists such as Keith Herring and Basquiat were forcing the streets of New York to face tragic political realities with their messages about black lives or the AIDS epidemic. All of these are artists who either reject the bourgeoise galleries or who have been rejected by them still create and they create their art to be seen by the masses for the sake of educating people about the reality of oppression or expressing the pain that the artist has either witnessed or experienced due to that oppression.
Yet subversion in the arts is not exclusive to our modern mediums, it is nothing new to art. There is a rich history of subversion in the traditional arts as well. Consider Voltaire, he was ever the subversive with his tale Candide essentially serving as a farce about the standards and practices of the bourgeoisie of his time. If Voltaire had just come out and said “Fuck you, you greedy entitled mother fuckers!” he would have been killed. Instead he crafted a novel where a man wanders the Earth and finds cities that treat gold like we would a piece of scrap paper.
Another example of the power of subversion is the popularity of Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother YOu.” Riley does not simply come out and say, “Organize your workplace! Overthrow the capitalists!’ (save for his twitter account of course). What he did was create a film that is the equivalent of Get Out meets an Adult Swim show and the result is a pro union call to action not seen in film since Norma Rae. All of these examples are important things to consider as the capitalist establishment works to censor us and whip up another red scare.
The truth is that the more the left succeeds the harder our opposition will come down on us. Be aware my fellow comrades, a wave of sabotage and censorship is already coming our way. We are already seeing the ground work for a new red scare in the current administrations obsession with Venezuela, and on a personal note I have lost count of how many Trumpers have called me a “filthy communist.” The terrors of censorship are already beginning, let us not forget that TeleSur has already been deleted from Facebook multiple times without reason. Sex-workers have been deplatformed to the point where they are facing more violence than ever before. The Washington Post, the paper owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, are releasing record breaking amounts of negative op-eds about Bernie Sanders much like they did in 2016. Make no mistake, the groundwork for the new censorship of the left and our base has already been laid out before us and it will only continue to grow until the capitalist class is defeated.
The more we succeed the more they will make moves against us. We will need to be creative about how we communicate our message of organization and revolution to the public. Arts, of all mediums and dimensions, from film to street art, allow us our avenues for subversion where we might otherwise be censored, ignored, or deleted.
So, what is arts place in the revolution? Aside from elevating the voices of the colonized and the most oppressed classes by giving them avenues to reclaim culture, it can be a tool we use to agitate the public and shock them out of the complacency that capitalism brings. Art can foster democratic discussions that might otherwise be lost in the ether of ingrained social constructs or practices. Art gives us avenues to combat censorship and oppression, and more importantly allows us a forward facing avenue for presenting our message to the world. While we cannot make a conclusive list because of the never ending growth of artistic mediums what we can say is that art has a definite place in the revolution.
Perhaps now my original question, “What is socialist art?” will be a little easier to answer.