Someone has said that one of the criteria for winning the Turner Prize is not to be understood. The philosophy behind this is: the less I am understood, the better the art. Yet the kind of art that wins the Turner competition also has merit. They have the merit of holding up a mirror to the society that produced them, and saying: “This is what you are, and this is all you are capable of producing.” These works point out to us that beneath the sleek, comfortable bourgeois surface of modern society, horrors are lurking: dead vermin, murder, death and decay.
The cheap and nasty pop culture that capitalism produces in its phase of senile decay plays approximately the same role as the cheap and nasty fast food that is undermining the health and clogging the arteries of the present generation of youth. The only difference is that this "pop art" is undermining culture and clogging the mental arteries of society. It is hard to say which activity is the more harmful.
Part of what is called "mass entertainment" of the modern epoch consists of the mass production of what are known as "celebrities". Everyone knows who these celebrities are, since they occupy a prominent place on the front page of the tabloid press, and an equally prominent place in the daily conversations in the home, the factory floor, canteen and bus stop. We are invited to express a deeply held opinion on what this or that celebrity is wearing, eating, drinking, saying or thinking, on whom they are sleeping with, marrying, divorcing or deceiving. What we are never asked to express an opinion on is the interesting question: what do these celebrities actually do? What productive or cultural functions do they fulfil?
In the old days, when people were less sophisticated but possibly more intelligent, men and women were famous because they did things better than other men and women. They were good at singing, dancing, football, acting, or whatever. Not any more! The power of the mass media that are universally owned and controlled by the big monopolies is immense - so immense that they have the power that in the past was enjoyed only by the Almighty - the power to create something out of nothing.
Modern-day celebrities do not have to be good at anything. They simply ARE. And they ARE, simply because the tabloid papers and television say they are. This is an awesome power that persuades millions of supposedly intelligent human beings that such-and-such an untalented, brainless nonentity is a Celebrity, worthy of all our respect, admiration and attention.
Celebrities in art
This mania has spread in recent years to the world of art, where individuals devoid of any talent in the field of art are held up for our admiration as the pioneers of a new age, and even the prophets of a new religion. As someone commented: "Most of the attention is in the person, not in the art." Therefore, "The celebrity status has become more important than the art."
It is an expression, not of art, but only of the artist's ego. This interest in the person of the artist rather than the art that he or she actually produces is no accident. It merely reflects the fact that this art is itself devoid of all interest. Let us take one example of this kind of art: an unmade bed. This is what is known as "conceptualist art." It is art of a most democratic character, since I make it every morning. The barriers between art and the people thus come crashing down. Down with elitism! Let our banner and emblem be the unmade bed. And since it obviously requires no talent or ability to leave one's bed unmade, let our slogan be: long live the total absence of talent!
Another example was a pile of cigarette ash that was carefully put together (if that is the right word) by a female Japanese artist. This was such a realistic statement on life, that a cleaning lady made short work of it with her brush and pan. This direct action was a far more effective criticism than all the verbiage that one reads in the weekly supplements of the Guardian. Another celebrated masterpiece is a stack of bricks. The secret of these bricks is entirely geographical in character. The logic is: if they are in a museum they are beautiful. But presumably if they are in their proper place - i.e. a building site - they are ugly - a fact that can be attested to by any bricklayer's labourer.
Yet another example is Paul Macarthy's Rocky video, consisting of a man punching himself with a boxing glove. All this shows to what extent the person of the artist has become fetishised. This is a most graphic expression of alienation and fetishism in late capitalist society. The attention of the public is drawn, not to the work of art but to the artist who produces it. But the artist is not presented as a human being but as yet another "celebrity" - yet another artificial creation of the mass media.
