China Miéville’s talk on “Guilty Pleasures: Art and Politics,” delivered at Socialism 2012, points socialists in some interesting directions as regards our critique of art. As there have been some interesting arguments on Facebook recently that I’ve participated in – particularly around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but also things like Homeland which I’ve written lengthy critiques of before – I thought now would be a good time to remind everyone, including myself, of the outlines of China’s critique.
China says that one axis of our appreciation of art (for which term, let’s include every cultural product regardless of medium or quality, just for the sake of utility) is the political worldview a certain piece of art has underlying it. As socialists, we are particularly sensitive to this category for obvious reasons. We know, for instance, that art is never politically value-neutral in class society. It can reinforce patterns of class, gender or racial/national domination, and in capitalist society most of the assumptions of artists as a special breed of intellectuals have this effect on their work.
At the same time, however, another piece of art can propose a politics of liberation in a broad or narrow sense. Most art doesn’t lie entirely on one side or another of this axis, but somewhere in between based on countervailing pressures of the official ideologies or Gramscian “common sense” and the equally common notions the oppressed or exploited have pointing toward their liberation.
It is common for socialists to recognize a particular piece of art embeds politics of oppression in some way or another. There are two typical responses to this.
The first is we can swear off any art that does this, condemn it and refuse to appreciate whatever relative merits it may have. Logically, this position tends to reduce itself to absurdity. I have seen some leftists write that they refuse to watch The Wire because the worldview it embeds is based on a strange breed of Fabianism which believes structures of domination such as the police department can be reformed with the right people put in charge.
As a result, I think that more often than not this reductive, agitational position is only in very rare cases completely consistent. Because all art, or nearly all art, in class society reflects the influence of systems of domination, to embrace it completely means we wouldn’t ever be able to enjoy anything that doesn’t spring fully-formed from the mind of a revolutionary socialist.
This means concretely, I think, that people who embrace this position are highly selective about where they apply it. The consequences of this can look somewhat bizarre. In the past couple months I have heard a person condemn the film Lincoln because it doesn’t include any black characters and in the next breath claim Django Unchained as an anti-racist masterpiece – despite the fact it reduces the talented tenth to the talented ten millionth in the case of the title character, while the only other options for slaves laid out were to be completely passive or to actively collaborate with the slaveowners, as in the case of Samuel Jackson’s character.
I say this without accusing anyone in particular, because my appreciation of art has been equally deterministic at times. Well after I had transitioned from scifi and fantasy geek to revolutionary socialist, I looked back on my youthful infatuation with the work of Tolkien as a particularly regrettable part of my past. The homage to feudal, courtly values paid in every page of his work kept me from seeing the reasons I’d once appreciated the professor – his wonderful devotion to world-building, rightly so influential, and his keen sense of adventure, romance and myth which has made him a hero to generations. It was only after reading pieces by China and John Molyneux that I was able to arrive at a nuanced appreciation of The Lord of the Rings, long cherished books and movies that I had rejected.
So what I’m saying in other words is that a perspective that uses the axis of “progressive/reactionary” as its main determinant is more often than not applied incredibly selectively. This works both ways, jumping from politics to quality and from quality to politics. We might assume a work is bad because we find its political worldview distasteful, as in the example I gave of my changing appraisal of Tolkien.
I have had less success thinking of an example of the reverse, since fiction with an agitational purpose is usually only interesting in how it fails. I have never been particularly fond of Upton Sinclair, the socialist author most famous for The Jungle. As someone smarter than me once said, allegorical fiction (which includes agitational fiction) is hard to take seriously, because even its own characters realize what they’re doing isn’t real. (Of course, this only really applies in fiction. Poetry, theater, music etc. I don’t think are forced to abide by the same limits.)
So if we don’t like a film or a book, this may have a conditioning effect on how we see it politically – it will probably be negative. Similarly, the reverse is true: art we do like can be discovered to have good politics on a somewhat shaky basis.
An example. I really enjoy Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I think the books are very entertaining and am glad in a general sense that a series that speaks so unabashedly for women’s liberation – even using force – has had such an effect on mass consciousness. At the same time as a revolutionary socialist (which Larsson was as well at one point in his life, being a member of the Swedish section of the Fourth International) I find the absence of any notion of collective struggle rather disturbing for a work of its nature, as I do with storylines that put the main characters in the position of collaborating with “progressive” people in the Swedish state apparatus against its own security forces and the far right.
