We publish here the transcript of a speech by Alan Woods on the subject of the relationship between Art and the Class Struggle. The speech was given at a Marxist Summer School in Barcelona (Spain), in July 2001.
This is the first time that we have discussed this subject at an international meeting. And perhaps for some of you this requires justification. Some people consider that art is a secondary matter, not really important. Yet art is actually is one of the fundamental aspects of the human condition - so fundamental, that some anthropologists believe that one can express the beginnings of our species through the emergence of art.
It is a fact that one of the first serious indications of the emergence of our species, homo sapiens sapiens, is the existence of art, that is to say in a concrete expression of aesthetic sense. This theory has recently been disputed because of the discovery of certain artefacts belonging to a pre-human species - Neanderthal Man. These undoubtedly show a certain aesthetic quality. But what we have here is not yet art - only the embryo from which art could develop.
As a matter of fact, it is possible to argue that such elements exist in other animal species, even in some of the lower species. For example, the Bower bird builds what you could call architectural structures, which are not nests. They apparently have no practical function whatever, and the birds that build them decorate these structures with extraordinarily elaborate compositions. They select certain combinations of colour which you might argue indicate the presence of an aesthetic sense even in these birds.
But in fact, the structures of the Bower bird are not useless; they are in fact very practical structures. They are constructed by the male of the species in order to attract the female. In other words, they are for the purpose of mating. And one can find similar phenomena throughout the animal kingdom. Usually it is the male that dresses up in gaudy colours to attract the female who tends to be rather unattractive in most cases. But in any case, there is a fundamental difference between these cases which are found in many species and human art. These activities in lower species are instinctive, they are genetically determined. In this case, specifically for the purpose of mating.
Art as a form of communication
This animal activity it is instinctive and individual by its very nature, whereas human art is of an entirely different character. It is not inborn, but has to be learned, and it is essentially collective activity. As a matter of fact art is really a form of human communication although a very peculiar form. And it emerges together with human productive activity - with the production of stone tools in particular. Now if you compare the earliest stone tools to the stone tools of a later period, you will find the most extraordinary difference. The later tools are far more finished, far more elaborate, far more perfect than one sees in the early examples. This progression towards a greater perfection in the shape of stone tools reflects the evolution of the human mind, including the beginnings of a certain aesthetic sense.
Now, there has been a lot of mystical nonsense talked about aesthetics, that is, the sense of what is beautiful or ugly. What is this thing called beauty? At first sight, this seems to be a rather strange and mysterious thing. Have you ever asked yourself the question: what is beauty? We all believe that we know what is beautiful and what is ugly. But do we really know? If one looks at history, and the aesthetic values of different human societies, it will immediately become evident that there is no such thing as a general concept of beauty applicable to all times and all kinds of societies. The human conception of beauty has evolved - in the same sense as morality and religion have evolved over many thousands of generations.
Here it is necessary to say a few words about historical materialism. This affirms that ultimately - and I stress the word 'ultimately' - the development of human society and culture has a material basis, which is to be sought in the development of the productive forces. As it happens, it is somewhat easier to show this connection in the earliest forms of society, and more difficult with later, more complex societies.
This relation between culture and the economic basis of society is most clear in the earliest forms of art. Take for example the Masai tribe of East Africa. They considered a woman with a very long neck to be most attractive. And in order to achieve this effect, they actually stretched the necks of young women to quite an extraordinary degree to create this giraffe-like impression. This doesn't seem to be particularly attractive to most of us. But it can be explained. The origin of this practice is as follows: the wealth of Masai society was calculated, on the one hand, in cattle and, on the other hand, in copper, which was very rare and therefore very highly prized. A woman was considered attractive if she wore a large quantity of copper bangles on her body - and particularly around the neck. Therefore by stretching the neck, a woman could wear more of these copper bangles.
That was the origin of this practice, but over a long of period of time the origins of such practices are forgotten. Nevertheless, through custom and tradition people began to accept that a long neck is an attractive thing per se. And one could cite many similar examples: for example, other African tribes knock the front teeth out. This is because certain ruminant animals that they raised represented wealth and status, and they tried to make themselves similar to these animals.
So what conclusion do we draw? Only this: that the conception of beauty is not an absolute phenomenon, but that is evolves historically and has changed many times. However, at this point we should strike a note of warning. There is a danger of approaching this question in a mechanical sense. Marx explains that things like religion and art cannot be related directly to the development of the productive forces.
I have a quote here from Marx which I will read: "As to the realms of ideology, which soars still higher in the air, they can fly high in the air, they become separated form their origin and they acquire a life of their own, an independent existence."
Marx here is talking about religion and philosophy, but we could also add art. And he continues: "These have a prehistoric stock, a prehistoric origin." In other words they have deep roots in the human consciousness, going back for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. "They are found already in existence and taken over in the historical period."
In other words, the roots of art lie deep in our collective subconscious, to use a psychological term - it goes back into the remotest periods of history and pre-history, just like religion. Now, if one looks at the first forms of art the first thing to see is that very little has survived. A lot of this art would have been in perishable material: wood and bone or even human skin, that is, tattoos. I see some of you have got tattoos. Obviously you want to go back into pre-history! This kind of art has almost completely disappeared, although they have found the frozen body of a pre-historic woman in Siberia, with a very elaborate tattoo on her body.
Nowadays, when we think about pre-historic art, we most of all think of cave paintings, like the marvellous paintings in the Dordogne area of France and also in Altamira in Northern Spain. These paintings must surely represent one of the high points of human culture and art. It also has certain peculiarities which sets it quite apart from later art. For example, these are almost exclusively painting of animals. There are virtually no people I would say there are no people. But there is one very mysterious figure in the French paintings, which has a semi-human form: the body of a man, but the head of a deer. This has been generally regarded as a sorcerer, some kind of magician.
If there are no people, there are also no flowers, there are no plants and the animals that are depicted are only certain animals. And the way that these animals are depicted is quite extraordinary. It still seems beautiful to us, tens of thousands of years later. These things are beautiful to us because of their astonishing realism, because they are natural and they show a great awareness of anatomy which is really very scientific. It is so precise that every sinew, every vein, every muscle is precisely depicted.
But though these wonderful paintings seem beautiful to us, they are not beautiful in the same sense as they were beautiful to the people who painted them or looked at them at the time. I will explain what I mean in a moment. But let us return to my opening remarks and this idea that some people have that art is not essential, that art is not important, that art is not for the working class. Is this really the case? Well, let's see. Just you just try to imagine for one moment a world without art, a world without music, a world without singing and dancing, a world without poetry. Just imagine that for one minute and you will immediately see how important art is for the masses, not just for the intellectuals but for everyone.
What is certainly true that in class society, particularly in present day Western society art has become the monopoly of the privileged classes. It is largely inaccessible to the masses who live in the most miserable conditions, not just materially but spiritually. Capitalism condemns the majority of people to a life of ugly, degraded and alienated conditions. And it is unfortunately true that men and women can get used to such conditions. Actually, human beings can get used to almost anything.
A slave can get to love his chains. People get used to bad houses, bad food, they begin to think that they like this bad food, bad television programs, bad music, particularly bad music, bad films, bad newspapers. They begin to believe that they have chosen all these things freely. The philosopher Leibnitz likewise said once that if a magnetic needle could think, it would believe that it pointed north out of its own free will. Actually, we are conditioned to believe these and many other things which are untrue.
This suits the ruling class very well. The masses are encouraged to accept this condition of material and cultural poverty, while, of course the ruling class live in beautiful houses, watch very good plays at the theatre, read very well-written books (sometimes), go on very nice holidays and eat out in expensive restaurants. So naturally they believe that any rubbish is good enough for the masses. That is natural. What is lamentable is that members of the working class - even advanced ones - have come to believe that this state affairs is natural and even quite satisfactory.