The trend of conceptual art has its critics, however. The Stuckists, apostles of painting over conceptual art, and self-appointed scourges of "the Serota tendency" (named after Sir Nicholas, director of the Tate), have picketed the ceremony for several years dressed as clowns. This year they announced with dignity that the clowns were boycotting the ceremony of the Turner Prize. Instead they turned up with two inflatable sex dolls, specially bought in a Soho sex shop by Stuckist founder Charles Thomson, who demanded: "Did Turner exhibit sex dolls, joke shop skulls and a flower shop? Should it not be retitled the Emperor's Prize to honour Sir Nicholas's new art which isn't actually there?"
The Turner Prize
An excellent example of this fetishism is the Turner Prize for art, announced last week in London. By coincidence, this year the prize was won by a transvestite potter from Essex, Grayson Perry by name. The press has concentrated on the unusual dressing habits of Mr. Perry, whose alter ego, we are informed, is called Claire, described by The Observer as "the burliest glamour girl in town, whose satin "coming out dress", exquisitely embroidered with phallic symbols, hangs on one wall of his exhibition gallery […] Her blue and white satin Bo-Peep outfit, complete with ribboned crook, is particularly unforgettable."
Unlike the press, we are profoundly uninterested in Mr. Perry's dressing preferences. As far as we are concerned, he can make pots in the nude, if that pleases him. What we are interested in is the value of his work as art. And on this issue there must be a reasonable element of doubt. The judges, we are told, struggled long and hard before reaching their verdict. It apparently took hours longer than usual to reach a decision. In the end they went out of their way to praise "the outstanding presentations produced by all four artists". This demonstrates a keen sense of humour on their part, or at least a vivid imagination. The best one can say about these productions is that they are outstandingly trivial.
In The Observer of Sunday December 07 2003 there was an article entitled: A great potter? Indisputably not. Just an interesting character making minor art. This is a fair judgement. Its author, Adrian Searle, arts critic of The Guardian, comments: "Is he a great or particularly original potter? Indisputably not. The drawings and decoration which cover the repetitive forms of his pots are arresting, often amusing and sometimes alarming and depressing in their subject matter, but as sardonic social satire it is hardly Swiftian."
The result was a big surprise since the Chapman Brothers were favourites from the start to take the prize. They are best known, not for their dressing habits, but for their rotting corpses and mutilated Goyas. The attempt to "add to" the message of Goya's great series The Disasters of War is a perfect expression of the arrogant pretentiousness of these people. In order to add something to the great art of the past it is first necessary to rise to its level. But the modern "perfectionists" do not even come close to it. Their tasteless "additions" have precisely the opposite effect to what was intended. Jake and Dinos Chapman trivialise Goya's message and empty it of all its force and content. This art is approximately on the level of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, only less technically accomplished. This fact has finally been grasped by at least part of the art-loving public at the Tate Modern:
"In recent weeks," The Observer informs us, "Tate staff noticed that while visitors were laughing or gasping at their plastic sex dolls cast in bronze and frozen in desolating oral sex, they were spending hours in the next gallery, poring in silence over Grayson Perry's seductively coloured pots. These are incised with a nightmare world of child abuse and violence, a landscape of tower blocks and burned out cars stalked by murderous moppets in Kate Greenaway frilly dresses. One is called We've Found The Body Of Your Child. Another pot, Boring Cool People, pokes fun at the very arty types now flocking to his shows and paying up to £ 25,000 for his vases - a price which can now safely be predicted to rise dramatically.
"One of his Turner prize pots is topped by a beautifully executed in-joke, a gilt teddy bear impaled on a tiny tree, echoing the corpses hanging from a life-size tree in the Chapmans' gallery next door." (Sunday December 07 2003)
Ironically, the people who mostly laugh at his satires are the very people he satirises - collectors, gallery-goers, the "boring cool people" of one of his titles. That he makes fun of the arty types who swarm around this stuff like flies around one of Damien Hirst's dead cows, is definitely a point in his favour. But that does not alter the self-evident fact that Grayson Perry's pots are not great art, merely competent technique. In this environment, form, technical cleverness, or rather slickness, is everything; content, ideas, profundity is nothing. The contrast between this art and the art of Goya's Disasters of War is so absolute that comment is superfluous.