I also don’t happen to think that as art, Millenium ever really rises much above the level of pulp – a fact due in no small part to the central character, Mikael Blomqvist, who seems to me a male fantasy rendered in a very unfeminist way. Somewhat oddly, I seem to agree more with the hypersectarian World Socialist Website on this than my own organization. Even if they are a scab operation run by half-psychotic scum, broken clocks and so forth.
In a conversation I had with some comrades and other general left-leaning folks a while ago, I mentioned these things when the subject of Millennium came up. One comrade whose company I’ve always cherished had the most curious response, the gist of which was that Lisbeth Salander’s lovingly described vigilantism had a progressive purpose because in the context of the books she stood in for the working class. I found it hard to formulate a response to this.
But I digress. The other axis of our chart is quality in the most general sense. Obviously the judgment of quality is a very subjective affair, the reasons for which I’m not very interested in. We can get around this by dealing in terms of works whose quality or appeal is generally recognized, which I’ll get to in a second.
Laying emphasis on the axis of quality over the axis of politics also leads in some strange directions. The most popular one we are very familiar with. Something like this: I like x even though x is reactionary, rightwing, reinforces power relationships of class/gender/race-nation-ethnicity. Obviously this can be a legitimate response to the distorting impact of relying overly much on the political axis. But I would argue its effect is just as distorting.
To return to the example of Tolkien, I have heard people who are generally very leftwing absolutely refuse to consider the reactionary attitudes to women and non-Europeans in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was on the record about this: “they [orcs] are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (It’s less often recognized that the dwarves are in part an equally racist caricature: they represent the Jews, who in Tolkien’s mind had an irrational love for gold, spoke their own languages and never really tried to fit in with the larger society around them.)
There may be hardly any women, and orcs may represent a more than vaguely Sinophobic caricature, it’s said, but why should that detract from our appreciation of it as a text. I think to argue this is to place a barrier in between ourselves and a true appreciation of Tolkein’s universe – which surely requires us to appreciate the mind of the creator and how it was affected by the surrounding class society with all its prejudices. To say this doesn’t involve the intentional fallacy, the application of which by postmodernists has tended to turn a useful piece of advice into its opposite.
What I’m arguing for in short is a holistic revolutionary socialist approach to art and culture. This is very much in the tradition of literary revolutionaries like Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lukács, Brecht and Benjamin, who argued that the understanding of the conditions of production for any work of art was key to the understanding of the work of art itself. Neither the political critique can be allowed to trump the critique of quality, or vice versa in this form of inquiry.
I’ve been overusing it lately, but I think the phrase “concrete analysis of concrete conditions” put forward by Lukács is really the secret of the Marxist method, which includes all criticism, but specifically for us cultural criticism. So we have – the concrete analysis of concrete art.
One example I find incredibly useful, raised by China in his talk, is that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On the one hand, this is a wonderful book, in my opinion among any reasonable “top ten” of English-language literature in the modern era. On the other hand, Conrad explicitly intended his book as a plea for the “enlightened colonialism” of Britain, his adopted homeland (a point of view given voice repeatedly by Marlowe, the narrator) as against the supposedly more savage rule of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo.
Heart of Darkness is a work of such importance that using just one or the other axis of critique I have outlined will not suffice. This has not stopped the literary and political left, however, from praising it as a work of literature while pointing to the supposedly limiting conditions of its imperialist politics, a critique advanced much by Chinua Achebe and other postcolonial African writers.
What China says about Heart of Darkness is that we should consider another avenue of critique. As the novella is a product of a colonial culture, what were the things that made it compelling in a society whose common sense regarded colonialism as a positive? In other words, Heart of Darkness may be compelling precisely because of its reactionary stand on colonialism. Form and function are, after all, united in a dialectical whole – which should get us to consider that Conrad’s book is compelling for the same reasons it is politically reactionary.
The water gets even more muddied, however, if we take a closer look. At the same time that Conrad’s implied author is a proponent of colonialism, the characters and events in his own novel revolt against this view. Much has been speculated about the character of Mr. Kurtz, whose brilliance is told of from the beginning of the book, but when he appears, he barely says anything. I refer most of all to line that is as famous as it is misunderstood: “The horror… the horror!” (Part of the misunderstanding is of course based on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which seems to adapt the novel only in how Coppola misinterprets every part of it in the most systematic way one could imagine.)
Now as someone who loves Heart of Darkness, what I understood Kurtz means by “the horror” is not the horror of the darkness and barbarity he has been reduced to in the “savage” Congo – it is his realization that the comfortable, sedentary bourgeois way of life he enjoyed back in Europe is based on the systematic acts of exploitation and barbarism he engaged in as a colonial official in Africa. Surely one could not ask for a better literary condemnation of the system of imperialism, even if it is only implied.