I do not usually talk about my own family background, but on this occasion I will do so. I will just say one word about my grandfather, who was fine man - a Welsh steel worker and a communist. I was brought up in his house in a proletarian area of Swansea. In that house, there were always books, including Marxist books like Engels' Anti-Dühring. There was also classical music, especially Italian opera, which the Welsh workers, who were usually good singers, were very fond of
My grandfather, who introduced me to Marxism when I was still at school, once said something that I have never forgotten. He said: "Nothing is too good for the working class". Personally, it makes me furious when I hear people, usually middle class people, saying that workers are not interested in culture. The whole of history shows that that is false, and particularly the history of revolutions as I will show.
But you see, this alienation, this division between real life and art this huge separation, which makes many ordinary working class people suspicious of art. "I don't like this, I don't like this music, I don't like opera." That is because they don't understand it, and they don't understand it because they haven't had the opportunity to get to know it. They have had little or no access to that art. Yet this division between art and life was not always the case. In early society, art was a part of the life, part of the every day life of every man and woman and an important at that.
Let me deal with one idea, one very wrong idea put forward by the bourgeois and petty bourgeois artists: the idea of "art for art's sake". This is a very common idea, which considers art as if it was something in the stratosphere, nothing to do with real life, something that exists for itself, in splendid isolation from real life and society. As the great Russian materialist philosopher Chernyshevsky pointed out, that statement is a nonsense. It makes no more sense than "carpentry for carpentry's sake".
Art is for something and that was always the case. What was the earliest art for? What were the cave paintings for? Here we come across the first mystery, because these paintings were not for mere adornment, like the old painting above the mantelpiece. They not for decoration at all, and this is easily proved. They were painted in the deepest and most inaccessible recesses of the cave in complete blackness, which is even more incredible if you can imagine the technology of the time. The people who painted these paintings had to crawl under difficult conditions working by the flickering, smoky light of a small lamp made of animal fat - which is astonishing if you pause to think about it.
And what's the reason for this? People didn't live in the places where these pictures were painted. Probably they did not live in caves at all, or if they did, it would have been in the outer part, where there was some light. This was not art for art's sake, it was art for a very practical, social, economic purpose. As a matter of fact at this time you could say that art, science and religion were one. They were mixed up.
These were hunter gatherer societies, that depended on the hunting of the animals depicted and their idea was that by painting the animal, the hunter somehow became endowed with power over the animal. In other words art was magic, it was mixed up with magic, and magic was the pre-historic version of science - an attempt by men and women to understand and dominate the environment. It may well be that this is a part of the enchantment of art even to the present day, that there is an element of this magic still there.
The same is true of music and dance. Music was born out of the dance and the dances of these ancient people were always collective, they were not individual people prancing around doing the tango, the hip-hop, or whatever they do these days, I am never quite sure. I think one can see the atomisation of modern society in the fact that people are prancing around on their own like this. The do not even look at each other when they dance, they are atomised in a little world of their own - and that was not the case in the past. Well, I dare say you disagree with my tastes in the field of music and dance, but I am about to make an important point here
The point is this: that the first dances were collective dances, they always involved the whole community, and were always connected to some kind of productive activity. Consider the dances of the native Americans that imitate the movements of birds and buffaloes and other animals that they used to hunt. Here we have an important and necessary social activity - not a luxury.
And what about the origin of poetry? Poetry is probably the oldest of the arts and has its roots in a society so remote that we have no record of it. That is no accident, because writing is a relatively recent phenomenon which has only existed foe around 5,000 years. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine a society without radio, television, internet, books or newspapers. Yet human culture has got to be past on from one generation to another, or it is lost. We humans are not like lower animals. We are different, because all we know, our aesthetic sense and knowledge, our religion and science, our rules of conduct, traditions and morality - all of this vast and complex knowledge cannot be passed on genetically, as is the case with most other animals.
All this information has to be learnt, and this is very difficult without the aid of writing. Don't forget that the rules of early societies, which we incorrectly call primitive, were quite complicated rules. There was no writing and yet all of this lore, this highly complex tribal lore and mythology had to be passed on from one generation to the next. how was this done? There was only one way: verbally. This is the origin of what we call epic poetry which was common in the period of barbarism, this period.
The finest examples are what has been written down in the name of Homer, although it is not certain that Homer ever existed. It is wonderful poetry and it belongs to an incredibly old oral tradition. This ancient tradition had a practical purpose. For example, if you read the first book of the Iliad, you will find rules for the treatment of prisoners of war; later on you will find rules for chariot racing, and you will also find an interesting description of the beginnings of class society very clearly expressed.
The world of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a society already dominated by tribal chiefs, like Agamemnon, but there were still the elements of primitive tribal democracy present. Here you will find debates in which they express themselves in very forthright un-parliamentary language like when Achilles refers to his chief, to his king - and I quote - "dog face" and similar epithets. In this society there was a figure called the bard (which by the way is a Welsh word, and in fact, the Celtic people retained this institution until quite late)
The task of the tribal bard was to memorise a colossal amount of information and recite it on special occasions in front of the whole tribe or whole clan. Nowadays even those of us with very good memories couldn't possibly memorise all those verses, but in those days it was common for certain people to do that. And as a way of remembering these very long pieces of information they used tricks, certain rhythms, certain repetitions and certain other devices, alliteration, metaphors, similes were all used to help them to remember. That is the origin of poetry.
Of course we are already in the phase of class society. And there is a change in the nature of art and culture. Rob Sewell explained very well the other day how the early primitive tribal communism was overthrown and society began to be divided into classes. And this meant a fundamental change in everything, in the position of women, in religion. As a matter of fact, if you study Greek mythology carefully you will see that most of Greek myths are based upon one thing: the overthrow of mother right and its replacement by a patriarchal society.
In the earliest society they didn't have gods, but goddesses, you see that the subject of the earliest sculptures are all women, the so-called Venuses of the Palaeolithic period. On the other hand, the gods of Olympus are already male gods, reflecting a male-dominated society.
Slavery and culture
The first form of class society is slave society, the masses are reduced to slavery. To us slavery appears to be a bad thing - something extremely abhorrent. But Hegel, who was a very profound philosopher, made the following observation. He said: "It is not so much from slavery but through slavery that man becomes free." These are very profound words. Because if you think about the development of human society, what strikes one is the extreme slowness of our initial development. For millions of years, we had a very slow, painfully slow development. And it begins to take off. With what? With slave society. Our civilisation comes from slavery.
It was Aristotle, almost 2500 years ago, who said "Man begins to philosophise when the needs of life are provided." A most important observation! And he continued "Consequently mathematics and astronomy were discovered in Egypt because the priests did not have to work." They were freed from the necessity to work. To use the expression of one Marxist writer, Paul Lafargue, under socialism men and women will acquire that most important right: the right to be idle, the right to do nothing. This right is now the privilege of a few wealthy exploiters, and they make good use of it! Some spend their time lying on beaches in the Caribbean. But not all. Most people prefer to make better use of their free time, and this is the basis of the development of art, science and all culture in general.
The priest caste of ancient Egypt had the necessary time to think: they could look at the stars and make important discoveries. That is the basis of Egyptian culture. It arises on that basis an extreme division of society into classes in which art for the first time becomes entirely separate from the masses, entirely separate from life. What is the basis of Egyptian art? On the one hand it is infinitely more developed than the most developed of earlier art, but it is also not art for art's sake: it is certainly art for something. It has its purpose and its reason to be. But what is it?
First of all it is religious art, and therefore it is highly conservative art. Moreover it is mainly anonymous art. There were great artistic creations, yes, but we do not know the names of the people who created them. There is no Egyptian Rembrandt, there is no Egyptian Picasso and the reason for that is that art was also collective and social, not individual. It was the function of the priest caste to control art. It was they who determined absolutely all of its rules, the artist could not depart one millimetre. It is this stultifying regime which explains the curious lack of development of Egyptian art over a period of a thousand years. Although its finest productions are very fine indeed, it somehow lacks the vitality of Greek art.
