Culture is not Neutral: Whom Does It Serve

Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall
1972

This essay originated as a speech at a conference on criticism held at a small Catholic college in Providence, Rhode Island in October, 1969. It was a boldly Marxist speech, and I was too young and inexperienced to realize how threatening it might be to that audience. The woman who had invited me went into shock at the behavior of colleagues in audience who were barely able to contain their anger; one told the other, “Women like that need to be taken out and raped.” I was freaked out at the time, but have since learned that this is a common conservative male response to female speakers who challenge received truths.

            The thesis I wish to present here is that culture is not neutral politically, and that it is as impossible for it to be so as it is impossible for any other product of human labor to be detached from its conditions of production and reception. All culture serves someone's interest. Cultural products which present foreign wars as the heroic effort of a master race to ennoble mankind are, to the degree that they are successful as art, objectively in the interests of imperialists, who are people who make foreign wars against other races for profit. Cultural products that present people who have no money or power as innately stupid or depraved, and thus unworthy of money or power, are in the interests of the ruling class and the power structure as it stands. Cultural products which present women who do not want to be household slaves or universal mothers or sex objects as bitches or sexual failures objectively aid male supremacy.

            Some writers are overtly political-—though to be so in America has taken more courage or vision than most writers since the Second World War have had. Most writers avoid mentioning overtly political issues. But this does not mean they are disengaged from them. In our times, to refrain from mentioning genocide, racism, cultural schizophrenia, sexual exploitation, and the systematic starvation of entire populations is itself a political act. For no one in our time can be awake enough to write and have avoided noticing these phenomena—though he may not recognize them for what they are. As our bankrupt civilization draws to its close, and as the violence of the powerful against the weak, of the rich against the poor, of the few against the many, becomes more and more apparent, until it becomes impossible to watch a news broadcast and remain unaware of it for a second— as this situation becomes exacerbated, to refrain from mentioning it becomes more and more clearly a political act, an act of censorship or cowardice.
 
            Yet very few of our establishment writers and artists, let alone of our literary critics, think these things are important enough to mention in their work. They may bear witness as private individuals, but they do not allow their private concern to interfere with business as usual. Let us paraphrase any well-adjusted academic critic's attitude toward the poet's method of dealing with this problem.
           
            “A poet's job is to do his thing,” he will say. “Naturally he will write about what is important or central to him personally, and who am I to interfere with another man's system of values? If Wallace Stevens chooses to write about arpeggios and pineapples rather than about racial tensions in Hartford or the practices of the insurance company he was vice-president of in regard to people on welfare, this was his decision; what's it to me? And as for the implication that his position as a member of the ruling class may have governed his perception of the importance of such problems or led him to fear dignifying them by the poetic process, why, I think that's extremely unfair and full of all kinds of critical fallacies.”
 
            And perhaps, considered from the strictly professional point of view of keeping up standards within the criticism business, and not rocking the boat, this may be so. But let us, for the moment, consider the problem from a human rather than a professional point of view.
 
            Bertold Brecht, a German Communist poet, wrote an essay in 1935 entitled, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.” In it he states:
 
            Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for a writer living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.
 
            Brecht goes on to discuss the probvlem of what truths are worth telling, a problem of peculiar relevance to us.
 
             First of all we strike trouble in determining what truth is worth the telling. For example, before the eyes of the whole world one great civilized nation after the other falls into barbarism. Moreover, everyone knows that the domestic war which is being waged by the most ghastly methods can at any moment be converted into a foreign war which may well leave our continent a heap of ruins. This, undoubtedly, is one truth, but there are others. Thus, for example, it is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. They are like a painter adorning the walls of a sinking ship with a still life….Those in power cannot corrupt them, but neither are they disturbed by the cries of the oppressed….At the same time, it is not easy to realize that their truths are truths chairs or rain; they usually sound like truths about important things. For it is the nature of artistic creation to confer importance. But
closer examination it is possible to see that they say merely: a is a chair; and: no one can prevent the rain from falling down.
 
            I went through a respectable liberal education, one purpose of which was to outfit me as a literary critic and teacher of literature. We studied a great many monuments of culture in my classes. We discussed the form of these works, either in itself, or in relation to other things written at the time; we occasionally speculated as to whether there were any eternal truths concealed in these works; or whether they had any relation to works of art in other genres; but mostly we just discussed the form of these works in exhaustive detail—the words, how they operated in tension with each other, the length of the poetic line, the use of symbols, etcetera.
 
