Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Critique of 'Art on the Frontline' by Angela Davis

by Gary Tedman

It is certainly possible to agree with the general principles of this article on art, and as Angela Davis says:

"Bourgeois aesthetics has always sought to situate art in a transcendent realm, beyond ideology, beyond socioeconomic realities, and certainly beyond the class struggle."

But at the same time to criticize it for a number of things that are lacking from a strictly Marxian perspective.

Davis presents us with a view of art that is mostly understood as spontaneous, and which is regarded as progressive because of where it apparently comes from (slaves, working class, oppressed people, victims of exploitation). It therefore tends to obscure the fact that the existing capitalist state has, and has had for a long time, an education system in place for art which affects all culture by mass communications. This should not be disregarded or overlooked in its effects, especially in a way that tends to contradict the principle (that I have quoted above) and leaves us believing once more in art's transcendence (although perhaps this time a 'Left' transcendence).

All apparently 'spontaneous' and 'popular' art is produced within society as it exists, and as it exists it has a dominant culture that is produced via certain methods of production within the dominant mode of production. In this situation we cannot simply begin by assuming that the 'popular' and apparently spontaneous is some sort of pure (and so automatically progressive) product. Our 'popular cultural legacy' has to be determined and proved to be that, not simply accepted on the basis of a loose and unscientific consensus based on appearance alone, even amongst comrades and friends. The idea of a 'people's art' that has 'emerged from the history of labor militancy' is not 'rich and vibrant' just because we assert this forcibly, or even just because it is made by oppressed black people and women.

It is the starting point for the analysis that is at fault here. There is no 'pure' starting point, no 'absolute origin', art is born in the class struggle (because history is the history of class struggle) and is subject to it, always and already. So no art can seriously be regarded as spontaneous and pure. Moreover the art which attempts most to represent itself in this way is precisely the art loved by the bourgeoisie, who always like to deny the role of their own institutions in the production of art and the artist, and which they invariably refer to as original and spontaneous acts of genius, transcending all mundane life, even when it was manufactured by their education and cultural systems.

"Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives."

How true this seems to be.

But, what is progressive art? How can we define it? Indeed we do not here even have a definition of art in general, of what art does (what social function it performs). In the absence of such a definition everything that follows can only be taken as well-informed, but still only asserted, opinion.

"...a love song can be progressive if it incorporates a sensitivity toward the lives of working-class women and men"

How true this seems to be, again. And who would want to argue against more sensitivity towards working class lives? But this seems to point, without openly doing so, towards a mainly didactic (i.e. realist) job for art, as if it were only a question of informing in the right way the feelings and consciousness of people.

Is it that simple? In short, is art just a question of changing the story-line in an advertising narrative to give it progressive credentials?

If it were that simple the problem would not still be a problem.

Are we sure that popular music has 'awakened social consciousness in the community'? How? By what measure? Could we not also say that popular music has also hypnotized people into a sort of sanitized and safe rebellion with added niche marketing for fashion apparel? I am sure the author is aware of this problem of course, but I feel it needs to be addressed more directly.

"If slaves were permitted to sing as they toiled in the fields and to incorporate music into their religious services, it was because the slaveocracy failed to grasp the social function of music in general and particularly the central role music played in all aspects of life in West African society."

Again, are we sure of this? Could it not also be because they were aware it helped the workers vent pent up frustrations safely (for the exploiters), acted as a kind of soporific, a drug, or at least had the potential to do so? And what exactly was the role of music in earlier West African society? Was it always totally benign and devoid of any effects of class struggle or of oppression? We must doubt that idea of purity too.

If all art is political, representing one type of art, one genre, as political at the expense of others is disingenuous. Lenin is undoubtedly right as Davis quotes, what we need is partisanship in art. Yet the question remains what this actually means, it is not unambiguous. A partisan story is the easiest thing to construct (and Lenin does not mean this), but is it (this work of art) really partisan in its social effects over time? What is partisan form? What is partisan quality? What is a partisan aesthetic? These are the questions that Walter Benjamin tried to solve for us. We are wasting a lot of time if we do not begin from his point ('The Author as Producer') and fall for the myth of spontaneity.

