Primitive painters: the left and art

The left needs to win artists, cultural producers and critics to its cause, says Lawrence Parker

In a recent article I made the assertion that the ability of the left to positively engage with art was questionable ('Shades of Stalinism', March 2  2006). It is amazing - at least to me - that the seemingly untheorised nature of this output still goes relatively unnoticed.  It is as if the left is collectively struck dumb.

It is about time everyone woke up. The left needs to win artists, cultural producers and critics to its cause. Also, millions of people not directly involved in the production of art spend vast amounts of time and money absorbing it. If you have not got anything relevant to say to them about their art it is unlikely that they will look to you for meaningful insights into anything else.

In case you feel like turning over and going back to sleep, take a peek at the following analysis of some reviews by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and the Socialist Workers Party. If you had no idea of the Trotskyist origins of these two groups, you could read this material and think you were dealing with Stalinists.

Sacha Ismail's review of the television programme The west wing is fairly representative of the left's current cultural output (Solidarity October 20 2005). Its title, 'Great TV, crap politics', encapsulates much of what is wrong with the piece.

The core of the article has comrade Ismail coming to terms with what the author sees as the pro-Democratic politics of the programme's producers. Fair enough. Sprinkled around are some surface attempts at dealing with the aesthetics of The west wing. We are told that "the quality of the show has varied between seasons and episodes, but throughout it has combined high drama and highly amusing dialogue"; and "the high quality of the plots and scripts means that, inevitably, they come up against both the Democratic Party and liberalism's political limits".

But what aesthetically is "high drama"? What is a "high quality" plot or script? Why is it "high quality" and "high drama"? Who defines this quality? What messages do the production 'values' of the show have? So many questions and so little in the way of answers.

It becomes apparent that Ismail is essentially fawning before the aesthetic product on display. He simply does not utilise any of the analytical methods he uses to dissect the programme's politics to cross-examine its production 'values'. We are essentially being sold a narrow political analysis under the guise of a 'cultural review', which has the effect of leaving a large chunk of The west wing's semiotics untouched. Therefore, the next time I sit down to watch, I have been fully armed against its pro-Democratic politics, but I can safely let its bourgeois aesthetics wash over me - it's "great TV", after all.

Laura Schwartz, in her review of last year's Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan, laughably lined up with the 1960s Stalinist/liberal left to suggest that Dylan going electric and singing of disillusionment "amounted to a political betrayal" (Solidarity October 6 2005). No worries for Laura that Dylan (and other interviewees such as Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk) stressed in the aforementioned programme that he was not a political person (in the narrow sense of the word), so this 'political' frame is worse than useless when appreciating his work - there was nothing for Dylan to betray. Any political analysis has to be generated from within the heart of Dylan's aesthetic, otherwise it just offers an alienated picture of an artist's work that is buried by external political demands. In other words, you farcically recreate the left pissing off Dylan in the 1960s.

To be fair, the AWL did subsequently debate this issue (www.workerslib-erty.org/taxonomy/view/or/116) and Schwartz's review has come under some fire. I do not have space here to fully explore this debate, but I would say that Schwartz's interlocutors make many valid points - aesthetic and political. However, the discussion suffers from having to face down its initial political framing. Even having to answer the reductive question of whether Bob Dylan 'sold out' says everything about the tunnel vision of some members of the AWL and nothing about the specifics of the man's art.

The SWP, despite occasional bouts of pseudo-sophistication, is another organisation that appears to have a problematic relation to art. Stephen Phillip has recently assessed the revival of realist conventions in film (Socialist Review March 2006). The piece is a cut above the usual toilet the left produces in that it does exhibit the traces of some theoretical understanding. For instance, Phillip is not using the concept of realism in a prescriptive or narrow sense: "Reproducing images of reality is not the only credible way of showing a truth. There are other modes of storytelling that can also expose the contradictions of social reality."

However, in reference to a renewed interest in the documentary style, he says: "Have audiences had enough of self-referring cinema? They probably want to rip apart the shiny cellophane of modern life and see the world as it really is or ought to be." Phillip adds: "These documentaries have surprisingly reached a theatrical audience, catering for a hunger for direct, immediate, sometimes impassioned and polemical information in an exciting narrative format." In relation to the Direct Cinema documentary movement of the 1960s he draws on an unknown quote relating to its methods: "Watching how things really happen, as opposed to the social image that people hold about the way things are supposed to happen."

The fact that Phillip appears to pass over this quotation without comment suggests the problem lurking in his stance on realism. He seems to see this mode of representation as essentially unmediated by the conscious intervention of the artist ("direct", "immediate", "how things really happen"), although the initial line about seeing "the world as it really is or ought to be" could have been the beginning of a more dialectical analysis. There is ultimately little space in Phillip's musings for the artist or the specific aesthetic he or she employs. Again, we are left with an alienated vision of art and artists in the modern world.