Is this art meaningless?
It is one thing to be forced to think, to struggle to understand and appreciate new forms of art. It is another thing when art that lacks all content pretends to be pregnant with a mysterious content that is so deep that we do not "get it". Hegel once remarked: just as there is a breadth that is empty, so there is a depth that is empty too. And very often, we cannot see anything in certain works of art - because there was nothing to see in the first place.
A recent programme on Channel 4 (14/ 11/ 03) asserted, with some justification, that one of the criteria for winning the Turner Prize is not to be understood. The philosophy behind this is: the less I am understood, the better the art. But art is a kind of communication between people. Art that cannot be understood is art that cannot communicate. The philosophy that art must be incomprehensible - that it must be meaningless - brings us immediately back to the starting point of the untalented Celebrity who demands to be adored for no reason in particular, but just because he or she IS.
This reminds one of a lecture that ends with the exited comment from a member of the audience: "That was a marvellously profound lecture, I didn't understand a single word!" But it is to be supposed that people go to lectures in order to be provided with a rational insight into matters that were previously unclear. A lecture that does not make things clear and that leaves us at the end still more mystified than at the beginning is a bad lecture. A bad lecturer does not know how to explain his subject matter to the audience. That usually means he has not understood it himself and is merely trying to disguise his own ignorance and incompetence behind a smokescreen of verbiage.
This art is supposed to be pregnant with all sorts of deep meaning that we are not capable of grasping. To be quite fair, the work of Perry is more accessible than most. Perhaps, for a change, Perry won the prize because his "meaning" was sufficiently near the surface to be accessible to mortal minds. He was praised for his "uncompromising engagement with personal and social concerns". These consist mainly of his concern about the phenomenon of the abuse of children, something that appears to have reached epidemic proportions in our society, at least if one is to believe the sensational press. The main themes are child cruelty and murder, and glimpses of Perry's own troubled childhood.
Does this art tell us nothing at all? That would be unfair. All art undoubtedly tells us something about the society in which we live, its morality and psychology. It is true that art is not only about looking - it is also about thinking. To the degree that conceptualist art actually makes us think about the state of society and the world we live in, it may be said to be of some interest. But such "statements" as can be offered by dead cows in pickled in formaldehyde are limited in the best case.
Perry's pots contain a comment on our society, and it is a valid comment. If it is right to judge a given society on its treatment of women and children, then senile capitalism stands condemned by history. The world in which we live is a particularly vicious place, ruled by the laws of the market, that is, the laws of the jungle. Its moving spirit consists of egotism, greed and indifference to the suffering of others. People are regarded as things to be used and thrown away, while things - especially little green paper things - are regarded as the most precious, desirable and sacred objects, which are worshipped and set above all else. In this rat race, humans come a very poor second. This is the fetishism of commodities about which Marx wrote. It is the expression of a sick society.
If the intention is to point out that we live in a world in which senseless violence (both to people and animals) is commonplace, then such a message would be far better delivered in the form of an article or a book. These are the most adequate vehicles to express an idea. In this art, however, the idea emerges (if it emerges at all) in a confused, incomplete and incoherent manner.
Many artists deal with death and cruelty. The reason for this obsession is clear. It is a confused reflection in the mind of the artist of the world in which we live. In a world where the forces of US and British imperialism are allowed to run amok in Iraq, bombing, burning, killing, maiming and plundering, what point would there be in painting something like Monet's water lilies? That such subjects occupy a central place in the art of our times is no surprise. The problem is that it is not always clear whether they deal with these subjects with the intention of addressing real social problems or merely to attract the attention of the media and create a sensation.
When Goya produced his masterpiece The Disasters of War he was making an important political statement, in line with his revolutionary democratic views. But when we are presented with the spectacle of a dead cow's head surrounded with flies or a mountain of dead rats, we suspect that the motivation behind it is of a different nature. This art does not challenge the violence upon which the existing social order is based, but only reproduces it as a neutral and indifferent manner. Its aim is not to provoke a sense of outrage at the phenomena described but only to produce a level of titillation in those who are confronted with it.
