Friday, March 17, 2006

Art in Capitalism and Socialism (2005)

From the June 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Will socialism be a society in which people passively consume rather than actively create art? In a postcapitalist society, will art exist at all?

The first attempts by early humans,some 35,000 years ago, to represent aspects of their lives through cave paintings show that art served a useful social function, as did the use of early jewellery to enhance sexual attraction. Many of the purposes of art in capitalist and pre-capitalist societies, such as self expression, beautification, recording history, education, entertainment and social comment, will doubtless exist in socialism, although perhaps not as we now recognise them.

The nature of post-capitalist art has been discussed by Engels, Marx and Morris, to name only three. As an artist himself, William Morris was particularly enthused by this subject. In Art and Socialism (1884) he contested that "the greater part of the people have no share in Art" because "modern civilization" had suppressed it. Defining art as "the expression by man of his pleasure in labour", Morris believed that art should be the intrinsic part of the labour process it had been before the capitalist division of labour had divided art from craft, and when craftsmen still worked with a sense of beauty. Socialism would not have art as such but 'work-art', and people would produce objects that were not merely useful, but also had some artistic merit.

Looking at society as it now stands, it is a fact that most children and young people are very creative. For many, childhood will prove to be the most creative time of their lives. As they get older, however, their creative output lessens until by adulthood they engage in few artistic pursuits. Instead of producing art they consume it in all its various forms, and some go on to learns skills of appreciation and criticism. Most, after their formal education is complete, rarely put pen to paper, brush to canvas, or whatever. Creativity seems to have withered away, perhaps because after years of secondary schooling when they are prepared for life as an adult worker in capitalism, creating art - unless they intend to become employed as artists - seems to lack purpose. When the young adult emerges from the education system, art is not likely to be pursued for its own sake, for what is to be gained by it? The chances are that the nearest a person may come to creativity is in an art therapy class, when it is used as a form of curative. But once the troubled mind has been soothed, it's back to a life devoid of creativity.

In contrast to this, socialism may prove to be an artistic renaissance in which more people produce more art than in any previous time in history. The things which historically have prevented them creating art will no longer exist: schooling, the art institution's failure to take seriously some forms of art, the art industry's failure to see beyond the profit motive, and people who may think that there is little point creating art unless someone is prepared to cross their palms with silver. But it will not be a renaissance in the style of the 16th and 17th centuries, which was restricted to an artistic and scholarly elite, and which had very little impact on the vast majority of people. Socialism may generate a workers' art renaissance or, more specific to a classless society, a people's renaissance, at a level which touches everybody and to which no one is denied access. But that does not mean that socialist art will be good art.

The Great and the Good
Art in capitalism has a dualistic nature. On the one hand there are The Greats: the Old Masters, the Pre-Raphaelites, even the Young British Artists, and so on, plus the various schools of art such as Metaphysical poetry, Augustan satire, and Naturalism. These comprise a small minority, but because they constitute an intellectual ruling class their ideas dominate thinking about art and their works are highly revered and among the best-known. Then there is all the rest: the vast majority of artists and people creating art whose output is either ignored or unrecognised. Because the people who create this art lack the privileges and advantages of the artistic elite, their work is considered substandard, if it is considered at all. It is also unknown to the wider public, or ignored by them, for they have been seduced by the cult of the great artists about whom films have been made, books written and songs sung. Van Gogh is a good example of this (although he achieved nothing like this sort of recognition in his lifetime).

Galleries and museums, or theatres and concert halls, seem more like temples to the idols of art, and the contemplative act of experiencing art almost becomes a form of prayer. In socialism, art will be complementary not competitive. Some artists may acquire small-scale status, but socialism contains no mechanism to allow individual artists to acquire privilege or power. So with no art institution which effectively decides what art is and isn't, and no art industry judging the quality of a work by its cost, people may be encouraged to create art. This art, however, may lack the very high quality of art produced in capitalism. Simply, most post-capitalist art may not be as good as capitalist art. Historically, artists of the greatest skill would be more likely to find patronage and success than those of less talent. Art became conceptualised as an activity of high skill restricted to a few gifted individuals of supreme talent. The art of the overwhelming majority of people, who were equally capable of producing art but who lacked the privileges of the Great Artists and whose work was inevitably of a different standard, became marginalised as rough and ready 'folk art' and not a serious aesthetic form.

