Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hey Mr. AYW, part 2

In the first part of my reply to the Acclaimed Young Writer's lecture to me about the errors of my red reading (and writing) ways, I closed by saying that anyone who stakes out the art-can't-be-political position is herself/himself taking a thoroughly political stance--even if she/he denies it, even if she/he doesn't realize it. How so? Well, for one thing, no literary or critical utterance can avoid falling out on one or the other side of the class struggle. The class struggle is the overarching context for all public (and most private) life. As long as we live in a class society, and oh, Mr. AYW, we do, the struggle between the ruling class and the exploited class is always on. It may be less visible at some times than at others, but, like the invisible air we breathe, it surrounds us, we move through it, and though we can deny or ignore it that doesn't change the fact that it's there. As long as it's there, as long as the oppressed, suppressed side tries to express itself, artistically or in any other way, well then anyone who opposes that expression is taking the side of the oppressors, the suppressors, the class in power, the capitalists.

You can claim all you like that you're not for one or the other side, you're only on the side of fine art. When you insist that work that is explicitly partisan to the working-class side of things cannot be true art--without offering up one iota of reasoned argument or evidence to prove this is true, instead just asserting it over and over and over--you expose your allegiance to the bourgeois side of the class divide.

Mr. AYW didn't only assert that political art is not really art. To drive home the point, he flipped it and insisted that art, true art, is never political. This is either naive or dishonest. It ignores a couple key realities: (1) that any art that appears to be neutral automatically becomes an artifact in support of the status quo, and the status quo is capitalist exploitation and inequality, so "neutral" art is bourgeois art; and (2) that there is a great, great, great deal of "great literature," so deemed by the literary establishment, that is profoundly, manifestly, unapologetically and clearly political. (Calling Mr. Solzhenitsyn!) Apparently, the no-politics rule doesn't apply if the politics in question conform to the ruling class's ruling ethic.

But it's not just about which side are you on, as the great old song asks. It's also about which side's ideology pervades your conscious mind as well as your unconscious, dare I say, your artistic, creative mind.

One hundred sixty-one years ago in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote, "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." Applied to our time and place, this means that the ideas of the capitalist class are dominant. The ideology of this ruling class permeates all social relations, all human expression, all culture.

This is one of the great hidden secrets of our society. Yet how could it possibly be otherwise? Those who own and control everything--not only the means of industrial production but also the news media, the entertainment industry, publishing, museums, education--own and control culture as well. Everything, and brother I mean everything; everyone, and sister I mean everyone; is in the grip of bourgeois ideology. We only break out with the most extreme effort of conscious will. It is enormously difficult to take off the bosses' lenses that block and distort our vision and understanding and, yes, cramp our creativity, and to replace them with red-tinted glasses. Most of us, born and bred in this culture as we were, manage it only partially, I think, or with slow, fitful progress. Until we do, our thoughts, feelings, dreams and art remain imbued with bourgeois ideology. Mired amid the cultural muck of the enemy class camp.

This doesn't mean we're bourgeois. The vast majority of us are of the other layer, the workers and oppressed. Mr. AYW, I have no idea of your class status or personal wealth. Yours is a bourgeois consciousness, however. Your argument against political art does the work of the bourgeoisie whether that's your intent or not.

I'll continue my rant another day. In store: more examples of highly political literature that is embraced by the art-can't-be-political crowd, and examples of left or people's or communist literature that in my view indisputably rises to the level of art, and some actual reasoned argument to show why political art is not a contradiction in terms.