Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Liberals – Art part IV 110

Manny Thain published an introduction to a workers' party summer school held in Gent, Belgium in 2008. The introduction was reprinted as an article about “Art and revolution” in the May, 2009, Socialism Today magazine (on line at http://www.socialismtoday.org/128/art.html ).

Thain contends that a great upwelling of new art was the result of the revolution in Russia in October of 1917. Unfortunately this was ended by repression once Stalin was in control and “socialist realism” was the only acceptable art style. Thain applauds the theater groups and musicians that Victor Jara toured Chile with to support Salvador Allende and encourage socialism and literacy in that country. He concludes by noting that “Socialism is about freeing up the arts, society and the whole of humanity. It is about creating a world for equal human beings, united and with society’s resources collectively harnessed to allow all people to live life to the full: to run society, to study, travel and create, to invent, enjoy and love. Under those conditions artistic expression, and all other forms of expression, would be totally liberated. Class-based culture, in fact, would give way to human culture. When we talk about art and revolution that is what our revolution is all about.”

In capitalist countries, Thain states that the class system uses arts to manipulate the masses. Obviously art in such cultures is inherently corrupt.

There are some inconsistencies to this fairy tale from Thain. Sergei Rachmaninoff left Russia for good in December of 1917. The czarina's make-up specialist was hunted by a lynch mob that wanted to kill him as an example of what would happen to members of the old order. That make-up specialist, Max Factor, disguised himself with his own make-up and escaped, ultimately establishing himself in Hollywood, where he was greatly appreciated.

So those great artistic days of early Soviet communism were a reign of terror to artists not absolutely in political lock-step with Bolshevism, an historical matter Thain kicks under the carpet. Thain does make the point that there is a central connection between art and political philosophy – the good guys spread politics as Jara did for Allende, for example. The socialist view is that the goals are great but these overweening dictators like Stalin aren't benevolent enough. When a kindly dictator for the people is found, everything turns out right. Such a kindly dictator has not been located since Plato advocated for him.

This idea of art serving the philosophical purposes of the right people is exactly what Philip Yancey wrote in Christianity Today and this blog posted yesterday:

How can a person “waste” time with mere aesthetics -- soothing music, pleasing art, entertaining literature -- when injustice rules the nations and the decadent world marches ineluctably to destruction? Is this not fiddling while Rome burns?
Yancey says that art should ultimately be propaganda for God. Thain says it should ultimately be indoctrination and education of the people.

They are both wrong. The aesthetics of soothing music are not a waste of time. It's a meditation that sharpens the ability to recognize excellence as exhibited by inspired artists. The ability to recognize excellence and appreciate aesthetics makes the person more likely to find and experience catharsis, itself the central peak experience for a westerner, a purification mysteriously indescribable because Aristotle's lecture about it has been lost.

Why is either service to God or to the dictatorship of the masses superior to the purifying fire of catharsis, which burns away the critical character flaw of the observer? The only answer that makes sense is that the propagandist can assume that superiority because the lecture is missing to support the central importance of catharsis.

But the art that accomplishes that goal is not missing. And the artists that create it are not servants of a borrowed philosophy. They are the healers and wisdom-incubators of free people.

Let me give you an example of fiddling while Rome burns and engaging in wasteful, bourgeois entertainment. In the 1920s and 1930s, the English engaged in races between float planes. The planes would take off from their pontoons and fly to a destination and the fastest private float plane was the winner. Isn't this a lark? An inelegant and wasteful activity showing the corruption of the super-rich? In 1929, a great engineer, Sir Henry Royce, offered a particular engine for these float planes, the Rolls-Royce “Supermarine” engine. Each year that engine got more powerful and more reliable.

World War II broke out with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. France fell in May of 1940. Germany had to conquer the island of Great Britain to secure the gains. They never did because they never got air superiority because the English fighters were fast and maneuverable. And that was the result of the marvelous historical deus ex machina of all time, the Rolls-Royce “Merlin” aircraft engine. The Merlin engine, of course, was the direct product of the improvements of the Supermarine engine.

The frivolous technical fun of seaplane races never required the approval of an inquisition or a board of apparatchiks. That's how capitalism survives – constant tinkering and a yen for improvement, an unstated desire for the special elegance of perfection. This sort of energy flows forth from instrumental music and from motion pictures of the wasteful and socially insignificant genre of comedy.

Isn't there a noteworthy pattern here in unplanned societies that value due process yet lack autocratic philosophical dicta?


  1. You know of course, that almost no liberal in america, particularly in Washington, would ever admit they want a benevolent dictatorship. In fact, i will posit that almost no liberals are even aware that this is the logical extension of their political philosophy, at least in US politics.

    something lese regarding liverals and art--they view, insist, that lack of governemtn funding is censorship, and that is completely fallacious. an absence of government funding does not mean an artists is not allowed to produce his own art. he can do it with his own money or other private resources. He can sell it or give it away as much as he wants.

    however, and this relates to today's blog post as well--the christian right love to use federal and state funding to promote their own "art" and discourage others, which is similar to suppression. Given the right political climate, they would completely suppress any opposing ideas in art.

  2. I'm suggesting what was hinted at during the 2008 primaries in the Washington Post in this commentary piece, still available at:


    Sounds like a yen for a benevolent dictator to me.