TOWARD PEOPLE'S STANDARDS IN ART
"Before art can be wholly a weapon for us we must understand art, both the art of the people and the art created and used by their enemies."
By Howard Fast
IN WHAT is certainly one of the most moral tales ever conceived, the weavers come to the vain king--he with such a passion for clothes--and tell him that they can create a suit such as never existed before. Not only will the clothes be beautiful, but they will have the added virtue of being invisible to fools and those unfit for the positions they hold. You know the story, how they weave for weeks with invisible thread, sew invisible cloth, and finally dress the king in invisible clothes; and how no dares admit he cannot see the clothes--for fear of being considered either a fool or unfit for his position-- until a little child among the crowds, who watch the naked king parade, pipes up: "But the king has no clothes on!"
That child was a materialist, as so many children are, and he had not yet learned how to negate the reasonable conclusion and to disprove the evidence of his eyes. But what are we to say of the hundreds who had admired and praised the clothes which were not there? Were they lying, or were they not performing an act which has become second nature in our society? For is it not second nature in this society to see what is not present, to reason in any fashion but logically?
The basis of Marxism is the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism. A Marxist, in bourgeois society, is an iconoclast, an image breaker. He looks at life sanely and perceptibly, seeing things as the are. Very often his reaction must be as naive and as to the point as the reaction of the little child who saw that the king was naked--and certainty those subjective elements which prevented the adults present from speaking must not be a part of Marxist criticism.
With this point of view in mind, how is it that when we come to the realm of art we so often cast science aside and indulge in the worst idealistic and mystical concepts? One must ask whether or not art has any connection with life--with the science of life--with the elements and the struggles of life. If it has, then it is susceptible to a materialist approach. On the other hand, if only idealism could cope with art, it would be hopeless to pursue Marxist inquiry.
Now in a materialist approach toward art, there must be a consideration of worth and achievement, the sum of which is the artistic product itself. For example, a book may he referred to as a work of art, but that is a special title and distinction which we give to a special book. How do we make this distinction? What is art and what is not art? If we line up in a row a hundred books, starting with a very bad one and ending with a very good one, where precisely along that line should a book become a work of art?
The answer is determined by our standards. All human beings have standards of some sort; and all human beings employ standards of criticism. But that is not to say that all standards of all people are equally valid. When we use our standards we may use them most superficially, simply deciding that a book is giving us pleasure, or that a book has annoyed us, or bored us. On the other hand, we may use our standards with far more scientific exactness and far more artistic inquiry. When so doing, we would expect to arrive at some real appraisal of the work and not merely an offhand opinion.
As I said before, different people have different standards. But whatever the standards, they are created by certain objective factors. In the largest sense, standards in art are determined by all factors in a society, but most basically by the economic system and the class structure.
I think it would be a grave error of thinking ever to approach art with the premise that standards are immutable. Standards are as mutable as society itself. And if one accepts the factor of change at all, one must extend that factor to the field of art.
Now, though Marxists will accept, in historical terms, the proposition that the only permanent factor in life is the factor of change itself, many of them hesitate to extend that principle to the values of art. They challenge the mutability of standards with the contention of eternal verities; but how can a dialectical materialist even conceive of such a thing as an eternal verity or eternal value?
IN HIS work on dialectical materialism, Stalin says: "There are different kinds of social ideas and theories. There are old ideas and theories which have outlived their day and serve the interests of' the moribund forces of society. Their significance lies in the fact that they hamper the development, the progress of society. Then there are new and advanced ideas and theories which serve the interests of the advanced forces of society. Their significance lies in the fact that they facilitate the development, the progress of society; and their significance is the greater the more accurately they reflect the needs of development of the material life of society."
One may substitute for "social ideas" the word "standards"--for actually standards are in a very real sense a method of applying social ideas and theories. If you make that substitution, you can paraphrase Stalin at least to this extent:
"There are old standards which have outlived their day and which serve the interest of the moribund forces of society. Their significance lies in that they hamper the development, the progress of society. Then there are new and advanced standards which serve the. interests of the advanced forces of society."
Stalin also says: "New social ideas and theories arise precisely because they are necessary to society, because it is impossible to carry out the urgent task of development of the material life of society without their organizing, mobilizing and transforming action."
Once again, by substituting the word "standards" for "ideas and theories," we have further indication that any immutable approach is dangerous and incorrect.