This is also art that is aimed at creating an image of one man - the Pharaoh, the god king, who is celebrated in those colossal pyramids, and those huge statues. In the British Museum you can find just an arm of the statue of a pharaoh, and just the hand alone is as big as a man, or perhaps a little bigger. This art tells you something. Here is what it says: "I am the king, I am all powerful, you are nothing. So you will worship and obey me always".
The same message will also be found in Assyrian art, which is mainly relief painting because of the absence of stone in Mesopotamia. Most of these works have a very warlike character. But the message is the same. There are very life-like pictures of the king hunting and killing lions from a chariot. They show an exact knowledge of anatomy. We can see every muscle and sinew in the king's powerful arms as he slays the lion without mercy. A wounded lion is spewing blood, another is transfixed by arrows. This is a picture of power, unrestricted and implacable.
The same idea is contained in the scenes of war. The king leads his army against a town. The town is sacked. The women, children and animals are led away as booty, while the male prisoners plead for mercy on their knees before the king's throne. But there is no mercy. Alongside the throne is a pile of severed heads, and we see other prisoners being skinned alive. This art is the document of a particular society: a highly militarised totalitarian state run by a god-king who laughs while he tramples his enemies underfoot. There is no attempt at perspective in this art. One figure towers above all the rest: that of the king.
In antiquity we see the most important development in classical Greek art. In ancient Athens the means of production, science and technique arrived at the maximum level possible in antiquity. Of course, all these achievements were based on the labour of the slaves, but for the free population of Athens there was genuine freedom. And somehow the spirit of this freedom permeates this art, especially its marvellous sculpture.
This art is not like that of Egypt. it is something quite different. Here for the first time we have a great flowering of human expression, of human culture, of human art which - albeit in an embryonic way - gives us a slight idea what the future under socialism will be like. Here for the first time art becomes truly human in content. The mind of people has gone beyond the narrow bounds of religion. Greek philosophy no longer needs gods to explain the universe: the whole meaning of Greek philosophy is an attempt to find an explanation for nature without gods.
And just look at the fantastic achievements of Greek sculpture. This is the high point of human artistic development for many people. Unfortunately most of it was destroyed, not by the barbarians, by the way, but by the Christians, who deliberately vandalised and destroyed a colossal amount of this art. But sufficient of this wonderful art is still available for us to appreciate its beauty and its meaning.
I advise all of you, even those who are not used to go to art galleries to go into a gallery and just stand in front of one of these statues for a while. For the first time you will feel that you are in the presence of a genuine human creation, of human art. These statues seem to speak to us - you can't believe that they are made of stone. And yet they are still not entirely realistic, it is not exactly realism that you have here. We have the human form, the beauty of the naked human body both of men and women. But it's really idealised art. It reflects part of Greek thinking and philosophy, where idealism played quite a big role, in the works of Plato and Pythagoras. The latter thought that mathematics and harmony based on numbers was the basis of everything, and this idea had a big influence on Greek thinking for a long time. Hence, Greek art is very harmonious, with all the proportions carefully maintained. The same is true of Greek classical architecture.
Roman art is the continuation of Greek art, but it is much more realistic. At this point, of course, we have a fundamental change. The history of art does not - and cannot - exactly reflect the development of human history. That is an erroneous conception which has nothing to do with Marxism. For example it does not necessarily follow that because the productive forces increase, art will necessarily experience a revival (as the history of the past half century shows only too well), nor does it follow that a period of crisis and economic downswing cannot produce great art.
Sometimes in the period of decline in society you get a peculiar dialectical development, where human consciousness turns in on itself and that can produce very important philosophical and artistic, consequences. it is true that in the last analysis, all human culture depends on the development of the productive forces. And a general collapse of the productive forces must inevitably signify a general collapse of human culture in the end.
The dark ages
There is a marvellous little story by Jack London, the American socialist writer, which Ted Grant is very fond of. It's called 'The Scarlet Plague'. And it is a frightening view of the future. it describes a society where all diseases have been eradicated, and an unknown new disease, which cannot be controlled by medicine comes into existence and kills most of the population of the planet. As a result, civilisation collapses.
This is a very perceptive little story, a short story, because it shows the relation between the productive forces and culture. This is taken for granted by most people. Yet the collapse of the productive forces - science, industry, technology - has a dramatic effect. In just one generation, the children who were born after the catastrophe believe that when their grandfather - a scientist who survived the mass destruction - tries to explain to them that there was a society with cars and trains and planes, that it is an absurd fairy story. Even the memory of civilisation is being liquidated. While the old grandfather still speaks correct English, the grandchildren no longer speak an articulate language. They communicate with inarticulate noises because there is no longer a need to speak a complicated language.
The line of history has an ascending line, but it also knows a descending line, as when the Roman Empire was overthrown. In the end, Rome was not destroyed by the barbarians; they just gave it the last push. It was overthrown by its own internal contradictions. There was a collapse of the productive forces, as a result of the inner contradictions of slavery. The early Christians represented a revolutionary, communist movement which the defenders of the decadent old order referred to contemptuously as a religion of women and slaves. As so often happens with revolutionary movements of the poor and dispossessed, the early Christians, who turned their backs on the world as evil, and despised the luxurious life of the wealthy classes of Rome - "mother of harlots and abominations of the earth" - were impregnated with a spirit of austerity that was profoundly inimical to art, culture and science.
At this time, around the fifth century, there occurred the biggest movement of the peoples in the whole of human history. With the westward displacement of the Slavonic and German tribes the old slave society collapsed, although in truth it was collapsing anyway. And with this collapse also came the complete collapse of culture. I think it is difficult to imagine the depth of this collapse. Let me just give you one fact, which says much about the Middle Ages. In the year 1500, after 100 years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best on the European continent. Most others were in such a state of disrepair that they were unusable. So were all the European harbours until the eighth century, when commerce began to revive.
Among the lost arts were bricklaying. In all of Germany, Holland, England and Scandinavia virtually no stone buildings, except cathedrals, were raised for 10 centuries. In other words, there was a complete eclipse of culture, as a result of the collapse of the productive forces. Under conditions of such terrible collapse, why speak about the conditions of the masses? Let me just quote one extract from a medieval author, a monk called Aelfric, who wrote a book to teach Latin conversation at Winchester:
Master: What do you do, ploughman, how do you do your work? Pupil: Sir, I work very hard. I go out at dawn to drive the oxen to the field, and yoke them to the plough. However hard the winter, I dare not stay at home for fear of my lord; and having yoked the oxen and made the ploughshare and coulter fast to the plough, every day I have to plough an acre or more. M. Do you have anyone with you? P. I have a boy to drive the oxen with the goad, and he is now hoarse with cold and shouting. M. What other work do you have to do in the day? P. A great deal more. I have to fill the oxen's bin with hay, and give them water, and carry the dung outside. M. And is it hard work? P. Yes, it is hard work, because I am not free.
The rise of the feudal system was accompanied by a long period of cultural stagnation. With the exception of two inventions: the water wheel and windmills, there were no real inventions for about over a 1000 years. And all of culture now was dominated by the Catholic Church. I am referring, or course, to European culture, because unfortunately I have no time to deal with world culture, that would take too long. We will have to develop the question of Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Latin American culture on another occasion. Suffice it to say here that the cultural stagnation in medieval Europe was not the case in the Islamic world. When Christian Europe was sunk in barbarism, remarkable scientific and artistic advances were being made in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and Moslem Spain which later helped to fertilise the culture of Europe. In turn, many of the discoveries made by the Arabs and Persians had their origin in India.
We are dealing here, however, mainly with the development of capitalism, which began as a predominantly European phenomenon. The Middle Ages in Europe is characterised by the cultural dictatorship of the Church which was the complete negation of classical culture. Greek and Roman art celebrated the human form. Feudal Christian art rejects, not just the human form, but it rejects the world and all the essential activities of humanity. It directs the eyes of men and women upwards to heaven, it teaches us that this world is a world of demons and devils, it is an evil thing and the body is evil, relations between men and women are evil. Women were seen as particularly evil, since the first book of Genesis tells us that all the ills of the human race came from women ("original sin")
Music was banned from churches originally. I quote from St. Thomas who in his book the 'Summa Theologica' warns against the evils of musical instruments. He says the following: "Instruments have been excluded from worship and excluded from the churches, because they have the form of a body. They keep disturbing the mind and even induce one to carnal pleasure." What a horrible idea, inducing one to carnal pleasure!
