Art Matters

by D. Firebrand

Revolutionary Worker #1206, July 6, 2003, posted at

"Artists are slowly being forced to realize that they have to speak on what matters, because whatever they speak on becomes matter."

- Saul Williams

"The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable."

- Arundhati Roy

Even before the global resistance movement against the deeply unjust U.S. war on Iraq took the stage of history, a growing chorus of artists and public figures found their voice, inspiring and articulating for millions. Quite a few had spoken out registering their opposition early.

In a certain sense, those of prominence who spoke out helped by creating space for resistance, heralding what was to become a massive opposition against the war. An exciting dynamic developed between the masses and the artists, many of whom were acting as true voices of the people.

There was speaking out and there was making art. Thousands of artists and prominent figures signed public statements, spoke out at demonstrations, wrote articles and editorials, made television commercials, debated right-wing boob-tube fanatics--seizing countless opportunities to make it known to millions they were opposed to the war and supported the resistance.

A stinging clampdown hit hard at those who dissented. We are all too familiar with the now infamous statement by the President's press secretary that people should "watch what they say." It was considered "un-American" to criticize the government and oppose the war. And it was said that it was not the "celebrity's duty" to speak on issues of society, since they are just entertainers.

Just before the war began, Martin Sheen wrote, "Although my opinion is not any more valuable or relevant merely because I am an actor, that fact does not render it unimportant."

* * *

"Their actions had repercussions then and will likely have more now."

-- Liza Porteus (Fox News)

There is a cold wind blowing in America. An artist who is known to millions for their creativity, honesty, imagination, and integrity can essentially be branded an enemy of the state. It does not go unnoticed by the people when their artists have a sincere dedication to them, not only putting great care and thought into the quality of the art, but also struggling over the effect and influence on the audience.

There has been controversy, with debate continuing in society overall and among the artists themselves. On their current sold-out tour the Dixie Chicks wore T-shirts with the message F U T K, as an obvious expletive to country singer Toby Keith, whose pro-war song was promoted by the bourgeoisie. Madonna, who ended up pulling her music video for "American Life"--which ridiculed Bush, the war, and American consumption culture--spoke sharply to the irony that the U.S. claims to fight for democracy around the world but "ultimately [isn't] celebrating democracy here. Because anybody who has anything to say against the war or against the president or whatever--is punished." Sean Penn never apologized for travelling to Iraq three months before the invasion. In fact, Penn took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times in which he defended his decision to go to Iraq and his right to criticize the government.

Harry Belafonte, who is one of the most successful singers of all time, got himself into a spirited war of words with Colin Powell when he said that the Secretary of State was a "House Negro." Most recently Belafonte read a statement by Mumia Abu-Jamal at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; the last people to be legally executed by the state based on political belief and association. In the event program, Belafonte had the following quote in his bio: "The role of art isn't just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be."

And that brings us to the heart of the debate, over the role of art in society and the responsibility of artists.

At this very moment a powerful resistance is necessitated to beat back the government's repression and moves towards a police state. We need all the creativity and collective imagination unlocked from millions of people to make this happen--and artists can carve out space for that to take off.

Truly great art, in its many manifestations and mediums, takes people to new places, opening space for them to dream. Art gives full flight to the imagination, even enabling people to see and feel what may not actually be possible in the material world. Art and culture are social phenomena, and as such cannot be correctly understood abstractly or in a vacuum. A culture of resistance can establish different values and morals, lifting people's sights and breaking open new space. This is desperately needed right now.

* * *

"Art not only influences politics tremendously but there is also a sharp struggle in the realm of art over what will be produced, what will be supported, and there are many different ways that the bourgeoisie, the ruling class, has of controlling art. In fact, in the U.S. at this time, they prefer to do it without having to show a heavy hand to the degree that this is possible. They prefer to do it by pretending to have pluralism just as they pretend to have it in the political sphere--that there is no political character, no class character to our art, just different viewpoints, expressing people's different ways of looking at the world."

- Bob Avakian, "Art and Politics," Jan. 28, 1983

Lately that fa‡ade of democratic pluralism has shown its true self as the strong arm of the state has come down against those who dissent. When you look closely, and dissect what the "powers that creep" object to, you will see that it is not the mere existence of artists who do speak out and make art. It is not the fact that they speak out, but the content of what they say.

There have been a few lines of attack thrown at the artists. In an effort to discredit their right to speak it was basically said that celebrities are stupid and don't know what they're speaking about. It was implied that they should keep their mouths shut and keep themselves in Hollywood. Many of the right- wing commentators who put this out implied that because the artists lived comfortable lives it was arrogant to tell people what to think. Given that thugs like right-wing TV personality Bill O'Reilly make millions of dollars by lying, manipulating the news, attacking those who speak out, and really knowing nothing about the world, this claim was almost too much to take seriously.

Another line went after the artists by saying that one cannot criticize the government or the president in a "time of crisis." This is particularly insidious given that the words "traitor" and "treason" have been thrown around repeatedly.


"[I]t is part of the magic of art that we can do in this sphere what is not yet realizable in the sphere of material social relations. Lending material expression to our dreams in the form of artistic works will contribute to laying the basis for these fundamental social transformations we aspire to."

- Ardea Skybreak

The youth gravitate towards the artists who espouse oppositional beliefs and understandings of reality. Further, great artists take what people know and lead them to places they may not have known, or had previously only seen from one viewpoint. It can be revealing to see reality upside down or inverted.

I do not argue that it is just the artists and celebrities who make the "real" difference. That runs counter to everything a revolutionary understanding of art should be. Almost six billion strong, the masses of people are the makers of history. But art is needed for the masses to change the world.

In addition to being a necessary source of sustenance in the lives of people, art has a tremendous influence on our outlook, perspective and ability to dream. Do not underestimate the role that art plays in the rearing of people in any society; it is the lifeblood and sustenance upon which people come to depend. Objectively, it plays that social role in life. It has in mine and it has in yours.

The ruling class and its maniacal mouthpieces in the media work overtime to keep the people in this country ignorant about the rest of world. In many ways their "war on terrorism" is a new barrier they have erected between the masses here in this country and the people of the world.

We need art that illustrates the humanity of people across oceans and through borders. We need art that cherishes a rebellious and questioning spirit. We need art that emboldens people to stand up. This is essential to developing the culture of resistance and bringing forward a revolutionary people who can actually go up against all that is coming down from the system. This is what we need now. Exactly at the time when the government is calling upon the allegiance of vast sections of the people, aiming to cow the people's artists and voices of conscience, we need audacious and daring works. We need pieces to offer new insight and inspiration on what was, what is... and what could be.

The culture of resistance needs to be greatly expanded and deepened. We also need to defend the artists when they come under attack from the powers that be. This is a responsibility of the people to the artists.

The urgency of this moment cannot be exaggerated. There is a crying need for a new wave of people's artists to join those who are already out there. The repressive apparatus of the state, its encompassing snitch culture, and America-First-ism has not been etched into stone. Not yet. In trying to flatten everyone in their path the ruling class has a difficult task ahead of them: the efforts to police art and culture could backfire, becoming the impetus for an incredible culture of resistance to flourish and spread.

Author's Note:

In this article I have spoken of two separate but related activities. The first is the actual process of creation, in which the artist's most important responsibility is to make art. The second is the political stands taken and positions spoken on when the artists raise their real voices on issues and societal matters.

I plan on getting into these and other related topics in these pages in the near future. This includes not only the creation of resistance art for the people, but also the question of consciously bringing forward and engendering revolutionary artists, most especially from the new generation. This means not waiting until a revolutionary society is the order of the day, but undertaking that process now.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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