What really won was the Turner prize not Grayson Perry but was sex and death. Since these are just about the only themes that are considered worthy of attention in the art of our times, this is hardly surprising. The other contenders included a video piece by Willie Doherty of a man running desperately across an endless bridge, and Anya Gallaccio's decaying flowers and rotting apples. In the end this art is not meaningless. It is a faithful mirror image of the world of senile capitalism, a world in which not only apples and flowers decay, but the minds and souls of men and women.
Art and big business
We therefore end up with a dialectical paradox: this art that was supposed to tear down the barriers between art and life, that was supposed to abolish elitism and establish the rule of absolute democracy and equality of art - this very art ends up in a world of absolute elitism, where the majority is radically excluded because they "don't get it." This supposedly democratic art has been appropriated by the sharks and money-grabbing millionaire speculators and parasitic snobs.
The Turner Prize provides the winner with £20,000, presented by Sir Peter Blake. In a world so completely dominated by money, how can art escape? Art has become big business. Painters and sculptors produce highly marketable commodities. In the last analysis, these are just commodities, like any other, and subject to the rules of the market. Adrian Searle writes: "His pots are offbeat luxury goods, around which his life story, his childhood miseries and Claire herself create an aura." Yes, they are luxury goods that will be bought by those with enough money to indulge their caprices while simultaneously making a little investment "for a rainy day". The artist may have a laugh at the expense of the bourgeois, but under capitalism, it is always the moneyed classes who have the last laugh.
It is an axiom that art must be free to develop. Every generation of artists must struggle against the old, stale conventions that express the truths of yesterday, but which has entered into contradiction with the truths of today. Therefore, by its very nature art is revolutionary. It mercilessly tears down the barriers established by habit, routine and tradition, it searches, it explores new avenues. It recognizes no boundaries.
Yet, like all other areas of human thought, art can never be wholly free of the constraints, influences and pressures of the society in which it finds itself. The art of a period when society is going forward, when men and women are convinced that they are moving forward with the flow of history, cannot breathe the same spirit as the art of a society that has reached the limits of its historic potential and entered into a phase of terminal decline.
In such a period, society is presented with a clear choice: either surrender to the forces of reaction and decline, or else fight against them. In the present age, the artist must decide whether it is better to fight against a socio-economic system that is strangling culture, or else join the revolutionaries who are fighting for a complete overhaul of society and the creation of a new world order based on real human values.
In the olden days, the intellectual Faust made a pact with the devil to sell his soul in exchange for immediate gratification and the illusion of eternal youth. In the present-day world of art we see on the one hand how many talented young artists are repelled by the crass commercialism of the art establishment, a world that is inseparably linked to the world of the big banks and corporations that exercise an iron dictatorship over all aspects of social life. But the establishment is well practiced in the art of buying off critics, corrupting them and absorbing them. Thus, a large number of former "artistic rebels" end up by selling their soul to the devil. They become paper tigers, pathetic careerists - rebels without a cause and bohemians with big bank balances, tame revolutionaries who perform for the amusement of the cultured bourgeoisie.
The Saatchi Gallery is not about rebellion but about money, profit, wealth and ownership. Here one is not invited to think critically about the existing order but to worship it, to adopt a superstitious attitude before it. It is like a modern-day temple, where the Holy of Holies is not art but hard, cold cash. Maybe the original intention of these young artist rebels was to expose the capitalist system, but now most of them have been thoroughly absorbed into it. "Rebellion" can also be a paying business if it is correctly handled!
Art, wealth and elitism
The main weakness of this art is that it is only capable of saying "no". It deals exclusively with death and decay. This tells us a lot about the world of capitalism in the first decade of the 21st century. It is an accurate reflection of the senile decay of capitalism, when artists are no longer capable of any kind of affirmative statement, and have lost the ability of saying yes to life. The main tendency is a desire to shock at all costs. This is hardly new. The French Romantics did this kind of thing (only much better) nearly 200 years ago.