Lukács was noted for his view that literature was only progressive if it exposed the dynamics of the whole society – the capitalist system as an internally mediated totality. Based on this notion, he tended to reject all forms of literary expression outside realism as reactionary. His view has often been reduced to the point of caricature – it is never noted, for example, that in the context of the struggle against fascism, Lukács’ view was linked to an attempt to salvage Enlightenment rationalism, something that he thought for better or worse was part of the Marxist heritage. Nevertheless, his views did incline to a certain purism which was not helped by his embrace of Stalinism – see for example his incredibly unsubtle denunciations of writers of such stature as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Rabindranath Tagore.
I don’t mean to comment on the long-running debate between Lukács and Brecht – I’m not sure I fully understand it, although Brecht’s notions seem closer to my own impressions of the truth. But Lukács’ notion that we can judge art in terms of how it exposes the totality of social relations strikes me as a useful guideline or at least a reminder of what good art can accomplish. It is also a useful corrolary of Marx’s and especially Engels’ own views on art – that good political art does not accomplish its point through propagandizing, but through subtle subversion of the existing social relations. This incredibly hard goal has only been reached by a very few political authors, among whom I might mention China himself.
Another way of putting the case is the following. We would never have to think about art in a nuanced political way if there were no good fascist artists. Which is of course not the case. To restrict ourselves to literature alone, there have been some wonderful authors of the far right. Some of these, off the top of my head, are Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Knut Hamsun, Gabriel D’Annunzio and Yukio Mishima.
To describe their art as an intervention in society – that is, political in a fundamental sense – should not stop us from appreciating what they do, and especially how they do it. Trotsky’s essay on Céline (some excerpts here) pointed to the contradictions inherent in the author’s worldview, as shown in his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Trotsky concluded that the disgust with the hypocrisy and barbarism of bourgeois society that drips from every page of Journey could go one of two ways. Céline would either see the light of revolution, or he would adapt himself to the night. We know it retrospect which way this played out.
The question of fascist art might be a bit of a heavy example to use. So I will end with considering a different one – that of cultural kitsch, especially in its reaction to the war on terror. I mean primarily Homeland, which I seem to keep coming back to in my writing.
From my perspective, Homeland is an enjoyable show. It is not great art, but so little TV is. TV is functional – it is meant to entertain and explain at a very basic level. This Homeland does admirably. I see it as very compelling and interesting even as I recognize what it does is to reinforce and justify the intervention of the US government into foreign countries and its repression of native Arab and Muslim communities – it’s fundamentally racist and imperialist, which I would hope would be obvious.
Unfortunately if you praise the merits of a show in this genre among socialists, in my experience, you tend to get accused of sharing some of its values or at least ignoring them. This is very different from what I’m trying to do. At a fundamental level, most cultural products of the Homeland variety share the same values. But surely we should have a bit more to say about them than “that’s racist” or “that’s imperialist”? Shouldn’t these declarations (perfectly true, mind) be followed by some sort of exploration of how racism, imperialism, etc are perpetuated?
This brings up something else, very important I think, in China’s guidelines. The idea of art as a “guilty pleasure,” he says, whether the guilt comes from bad politics or poor quality, is fundamentally dishonest. There is no real guilt in pleasure, excepting the kind that is staged and performative in the declaration of a “guilty pleasure.”
It’s related to the tendency among people – not just socialists – to take something amiss when someone else disagrees on cultural and artistic preferences. All to quickly, a civil discussion on x cultural product can turn into something along the lines of “You don’t like x? You bastard!” (or, of course, the reverse, which I have experienced). Something which, as China says all too rightly, is an expression of commodity fetishism – to prove his point, many of us hissed during his talk when he mentioned he dislikes The Wire.
One caution I have here is against sort of relativism that China’s critique implies. As an example, I think there are some really great left-wing movies out there: Reds, Matewan, Norma Rae all come to mind. Would it be a complete distraction to believe that some of their appeal comes from the very clear way in which they propose a politics of liberation? I think this would be to miss the point in a pretty major way. The reverse of this is, as China mentions, that if all your favorite books are written by fascist authors, it likely says something about your worldview.
I don’t mean all this to be systematic, much less advisory in any way. I would only offer my hope for a deeper and more systematic critique of all art on an intelligent political basis. Conclusions can be drawn as the result of further conversation.