Art and Revolution:
Continuing the Conversation
Revolutionary Worker #1065, August 6, 2000
On September 11, 1999, theater artists staged an evening of performance and discussion at the Public Theater in New York City. It was the first in the theater's series called "Artists and Activism" and was held on the occasion of Mumia 911, the National Day of Art to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The director of the Public, George C. Wolfe, said in a press release that "the genesis for this series came from a discussion I had with [actor] Danny Hoch" who had asked for help in staging an event for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Wolfe said he was "interested in how Danny and a group of other well respected and very diverse artists-including [actor] Ossie Davis, [comedy group] Culture Clash and [playwright] Naomi Wallace-came to be involved in this cause." The Public Theater focused the series on artists "who are creating work that addresses the world and takes on such issues as race, class and politics." The theater's press release posed these questions:
•_How and why do artists choose to become political and attach themselves to certain public concerns?
•_The consequences of art and activism: What happens when they are in conflict with one another?
•_What responsibility might artists have to adhere to their political beliefs when doing so might be in opposition to the demands of their careers?
On September 11 at the Public, a wonderful and engaged evening of theater and discussion took place, also involving poets Sonia Sanchez and Martin Espada, playwright Keith Antar Mason, and the performance ensemble Universes. The questions raised by the Public forum are still with us, and I wanted to take a look at them from a revolutionary communist perspective.
"Art can take our unexpressed thoughts and desires and fling them with clarity and coherence on the wall, a sheet of paper, or against the silence of history."
Some time after the Public Theater event, I found this comment from poet Adrienne Rich at the front of a book of artworks marking the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg -two communists accused of spying for the Soviet Union in the repressive political years of the 1950s. The book is filled with moving images, a few created before the executions, but the majority produced later, many as part of a 1988 exhibition.*
As I turned the pages, an alarm went off. I do not want to hold in my hands a book of art mourning the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. I believe that stopping this execution is one of the truly pressing issues of the day which artists should "attach themselves to" -raising our voices and creating the art which quickens the pulse and inspires millions to prevent this crime.
And in fact, as George C. Wolfe noted, many artists have already been moved by Mumia's story and have acted in defiance of the authorities to take part in the urgent struggle to stop his execution.
In a WBAI broadcast related to the National Day of Art, actor Danny Glover said, "Though we're artists and we're considered creators, we are also citizens, and I believe we have to be engaged and involved in what happens in our community, what happens in the nation and in the world."
Mumia's case has drawn the attention of so many artists because of the many crucial issues intersecting here. A central matter for me is that revolutionaries should not be killed for their political beliefs. But even if one is not a revolutionary, it should be clear there are grave consequences for all of society if the U.S. power structure can railroad resisters and revolutionaries to death.
People need to think about what it would mean for a Black political prisoner and revolutionary journalist to be executed at the start of a new millennium in America. The stain that such an occurrence would leave on the society can be appreciated by looking at how deep the Rosenberg execution impacted by chilling the atmosphere and setting social and ideological terms for more than a decade -until the revolutionary upheavals of the 1960s disturbed the air, challenging the decrepit rules and mores.
Mumia has also inspired the youth with his courage in the face of extreme oppression. And among those who have come to know the truth about his case, there is a profound sense that the fate of Mumia Abu-Jamal concentrates a lot about the fight for the future.
Last year, hundreds of artists signed a pledge for Mumia 911, the National Day of Art to Stop the Execution of Mumia: "...We will not stand by as they try to silence a journalist known to many as the 'Voice of the Voiceless'. We will stomp the earth, lift our voices, write, sing, act and paint the walls. We will create a culture of resistance to stop the killing of Mumia Abu-Jamal."
In the months to come, I think the promise of this pledge needs to be carried forward in even more powerful ways by artists, individually and collectively-through raising our public voices and through the art itself.
And for me this is one vital part of a whole culture of resistance.
But even as many artists desire to act, it's a challenge to figure out how to manifest as artists around Mumia-and all the injustices of this high-tech nightmare society-in a way that will move people and will impact profoundly on public opinion.
Acting on one's heartfelt political views and creating great art is presented as an antagonistic conflict in this society. For example, a central issue in the arts today is whether or not art that has a strong viewpoint against social inequality suffers in some way as art. Even very radical artists are torn up about this.
Artists who attempt to address questions from a resistance or revolutionary perspective are often sent to the "political art ghetto" and their works treated like "medicine" by the media. This is a very fashionable way that the establishment attempts to suppress such work, regardless of its artistic power. This was the fate of two amazing films produced last year, Beloved and Cradle Will Rock. And it's a crime that the critics and industry denied these films a chance to find their audience.