It is likely that a post-capitalist society will generate a climate of tolerance and appreciation for art which lacks the skill of The Greats. We may even come to view their works not as highly capable but as highly compromised, undermined by the need to compete against other artists of equal talent for limited opportunities in a market place, or we may see them simply as expressions of an obsolete system. This does not mean that in socialism people will no longer try to produce works of great quality and indeed some may equal in skill the art of The Greats. The idea of doing one's best will translate into socialism, but how much of the desire to do one's best is generated by the desire to out-do the best of the rival artists and compete for the few opportunities available in a crowded market? So if art in socialism is not as good as art in capitalism then it is not something which should concern us.

Art is an institution as well as a massively profitable industry, worth billions of pounds every year. This institution has a number of functions, none of which would be particularly welcome in socialism, or particularly feasible. Currently, it defines what art is, and consequently blocks what it does not consider to be art. It promotes a cult of the individual artist as gifted genius whose brushes we are not worthy to clean. It finances profitable art and refuses to finance art from which a profit cannot be realised regardless of its quality or importance. Because the practices it engages in are inherently antisocial, divisive and pro-capitalist, no such organisation could survive the transition from capitalism to socialism.

With this removed along with its privileges, then something like folk art or 'people's art' will emerge, that is art created by the average person without state sponsorship or the support of the institution, and created not for purposes of individual gain or acclaim, but for other reasons such as self-expression, ornamentation, beautification and so on. The person who creates such art may not even be called an artist, for that term signifies a privileged occupation producing nothing of any practical value and necessitating community support. That a person could be only an 'artist' and produce nothing except art seems unlikely and the continuance of such practices into socialism a highly remote possibility. Just as there will be no workers, only people, in a post-capitalist society, perhaps also there will be no 'artists'. Or perhaps in socialism, everyone will be an artist.

In socialism, it is likely that art will be produced for many of the reasons it has always been produced in capitalist and pre-capitalist societies. Socialism will not be a society without emotion and people will still be moved to express themselves in one form or another and art will surely be one of those forms. Socialism will have its problems, although on a massively reduced scale compared to any previous form of society. Conflict between individuals and possibly between communities may exist. As mentioned above, the problems of capitalism have provided no end of material for artists to comment upon, as the problems of socialism may also do. But socialism will deal fairly and sensibly with its problems and will not try to disguise them. If any 'unfairness' exists, it will not require a great painting, novel or song to expose it; it will be there for us all to see and deal with. In socialism, it is therefore highly unlikely that art which protests against large-scale social wrongs will exist.

Such works as Gulliver's Travels, A Christmas Carol, North and South, Grapes of Wrath, 1984, Look Back in Anger, and Salvador could not exist in post-capitalist society, for the issues they address equally could not exist. Similarly, there would be no socialist Kitchen Sink Dramas, Mike Leigh or Ken Loach films such as Cathy Come Home or Bread and Roses, and no Bob Dylans or Woody Guthries. And the sort of science fiction which reflects the fears and paranoias of society by turning hostile countries into hostile planets and suspicious foreigners into aliens would find little purchase in socialism, and such works as War of the Worlds would exist only as fantasies that have no connection to the real world. Art which reflects and comments upon alienation, war, competition, injustice and inequality, as all the above do, is ideally suited to a society of alienation, war, competition, injustice and inequality, but not to socialism. It is to be hoped, however, that socialism will produce works of the same intensity, profundity and emotional depth as the ones mentioned above.
Neil Windle

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