The high point of this culture, this art, are the Mediaeval cathedrals, the Gothic cathedrals, which again, like the Egyptian statues of Pharaoh, are a statement in stone. You enter into one of these cathedrals you immediately lower your voice, it is dark, the only light comes through sometimes stained glass windows, the only bit of colour that there is. It is a mystical vision of the darkness of the soul, and these huge buildings, pointing upwards, pointing to the skies, are designed to make men and women feel small and unimportant. Many people admire this art - though personally it leaves me cold. In my opinion, it is profoundly inhuman art - an expression in stone of humanity's alienation from its own human condition.
The crisis of feudalism
In all this period millions of men and women were born, lived and died under this spiritual dictatorship. They could not even understand what was said in the churches as it was being said in Latin. And yet outside the church the sun shone, the birds sang, men and women made love, music and dance continued and ultimately you have a change in the class content of society with very profound artistic consequences.
Now in the latter stage of feudalism, the later Middle Ages, from may by the thirteenth century onwards, society enters into a profound crisis. And when a given society enters into this kind of crisis, it can last a long time. The process is not in a straight line, there can be ups and downs, but all within the general downwswing.
In periods like this, people feel that society is in a crisis, not only for economic reasons, I would even say not mainly for economic reasons. There is a general sensation of collapse, a crisis of morality, crisis of the family, crisis of the church, crisis of belief, crisis of science, crisis of art. And that was the case in the later Middle Ages. A colossal change was taking place in the midst of general suffering, collapse, wars, epidemics, famine. Many people believed that the end of the world was coming, and in fact, it was coming. Not the end of the world as such, but the end of feudalism, the collapse of feudal system. This idea of the end of the world was expressed in art in the wonderfully original paintings of Breugel the Elder and above all Hieronymus Bosch which you can find in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
The rise of the bourgeoisie
Of course, the decisive question here was the rise of the new revolutionary class which was challenging the old society, its social order, its beliefs and its religion. The bourgeoisie of the towns gradually, piece by piece conquered a place for themselves in feudal society. In the same way as the modern working class, through the organisations of the labour movement step by step, carves out a place for itself in society.
The bourgeois established the towns as separate entities, based not on agriculture and the old feudal relations, but on trade, commerce, money, money-lending. They developed a new life style and together with there gradually arose new tastes and new artistic conceptions and above all a new religion, Protestantism.
Have you ever thought what the fundamental doctrinal difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is? Most people can't answer this question, But it is very simple. The Catholic religion teaches salvation through works, the Protestant religion teaches salvation by faith. Put very crudely - but in a way which brings out the class nature of the difference - faith is very cheap, it doesn't cost any money, whereas works tends to be somewhat expensive. What is the class meaning of this? It goes right to the heart of the difference between the bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy.
Under feudalism - a system based on agriculture, there was no need for innovation, there was no need to invest in information technology or anything like that (even supposing that it was available). The reason is that the feudal landlords had a mass of serf labour who were virtually slaves, chained to the land, although they were formally free. And if you have very cheap labour you do not need to have machinery in order to increase productivity. So why bother to innovate? There was a similar situation in slave society. Although the Greeks of Alexandria had invented a steam engine which actually worked, it remained as a toy and a curiosity, with no practical application.
But if there was no need to reinvest, the question arises what does the ruling class do with the surplus? Of course you can always give it away, and some of them actually did that. Some of these people were quite generous - they could afford to be. Or you can spend it on ostentatious dress and jewellery and things like that - which most of the aristocracy and their wives did. Or you can give it to the Church. So that if you lived a very bad life, as most of them did, the priest would pray for your soul for the next 500 years, so you would be guaranteed a first-class ticket to the kingdom of heaven.
That is why the mediaeval Church could afford to build huge cathedrals from the money they got from the aristocracy. Actually, the Bible says nothing at all about the Church being a building. Somewhere, Jesus says: 'Wheresoever two or three of you are gathered together in my name, there am I'. That's what the word church means in Latin: ecclesia means a gathering, not a building at all.
So when a man called Luther came along and translated the Bible into German - very good German, as it happens, which laid the basis for the modern literary language - and people started to read the Bible, that was the beginning of the revolution. The Protestants aimed to base ourselves upon this Bible and nothing else. This was the word of God, directly revealed to Man. "If we have faith, if we believe in Jesus Christ through the Bible we will be saved", they said. And that was a very revolutionary message for the times.
This was a frontal attack against the Church, against this spiritual dictatorship; this colossal bureaucracy which was very expensive, wasteful and corrupt in every sense; this hateful clergy which taxed them for no good reason. Let us remember that we are talking here about what Marx terms the period of the primitive accumulation of capital. The bourgeois wanted to save their money for investment purposes.
Two centuries later, the slogan of the American revolutionaries was "No taxation without representation" while in the 19th century, the Liberals demanded "Cheap Government!" But the first slogan of the bourgeois was "Cheap religion!" We do not need all these churches and all these priests and all these bishops and all these Popes - this was the main idea. And this itself had an aesthetic artistic expression, of course.
The bourgeois revolution
The Puritans of Britain wore very simple black clothes. That was in itself a revolutionary statement against the rich, against all this ostentation, this over-dressing, this jewellery, this corruption. It had distinct revolutionary connotations. Capitalism, unlike feudalism or slave society, for the first time in history preaches the rights of man, the rights of the individual. Individualism and capitalism are really inseparable. And that has an important result in art because for the first time in human history, because all or nearly all previous art was anonymous art.
Here we have the emergence of great artists - people who are known to us as individuals. Starting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Northern Italy, and later in the Netherlands, we have the beginnings of that marvellous period in human history which we call the Renaissance. What is new about this art? Well in the case of Flanders, you have people like the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan van Eyck who painted religious subjects in a novel way. They were religious, but the whole content of these paintings was different to the previous art.
If you look at this Flemish art you see real men and women, the human being comes back into art. In philosophy we see the equivalent in the rise of humanism, which expresses the same bourgeois idea of the rights of the individual. This was represented by people like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. The new schools of thought were above all a product of Italy where art reached its highest point since Greece. This was a direct expression of the rise of the bourgeoisie.
This revolutionary conception of man the individual finds a wonderful expression in the works of people like Botticelli. The Birth of Venus is one of the greatest high points of all painting. This beautiful painting has nothing to do with the Middle Ages or Christianity. It is a purely pagan subject - the goddess of love, Aphrodite being born out of the waves. At the centre is the female form, a naked body - a subject that was anathema to the medieval church, which regarded the body as evil, and woman the source of original sin. Here, by contrast, we have a glorious celebration of the human body. The human essence, life itself, thrusts its way to the fore, as it did in the times of ancient Greece.
There is a freedom about this painting, they way in which the flesh and the waves are described, but also the wind, expressed in the way that the gossamer-like clothes move. This is a revolutionary statement - a complete negation of the old rigidity, the old religious mystical nonsense. The old darkness has been completely banished. Here, all is light. Nothing is fixed, everything moves, dances and laughs. Here at last art ceases to be inhuman, it is really human art.
This reflects a fundamental change in men's conception of the universe and our place in it. This is the same daring outlook which in science led to a new age of investigation and experimentation, and in politics led directly to a revolutionary conflict of the rising bourgeoisie against feudal Catholic reaction. Particularly in Holland, where the bourgeoisie was waging a heroic revolutionary struggle against the main reactionary power of Spain which one could compare to American imperialism at the present.