In fact, art that is informed with a strong revolutionary point of view is the kind of art the people need in order to collectively transform the world.
Art that deals with profound social questions from a revolutionary viewpoint can be complex and subtle, rich in metaphor and varied in form. It can inspire people with the most lofty vision and do so in ways that unleash the imagination, together with giving people a really deep understanding of reality and the means for changing it. And people really want this kind of art-witness the popularity of Bob Marley, The Clash, and Rage Against the Machine.
The term "political art" is often thrown around to refer to socially conscious work, whether to disparage or praise. But this term tends to muddy the waters because in fact all art, whether it's weak or powerful, revolutionary or reactionary, realistic or abstract, subtle or blatant has a political character to it-in the sense that it ultimately expresses the viewpoint of one class or another and one way or another of viewing how society is and how it ought to be. This is because works of art are the product of the brains of the artists, and everyone on earth has a political outlook.
Lu Xun, the great revolutionary Chinese writer of literature and essays, put it this way:
"To live in a class society yet to be a writer who transcends classes, to live in a time of wars yet to leave the battlefield and stand alone, to live in the present yet write for the future-this is sheer fantasy. There are no such people in real life. To try to be such a person is like trying to raise yourself from the ground by tugging at your own hair-it can't be done."
THE DIFFERENT ROLES OF ART AND POLITICS
But creating powerful works of art from a revolutionary viewpoint is not easy. This is in part because art is different from politics. By politics here I mean the class struggle, the struggle over social, political and economic conditions-the struggle over which class runs society. And while all art has a political viewpoint, art plays a different social role than politics per se.
Mao Tsetung said: "Although man's social life is the only source of literature and art and is incomparably livelier and richer in content, the people are not satisfied with life alone and demand literature and art as well. Why? Because, while both are beautiful, life as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life. Revolutionary literature and art should create a variety of characters out of real life and help the masses to propel history forward. For example, there is suffering from hunger, cold and oppression on the one hand, and exploitation and oppression of man by man on the other. These facts exist everywhere and people look upon them as commonplace. Writers and artists concentrate such everyday phenomena, typify the contradictions and struggles within them and produce works which awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment. Without such literature and art, this task could not be fulfilled, or at least not so effectively or speedily."**
There's a lot to chew on here for artists in a new millennium.
Powerful art can transform the way people think about the world, but art cannot attempt to replace politics or fall into being propaganda-dispensing information or analysis which could be better done in an article or speech. When art tries to do this, you know it-the politics are usually rendered less profound and the art is hard to sit through.
In other words, art is a different mode of human communication and experience, with its own dynamics.
And, as we all have experienced, it is a part of life that people greatly need and desire. This has something to do with one of the qualities of human beings-what RCP Chairman Bob Avakian has called our capacity for "awe and wonder, the imagination, and 'the need to be amazed.'" He says: "Communism will not put an end to-nor somehow involve the suppression of-'the need to be amazed.' On the contrary, it will give much greater, and increasing, scope to this. It will give flight on a much grander scale to the imagination, in dialectical relation with-and in an overall sense as a part of-a systematic and comprehensive scientific method for comprehending and transforming reality."
Capitalism, by contrast, for all its trumpeting of free speech and the exalting of the individual's right and duty to express themselves, has perfected a thousand means for shackling the artist's imagination-especially when it comes to telling the stories of the proletarian people.
And the people really need to have our stories told through art. It is a vital part of how people come to know and change reality. To deny that art should deal with matters of historic import in a partisan way is tantamount to denying the existence of the people who must endure this very harsh reality.
There is a lot of class bias in the position that says art should be "non-partisan."
ART AND ACTIVISM
The second question posed by the Public asks: what happens when art and activism are in conflict with each other?
To change the world the people need revolutionary movements-and revolutionary war. And the people also need revolutionary art.
Artists have always been intensely involved with changing (or defending) the social order of their time. Horace Tapscott, the late great jazz pianist, said, shortly before his death in February 1999, that artists and musicians "all through the ages, when laws and times have changed, have been part of it somehow or another and in some way or form. You've got to have a song. Got to have something to dance to. You've got to have something to build up your courage, or your belief in yourself."
Or, as director Peter Sellars has said, if art is not relevant to the people, what good is it!
Art helps prepare the ground for people to change the world-sometimes very directly and sometimes in a more subtle way.
But creating works of art on one hand and participating in the political movements on the other, often poses a problem for the artists, because art takes much time and energy to create. And it is a struggle to stay connected to the people.
As Mao has said, a work of art must be more intense and concentrated-it cannot passively reflect or just "report" life. When an artist devotes the considerable time necessary to the creation of this kind of work-and to its production-this often means working alone or in collaboration with other artists and specialists.