However, the fact that standards are not eternal, and the necessity for us to he suspicious of standards put forth today by enemies of progress does not mean that art has no objective reality. Nor does it mean that from one generation to another this objective reality changes. We recognize that there are not only objective truths, but that the circumstances of nature have a reality apart from ourselves and apart from our subjective approach; if we do not recognize this, we would indeed be idealists. Therefore, in the light of the above, one must keep in mind that such great works of literature as the Odyssey of Homer, the Bible, and the plays of Shakespeare, to take only three examples, are objectively splendid works of art, and the probability is that, notwithstanding changes brought about by the evolution of society, they will be continued to be considered as such. They are great because the artists who produced them were great, and because those artists expressed in the highest degree possible the objective reality of their time, and because they interpreted that reality in a masterly fashion.
Indeed, one may go so far as to say that the full stature of these three works, and many, many others, will only be appreciated and understood when artistic standards have wholly emerged from the mire in which they are at present--and when thousands of people can apply healthy people's standards to an understanding of those works of art and of the historical context in which they were created.
In other words, although we must accept the fact that there are no immutable and eternal standards, we must also accept the fact that, at various periods in the evolution of society, beautiful objects and fine works of literature were created whose worth is not lessened but rather more fully understood by the transition and development of standards. To reexamine the decadent standards of today is not to cast aside or to disparage the artistic beauty of yesterday.
I said before that the basic factor in the creation of artistic standards is the economic system and the class structure of society. Let me give a more or less obvious example, taken from current trends in publishing. There has been a large flow of capital into twenty-five-cent book publishing. This has increased book readers by the millions. At the same time, because cheap escapist fiction operates as an opiate, the mean artistic level of these reprints sinks steadily lower and lower, and because millions of the people read them, the literary standards of these millions are debased.
OF COURSE one must take into consideration the fact that, before the first twenty-five-cent reprint was sold, a hundred years of capitalism robbed the American masses of many of the elements which go to make high literary standards. The most important element in the creation of high literary standards is a philosophy of life which has an approach to the objective truth. But the philosophy of life fed to the American masses by the ruling class of this country, historically and currently, is a philosophy which obscures the truth, which seeks to prevent the people from ever discovering the truth, which presents to the people the shiny interior of Hollywood sets as the face of America, and the Hearst newspapers as the face of the world.
But if the standards of the masses have been corrupted and are thereby low and capable of even further corruption, what shall we say of the standards of the literary esthetes who rule the highest level of our "modern culture?" I think the best one can say is that in most cases they have no standards at all. Their approach to art has taken on all the aspects of a retreat from life, and avoiding life as carefully as they do, they have a moral fear of putting standards into operation.
They are at a point now where they are entranced by sound. They worship style. Like children, they cavort at cunning phraseology, and their idea of a high intellectual achievement, as practiced for example on "Information Please," is the creation of a second-rate pun. They have adopted a canting and formalized literary phraseology, and they are endowing it with a sacredness very like the ritual of a church. They delight in the resultant confusion because confusion does not place upon them the responsibility of sifting facts for the truth. They are enraged if, perchance, progressive critics should point out that Swinburne wrote revolutionary odes; they value only that part of Swinburne which is sound without meaning, and they value Shelley that way, and Keats too.
One cannot deny that these critical czars have vast material means at their disposal. Each week they coin hundreds of thousands of words of so-called criticism, and with that criticism they establish their own hierarchy of the great, both in practitioners of art and in works of art.
But are their great the people's heroes? Are we Marxists, if, like a herd of sheep, we adopt the attitude of the folk who were silent at the sight of the naked king? Must we fear to express an opinion because we would thereby be considered fools or unfit for the positions we occupy?
I think not. Revisionism in politics taught us a priceless lesson--that the duty of the Marxist to constantly reexamine and reevaluate is a duty he cannot evade. Revisionism in art was brought closely home to us by the hot controversy around Albert Maltz's article. And there, too, I believe, it became apparent that we had neglected the injunction of reexamination placed upon us by our science.
We have accepted too uncritically too many bourgeois idols. In the recent controversy, one fact expressed, but never questioned, was the worth of James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy. Like medievalists, we argued a fantastic notion--whether or not a Trotskyite could create a great work of art--instead of doing what it was incumbent upon us to do as Marxists--going to the work of Trotskyites and reexamining it and reevaluating it.