The modern "rebels" are more practical - and more cynical - than their 19th century forebears. They deliberately try to shock the public into giving them their attention (and money). Chris Ofili won the Turner Prize with paintings made from elephant dung. Sarah Lukas photographed herself sitting on the toilet. David Falconer has produced a truly nauseating sculpture called Vermin Death Stack, composed of plaster castes of the dead bodies of rats and mice. Nigel Cooke has produced another consisting of severed heads on the ground.
The message is crude, repellent and rotten. But the people who buy and display these masterpieces are sleek, well dressed and perfumed. This is indeed a profound social comment. The wealth of the bourgeoisie is based on the crudest exploitation. It is squeezed from the blood, sweat and tears of the poorest people on the planet. It stinks. It is rotten. It is nauseating. But by placing this rottenness in a picture frame (gilt, of course) in the Saatchi Gallery south of the Thames, it can be sanitised, disinfected and sold at a handsome profit.
The most notorious of the new breed of British artists is Damien Hirst, whose work stresses themes such as death and decay (what else?), and are (of course) calculated to shock. As such, it may be considered to be at least partly effective. In 1995, he displayed his controversial work Mother and Child Divided - which consists of a bisected cow and her calf. Speaking about this, the director of the Tate galleries, Sir Nicolas Serota, enthused: "It is an unforgettable image, at once raw and tender, brazen and subtle." However, not everyone agreed. The art critic of The Daily Telegraph described it as "a peep show". For Sir Nicolas, however, "the undoubted shock and even disgust, provoked by the work is part of its appeal. Art should be transgressive. Life is not all sweet." (Business Life, September, 2003.)
Despite Sir Nicolas' remarks, life is undoubtedly sweet for some parts of the art world. James Birch was quoted in the same article as saying: "There's no doubt at all that Damien can deliver the goods, he's a very clever guy. Even when he's had a bad show, he has got away with it. Some people think that his spot paintings are pretty boring. But if you can watch the price going up every week, even the spots become more cheery." (ibid.)
Hirst's London Gallery, White Cube, is run by Jay Jopling, Old Etonian and son of Michael Jopling, the former Tory Cabinet Minister. Here we see the other - more practical - side of modern art: the business side. But Hirst is not alone in turning his art into a highly lucrative business. Others have also made a lot of money - Lucian Freud (£36m.) and Andrew Vicari (£63m.). The latter became the court painter to the Saudi royal family, whose love of art and public beheadings is well known. Hardly anybody has heard of him, but anyway he has a very sound bank balance as a result.
Artists' agents do very sound business indeed. Whereas literary agents normally take around 15-20 percent of their clients' gross incomes, galleries regularly take one half of the receipts, making artists - even the best paid of them - some of the most exploited people in society. A fifty percent rate of exploitation is something few industrial capitalists would dream of, yet it is said that some London galleries keep up to 90 percent of sale prices. Promising young painters are thus very good profit-fodder, to be squeezed till dry and then cast aside when they are no longer fashionable. And the vultures of the art world become fat on the proceeds.
Damien Hirst is now currently the world's 166 best-selling artist. In 2002, 25 of his works were sold for a total of just under £1.5 m. But then, he has always had a very well developed sense of commerce. Charles Saatchi is reported to have bought Hirst's Hymn - a 20-foot bronze sculpture, said to have been modelled on a Humbrol Young Scientist Anatomy set. The set cost just £15 in the shops, but Hirst's sculpture was slightly more expensive at £1m. His Mental Escapology chess sets are slightly less expensive at rather more than £80,000.
But artists know that the price of their commodity fluctuates on the market. Just like any other commodity, it is determined by supply and demand. The sales of Hirst's work in 2002 were ten percent down on the previous year, when purchasers bid £1.4m. for a grand total of 25 items. To compare these results with other contemporary British artists: in 2002, David Hockney's paintings fetched £2.5m, while Lucian Freud achieved £880,000, and poor Gilbert and George (alas, now hopelessly out of date, a mere £420,000. Moreover, all this pales into insignificance when compared to the huge sums paid for the work of Picasso: £50m. sales in 2002 (down from £58m. in 2001).
