Book Review from the December 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Art, An Enemy of the People by Roger L. Taylor (Harvester Press 1978)
Last month the professors of fantasy returned to their State-funded studies in universities throughout the country. The scholars of literature and art; the men and women whose wisdom is based upon an intimate awareness of the motives of non-existent characters in unimportant novels, poems and plays. One’s reputation is based upon a detailed understanding of paintings that have no meaning to the ordinary person; another is respected for his analysis of an ancient Icelandic epic poem; yet another has written the definitive work on the meaning of the pauses in Pinter’s plays.
What have these “experts” got to offer the majority of people? Very little indeed. Literary scholarship and appreciation under capitalism has always been the preserve of an élite. Those who have no compulsion to enter the process of producing wealth spend their time engaging in superior social pursuits which they choose to call Art. The working class is generally excluded from artistic fulfilment because we lack the time, money, education and experience. The ruling class control social culture by owning the production of Art—and by controlling social culture they do much to maintain the workers in a position of political ignorance.
In an age when the mass of humanity commonly faces so many socially produced evils can we afford to divert our mental energies towards such considerations as currently dominate the world of artistic scholarship? In a badly written, but interestingly argued, book called Art, An Enemy Of The People (published in the Harvester Philosophy Now series), Roger L. Taylor has argued that the function of art is one of class domination and aesthetic scholars are responsible for illusions about art which give ordinary people an unjustified sense of inferiority. The book costs £3.50 and should be compulsory reading for trainee editors; if you make your way through the muddled exposition you will find much that is worth considering:
The bourgeoisie as a whole is not fulfilled by Capitalist society. The growth of applied science, the increase in mechanisation, the objective of production being the accumulation of profits, the fragmentation and dehumanising aspects of the production process . . . all add up, within the bourgeoisie itself, to an impulse to deny, escape from, or compensate for the economic base upon which bourgeois, material security is dependent . . . the social need to make something out of the “cultural life” is not some mythical quality of human-ness expressing itself in the midst of bourgeois dehumanisation, but rather the expression of culturally conditioned expectations. Art, as we know it now, is the result of these various processes working themselves out (pp. 46-7).
You will also find much that is confused and confusing:
In the Third World Marxism is a number of things. It is terrorism, bombs, sporadic violence, guerrilla warfare, as well as being infiltration by the larger Communist powers, involving, as it does, things like liaisons between local capitalists and Moscow so as to expel the influence of American capital. Marxism is, also, and this is the main thing that it is, the history of the various societies referred to as Communist both by themselves and by Western, capitalist societies. The reality of Marxism in the modern world is, then, many sided.
The nonsense which finds its way into Taylor’s book need not prevent us from answering the question which the book seriously poses: Is Art an enemy of the people or can we envisage a society in which art will perform a healthy function for the majority of people?
Taylor says that art can only flourish where human existence is not socially harmonious. This view can be compared with William Morris’s contention that true art can only exist when it is social, and that socialism
. . . will give an opportunity for the new birth of art, which is now being crushed to death by the moneybags of competitive commerce (Art, Labour and Socialism).
Taylor certainly has a point if he is saying that the study of, and participation in, social art on the part of members of the working class is likely to inhibit political consciousness. By fantasising about unreal characters in unreal situations workers are less likely to perceive genuine social contradictions. When you are at school it is considered “cultured” and “classy” to talk at length about the rather dull plays of the sixteenth century court lackey, Shakespeare; to talk at length about Z Cars is considered “uncultured”; to talk about why the majority of kids don’t have enough money to spend is not only “uncultured” but “ill-mannered”. Anyone who has been to the theatre will have witnessed crowds of usually well-paid workers (those who imagine themselves to be middle class) talking in phoney accents about matters of characterisation and plot that are of no consequence to anybody. Can we afford to be complacent that, people’s minds are so diverted in a society which is so in need of change? The plays that they are watching and discussing usually have little social significance. We are entitled to criticise those who make such effort to blend in with the culture of capitalism for not using their energies to a more positive end. Taylor is probably right that the illusions, fantasies, prejudices and pretentiousness of Art is an enemy of the mass of the people in capitalist society. This reviewer takes with much seriousness Taylor’s advice that “Art is a value the masses should resist, not just ignore” (p. 155).
But Taylor’s arguments become unstuck when he claims that art will have no role when the ruling class no longer exists. Taylor’s failure to understand the need for socialised art must result from the fact that he clearly understands little about social history and less about socialism. The socialist, William Morris — whom Taylor strangely does not refer to in his book — did understand the meaning of socialism and thus recognised that in socialist society creative labour would be the highest form of art. When all members of society own and control the means of producing art there will be a synthesis of social productive activity and art which presently stand in antithesis to one another.
It is because Taylor fails to see the possibility of such a synthesis — a failure shared by all non-socialist critics of capitalist culture — that he cannot understand that art, like all other social features, is subject to historical development. The weakness of Morris is that he too occasionally succumbed to a romanticised perception of culture which led him to believe that true art, arising from a socialised environment, could be found in pre-capitalist forms of property society.
The only relevant role for art in modern capitalism is as the voice of social revolutionaries. Considerations of art in separation from the historical study of society is what professional literary scholars exist for. They have no ideas to offer to society which are relevant beyond the works of art that they spend their time studying; the class war rarely intrudes into the lives of the fictional “characters” with whom they are concerned just as the majority of the world’s population rarely intrudes into the exclusive confines in which they dwell. Masters of the values of fantasy, they are blind to the objective laws of society: are we too bold to predict that such “scholarship” will one day be behind us?