We can also be sceptical about Phillip's theorisation of immediacy and directness in the guise of realism. Even the most impassioned realist cannot establish a one-to-one relation with his or her object. Therefore, it is not so much about artistic creation as a reflection of the object, but, as Trotsky says, it is "a deflection, a changing and a transformation of reality, in accordance with the peculiar laws of art" (The social roots and the social function of literature www.marx-ists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1923/tia23b.htm).

Trotsky's formulation puts the writer in a prime position to do justice to the aesthetic without minimising its social backdrop. Phillip, on the other hand, leaves us with a hopeless theoretical muddle.

I dare say that many on the left would agree with the sentiments of the quote Robert Wilkinson recently used against me in the Weekly Worker, even though they might be less than keen on Mao Zedong: "There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics" (Letters, March 9). Actually, as these things go, I can see Mao's point (although I don't get the impression he was up all night thinking about it). But why do we have to start from such an utterly reductive theory? Why not instead start from Leon Trotsky?

In a speech to a discussion on party policy in the field of imaginative literature in 1924, he debunks such 'leftist' reductionism. Trotsky says that "one cannot approach art as one can politics, not because artistic creation is a religious rite or something mystical "¦ but because it has its own laws of development, and above all because in artistic creation an enormous role is played by subconscious processes - slower, more idle and less subjected to management and guidance". Also, "art has to be approached as art, literature as literature: that is, as a quite specific field of human endeavour. Of course we have a class criterion in art too, but this class criterion must be refracted artistically: that is, in conformity with the quite specific peculiarities of that field of creativity to which we are applying our criterion" (www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1924/art.htm).

Trotsky's suggestive ideas above actually throw up a host of other questions, not least 'What is art?' In a sense, though, this is the wrong question, or at least one that suggests a succession of false answers. It is difficult not to refract this conundrum through a set of images that are handed down to us from early socialisation. For example, an artist is a person in a beret or cravat; a starving iconoclast in a garret; somebody who probably smokes a lot; perhaps a bit posh; and definitely a bit weird.

It would be easy to dismiss such ramblings as an illusion that bourgeois society weaves around the much more prosaic activity of modern cultural workers (even though these ideological impressions have a certain subliminal core of truth in the midst of the illusion). But they do illustrate the dangers of fixing a definition of art from a limited historical field of vision. This mistake is what undercuts the work of a Marxist writer such as Christopher Caudwell, who, as Terry Eagleton observes, reflected a romanticised "bourgeois heritage" through a fixation on poetry as a means of ideal possibility, a projection of how the world could be (T Eagleton Marxism and literary criticism London 1976, p55).

Trotsky's observation that a concept "is not a closed circle, but a loop, one end of which moves into the past, the other - into the future" should be taken as a terse warning against a static reading of the nature (or natures) of art (L Trotsky Trotsky's notebooks, 1933-35. Writings on Lenin, dialectics and evolutionism New York 1986, p78). Nevertheless, art does have a specific set of ontological origins that are worth reflecting on, even if there is not space here to deal fully with its complex genesis and historical evolution.

It is useful in this regard to look at the thought of the mature George Lukács (even though his Aesthetic has never, to the best of my knowledge, been translated into English) and his placing of the aesthetic in the framework of human mental activities.

Lukács observes: "Art in the ontological sense is a reproduction of the process, how man regards his own life in society and nature, with all problems, all principles, etc that determine his life, positively and negatively, referred back to himself. And so art is not somehow separated from its genesis in a disanthropomorphising way" (Theo Pinkus [ed] Conversations with Lukács London 1974, p31). This is tied in with the teleological project of human labour and its social interaction with the natural world.

This reproduction that Lukács talks of gains in complexity as human society progresses, not least because the concept of value becomes ever more intricate as the process of labour develops. Lukács remarks: "It is almost certain that the exquisite old Stone Age paintings found in the south of France and in Spain were really magical preparations for hunting: that these animals were not painted just for aesthetic reasons, but because the men of that time had the idea that a good likeness of an animal meant that [it] could be more successfully hunted. Painting is here still primarily a utilitarian reaction to life, and as human society becomes more socialised painting progresses with it, so that the immediate reproduction of life is already always conditioned in this way" (ibid pp14-15).

It is important to get hold of the idea of art's movement and not to get hung up on the idea of old Stone Age paintings being solely utilitarian. Writers such as Arnold Hauser, although lining up with Lukács on the idea that such paintings had a magical function, have stressed the complexity of prehistoric art, moving it more onto the territory of Trotsky's "deflection" of reality. This perhaps means that rather than being a purely imitative, utilitarian affair, such art had a broader purpose (even Lukács' judgement of "exquisite" suggests such a shift).