The revolt of the Netherlands
The revolt of the Spanish Netherlands was like the Vietnam war and the Russian Revolution mixed up into one. This was a very ferocious war, a revolutionary war in which at one stage the king of Spain condemned the entire population of the Netherlands to death with some exceptions. It was a time in which it was a crime punishable by death in the most terrible form to have a Bible in your house. Anyone found to be a heretic - that is, anyone who did not agree with the Catholic Church, would be roasted alive, but if you made a full confession and repented and denounced Protestantism, then the Holy Mother Church could show mercy. The men were beheaded and the women were buried alive.
After a long struggle the Dutch bourgeoisie succeeded in breaking free from Spain. It opened up a flowering of trade, commerce and prosperity and also of art and culture. This art of the Netherlands had some peculiarities. Many of these Dutch masterpieces breathe a spirit of complete tranquillity, of peace, of calm. What is the meaning of this? It is rooted in the previous period. After the ferocious struggle against Spain, the Dutch bourgeois, those sturdy and prosperous merchants, wanted a breathing space, a period of calm to enjoy the new peace, quiet, calm, tranquillity. That is what most of these paintings convey: a perfectly ordered and stable society.
This is also the first time in history when art really describes ordinary life, ordinary calm every day bourgeois existence. Here are women combing their hair, playing the spinet or reading a letter - as in the painting of Vermeer, one of the greatest representatives of this school. The very ordinary nature of these scenes answered to a very profound psychological need. By the way, even here economics and the class question makes an appearance.
A new kind of painting comes into existence: the still life. This usually consists of tables which are full of rather nice food, pheasants, jugs of wine and apples and other luscious fruit. The fruit is so beautiful that you honestly feel like putting your hand out and taking one of these apples and eating it. This is the message of the prosperous Dutch merchant who says 'Here I am! I have arrived. Look what I can afford. Look what I have got in my kitchen!' Even the paintings of flowers have an economic base, because this is the period of the first economic crisis of speculation, the Dutch tulip scandal where everyone wanted flowers and flowers were worth a lot of money.
Money and art
The basis of this new art is that there is a new consuming class, the prosperous merchant with a big house and lots of walls that needed covering. There were painting everywhere, there were paintings in shops, in inns, in pubs. Here art was not regarded as a high mystery, in the sense of "art for art's sake". It was regarded as a trade, just like any other trade. Vermeer painted a lot of pictures of his native town of Delft. One Delft baker actually owned two of Vermeer's paintings which are now worth millions of pounds. And the reason why the baker had the two paintings is because they paid the bread bill: Vermeer could not afford to buy bread. He died in poverty, like many artists, and big business makes millions out of their paintings.
Of course with the rise of capitalism you get the elements of importance of money, greed, acquisitiveness the desire to possess things. In England in the seventeenth century there was a bourgeois revolution. Here we see the same clash between a new religious and artistic idea and feudal absolutism. Just look at the paintings of King Charles I painted by the Dutch painter Van Dyke, many of them are in the National Gallery. They are gorgeous paintings with aristocratic figures adorned with fine jewellery and lace . Their enemies, the Puritans dressed in black and lived simply. Here are two different conceptions of aesthetics, and two different moralities, based on two antagonistic classes. A famous incident illustrates the different mentality of the two classes. When Oliver Cromwell, the English revolutionary, had his picture painted. He was a very good bourgeois revolutionary, but he was not the world's most handsome man. Cromwell said to the artist "Paint me as I am, warts and all!"
A new artistic sprit was abroad. The English revolution produced some great writers, such as John Milton, the author of 'Paradise Lost' and Andrew Marvell the wonderful old Puritan poet. But I don't have time to go into the details.
The ancien régime and the French revolution
If one turns to France you see again a clash of two classes and the clash of two cultures expressed in art. Of course I repeat, one should not try to establish exact relationships, that would be a mistake. And yet sometimes, in a peculiar, distorted way you can see the dim outline of social relations expressed in art. Not always, just sometimes. Sometimes, you can see this even in such an unlikely thing as gardening. Did you ever go to Versailles in France? Maybe you looked at the famous gardens? What do you see? Geometrical forms, straight lines.
What does this idea reflect? It is also a statement. The absolute feudal monarchy of France was trying to control everything, rigidly, even nature. The gardens of Versailles express an idea: that we can control everything, we can control even nature, even the trees, even the rivers, even the grass must obey us. The artistic expression of this idea is classicism, which tries to establish rigid rules for drama, based on a misunderstanding of something that Aristotle wrote. Drama must take place in 24 hours, in one place, you can't mix tragedy and comedy. They laughed at Shakespeare, whom they considered an ignorant barbarian, because he mixed up comedy and tragedy.
On the eve of the Revolution, the French state was bankrupt and the ground was shaking under the feet of the monarchy. It was therefore somehow to be expected that the art of the ruling class at this time should be characterised by a large element of escapism. The world of unreality we see in the paintings of Watteau was a faithful reflection of the dream world in which the doomed and decadent French ruling class actually lived. Marie Antoinette had a "farm" built on her estates where she dressed up as a shepherdess. Meanwhile, in the real world, real french shepherds and shepherdesses were suffering hardships that found no echo in Marie Antoinette's artificial world.
The same mania to control everything, and also this world of dreams, which completely broke down in 1789. The French Revolution overturned everything. And the grounds for the French Revolution were prepared previously by an ideological struggle, particularly in the realm of philosophy. The revolution carried this struggle over into art, which was expressed initially in the form of neo-classicism, in the paintings of David the great revolutionary artist and later in romanticism.
You might say, what is the difference between the old classicism and the new classicism? There is a difference. The classicism of the monarchy was based on the decadent art of the Roman Empire, the classicism of the French Revolution referred to the Roman Republic and had a revolutionary character. It was fired by the spirit of heroism, sacrifice for the common good, patriotism. They were the qualities which the revolutionary bourgeoisie needed to overthrow the old regime and hold onto power against the combined power of the monarchies of Europe.
Effects of the French revolution
The French revolution had a colossal effect, not only in France, but on an international scale. In England a whole series of great poets, some of the greatest English poets, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Burns in Scotland, William Blake, an extremely original writer and artist who was so advanced that in his time he was considered to be mad. If I remember correctly, he ended his days in the lunatic asylum. And now is recognised as a great artist and writer.
All of these great writers supported the French Revolution enthusiastically, although it was dangerous to do so. There was terrible oppression in Britain. William Blake wrote that if Jesus Christ was alive in Britain he would be put in jail. William Wordsworth was present at the time of the revolution, he was in France and in his great poem, The Prelude, he wrote the following wonderful lines:
"Bliss t'was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven."
Later, when the revolutionary wave receded and Bonapartist reaction usurped power, Wordsworth and Coleridge abandoned the cause. Something similar happened after the Russian revolution succumbed to the Stalinist political counter-revolution. But not everyone capitulated. Shelley was a marvellous poet who died tragically young. Marx greatly admired Shelley, who remained absolutely firm in his revolutionary beliefs, as did the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns.
Not only in Britain did prominent writers and artists find inspiration in the French revolution. In Germany, Goethe and Schiller enthusiastically welcomed the French Revolution and in the field of music, the greatest musical genius in history, Ludwig van Beethoven never vacillated in his support for the ideals of the French Revolution to the end of his life.
You might ask, is it possible to express the idea of that revolution in music? And I answer yes. Beethoven was a musical revolutionary who derived his inspiration from revolution. You compare any of Beethoven's symphonies to anything that had gone before and you will immediately see that it is absolutely new. And it is in the essence of all great art that it must be something new, something that says something new to us.
Some of you may know the story of Beethoven's third symphony, which is called the Eroica Symphony, that is, the symphony of a hero. Here is the very spirit of the French Revolution in music. You doubt that, you think that I am making it up? But it is a well documented fact! Beethoven thought that Napoleon was a continuation of the French Revolution and he was going to dedicate his third Symphony to Napoleon. In fact, it was going to be called the Napoleon Symphony.
When in the middle of writing it he heard the news that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor. And, snatching up his pen, he scratched the name of Napoleon from the score. This piece of paper still exists, you can see it in a museum and you can see that he scratched it out so furiously that he tore a hole in the paper. He re-named the symphony the Eroica Symphony - in the memory of a hero.
