The future of art in an age of crisis—Part 1

By David Walsh
21 April 2009

The following is the first part of an edited version of the talk delivered by WSWS Arts Editor David Walsh to audiences recently at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Part 2 is published here. In February a version of the lecture was given at San Diego State University and in Santa Monica, California.

David WalshDavid Walsh

By way of introduction I want to point out that as a rule people go about their daily lives and accept the cultural life they encounter as given. The various books and films and objects are “habitual phenomena” that are not generally subjected to serious criticism.

The present economic and social crisis throws the inadequacy of most of what we presently see and hear into relief. We are attempting here to trace out the roots of some of the difficulties. A historical tracing out of the problem is indispensable, in our view.

We are concerned here with two interrelated questions: the future of art and the impact of the present global economic crisis. Let’s begin with the second.

Whatever the immediate ups and downs of the stock market, the dimensions of the economic crash of 2008 are vast and systemic. Contrary to the apologists for capitalism, the present crisis is not a failure of this or that policy, or merely the product of dishonest and greedy individuals. It is a crisis, a breakdown, of the economic and social order. An entire mode of global capital accumulation based on financial operations, fueled by mountainous increases in debt, has collapsed, as our movement has explained.

Economists estimate that over the past 12 months some $50 trillion in wealth has been destroyed, the equivalent of one year’s global economic production. Stock markets had lost some $30 trillion by the middle of March. Global industrial production is predicted to decline by 30 percent. Commodity prices have fallen by 40 percent.

A senior UN development official warned recently that the nearly 400 million Africans living on less than $1.25 a day would suffer a decline in their incomes of 20 percent as a result of the slump, producing an increase of 200,000 to 400,000 infant deaths per year.

The International Labour Organization, the UN agency, warned earlier this year that as many as 50 million workers would lose their jobs worldwide in 2009 if the economy continued to deteriorate. Some 200 million people, mostly in developing economies, could be pushed into poverty.

“Another spectre is haunting Europe,” ran a headline in the right-wing Weekly Standard in early February, referencing the Communist Manifesto. The article noted that the unfolding crisis was being blamed on capitalism and warned that if economies continued to spiral downward the resulting anger would take “concrete ideological forms,” left-wing forms, “that are unlikely to be pretty.”

In the US, some 25 million people are unemployed or working short-time involuntarily, nearly one-sixth of the workforce. In March 30,000 jobs were lost a day. Five million jobs have been destroyed since December 2007. Housing prices have fallen by 30 percent, and attacks on wages, benefits, pensions are spreading throughout the economy, with the auto industry a central battleground.

The American ruling elite promoted Barack Obama in part to forestall unrest, as well as to effect changes in its global and domestic tactics. Eight years of the Bush regime had damaged US interests abroad, and the obvious indifference and brutality of the administration was outraging the American population.

The presence of an African-American president, it was cynically thought, would be enough to satisfy the population and divert its attention from crying economic and social problems. Illusions and confusion exist, but the harsh economic reality will clarify many things.

The first 100 days of the Obama regime have been more than enough to establish its character as a representative of the financial-corporate aristocracy. Its policies are designed to defend the wealth of the ruling elite and advance the interests of American imperialism globally. Trillions for the bankers, but austerity and “responsibility” for the working population.

A recent guest commentator, a European living in the US, wrote in the Financial Times about the situation in this country: “I sense fear, anger and a deep feeling of injustice reminiscent of the climate on the eve of the French revolution. Just replace bread shortages with foreclosures, aristocrats with bankers, and privileges such as the right not to pay tax with stock options.”

After the disaster in Iraq, which has devastated that country and already left more than a million dead, the Obama government is shifting its focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan, preparing new catastrophes for the populations there and for thousands of American men and women—all in the pursuit of the region’s energy reserves and the reestablishment through military means of America’s lost economic hegemony around the globe.

Our student movement, the International Students for Social Equality, and our party, the Socialist Equality Party, advance the interests of the international working class against the present economic and political system. We anticipate that masses of people are going to enter into action in defense of their jobs and living conditions and that they will come into the sharpest conflict with the Obama regime and its supporters, including those on the liberal left who apologize for the Democrats as a way of life. We not only anticipate such struggles, we encourage and seek to lead them. We urge students to turn to the working class as part of our movement.

We put forward a socialist program for the crisis, centered on the need for a workers government and the transformation of the banks, other financial institutions, large industry and transportation and health care giants into publicly owned, democratically run operations. The needs of the overwhelming majority conflict at every point with the interests of the tiny elite, and one or the other must prevail.

Twenty years ago, after the fall of the Stalinist regimes, we were told, loudly and persistently, that socialism was dead, all the great historical issues were solved and the world was entering a new golden age of peace and prosperity. Our party rejected that notion at the time and oriented ourselves toward the inevitable explosions of globally integrated capitalism.

Marxism, scientific socialism, has been vindicated by the eruption of this crisis. In Capital, Marx wrote: “Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.”

