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Issue #1945      14th December, 2020

Decadent art is fascist weapon

This article originally appeared in Tribune August, 1943.

Asked by Mr Egon Kisch to comment on Joyce’s Ulysses Mr L. Sharkey described it as a “masterpiece of literary decadence.” He added that the book was, among other things, a good example of bourgeois sophistication turned inward on itself.

Art and artists don’t exist in a vacuum. They are influenced by the political and social milieu in which they live and work, and in turn they affect public taste, opinion and morale.

T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland, with its infinity of desolation of spirit, sharply contradicts the whole humanist tradition. So far as I am aware, Eliot is not fascist in his political outlook – if he is capable of political thought at all!

But he is a considerable figure in literature, and his works influence many. His gloom and negativism are essentially backward-turning. And regression in art today assists in one way or another the fascist reaction.

Reflecting the decline of bourgeois society and the divorce of art – “bourgeois art”– from the lives of the people, Joyce’s writings also clearly convey a similar reactionary implication.

His themes are quite remote from objective reality.

At a time when the people of one sixth of the earth were “storming heaven,” and the masses throughout the world were girding for the struggle to recreate humanity, Joyce invites his readers into a lavatory to examine the thought processes of its occupant!

Is this holding “the mirror up to nature”? What part of nature and society? How are we to fit Joyce’s vagaries and extravagances in theme and technique into the context of man’s age-old hunger for the beautiful in life? One is impelled to quote Hamlet: “O ’tis vile, and shows a pitiful ambition in the fool that useth it.”

In the case of Ezra Pound, just indicted as a traitor to America, we have a clear connection between decadent art and fascism. It is well of note that the Sydney “Bulletin” has even within the recent past given Pound much notice.

PROBLEMS OF ART

“Art is a reproduction of life.”

This is a principle of great art (the technical skill and talents of the artist being presupposed, and also his freedom to select his own medium for expression).

The characters portrayed must be typical.

Trueness to type is an important criterion which the critic employs in art appreciation.

Is the art work real? The subject is a big one, too big for treatment in the compass of one brief article.

Here are a number of PROBLEMS which need discussion, and to which the interested reader is invited to contribute:

  • The falsification of social conditions in “bourgeois art”; the presentation of the non-typical, such as the “worker-marrying-the-boss’s-daughter”; disparagement of working class people in films of the “Mrs Miniver” type; the presentation – which occurs not infrequently even in Left literature and drama – of the bohemian or lumpen-proletarian as typical of the militant worker.
  • Escapism and, generally, decadence in art; the social significance of surrealism, futurism, and the naturalist schools, and the symbolists (on symbolism, Lenin’s remarks on symbolism in philosophy are remarkably helpful); the significance of the horror films, the strong note of sadism in popular fiction, the magical and macabre in the comic strip.
  • Decadence in art as a weapon of the fascist reaction.
  • The task in working over and mastering the cultural heritage of the past: “everything that mankind has produced in slave-ridden, official-ridden and capitalist-ridden society” (Lenin); the meaning of humanism in art.
  • The problem of form and content. What, for example, is our reply to the critic – a Soviet one, by the way! – who insisted that the main function of the actor is “to project on the stage a succession of plastic forms in space”?

LENIN ON THE FUTURE

Of special importance is the further development of Australian art.

Culture must break through the trammels of capitalist society; it is indispensable for our democracy, for our dignity as citizens. The Australian people, who have achieved so much in industry, in agriculture, in science and on the battlefield, can produce great art.

For a summary, Lenin’s statement made shortly after the October Revolution is wonderfully to the point: –

“Formerly all human knowledge, all human talent laboured only in order to provide some with the benefits of technique and culture and, on the other hand, to deprive the others of those things which are most essential – education and self-development.

“But now all the marvels of technique, all the achievements of culture, will become the general property of the whole people, and, from now on, human intelligence and human talent will never again be converted into a means of oppression, a means of exploitation.

“We know this. Can we then deny that this mighty historical task is worth working for, worth devoting the whole of our strength to?

“And the toilers will accomplish this gigantic historical labour, for in them lie latent the great forces of revolution, renaissance and regeneration.”

Next article – “Unite the masses!” is the main task in 1938

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