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Issue #1923      July 13, 2020

Art against fascism

Why write on art at this moment in the midst of a terrific war against the powerful fascist foe, and when a bitter election campaign is in progress?

One of Pablo Picasso’s best known works Guernica is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war anti-fascist paintings in history.

The answer is that art is indispensable in the struggle for democracy, for national independence, for human dignity.

“Art is a weapon.” It is something more of course. One potent factor in Russia’s superb achievements in peace and war is its amazing development in the arts and sciences.

Socialist society created a gigantic war industry. It also produced a flourishing people’s culture.

It has been said that the Red Army men “know what they are fighting for.” They are fighting to preserve their personal and social freedom, their schools, museums, cinema and ballet, their culture.

And they make better soldiers because they understand and love art, and all “the things of the spirit.”

Australia’s task

Australian democracy must also develop its art. The bankruptcy in politics of men like Menzies and Fadden is paralleled in the cultural sphere. They have nothing to offer in art.

In actual fact, all reactionaries fear art (except the art which glorifies them and their works). It is no accident that Hitler, among the first steps he took on his accession to power, banned workers’ cultural movements and imprisoned and murdered thousand’s of painters, poets, and singers.

“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I cock my revolver,” said Hans Johst, a Nazi functionary.

Art stands for democracy; it is an enlightening force. Art unites the masses, hence it is anathema to the reaction.

Last weekend a number of artists and others interested in art met in conference. They discussed the theory of art, its manifold problems and aspects, art in Australia, and the question of how artists can play their part in the struggle against fascism and for a prosperous peace after victory.

This article is intended to stimulate interest and activity on art matters. The purpose of this contribution is to present briefly and only in an introductory way our view on the basic meaning of art.

Origin of art

Art can be understood only by relating it to the labour process. Labour, human toil, is a nature-imposed necessity, because man must work to produce his food, his clothing and his shelter.

Art, understood here simply as the creation and enjoyment of things of beauty, became integrated into the labour process from the very dawn of human existence.

Our primitive ancestor observed in the world around him the variety of shapes, colour and sounds. Some perhaps left little impression on him; others, such as the glistening scales of reptiles or the darkening of the eclipse, terrified him; others again, say, a fat deer or luscious wild fruit, pleased him.

Conquest of nature

Man was beginning his conquest of nature, and both the pleasurable and terrifying sights and sounds were immediate to him; they affected his “bread and butter.”

He studied them, and before long was introducing, with greater or less “artistic” skill, what he saw and felt into the things he was producing.

In fashioning a tool or weapon he worked to a pattern that had become impinged upon his growing understanding. He polished his stone axe, first because he discovered that, a smooth-surfaced weapon would do a better job, and then for the reason that he liked its glossy appearance.

Crudeness, or primitiveness, in production was developing into skilled work; and purely utilitarian requirements fused with the quest for beauty. In erecting his abode of stone or bark, he daubed it with coloured clay; the clay kept out the rain, it placated angry demons lurking in the forest, and then again he liked colours. He probably had other good reasons.

Art derived from labour, and in turn enriched the labour process.

“One of the functions of art,” writes Prof. Jane Harrison, “is to feed and nurture the imagination and the spirit, and thereby enhance and invigorate the whole of human life.”

Beauty and utility

When the craftsman today designs a chair or dress or building he is following the same quest for beauty in line, symmetry and colour that we find – to go as far back as we can in history – in the 30,000-year-old rock paintings in the caves of Altamira, Spain.

Those artists painted principally animals of the chase.

Food and sex are the dominant themes of all primitive cultures, including those which survive to this day.

The totem, figurine, carving, and stone idol denote the religious outlooks and practices of the tribe; but the emotions and rituals involved, and the very art productions themselves, can be understood only by reference to the social set-up as a whole – its daily struggle for existence, its labour.

Until the advent of capitalism, the relation of art and labour remained more or less close.

In all epochs, a popular art coexisted with the art of the leisure class.

We do not know the names of the artists of medieval times; medieval art is “anonymous.” The weavers who produced the beautiful tapestries, the engravers and goldsmiths who decorated books, the stonemasons, carpenters and engineers who built the cathedrals were – workers!

They were craftsmen possessing great artistic talents, not “artists” in the modern sense of men who stand above and aloof from the mass of the people.

Capitalism, at first a creative and revolutionary force in politics and thus in art, resulted in the end in an almost complete separation between art and labour by the very nature of its processes of production. The labourer becomes a mere “appendage of the machine.” The artist and his art exist for the service of Moneybags, who orders his paintings with the same emotion (or lack of it) that he does the raw materials for his factory.

This article originally appeared in Tribune July, 1943.

Next article – The future belongs to the Communist Movement

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