However, going back to the main line of argument, in relation to the aesthetic, or any other human activity for that matter, it is wise not to get bogged down into transcendental definitions but rather "we must attempt to investigate conditions in their original forms of appearance, and to see under what conditions these forms of appearance become ever more complicated, ever more mediated" (ibid p15).

On the basis of the above ontological approach, Lukács explains that "only those works of art can endure that are connected, in a broad and deep sense, with the development of humanity as humanity, and are therefore susceptible to the most varied forms of interpretation" (ibid pp33-34). It is worthwhile noting that for Lukács a realist work is not simply one that has merely absorbed more actuality than the non-realist - a common misconception.

To consider again Lukács's above point about the progression of painting in an ever-more socialised human society, it is apparent that in developed capitalist society, with its specialist division of labour, art has institutionalised its original "emancipation from daily practice [which is] similar to "¦ the emergence of the scientific form of reflection" (cited in G Lichtheim Lukács London 1970, p120). To concretise this point we can usefully quote Lichtheim's own summary: "The Eigenart (peculiarity) of aesthetics lies in the circumstance that, at a certain materially conditioned stage of human history, men developed a capacity for interpreting the world in terms that were no longer merely practical or magical (primitive magic being itself an aspect of everyday practicality) "¦ art for Lukács resembles science and philosophy, in that the artist and his public have emancipated themselves from the pressure of crude practical necessity" (ibid p119).

We can also add that with the accumulation of ever more leisure time by workers under capitalism, artistic products are mostly consumed away from the workplace, at a fair distance away from the more prosaic facets of our daily existence. Indeed, many of us define our leisure in opposition to work. This only helps to enforce the particularity of art products and their public reception.

Those of a leftist turn of mind might grumpily suggest that it is not the task of a Marxist to fight for the retention of 'capitalist' specialisms. This view is correct as far as we seek to demystify their practice. However, our main gripe against the rule of the capital is the manner in which it blunts a sensuous appreciation of the manifold differences inherent in things in favour of an abstract universal (exchange value).

Arguably then, the task of the communist should be the democratic exaltation of the art form (or special knowledge) and the manner in which its concretisation away from everyday practicality (although not outside history or, ultimately, the commodity form) can throw up complex issues that shine an angled light back onto our everyday existence. This exaltation of difference, or peculiarity, can only truly be accomplished alongside an idea of totality, in that difference cannot be truly expressed without the axis of a relation to something else. Even if our imaginary leftist friend hates this idea, then we would add that as communists we have to swim in the legacy of art's past. It is impossible to foresee some sort of utopian leap into fully fledged communist art (whatever that might be).

We are stuck then with this issue of aesthetic peculiarity, whether we like it or not. But as with the reviews with which we began this excursion, this peculiarity and complexity is utterly absent from the left's thinking in relation to art. Leftwing writers on cultural affairs are instrumentalist (using art to talk about something else) in the extreme, seeing art merely as an extension of their everyday existence in the 'political' ('politics' as a concept always narrowly circumscribed by a dull, economistic diet of strikes and protests, with 'high' politics occasionally drifting into view as a ghostly piggyback rider).

It is almost as if they can make the aesthetic work for them by scrawling their dreary existence over whatever artefact they are discussing. An artist picking up a review of their work that is written in these terms is of course going to see nothing of his or her conscious artistic struggle, just an alienating whitewash of someone else's 'politics'. Which leaves us back at the stage where the dominance of capitalist exchange values dumped us - the sensuous world becomes imperceptible.

Some of this instrumentalist method has been, for the Trotskyists in particular, a reflection of the left's marginal place in the politics of the 20th and 21st century. Engaged in a battle for survival even to remain on these margins, the Trotskyist left has struggled to put any in-depth ideas out to society as a whole (let alone sophisticated aesthetic ones), instead churning out the most basic propaganda.

However, the economistic nature of much of this output, which means that it always has a bourgeois taint, only serves to endlessly reproduce this battle for survival. It is interesting that the 'official' CPGB, which had a relatively secure place in the working class movement compared with the Trotskyists, was able at times to produce some reasonably sophisticated ideas about art for its audience, even if such ideas were under threat from its own extreme economism and opportunism, and was usually expressed in tension with the reductive aesthetic pronouncements of the Soviet Union and its lackeys in the British movement.

We have seen above how Lukács draws attention to how art preserves anthropomorphic perception (unlike science, which tends to break from such a mode). This reflection, or reference back to the social activity of humans, also has big theoretical problems for the left. The tendency among organised left groups has been to downplay any attempt to put acting, thinking, human subjects at the centre of their politics in favour of mechanistic theories that tend to displace such activity.

As an example, take the 'crisis of expectations' theory that followed Tony Blair's election in 1997. This told us that workers would be disappointed at the lack of radicalism on the part of New Labour after we had 'got rid of the Tories'. In their anger they would move away from Blairism toward the left.