Now, many of perhaps don't like classical music. That's a pity. But I invite you just to listen to just the first two seconds of that symphony. And that's a revolution in music. Before that people - rich people, of course - used to go to a symphonic concert, sit down, , fall asleep, perhaps, or maybe go home whistling a few pleasant tunes. You can't do that with Beethoven and the Eroica symphony starts with two heavy blows, like a fist hammering a table or a door. It is not music, it is not a tune. It is a call to attention , or rather, a call to. arms.
Beethoven's fifth symphony is better known, it starts with a very famous theme. Again it is not really a tune. And Nicholas Harnancourt, the Dutch conductor has said: "this is not music, this is political agitation. It is telling us: 'this world is bad, this world is wrong, we must change it. Let's go!' " This is Harnancourt, speaking, not me. And in point of fact, it has recently been discovered by John Elliot Gardener, an English conductor, that Beethoven's fifth Symphony is based on French revolutionary songs. Yes, music can express revolution and does express revolution.
The relationship between the artist and society is a dialectical one. Art must come from the individual, must come from the heart, if you like. But there can be moments in which the internal contradictions of a person can coincide with broad social contradictions. And that can generate great art as was the case with Beethoven. Beethoven's personal life was full of tragedy. He started to go deaf when he was 28 years of age. By the time he conducted his ninth symphony, his great choral symphony he was completely deaf.
This was a life full of personal anguish, which of course is reflected in his music. But Beethoven was a genius, and where another man would have been destroyed by this, Beethoven was not only not destroyed, but he rose above his personal situation and expressed in his music not a personal problem, but all the great contradictions and dilemmas facing suffering humanity.
The prevailing artistic tendency in the first half of the nineteenth century was Romanticism. What's the meaning of romanticism? What does it represent?
In 1789 - 93 you have the enormous revolutionary leap in France which held out a promise of a better future for the whole human race, based on liberty, equality and fraternity. These were very high sounding slogans, which the bourgeois used to rouse the masses to fight, but given the prevailing level of the productive forces, the French Revolution ended in a bourgeois revolution and could only end in a bourgeois revolution.
With the consolidation of bourgeois rule, all the dreams of the artists and intellectuals that were aroused by the Revolution evaporated, and were dissipated in the cold light of day. Instead of the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, they had the rule of the banker, the merchant, the money-maker. Society was dominated by the cold hearted avarice of the bourgeois, which are very well reflected in the novels of Balzac, as I mentioned.
And as a reaction against this, many artists and writers tried to put forward a revolutionary alternative, if you like. They had an implacable hostility towards the bourgeoisie, towards the rule of money. And of course art must always strive for freedom. Genuine art must freely express something which is in myself, not something that is imposed from without by anything whatsoever, for such art is necessarily bad art. And therefore art rejects control by the state, just as it rejects the dictatorship of religion and of the church. And also rejects the tyranny of the market, which is an implacable foe of art and creativity.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century - up to the defeat of the 1848 revolution - many famous French poets and writers had revolutionary instincts. Delacroix, Gautier, Daumier, Baudelaire all sympathised with the revolution of 1848 and participated in it. By the way, while we are on the subject, let me give you a little surprise. One of those who participated, actively in the revolution in Germany was a young composer called Richard Wagner. At the time, he was a personal friend of the anarchist Bakunin, and he wrote quite a good lengthy article called "Socialism and Art", which explains that true art and music is incompatible with capitalism .
Yes, most of the creative artists were on the side of the working class, on the side of the revolution in 1848. But the petty bourgeoisie is a very unstable class. The intellectuals are particularly unstable. When the revolution was defeated they became depressed, rapidly lost all faith in the working class and turned inwards on themselves. That is the historical origin of the so called theory of "art for art's sake", which I mentioned in the beginning.
The movement called symbolism which was created basically by Baudelaire - a marvellous poet. But he was one of those who lost all faith in the revolution after 1848, and retreated into himself, writing mainly about things like sex and mysticism, which is always the case with the intelligentsia after the defeat of every revolution. You'll find the same phenomenon repeated many times.
I will give you an example from my own personal experience. I was in Portugal at the time of the revolution in 1975. At that time there was an enormous movement of the working class after 50 years of fascist dictatorship. You walked through the streets of Lisbon and you'd see crowds of hundreds of people heatedly discussing politics, and bookstalls full of the works of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao Tse Tung. I went back later, a few years later after the defeat of the revolution, the left wing books had all disappeared, and in their place there was pornography, religious books, mystical books.
It is quite normal to see the rise of a reactionary cultural trend after the defeat of a revolution. Then when the revolution returns to the struggle under the impact of profound social crisis, you get the same ferment as before amongst the intelligentsia. But I'm afraid I will have to cut my story a little bit short. Because we need to deal with the place of art today. And also to try to see if there is a relationship between art and the class struggle.
Art and the class struggle
It is possible to give different answers to this question. If you asked me, should we judge all art from the standpoint of Marxist theory and the class struggle, I would say that would be ridiculous. Art is not necessarily revolutionary and it is possible to find quite great art which reflects a quite a conservative or reactionary idea. Let me give you just one example.
The French writer Honoré de Balzac who was Marx's favourite novelist was a political conservative, actually he supported the monarchy. Yet, as Marx pointed out, he was such a great writer, such a great realist, that you could learn more from his novels about the history of France in the first part of the nineteenth century and draw revolutionary conclusions, than from anything else.
In the history of the twentieth century, art has on occasion reflected revolutionary ideas. For example, a painter who perhaps not all of you like, Pablo Picasso, was not a political person, but somebody who grew up in the fertile cultural soil of Spain in the beginning of the last century. This was a time when Spain was in ferment. Picasso was a friend of Federico Garcia Lorca, who had left wing sympathies. Lorca, probably the greatest modern Spanish poet, was murdered by the fascists in 1936.
In this country [Spain] there was a whole series of artists, writers, poets and musicians who were influenced by the general ferment in society, and who participated in the revolution of 1931-1937, some of them in a militant way. I am thinking particularly of Miguel Hernadez, a great poet who came from the labouring classes, and ended his life in a fascist prison.
Let's go back for a moment to this stupid middle class prejudice that the masses are not interested in culture. Up to a certain point I think there is some truth in this. Because the masses sense that bourgeois culture is a monopoly of the ruling class, it is not for us. It is something alien, it does not belong to ordinary people. Yes that idea exists. And it sometimes leads to a rejection of art and culture by ordinary people. Yes it's true, but it is also true of politics. Normally the masses take no interest in politics. Under normal circumstances of class society the masses leave the important to somebody else - the local councillor, the trade union official, the member of Parliament and so on.
So when we say that the masses are not interested in culture, all we are saying is that under normal conditions of class society the masses leave thinking in general to somebody else. But the essence of a revolution, as Trotsky explains, is precisely that the great mass of ordinary men and women, begin to participate in politics. They begin to change, they begin to raise themselves up to the level of real human beings, they discover that they have interests and needs that they didn't realise before; hat they have a mind, that they have a personality, that they have human dignity, that they have soul. Al that comes out in a revolution.
Miguel Hernandez went to the front to read his revolutionary poetry to the Republican soldiers in the trenches. He was met with enormous enthusiasm everywhere from the workers and peasants. The interest in culture is present in the hearts and the minds of the masses, but it is suppressed and crushed by this barbarous and unjust class society. But it comes out in a revolution. And a genuine Marxist tendency must understand that, we must appreciate its significance and cherish it.
We find a reflection of revolution in a distorted way in things like surrealism. The Dadaist movement already anticipated the surrealist movement around the time of the First World War, particularly in Germany, where some outstanding artists and writers staged a revolt against militarism and capitalism. They produced some outstanding works, I am thinking in particular of people like George Grosz, Kurt Weil, Berthold Brecht. The last two collaborated to write the Threepenny Opera (Der Dreigroschenoper) which starts with the well-known song Mack the Knife (Meckie Messer)
The songs in this opera contain some marvellous lines, especially the ones which finish the work:
"Denn die eine sind im Dunkel,
Und die and're sind im Licht,
Und mann siehet die im Lichte,
Die im Dunkel sieht mann nicht."
