Art

Trotsky on art

Art is important to people. It has always been so from the earliest human societies, when it was indissolubly linked to magic — that is, to the first primitive attempts of men and women to understand and gain control over the world in which they live. However, in class society art is so designed as to exclude the masses, and relegate them to an impoverished existence, not only in a material but in a spiritual sense.

In Roman times we had "bread and circuses"; now we have soap opera and pop music. Commercial art which sets out from the lowest common denominator is at once a useful soporific drug intended to keep the masses in a state of stupified contentment, while at the same time making a few capitalists exceedingly rich. By thus reducing the artistic level of society to a bare minimum, and increasingly alienating the "serious arts" from social reality, capitalism guarantees a continuous degeneration and pauperisation of art in general.

Confined to this rarified atmosphere, where it is obliged to feed off itself in the same way that factory-fed cows and chickens are fed the dead carcasses of other animals, and develop a deadly brain disease as a result, art becomes ever more sterile, empty and meaningless, so that even the artists themselves begin to sense the decay and become ever more restless and discontented. Their discontent, however, can lead nowhere insofar as it is not linked to the struggle for an alternative form of society in which art can find its way back to humanity. The solution to art's problems is not to be found in art, but only in society.

— From Marxism and art

This article by Alan Woods looks at how the French Revolution affected British poets. It struck Britain like a thunderbolt affecting all layers of society and this was reflected in its artists and writers.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered by many as the greatest musician of all time. He was revolutionary in more senses than one. One of his main achievements was in the field of opera. Before Mozart, opera was seen as an art form exclusively for the upper classes. This was true not only of those who went to see it, but also of its dramatis personae - the characters who were shown on the stage, and especially the protagonists. With The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro in its original Italian title), all this changes. This is the story of a servant who stands up to his boss and outwits his master.

Suddenly, and without any warning, a rap song appeared on social media, produced by three young men – who were unheard of up to that moment – and racked up millions of views in record time. The track was entitled "Long Live the People", based on the slogan of the revolutionary youth (especially notable in the 20F’s manifestations) directed against the monarchist slogan: “long live the king”. The track topped the list of most-watched Moroccan videos on YouTube. This is unprecedented for an agitational song, as the top spot has typically been occupied by pop trifles.

Leonardo da Vinci died 500 years ago today in 1519. Da Vinci was an absolute giant in the history of human thought and culture. Alan Woods pays tribute to the great artist, scientist and philosopher, whose life and ideas were revolutionary in so many fields.

The fire that partly destroyed Notre Dame is a tragedy for anyone who cherishes the cultural, artistic and architectural achievements of humanity. Capitalism is undermining its own past achievements and those of previous societies, and this emerges very clearly when one takes a closer look at what happened in Paris on Monday 15 April.

Trotsky, a recent Netflix series produced by Russian state television, is a scandalous misrepresentation of both Trotsky’s life and the October Revolution. Alan Woods and Josh Holroyd respond to this insulting portrayal of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks’ legacy.

On 25 January, 2018 a lecture was held in the Al Hamra Hall, a well-known cultural center in Lahore, Pakistan on the topic of “Marxism and Literature”, by the editor of In Defence of Marxism, Alan Woods. The event was organized by the Progressive Youth Alliance. We share this video of Alan's lecture, in which he speaks about the development of language and literature across the history of class society, and how it was shaped by revolutionary events. 

We publish Alan Woods’ guest introduction to a special edition of Farsi-language art magazine, Contemporary Scene, called Capitalism and Art. The edition contains a series of articles about Marxism and culture, many of which were previously published on Marxist.com.

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has opened in an appropriately explosive fashion, with Donald Trump’s first raft of vile executive orders provoking international protest on a gargantuan scale. It is fair to say that tensions are high, and widespread anger is the order of the day.

Shakespeare transformed English literature, reaching heights that before were unheard-of and which have not been reached subsequently. Like a blazing meteorite he shot across the firmament and cast a glorious light on an entire period in our history. His impact on world literature was arguably greater than any other writer. His works have been translated into every language. For centuries after his death his star has not dimmed but shines as brightly as on the first day.

In an article on World War I, Lenin once remarked that, “Capitalist society is and has always been horror without end.” In discussing the early development of capitalism in his classic, Capital, Marx said that upon its arrival in history “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” In the same book, Marx stated that, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” In the very same chapter, Marx compares the capitalists’ drive for surplus labor to a “werewolf’s hunger.”

Marxism often defines itself as scientific socialism. That would make it an applied science with a specifically political purpose. For example, when Engels delivered Marx's funeral oration, he said that Marx was above all a revolutionary. But a basic premise of Marx's outlook was that revolution could only succeed if based on an understanding of the processes at work in society as a whole.

Hieronymus Bosch was one of the most remarkable and original painters of all time. His works were painted five hundred years ago, yet they seem astonishingly modern, anticipating surrealism. This is the art of a world in a state of turbulence, torn by contradictory tendencies – a world in which the light of reason has been extinguished and where animal passions have gained the upper hand, a world of terror and violence, a living nightmare. In short – a world very like our own. Alan Woods examines it from the standpoint of historical materialism.

The publication in English of The Man Who Loved Dogs by the Cuban author, Leonardo Padura is a major literary and political event. I read this remarkable novel when it came out in Spanish and it made a profound impression on me. I had intended to write a review then, but was prevented from doing it by a combination of circumstances. With the greatest pleasure I will now rectify this omission.

On 31 July Gore Vidal died at his home in Los Angeles from complications arising from pneumonia. He was 86 and had been ill for some time. As I was away on holiday at the time, I did not find out about this till later. The comrades in charge of Marxist.com decided to republish an article I had written in July 2002 with the title The decline and fall of the American empire, based on a television interview with the American writer.

Alan Woods, of the International Marxist Tendency, speaks to University of Arts' London students at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, where a replica of Picasso's great painting of the massacre at Guernica is on display. Using this powerful masterpiece as a starting point, Alan explores what makes great art; to what extent is great art a reflection of the period from which it comes; and can propaganda be great art?

Alan Woods gives a lecture at the Chelsea College of Art in London in April 2009. He deals with the important role art plays in revolutionary political movements and speaks about how art changes to reflect the social and political events of the time.

Alan Woods spoke at the IMT Winter School in Berlin on the subject of the relationship between Art and the Class Struggle.

In his The Mona Lisa Curse, the Australian art critic Robert Hughes subjected present-day commercialisation of art to a withering criticism. His programme was a damning indictment of the general tendency of art to degenerate into flashy triviality to the degree that it subordinates itself to money-making and capitalist market economics. It condemned the British artist Hirst for "functioning like a commercial brand" and destroying any true understanding of art in the public's mind by placing importance on the price tag alone.

The prophetic description of anonymous warfare, the blankets of darkness and death dropped over civilian populations still resonate. To the degree we realise the truth expressed in this work, Guernica stands as possibly the greatest painting of the 20th Century.