Another aspect that must be remarked upon in Davis's essay is the need to distinguish, and not muddle together, the immediate graphic arts (such as advertising and murals, banners and placards, illustrations and posters) with fine art. The jobs that the two disciplines have to do certainly overlap, but they are not the same, and confusion and conflation often ends up with the fine artist coming off worse and being forced into topical everyday art 'that we all understand' immediately. In place of a long argument here this can be akin to us expecting a specialist physicist only to produce theories of space/time that everyday folk can understand easily and actually interfering and changing the theories to make them simpler, which is a kind of philistine vandalism. It would not, for progressives, be a neutral kind of vandalism though, for I think it would leave this important area open to occupation by reaction.

I have to admit something here. I do not like, and never have liked, Pete Seegers type of folksy proselytising evangelism, it always grated on my nerves in the same way that a Jehovah's Witness on my doorstep did and does. Personally I am cynical of the huge tranche of so called 'rebellious' popular music and prefer, usually, classical music. I tend to think that the packaged kind of rebelliousness that is directed by huge multinational media companies is not really very popular, it just has all the backing. Yes, they are clever at finding talented individuals, sometimes from poor backgrounds, and exploiting their anger and vigour, their genuine talent. In a similar vein I think for instance that art museums in the UK, even those showing 'high' modern art, are more popular than, say, football, but you would not think it if you just listened to the mainstream press.

But, yes, what is it to 'like' something and to 'dislike' something else? It is a question of aesthetics, a very important question. How do we account for taste?

Is it not a bit sneaky that these views on art are 'smuggled in' under the constant invocation of black and women's struggles against oppression? It is as if there is a threat here, as if to disagree would be to oppose all this too. It is obvious by what we see in culture that the working class and the oppressed present an enormous pool of usually untapped artistic and creative talent coiled up like a tight spring just waiting to be unleashed. The way that it is exploited is almost always by the existing state programmes for culture, the educational institutions and the existing culture industry, which are there at the beginning. This does not mean it is a watertight process, that there is no hope, that all culture is canalized into safe pathways devoid of real revolutionary potential by the state apparatuses, but it does mean that we must take these into account when we come to talk about all existing art.

I think art education in the US is remarkable and I think that it is progressive (in general). It is certainly expert and leads the world. Why is it being ignored here? Perhaps that is the real serious question that needs to be addressed. Why would an apparently radical article on art leave out the art state apparatuses that are so important to the US (and to its economy) in its analysis?

Well, the essay now shows its age perhaps, and perhaps this criticism is too stringent in this sense. I criticize only because I feel it is worth the criticism, and only the parts that need it.

1 comment:

peaceapplause said...

As maker of the only comment on the critiqued article,Art on the Front Line,it seems we need others who work in art much to contribute to the discussion.
John Pietaro may have something to offer,for example.
Class struggle in art,and science in art happen simultaneously. The working class fighting and winning the human right(as it has actively shown evidence of doing,as sister Davis makes graphic in many examples)to change art to fit its needs,including the recognition of the wellspring of that art,the slave,the woman,the wage slave,the peonage slave,the convict slave,the indentured slave-and this not as "segregated" working class-but on the contrary, through an "integrated"working class,a unified convergence of peoples and cultures unified in mutual recognition of cultural gifts and genius,not only individual but social and especially social and therefore,free. Maybe Gold,Reed,and even Seeger and the great Robeson would agree.

As far as state recognition of art and its propagation-the modern state itself,in an important sense, was created by the working class-not the ruling class- in the United States(of course the 'state'in a Marxist sense is much more than a 'constitution') through the 13th 14th and 15th amendments to our Constitution,creating a basis for universal suffrage,universal education and universal legal equality in protection under the Constitution. These civil and human rights necessarily mingle with creative arts rights in the arts and sciences,making them possible,including providing a real foundation for 'art education'with a real human,civil and legal governmental public education base.
One of the most neglected and magisterial manifestations of art in science is the historical account of the class struggle forcing its way to complete our "New Birth of Freedom"brought by North America's Civil War(carefully followed by Marx and Engels) was W.E.B. Du Bois's BLACK RECONSTRUCTION,for poignant instance.
Discovering,creating-changing reality and art reality with the inclusion of all humanity,-with women of color as participants(they were not in the 13th-15th amendments,along with women at large) recognizing the necessity of the engine of history,class struggle,in this change is the point and it seems this would have state apparatuses as central and maybe professor Davis's article is not at odds with this view.