["For some people live in darkness and some people live in light, you see those that live in the light, those that live in the dark you don't see."]
The Dadaist and Surrealist movements expressed the contradictions in capitalist society through the medium of biting caricature. Trotsky understood the revolutionary potential of this art and literature, especially as a weapon against totalitarianism in art and society (both fascism and Stalinism). He took a great interest in the surrealist movement, and actually wrote a manifesto on art and revolution together with André Breton, the French surrealist.
Even Cubism in some way reflect something about society. What does it reflect? Wars and revolutions represent colossal convulsions which transform everything, change people's lives - and their minds. Cubism reflects a profound change in the way people saw the world in general. Before 1914 there was a long period of gradual upswing of capitalism. It was a bit like the period we have just passed through. Full employment, prosperity and the idea that this can go on forever. And then suddenly the dream is shattered, the illusion is dissolved by the trauma of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Then came the German Revolution and the Hungarian Revolution and the rise of fascism in Italy. All of which shatters people's world to pieces. The psychology of even the most conservative individuals is changed. How can this not be reflected in art?
Let us think for a moment of the art before the First World War. the dominant tendency was impressionism, born in France in the last decades of the 19th century. Personally I like impressionism. It conveys the idea of a tranquil, peaceful world, a world of flowers and sunshine and picnic on the lawn. After the First World War how could artists go back to such a world like this? How could they even consider it?
If you look at Picasso's early paintings - the so-called blue period - you will see a very compassionate portrayal of the world of marginalised poor people, done with a technical perfection and a sense of mass. I am thinking of one painting, of a young girl acrobat on top of a huge ball. In the foreground an immense male athlete with huge muscles is sitting on a massive great block. Somehow the girl seems to be floating, seems to be defying gravity. While the other figure expresses a sense of mass of weight and the force of gravity pulling downwards.
This technical, almost geometrical aspect gradually takes on a live of its own and creates a new school. The human figure is now represented in a normal way, which we are used to describing as realism. The human form is shown from different angles, in a way which would not be possible in everyday life. Somebody might say that this is not art. People are not like that; how can you have a foot over there and a hand over there, and the face facing both ways?
However, the purpose of great art is not just to convey things as they are - or seem to be - any more than philosophy must portray things just as they are. The real task of both art and philosophy is to penetrate beyond the world of appearances, tear away the mask and show reality and people as they really are.
You know, it was not Picasso who began to split people into their constituent parts. In the period of 1914 to 1918, millions of men in uniform were chopped up into their constituent parts by bayonets and high explosives. If this art shocks, it is far less shocking than society in the 20th and 21st centuries.
I am thinking of one painting of Picasso in particular, it is called 'The Portrait of a Lady'. Please note, not a portrait of a woman, but a portrait of a lady. It is a female figure in which the sexual organs are greatly exaggerated, breasts and so on, and the figure if you look at it has no hands. Why does the lady have no hands? Because the lady does not work. The sole function of a lady of the upper classes is precisely as a reproductive animal. By the way, Picasso wrote on the door of his study at one time: 'Je ne suis en gentilhomme.' I am not a gentleman. I could continue, but it would take a little bit too much time.
Picasso's greatest painting was undoubtedly his masterpiece, Guernica. This is perhaps the most powerful artistic manifesto in history. Picasso said at one point: art is not for decoration, art should be a weapon of struggle. And Guernica, which I advise you to look at carefully, expresses the horror of the bombing of the Basque town. It is the best kind of militant art. It shows that art can be militant.
There have been militant artists in the twentieth century, like Diego Rivera and others. And is it not our responsibility - along with our trade union work, youth work and other work - to try to reach the best of the modern artists and writers and turn them into militant allies of the working class? I believe that art can play a revolutionary role, and we must show ourselves to be open and willing to have a dialogue with the best of the artists: to win them to the active service of the working class.
Art and the October Revolution
Leon Trotsky once wrote that revolution is the locomotive of history. And a marvellous proof of that was the October Revolution itself. The Russian Revolution was an earth-shaking act of human emancipation - in every sense. Not just the emancipation of the proletariat, but emancipation of women, the emancipation of the oppressed nationalities, of the Jews and yes, of art itself.
The October Revolution set art free. Contrary to the slanders of the enemies of Bolshevism, there was never any attempt by the Bolsheviks to impose a Party line on art. The decade after October were years of impassioned and free debate, experiment and innovation. What a galaxy of artistic talent arose in the years after the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920's. There was a marvellous flourishing of culture and art. We have the poems of that great revolutionary poet, Mayakovsky - a Bolshevik from 1905 - who was called the drummer boy of the revolution.
After the October Revolution the beginnings of a marvellous renaissance. In the theatre with Meyerhold, in the cinema with Eisenstein, who I personally think was the greatest film director in the whole of history, in music with Shostakovitch - a man who would never have written a note of music without the Russian Revolution , and who wrote his first symphony in 1928 at the age of 26, if my memory doesn't fail me.
There were highly original writers like Isaac Babel the Jewish authors who wrote 'Red Cavalry' a marvellous work about the Civil War. Mayakovsky, I have just mentioned, and there were others, who were not Bolsheviks, but also thrived under the revolution.
But this beautiful, fragrant flower was crushed under the boot of Stalinism. Meerholt died in a concentration camp, Babel died in a concentration camp, Mayakovsky committed suicide, Mandelshtamm died in a concentration camp, and so on. These were just some of the crimes of Stalinism in the field of culture.
Art and socialism
Now I realise that I have gone on rather long and have not covered a quarter of the ground that I intended to cover. But I would just like to finish with one idea about the future of art under socialism. Our main task, our most pressing task is to overthrow capitalism because the continuation of capitalism threatens, not just economic life it threatens it is a mortal threat for the future perspectives of human civilisation and culture. Because despite of all the marvellous advances of human civilisation of a period of ten thousand years, human culture and civilisation is really only quite a thin layer.
Civilisation is really quite fragile and beneath this thin veneer of culture the forces of primitive barbarism still exist. You saw that with Hitler's Germany, and we have seen more recently in the Balkans, unless the working class takes power into its hands, the future of human culture and civilisation is in serious danger. But there is another side to this question.
Under modern conditions, the colossal development of the productive forces, of science and of technology a socialist revolution, especially on a world scale, would rapidly lead to a cultural revolution, the like of which has never been seen in human history. One of the greatest crimes of capitalism is that represses the ingenuity, the creativity, the potential of ordinary people. The majority of people never have the chance to develop themselves freely. Trotsky once said, "How many Aristotles are herding swine?" and he added, "How many swineherds are sitting on thrones?"
For hundreds of years, art has been the monopoly of a few. To the vast majority, it has been presented as something mystical, difficult and utterly inaccessible. The artist is presented as a special kind of being, uniquely gifted at birth, and not like the rest of us. Now, I am far from denying that there is a genetic element in our makeup which gives us a certain potential for development. It is also clear that not everyone can be, say, a Mozart. But this assertion really explains nothing.
Mozart' genetic make-up clearly gave him the potential for becoming a great composer. But the environment in which he grew up played a determining role in realising that potential. His father was a well known composer, Leopold Mozart who was very ambitious for his child. From a very early age he encouraged his son to be interested in music. That Mozart, the child Mozart had a potential to become a great musician, of that there is no doubt. But does anyone seriously believes that if Mozart had been born instead of the son of a prosperous composer, if he had been born an Indian peasant, do you think he would have written symphonies? Of course not.
An English poet of the 18th century wrote the following lines:
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathom'd caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air."
How well these lines express the colossal waste of human talent under capitalism!