We are in a new period. We face new tasks, many of them graver than any of the tasks we have faced in the past. Old judgments are only sound when we have tested them and, as artists, we must begin anew to test and to appraise.
It is not enough for us to point out that Henry James was brought forward by certain elements for their own purposes. We must go to the works of Henry James and bring to them a Marxist evaluation, and discover why he is being used by the Trotskyites, why Dostoievsky is being used by them, why Isherwood and Evelyn Waugh are current heroes of a certain literary set. It is not enough to call Koestler names. We must analyze him, and take him apart so thoroughly that the rottenness of the whole fabric of his work is revealed.
There must be no mystical carpet upon which we dare not tread. We must get over this notion of thinking that art is a sacred region wherein we cannot act as materialists. Such an approach toward art is a philistine approach. The setting of art apart from life is a philistine action. And if there are philistine elements among American Marxists, as undoubtedly there are, these are not due to a preoccupation with art but rather to a separation from art, and thereby a lack of understanding of the role of art and the role of artists.
IT IS no easy thing to be a dialectical materialist. It means that one sets his face against the blackest curtain of deception this world ever knew. The materialist thinks differently from the idealists and the mystics. He sees the world differently. He believes in the working class, and the strength and the vitality of the working class, and he believes in the historical role of the working class in leading the people to socialism. He believes in the Soviet Union, and he believes in socialism. And, most of all, he believes in people, in the human being.
Through the very nature of his belief, the materialist faces a great contradiction when he approaches art. It is true that, under socialism, most of the material values of capitalism, such as housing, cars and refrigerators, will be preserved and used, and those material values would not be so different under socialism; they would simply be extended to ever wider areas of the population. In the realm of art and ideas, however, a far greater replacement of the old by the new would take place. However, the art of former decades will not be destroyed. The best of it will be understood and used.
Yet we today, in the midst of the struggle, must not forget that the bulk of modern writing is not created by the working class or by friends of the working class. We very often have reason to remember that much of it is created by enemies of the people, enemies of progress, enemies of all that we believe in, and by and large those enemies control the critical standards of today.
Are their standards our standards? Can they ever wholly be our standards? Today, our standards and their standards occasionally will coincide--on a Walt Whitman, for example. But what was the attitude of those people toward Walt Whitman in his day, during his life? They attacked him and slandered him, and even today you cannot read critical journals without finding regular attacks on Whitman, supercilious and snide commentaries on Whitman, and scholarly investigations of the "dubious worth" of Whitman.
Did these makers of standards approve of Uncle Tom's Cabin? Did they consider Vachel Lindsay a poet of any consequence? Did they not malign Dreiser and say that he was a buffoon presuming to art? Did they not condemn Jack London to the hall of mediocrity? Did they not fairly successfully expunge Frank Norris from our literary memory? Did they not deride Upton Sinclair, the early Sinclair whose socialist novels were so magnificent? Do they not to this day, place a blanket denial on the literary worth of most of the contemporary Russian novelists?
What is their attitude toward the social writer of today? What will be their attitude toward the social novelists of tomorrow?
We cannot depend on them, on their concept of artistic truth or worth, on their emasculated standards. Marxists cannot pursue art in terms of sound or form alone. We must approach art with open eyes. We must approach it freshly, and we must no longer fear it. Before art can be wholly a weapon for us we must understand art, both the art of the people and the art which the enemies of the people create and use in one fashion or another to keep the people in subjugation. And, so long as we confuse these two, the people's art and the art created by the enemies of the people, so long as we bow to the decadents, to the mystics, to the cheap literary frauds, art will not be the weapon we want it to be, and the great people's art, which is an American promise to the world, will not come into being.
Art is part of life; it is the highest reflection of life, the noblest reflection of life. The art we embrace comes from the people and, at the same time, it is a gift to the people. The people are not grateful for gifts from fascists and other enemies of mankind. Such gifts are not art by our standards. The people take no profit from such gifts. Only death or the seeds of death are sown by such gifts. Even as the people must some day destroy the last seeds of fascism, so must they reject "art" which leads away from life and toward stagnation.
And when they do so, a new art will emerge, a people's art, judged by people's standards.
This article was one of the papers read at the "Art as a Weapon" symposium held on April 18 at Manhattan Center in New York.