Out of this arises the objective necessity for socialist revolution.

Are the artists prepared for the crisis?

This evening we are primarily addressing some of the historically specific problems that artists confront, or the historically specific form that the struggle for artistic truth takes today.

Aleksandr VoronskyAleksandr Voronsky

Aleksandr Voronsky, the Soviet critic and opponent of Stalin, pointed out 70 years ago, in his essay “The Art of Seeing the World” (1928), that it was very difficult for the artist to discover and genuinely accept the world, to see the world as it is, independently of us, inherently complex and beautiful, “in all its freshness and immediacy.”

He pointed to the habits, prejudices, frustrations and the host of other pressures of everyday life that weigh us down, deadening “the sharpness and freshness of perception and attention” and lending reality “a peculiarly gray, doleful and wretched coloration.”

Against all this, the artist seeks out, Voronsky wrote, “unspoiled and genuine images of the world,” which he described as “the principal meaning and purpose of art.”

If Voronsky was correct, and I believe he was, telling the truth in art has always been a great struggle. It is a demanding mental and physical effort, not to be undertaken lightly.

But are there not particular difficulties today? And are there not specific failings? Why does it seem there is such a chasm between artistic efforts and the character of present-day life, which for masses of the world’s population involves a daily struggle for survival? Why does art so often seem indifferent or blind to the crisis of human society, and to great historical and social questions in general?

We don’t agree that the central focus for art should be the artist and his or her impressions, but the independently existing world and its complexity, including its social complexity.

We propose to fight for something different. In the first place, objective conditions will impose a change. There is no possibility of going about one’s business in the same way. The world situation has taken a dramatic turn in the past year, and no one can shut his or her eyes to that—no one, at any rate, who intends to be taken seriously.

We have made the point on numerous occasions, that all layers of American society are unprepared for the present crisis.

Wide layers of the population too are taken unawares, shocked and stunned by the events altering their lives. Sooner rather than later, that shock will bring about changes in political consciousness.

What about the artists and intellectuals—how prepared are they? How aligned are they to the realities of the situation?

To put it somewhat more concretely: is there a body of work, or a single major novel, film, play or other art work that in some fashion alerted the population to the smash-up that was coming? Not perhaps in the sense of providing a specific economic warning signal, but a work, or works, that pointed to deep dysfunction ... who was it, for example, pointed to the elemental fact that the monstrous accumulation of wealth out of parasitic and quasi-criminal means could not go on forever?

Has the theme of social inequality, for example, the central social problem in American life in recent decades, featured prominently or even as part of the backdrop for major works?

What conscious attention has been paid to the facts of stagnating or declining living standards for tens of millions? Given the history of the US, the persistence of the “American Dream,” America’s supposed “exceptionalism,” it would seem worthwhile to look into the conditions of those being tossed about by big changes. Were the myths about American life alive and well?

Where is the great novel or play or film about the Wall Street tycoon, the hedge fund manager, the financial speculator, which goes beyond commonplace judgments to broader and more historically insightful evaluations?

I could go on. These questions have a rhetorical element. We know the answers to them, by and large. It would be difficult to point to a single major work that provided a serious, universal critique of American life and indicated that things were going very, very badly. Critical pictures of life, large or small, but pictures that took as their point of departure opposition to the status quo and committed concern for the fate of the mass of the people.

I want to emphasize at the outset that the artistic landscape has not been a barren one. The spark of human genius has obviously not gone out. Far from it. One can point to remarkable individual films (or scenes), novels (or passages), individual paintings and so forth that go against the grain, that confront life in a richer manner. In popular culture too, there are obviously enormously gifted, ingenious and energetic people at work. The ability to create dazzling and startling images and sounds has reached qualitatively new heights; nothing seems technically out of reach of contemporary artists. A variety of new media offer almost limitless possibilities for communication.

Serious difficulties, however, remain. For example, there have been a number of sincere anti-war films made about Iraq and the Middle East (Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Battle for Haditha, Grace is Gone, The Situation and others). But often such movies only go so far and no farther, or they contain a hodge-podge of left and quite right-wing patriotic notions.

It is difficult to point to a genuinely completed work, or body of work, in which the central challenge for any artist—how to shed light on life in this time and place in all its important dimensions?—is worked through exhaustively, to the very end, where the artist has given his or her all and made a substantial contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself. 

For that, one has to have a coherent and integral view of life and society, something more painstakingly and deeply informed. One feels that the genuinely remarkable artist is not simply reacting to this or that immediate stimulus, with an impression or series of impressions, no matter how sincere, but has arrived at an understanding of and a feeling for the whole. Such a special gift of insight is not easily arrived at, but it makes itself felt in every aspect of a work, in its textures, its layeredness, its inescapable truth. We feel that in the great films of Welles and Chaplin and Ford, for example.

The fact that even entertaining the ambition to contribute to humanity’s understanding of itself sounds outlandish and presumptuous is an indicator of a difficult artistic period.