Breaking through the barriers of corporate control and reaching a wide audience with challenging work is a huge struggle -as Danny Hoch discussed in a recent article in The Nation about trying to get his work on television and film. And, even if an artist is able to break through the barriers and get work that challenges the system produced and distributed, it takes intense strategizing to make sure this is done as much as possible in a way that serves the people. It's like swimming against the tide in a sea of sharks.
Mao also said that revolutionary artists have the work of creation to do but that their primary task is to "understand people and know them well... If you want the masses to understand you, if you want to be one with the masses, you must make up your mind to undergo a long and even painful process of tempering."
In short, given the way this society is set up, it is a challenge for artists to stay in touch with the people and to create rich work which serves to "propel history forward."
To solve these problems, I believe we need to raise the level of debate and discussion about art and politics. Artists must come together to thrash out these difficult questions.
The Artists Network of Refuse & Resist!, of which I am a founding member, was brought into being a couple years ago by artists who were confronting these big questions and wanted a more collective way to deal with them. Coming from many different points of view, these artists and popularizers all see the urgent need to carve out more space in society for a culture of resistance-works that have high artistic standards and also deep political content. We are about solving the problem of staying true to our principles, staying connected to resistance movements of the people, and at the same time working to reach a wide audience to make the biggest impact on the national climate.
There are no dance steps for traversing this tricky terrain. But we can rely on the masses, always learning from the people in order to make work that proves, in the way powerful art can, that the world as we know it is not inevitable. And we can find allies among presenters and producers -at the stages and recording studios, museums, etc. -who will take the risks to produce radical works of art.
The final question posed by the Public: what responsibility might artists have to adhere to their political beliefs when doing so might be in opposition to the demands of their careers?
I think the heart of this question has to do with the responsibility of artists to the masses of people. Taking the long view, and borrowing a line from Chiang Ching, I would like to ask: Why are some people able to create art as their work, while others are making all the materials that artists use and the shoes that artists wear? This situation is based on a profoundly unjust social order and an oppressive division of labor in society between mental and manual work. Taken on a world scale, the gap between the lives of the artists and intellectuals in the imperialist countries and the lives of the masses is huge. And I believe that socially conscious artists have to take this to heart.
Hollywood moguls, record companies, and the theater establishment act like artists are beholden to them for their careers, but in reality the wealth of the whole society is based on ripping off the labor of the proletariat-and the artists need to fight to make this connection and rouse the people to support a culture of resistance to this whole oppressive order.
The people look to the resisters among the artists, those who have opened their eyes, moved them to tears, made them laugh-through the characters they portray, the music they make, the stories they tell, the images they create.
The people look to the artists to stand with them in the great struggles of the time, to use their public voices and to tell the stories that need to be told.
And the system tries to stop the artists from doing this.
That night at the Public Theater, we were all keenly aware that the efforts to stop the execution of Mumia have provided a sharp example of this conflict.
Artists who have spoken out on behalf of Mumia have been targets of an unprecedented media and police campaign aimed at putting them on the defensive and threatening their careers and credibility. Police security guards have threatened to shut down concerts of artists who have manifested for Mumia or where materials about the case are being distributed. And the very idea of artists having a right to speak on this controversial matter has been challenged (as in "what do you know, you're just an artist," or "did you read all the transcripts?") As Ossie Davis noted at the Public Theater, this can be difficult for artists who are in the public eye but who are not, after all, politicians or trained public speakers.
To their great credit, many artists have bravely stood up to this persecution-and it is urgent that more voices be heard.
It takes courage to make art that really matters to the people. And I think it is the responsibility of the revolutionary movement, and the resistance movement generally, to find the ways to support our artists -to help them act on their highest aspirations and do their best to represent for the people's interests and create work that intrigues and amazes, exposes and inspires.
"It has to start somewhere, It has to start sometime
What better place than here
What better time than now... All hell can't stop us now!"
Rage Against the Machine, "Guerilla Radio"
Can our artists stop the execution of Mumia? Can they lead the people to make revolution? Not by themselves, but without works of art which stir the soul and help us see our world clearly, and the world we want to make, our movement will not have the heart to defeat this heartless system. We will need a people's army, a strong party to lead it, and the right moment to blow down the walls of Jericho. But we also need those trumpets.
*_"Unknown Secrets: Art of the Rosenbergs", exhibition curated by Nina Felshin. Exhibition Catalog: "The Rosenbergs: Collected Visions of Artists and Writers," edited by Rob A. Okun.
** MaoTsetung, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Vol. III.
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