A lot of this "art" will not exist in ten years, which is probably why the Tate gallery has not bought a single prime example of Hirst's work.
Art and the decline of Britain
The Young British Artists (known in the trade as YBAs) have led the way in showing how art - even mediocre art - can be profitable. They are part of that genial illusion that used to be called "swinging Britain". British capitalism displays all the symptoms of chronic decline. Manufacturing industry has been destroyed. Productive workers are thrown out of work, mines and factories closed, whole communities thrown onto the rubbish heap. Yet Tony Blair struts around the world, boasting and bragging about our alleged "success story."
The so-called "special relationship" between Britain and America is a joke in bad taste that conceals the extreme weakness of Britain, and the collapse of its power. The root of this decline is economic. With the collapse of Britain's industrial base, it has been transformed into a parasitic rentier economy based on services - banking, insurance and tourism. This decline has been reflected in a decline in the British ruling class. In the past, they were the most far-sighted ruling class in the world. Now the old aristocratic rulers have been replaced by a new breed of ignorant and superficial middle class upstarts.
The repulsive psychology of these parvenus is typified by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Like the class they represent, they think only of immediate gain. They have no understanding or perspective. They are short sighted and empirical. The society over which they have presided also shows all the signs of decline and decay, despite all the attempts to disguise it under a layer of tinsel. Social services are deteriorating: education, health, roads, transport, housing, sanitation - all are substandard and getting worse.
The British people are increasingly aware of the gap between the official propaganda and reality. Paradoxically, the rapture with which they welcomed the England rugby team after it defeated Australia reflected this awareness. There was a time when England used to win at football and cricket, but nobody remembers that time. Even in the realm of sport, the decline of Britain finds a painful expression. People were enthusiastic because for once, their team had won.
The noisy media circus about the wonders of "Britart" must be seen in this context. We are anxious to prove to ourselves that we are good at something. Nobody except the clique in Number Ten Downing Street believes that our troops won the war in Iraq, since everybody knows that the British army was playing second fiddle to the US army and air force. It was therefore very important for the British establishment to "prove" to the world that "our" art was much better than all the rest. However, in practice, this turns out to be a colossal con trick. Like all the other attempts of the official spin doctors to deceive the people into believing that black is white, war is peace and cuts are progressive reform, we are now assured that bad art is good art, nay, art of genius.
The main feature of British capitalism in the first decade of the 21st century is its extremely parasitical and speculative character. Art cannot escape from this all-enveloping tendency. It has ceased to be a creative activity and become only another branch of mindless speculation. It is entirely at the mercy of the proprietors of the main art galleries and the big corporations that stand behind them. Though it occasionally tries to complain about this servitude and hit out against the "beautiful people" who control it, it is nevertheless powerless to resist their embraces. For all its apparent "rebelliousness" this art is the slave of capitalism and serves it willingly.
For revolutionary art!
There is, of course, another side to all this. In every epoch, art, in common with every other manifestation of human thought, reflects contradictory tendencies, under the influence of antagonistic classes. One segment of the art world willingly subordinates itself to the wealthy speculators and art dealers, accepting the role of prostitutes. But there is another, far larger, group of artists who are unwilling to accept this subordination of art to big business. These young artists are neither wealthy nor famous. Their names do not appear on the front pages of the tabloid press. Their works are not exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery. They are not awarded the Turner Prize. But they exist and provide the only hope for the future of art.
In a way, the kind of works that we saw in the Turner competition also have merit. They have the merit of holding up a mirror to the society that produced them, and saying: "This is what you are, and this is all you are capable of producing." These works point out to us that beneath the sleek, comfortable bourgeois surface of modern society, horrors are lurking: dead vermin, murder, death and decay. The message is clear and undoubtedly correct. Lenin said long ago that capitalism is horror without end. Beneath the well-dressed, civilized, cultured exterior, its heart and soul are rotten.
