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 Art, as most Marxists would interpret it, is a key historical reference used in our analyses to help us define the class relations of the society where that art was produced.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.