In novel writing, there have been serious efforts, but largely reworkings of the same themes, middle class discontent and anxiety, the self-observations and occasional self-loathing of the professional class, alternately tormented and self-satisfied, but rarely gazing beyond its apartment buildings and lofts.

The events of September 11 and its aftermath produced a flurry of novels—by Updike, DeLillo, Roth et al—and other works; understandably so, it was a major event. But one must say that the lack of historical insight into 9/11 is bound up with the general lack of interest in great historical and social questions, including the conditions of the broader population at home. The writers, many of whom live in New York or the Northeast, were shaken up by the terrorist attacks, but not driven to think deeply about them.

There is little serious new theater worth talking about, and poetry is largely a lifeless, academic affair.

We have lived through several decades in which official life has been dominated by foul ideas—the worship of wealth and selfishness, religious bigotry, militarism and chauvinism, the law-and-order hysteria, the victimization of the poor, and so on. The counteroffensive against the working class began in the late 1970s and has essentially never let up.

Along the way, various liberal and left intellectuals caved in—without too much resistance, in many cases. They found it pleasant to be wealthy and be in with the people who counted. 

The self-denial of the intelligentsia, its relatively modest economic status, was a thing of the past. They wanted spacious condos and expensive cars and seats at the best restaurants and houses in the south of France, and to look at and create art about themselves.

Much of the wealth accumulated was based, directly or indirectly, on the stock market and profits boom. All made possible by the increased exploitation of the working class, the lowering of wages and living standards that drove up share prices.

No one paid too much attention to any of that. The wealth poured in. Art galleries registered unprecedented prices for paintings, bought as investments by increasingly dubious figures. Until the crash of last September there were nearly 100 living American artists who were commanding a million dollars or more for a single work at auction. A recent article in Newsweek observed that until the crash began a new painter “showing for the first time in a barely reputable gallery was asking—and getting—$10,000 to $20,000 per picture.”

New York state’s attorney general has just indicted hedge fund manager Ezra Merkin for funneling $2.4 billion into Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and reaping nearly half a billion dollars in fees. Merkin is also one of the world’s largest collectors of paintings by Mark Rothko. The total value of the collection is estimated at $150 million to $200 million. This is the New York art world.

The hedge funds, just before the crash, got into filmmaking. Leading actors became voices and faces for credit card companies and airlines and carmakers. A corrupt and orgiastic atmosphere prevailed, where everyone who could was cashing in. Did it occur to anyone that this was rotten and, moreover, doomed?

Vast amounts of wealth and complacency, and relatively little critical thought. Who could object to this astonishing moneymaking machinery, never mind that the Madoffs and Allen Stanfords and their only slightly more legitimate brethren at the major banks were at the controls?

The artistic-cultural atmosphere will not be cleansed until some accounting is made of the social indifference, the commercialization of art to the nth degree, the banality of so much of cultural life. How did it happen? Why did no one notice what was really going on in the world? Where was the elemental sympathy for the plight of others that ought to be integral to the artistic personality?

A concrete example: the city of Detroit, ravaged by the auto corporations. The population has been traumatized. Yet virtually no artistic reflection of this process, which would have an impact on the rest of the US population and global public opinion, has been made. In truth, the intellectuals have helped conceal the realities of American life, they have helped perpetuate the myth to the present moment that the US is basically a prosperous and contented country.

Now all that is in the process of coming down around people’s heads. The crisis will make itself felt one way or another. All sorts of individuals will make the necessary adjustments. There’s the danger that people who didn’t think too much before will go on not thinking too much and simply take two steps to the left, adapting themselves to the new situation.

American artists of previous periods offered insight into the general state and psyche of the country.

F. Scott FitzgeraldF. Scott Fitzgerald

The post-World War I period produced such works as The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy, Hemingway’s first novels, Dos Passos, the Harlem Renaissance.

These artists saw and felt a society heading for a crack-up; the lie of the American Dream, the price paid for success, the awfulness of American materialism and commercialism and conformism. The artists followed these questions, worked them through.

The socialist movement had an immense presence. Modern culture generally, and modern American culture in particular, is unthinkable without the influence and impetus provided by the Marxist analysis of society. Not that the artists entirely shared that analysis, but its active presence was a critical element in their artistic and intellectual approach.

If you doubt this, read Fitzgerald’s letters, for example. He followed the developments in the Communist Party in the 1930s and called himself a “Marxian” without irony. The Stalinist degeneration of the USSR and the Communist Party was a factor in his own growing demoralization.

As it was for the entire American intelligentsia.

There is no doubt that the ‘great disappointment’ that set in during the late 1930s, as the realities of the Stalinist crimes became clear and the various revolutionary opportunities—in France, in Spain and elsewhere—were strangled and betrayed, played an immense role in creating the framework within which cynicism, social indifference and opportunism flourished.

But we want to consider some of the trends that played a role in the postwar period, further discouraging the artists from treating life in a serious and honest fashion.

To be continued