To question the existing order is valid. But it is not sufficient to ask questions. Thinking men and women demand answers. At this point the new art stops in its tracks. It has no answers, poses no solutions. Here is its weakness and its Achilles' heel. Great art is capable of expressing every human emotion. Art that only expresses angst and despair, cruelty and death, may or may not have something important to say, but it remains in the best case limited, one-sided and unsatisfactory.
The official art of the period of capitalist decline can only express decay. But in previous periods when one social order was collapsing, there was always a countervailing tendency, a trend that fought against the decline, mercilessly exposing its shortcomings and pointing the way forward. That was precisely the great achievement of Goya, who represented the ideals of the French revolution. This is the kind of art that is needed now. Of curse, that does not mean that we must go back to the style of Goya, or of any other artist of the past. Every generation must find its own voice and work out the best way to express its thoughts and feelings.
The epoch in which we live therefore demands art that is capable not only of rejecting the old order but of pointing to an alternative: art that says yes as well as art that says no, art that believes in itself and in the future of humanity. Such art will not stand aside from the revolution but embrace it. The continuation of a degenerate and decrepit social system threatens the very survival of culture. Art can never flourish under the dictatorship of Capital. In the present period in history, art is revolutionary or it is nothing.
Art is unthinkable without freedom. But this means the real freedom of men and women to express themselves and develop themselves freely. The primary freedom of art lies in not being a trade. This freedom is, however, incompatible with the constraints of capitalism. Marx states: "capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry." (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part One, p. 285)
True artists do not produce for money but as a direct expression of their own nature. Only hacks produce "art" just to get money. Of course, many good artists have been compelled to produce hackwork in order to live. A great artist can produce even hackwork of a very high standard. But this can never really express their greatest feelings and creative talent. Such work bears a similar relation to the real thing as prostitution to real love. Real artists and writers pour out their soul in their paintings and books. The real value of a genuine work of art in that sense is incalculable. But this refers to its intrinsic human value. In capitalist society, however, human values are subordinated to market values.
Surveying the desolation of our present-day art world; one soon becomes aware of the absolute impotence of this art. Behind its eternally narcissistic self-contemplation and conceit there is nothing but creative incapacity. The great historical upheavals that are being prepared will leave not one stone upon another of this art, or the society that spawned it. All this inflated rubbish will be swept to one side to make room for the art of a new society, erected on the basis of freedom.
The present epoch can and must produce great art and literature. But this will not come from the rotten and corrupt bourgeoisie, but from a revolt against it. Art must rise up against the present to fight for the future. Art in the present period must be revolutionary art or it is nothing. It can never be content with the status quo but must protest against it. In so doing, art must lose its restrictive and one-sided character and strive after universality. Art must be the voice of all suffering humanity. It must be a sharp weapon directed against all forms of tyranny and injustice.
For most of human history art has been the preserve of a privileged few. It has had a class character, not a genuinely human character. What ought to be universal was reduced to a particular, what should be the property of the whole of humanity became the monopoly of a minority. The great majority were excluded from the enjoyment of art, just as they were excluded from the free enjoyment of life in general, except at the most basic level. And just as the masses were supposed to be satisfied with the crumbs that were allowed to fall from the table of the rich, so they were supposed to be satisfied with the miserable caricature of culture to which they were permitted access.
Real art cannot flourish on the soil of capitalism, where it is denied air and room to breathe. The abolition of the profit system is the prior condition, not just for the emancipation of the proletariat, but of culture, from its chains. The art of the future socialist society will assume its true role, as the free expression of human feelings, not a commodity to be bought and sold. It will emerge from the art galleries and ivory towers and begin to play a central and vital role in the lives of the people. In order to free art, the artist must become an active participant in the struggle for socialism.
London, December 16, 2003.