Thursday, February 18, 2010

For art that soars AND serves the revolution

The following excerpts from The Liberation of American Literature by V.F. Calverton, originally published in 1932, have now been presented as the opening to the new anthology Liberation Lit just published by Mainstay Press.

Revolutionary art has to be good art first before it can have deep meaning, just as apples in a revolutionary country as well as in a reactionary country have to be good apples before they can be eaten with enjoyment.

Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another. ... In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.

That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas--it was such fiction that won its adoration.

... Except in the United States, revolutionary critics have often been harder task masters from the point of literary quality than aesthetic critics
... .

The revolutionary critic should demand as much of the art he endorses as the reactionary ... [great revolutionary] films are great not because they are [only progressive in ideology] but because they are great first in their formal organization, and then greater still because of the social purpose which they serve.

The revolutionary ... critic does not aim to underestimate literary craftsmanship. What he contends is simply that literary craftsmanship is not enough. The craftsmanship must be utilized to create objects of revolutionary meaning. Only through this synthesis does the revolutionary critic believe that art can serve its most important purpose today. Revolutionary meanings without literary craftsmanship constitute as hopeless a combination from the point of view of the radical critic as literary craftsmanship without revolutionary purpose. ... Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another, including even that of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. ...

This much should be clear, however, and that is that [revolutionary] writers are not to be confused with literary rebels. Literary rebels believe in revolt in literature; left-wing ... writers believe in revolt in life ... [and] are more interested in social revolt than in literary revolt.

Unlike Ibsen, [revolutionary writers] do not ask questions and then refuse to answer them. Unlike the iconoclasts, they are not content to tear down the idols and stop there. Their aim is to answer questions as well as ask them, and to provide a new order to replace the old one. Their attitude, therefore, is a positive instead of a negative one.

I love this! (Except the male generic, but what are you going to do, have to bear it in a piece from that era.) I love the assertion that revolutionary art must be good art, and the assertion that it must be art that serves a purpose, both combining, by my read, to create the obvious conclusion that fine art that serves the cause of the class struggle is both possible and necessary. I also love Calverton's digs at the ruling class and its passion for fiction that purports to be above the fray.

Finally, I'm quite taken with the distinction he makes between literary and social revolt. It resonates with me since more and more I find myself alienated from not only the petty-bourgeois hipster establishment's latest literary idols whose work I find barren and irrelevant, the most recent and obvious example being BolaƱo, but also from the self-styled radical literati's focus on supposed innovation in form. They posture as if stylistic experimentation automatically equates to or is even necessarily allied with a revolutionary social orientation, as if supposedly radical departures from artistic norms aren't equally as tied to the status quo as the most stunted, stifling, tired old crap--unless they aren't, that is, unless they explicitly and purposely and serve-the-people aren't. Literary revolt can and sadly often is petty bourgeois to the max. Same soda, new bottle. Which is not, of course, me taking a stand against innovation. But let it be in the service of the masses, let it be for social change as the highest good. I think that's what Calverton's saying at the end there, and I'm with him all the way.