Illiterate nonsense in other words, but a theory avidly peddled at the time by most major sections of the left. If at any point during its formulation its supporters had considered working class subjects as active, thinking beings, capable of reflecting and reacting on their political environment, then this theory would surely have been untenable. Indeed, Blair went out and told the working class to dampen its demands and expectations. But the 'crisis of expectations' theorists ignored this and put their faith into a lack of reforms (which nobody had promised, and no one, apart from the left, expected) prodding an inert and unthinking class automatically into life.

This obliteration of the working class subject (also implicit in the left's mind-numbing discourse about 'ordinary', 'average' workers) has immense problems in the left's interaction with art, where it seems all too easy in criticism to erase the artist consciously reproducing his or her environment in favour of something the left feels comfortable in writing about. In other words, let's put aside Dylan's creative process and get on to the real issue: did the fucker sell out in 1965? Unfortunately, this is just straightforward alienation, mediated through the guise of 'revolutionary' thought. A ghastly outcome.

Which finally brings us on to the manner in which Stalinist practice has influenced the practical cultural work of the left. Of course, Robert Wilkinson thinks he has a point when he accuses me of using 'Stalinist' as an ahistorical term of abuse for something I do not like. However, I think I was pretty careful to write of this infection as a "shade" or "taint". To label the major groups of the British left (mostly Trotskyists of one sort or another) as unadulterated Stalinists, even in terms of one aspect of their existence, would be stupid.

Quickly moving on from Wilkinson's fascinating news that Stalin preferred Balzac to Zola (which I am sure would have been a great comfort to the many cultural workers in the Soviet Union who were persecuted for deviating from the pinhead that was the 'party line'), we should not necessarily be so surprised if Stalinist ideas have influenced the Trotskyists. After all they have, in general, had no problem with absorbing Stalinism's anti-democratic norms - consider the way in which the SWP leadership polices its rank and file.

To move back specifically to the Soviet Union, art revolved around the bureaucracy, a caste that had no means of rationally controlling or understanding society through the practice of democracy, but instead relied on the most puerile subjective manipulation.

The Soviet regime, as it developed under Stalin, was thus a vast edifice of lies. As Lukács argues, "the tragic aspect of Stalin's career was that his own practice "¦ helped to encourage economic subjectivism in the Soviet Union. The 'personality cult' was expressed often enough in Stalin's cavalier attitude to scientific facts and objective laws" (G Lukács The meaning of contemporary realism London 1979, p117).

Thus, the bureaucracy, being set over society, did not know sensuous activity as such and instead set up its own voluntaristic system of 'plan values', whose major source of reference was the bureaucracy's own delusions. But, as Lukács notes, ideology was a good deal more pliable than the field of economics (where even Stalin was pushed into a mealy-mouthed assertion of the need for objectivity). "Art too is governed by objective laws. An infringement of these laws may not have such practical consequences as do the infringement of economic laws; but it will result in work of inferior quality" (ibid).

Therefore, art was a key site in which the bureaucracy attempted to paper over the contradictions between itself and Soviet society, through a banal procession of novels, paintings and films that suggested a perfect harmony between the 'party' and the people in the context of a brutal, irrational dictatorship.

What did this crude instrumentalism achieve? An almost complete alienation of artists, forced to discard any notion of art's emancipation from social necessity - any meaningful reflection/deflection of artists on reality, away from the immediacy of the political, was dangerous for the ruling bureaucracy in that it could suggest a notion of difference beyond the regime's own delusions; and the alienation of its audience, whose residual enjoyment (if anybody did actually enjoy it) of 'socialist realism' was despoiled by its propagandistic, lying face.

The modern British left may have different motives (it is not controlling society, but maintaining a foothold; also, it is not, by and large, a producer of art), but is only reapplying a Stalinist method; a method that denies - and thus alienates - what is specific about art through its historical development.

I am aware of some of the criticisms that could be levelled at this article, the major one being the manner in which I have had to deal briefly with a whole variety of complex issues due to reasons of space. Also, I have, in the main, steered away from discussing specific artistic products. However, I am conscious of the fact that the further development of the left's cultural criticism needs to be based around a concrete discussion of such products. I make no apologies for bending the stick toward theory; all too often, cultural products are discussed by the left with no reference to Marxism's rich theoretical tradition.

Alick West, a theorist of the 'official' CPGB, argued that "culture is a weapon in the fight for socialism. But the truth [depends] on recognition of the greater truth that socialism is a weapon in the fight for culture. For our final aim [is] not the establishment of a political and economic structure, but the heightening of human life" (cited in A Croft [ed] A weapon in the struggle: the cultural history of the Communist Party in Britain London 1998, p1). Maybe not the best slogan or inscription on a banner, but infinitely preferable to the reams of instrumentalist rubbish the contemporary left produces in relation to art.