If you want a fundamental definition of socialism, I give it to you. It is to make actual all that is potential in the human race. If one looks at the history of humanity, it is striking that the numbers of geniuses, like Mozart, are quite few. There are very few. Out of the thousands of millions of men and women who live on our planet I do not say that every one of them could be a Mozart - that would be false. But that there are amongst these people many potential geniuses in many different fields - of that, there is not an atom of doubt.
Just think back to your school years. How many kids in your school,do you know that under different circumstances could have been doctors, writers, composers, dancers, footballers, musicians? And how did they end up? We all start out with this dream, do we not? But very soon on the basis of capitalism this dream is crushed out of people. They become brutalised, to the point that some of them become like animals. The potential within them is crushed at an early age. The inner meaning of socialism is to bring back potential that human potential to its fruition.
Comrades, the inner meaning of socialism is not to fight for a crust of bread, that is not what we are fighting for. That is only the first step - a very important step, of course. The Bible says, "Man shall not live by bread alone.' And actually human beings have never lived by bread alone". And under a socialist society, men and women will be free from want from poverty and will have the necessary time to develop themselves as free human beings. For the first time, they will be free to develop their personality, to develop themselves physically and mentally.
Just imagine the colossal amount of capability of creative potential that will be released! It would make the gains of the Renaissance look like a very small affair. Art for the first time in history would once again be part of life, not shut away in a museum, Trotsky said that a museum was a concentration camp for art. Art must be freed from this prison and connect with life.
Art and the future
At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity is confronted with a very important question - that of so-called globalisation. This has a cultural dimension as well as an economic one. As Marxists, of course, we are internationalists, we should be free of any trace of nationalist prejudice. And Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto that the development of capitalism would create a tendency towards world economy, out of which there would eventually arise a world culture.
To some extent, that is already a fact. Over the last 20 or 30 years there has been an enormous transformation on a world scale. Practically everywhere you go now, particularly in the developed countries, and increasingly also in the underdeveloped world young people wear the same clothes, they listen to the same music, and there is a general tendency towards a kind of standardisation. Is this good or bad? We must be careful not to fall into a philistine nationalist position on this question. Because the cleaning of the decks, the cleaning away of a lot of rubbish eventually must lead to a world wide human culture under socialism. However, under capitalism, what this global "culture" boiled down to is the crude cultural domination of the planet by one powerful imperialism which crushes all other cultures in the interest of profit. And that cannot be good.
By the way, somebody mentioned the words 'workers music' or "workers art". In fact, there is no such thing. Marx long ago explained that the leading ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. And Trotsky explained that the proletariat cannot create its own culture before the revolution because of the conditions of its life under capitalism. On the other hand, after the socialist revolution there will not be a workers' culture, but a genuinely human, socialist culture.
Comrades we must raise our eyes and broaden our horizons a little bit. We must understand that out of the present mess, the present crisis, the present degradation of the planet, a new civilisation is being prepared. Throughout history, when a social and economic system enters into crisis, as capitalism is now in crisis, that fact expresses itself in many ways: as a crisis of the family, a crisis of morality, a crisis of religion, a crisis of culture. And all those elements are present now under capitalism.
There is a general sickness a general sense of decline and decay which also affects art. Just look at the art that they produce now. I think I am a very broad-minded person, I am in favour of artistic experiment, I am interested in new ideas, but when you have an artistic exhibition in London which shows a sheep, a dead sheep in formaldehyde, and this is presented as art, then I begin to wonder.
I think this a symptom of decadence and people pay a lot of money for it. Other artists have produced works of art using their own excrement. This is - I am being absolutely serious - put on the market and I believe it also makes quite a lot of money. Well, the English have got an old saying, "Where there's muck there's brass." And in the art world of decadent capitalism, where there is excrement, there is money. The bourgeois, as always, will make money out of anything!
If art represents a kind of mirror and it does represent a kind of mirror in which society can see itself reflected, then this is a very faithful reflection of bourgeois society in the 21st century. This represents a crisis of culture and its final degradation. But in a sense even this art has got something to say to us, it is telling us that culture under capitalism can no longer develop. It is a very serious message and therefore the task that now falls to the proletariat - like the task of the bourgeoisie in the 17th and 18th centuries consists of clearing all this rubbish out of the way and preparing the way for a new social order.
This is not only an economic question, I insist, but because the capitalists cannot use the colossal potential that exists for the development of industry, agriculture, science and technology, it is the task of the working class to take over control of society. Once the working class holds power in its hands then there opens up before us a limitless potential for human development, on the basis of a socialist planned economy.
This is what we are fighting for. We are fighting, not only for the economic emancipation of the proletariat, we are fighting for the soul of the human race. We are fighting for a society in which the potential of everybody can be developed to the full. And freed from the humiliating dependence on the slavery of capitalism we will finally raise ourselves up to our true human stature and reach out our hands to the stars.
In a socialist society, people would build beautiful cities, having torn down the ugly, polluted, overcrowded monstrosities which our cities have become, and build anew. People can and must have the right to live in beautiful houses, and to create genuinely human conditions to live under. Everyday life in the home, in the workplace, and even on the streets would become beautiful. Architecture would no longer be the Cinderella of the arts, but would be hotly debated. It would regain the kind of central position and prestige that it enjoyed in ancient Athens.
Art and culture and science would blossom as never before and above all, the highest art, the most important art, the art of life itself. To make life beautiful is the greatest of all causes, because we only have one life. As dialectical materialists, we do not accept the idea of life after death. It is up to us to ensure that people's lives are no longer empty and meaningless, but that everyone is able to live life to the full, and when the time comes, to depart from it without regret.
This will be, in the words of Frederick Engels, "Humanity's leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom." That is the cause that we are fighting for - the only cause that is worth fighting for. Inspired and armed with these ideas, we will succeed.
Barcelona, July 2001.
The above lines are only a very rough sketch of a huge and complex subject. In order to do justice to this subject, I would need a whole day to lead off and we would need a whole week to discuss. But it is quite possible that the end of the day we will produce a book on the subject which would treat it as it deserves.
Ernst Fischer, the Austrian Marxist, posed the question of what art means. What is art? And he suggested that in art humanity is striving after a full life. What does this mean? Under class society we are not full men and full women. In the best of cases, we are only half realised as human beings. And although people don't really understand it, most people feel that they are not fully fulfilling their potential in this life. They don't understand why, but they are feeling that there is something missing in their lives, or rather that 'I am missing something.'
For the great majority of people the big question is not '"Is there a life after death?" The question is "Is there a life before death?" It is an idea that torments people. When they stop to think about their life, people ask themselves: "Is this all there is? Is this all there is to life?" The reason why they look towards a life after death is because they have not really lived life. And this where art comes in. It allows people to dream, it gives them a broader horizon. They dream that things can be better, that life could be better.
Men and women who have no love in their lives they go to the cinema and watch these silly love stories, because they aspire to genuine human love, feeling and passion. They are attracted by colour because their lives are colourless. They are even attracted by the drug of religion because they live in a soulless world. I am talking about the masses, I am not just talking about intellectuals. Many people go to the cinema, many people watch these dreadful programmes on the television, which in England are known as soap operas. These are a very bad substitute for a real life, which millions of people watch because they have no life of their own.
In the cinema, or before the television screen, for an hour or so they see action, they see excitement, which gives them a little relief from the sheer, tedious, grey boredom of their existence under capitalism. That is he importance of art: it is a dream that suggests, however vaguely, that humanity can actually have a life and it also supposes that in their innermost hearts, men and women aspire to another kind of life - to something better than what they have got.
And therefore, in a sense, all art potentially contains the germ of revolution because it represents a discontent with what is. Of course we understand the limitations of art, we understand that for us it is not the fundamental area of struggle. It is just one more area that we have to comment on and try to intervene in, try to establish some sort of a contact and dialogue with the best of the artists, of course.
The contradictions expressed through art cannot be resolved through art, because they are contradictions of society that are only reflected in art, but can only be resolved in society through revolutionary struggle. Therefore, the consistent pursuit for freedom and truth in art must eventually lead to the road of social revolution and the ideas and programme of Marxism.