            The one thing we never discussed about any cultural monuments was their meaning—just their barefaced everyday philistine literal meaning. I think that if any of us had thought to bring this problem up we would have been laughed at. Of course, none of us ever did bring it up, because we wanted the approval of our teachers, and because we had never heard that one should take literature seriously enough to worry about what it meant in terms of one's own life. At most, we had heard that form and content were the same in great works, so that there was clearly no importance to discussing anything but form.
 
            And so we went through all the great works of literature, works which were often, at least until the modem period, passionately ideological, as if we had blinkers on. It is indeed a characteristic of the modem period that reality in it is so intolerable that most artists and critics cannot bear to deal with it directly. But some of them, at least, allude to it if not confront it. Take, for instance, the poem “Easter 1916” by Yeats, a poem frequently studied in school.
 
We know their dream; enough 
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly.
A terrible beauty is born.
 
           
            What are the political implications of this verse? What does it mean? What is he trying to get us to think or to do? And how is it that such questions so seldom arise in the consideration of a poem?
 
            What Yeats is getting at becomes clearer when his poem is put next to Brecht’s “To Posterity,” another great poem, which is however never taught in literature classes. Brecht’s poem ends:
 
You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think—
When you speak of our weaknesses, 
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.
For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes,
In the class war, despairing,
When there was only injustice and no resistance.
For we knew only too well:
Even hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man
Do not judge us
Too harshly.
 
            Brecht and Yeats are talking of the same phenomena, of what happens to people who commit themselves to revolutionary politics. Their ordinary life is transformed; and personal values,as trivially defined, become less important to them than the good of all people. This involves certain kinds of sacrifice that often seem bizarre or incomprehensible to people who do not get the point. Brecht speaks of this, and of what he has missed out on in his personal life, in an earlier stanza of the same poem:
 
I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
So the time passes away
Which on earth was given me.
 
            Yeats is talking about the same withdrawals and austerities in his central metaphor of the stone in the midst of the living stream:
 
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to trembling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call,
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
 
           Brecht devoted his life and his work to making sure, to the best of his ability, that certain things happened in the world. He ends his poem by looking ahead with absolute confidence to a time after the revolution, when people will have changed, when circumstances will have ceased to require that they be as hard and purposeful as he needed to be. This is what is important to him, that the quality of life will change, and that people will cease to have to be deformed by their environment as he was.
 
            In Yeats's poem, what is important is not whether the revolutionaries he writes about win or lose, not whether their political ideas are right or wrong, but whether individual heroism and aesthetic beauty are the products of their struggle. “O when may it suffice”' he asks of their sacrifice, and answers, leave it to heaven, we can't know; our job is to make verses which tell how they have been personally ennobled.
 
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead…
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
 
            What does this mean but that, in the end, aesthetic values are the most important; and beauty of a certain noble kind is more important than success? And what is this but to focus on a few heroes as if the whole meaning of the struggle dwelt in their features, and forget the thousands that followed behind them, peasants, workers, not aristocrats, and less beautiful than themselves, but to whom an end of colonialism was literally a matter of life or death. Their lives do not come into the poem; and this fact determines its political meaning—it is a beautiful expression of a certain kind of romantic elitism and a betrayal of the Irish Revolution.
 
            The ideas that aesthetic values are primary, and that personal heroism is the kind to focus on, are typical of late bourgeois poetry, in that they express the privatization of bourgeois life, and the divorcement of modern art from the base of society.
 
            Let us take a longer look at the philosophy of art for art’s sake: that is, at the ideology that art is justified by its existence, that it does not and should not serve any social purpose, that it frequently has no reference to anything outside itself, and that it is expressive of the vision of the individual poet, if anything. The accompanying critical doctrine is that any criticism of a poem in terms other than these is an importation of irrelevant values: “A poem should not mean but be.”
 
            The thing we tend to forget is that this aesthetic philosophy developed at a certain historical moment—it didn’t always exist and is in fact fairly recent. “Art-for art’s sake” was the response of the producers of art to a market which was as mysterious and alienating as it was to the producers of other commodities. In most cultures prior to that of industrial capitalism, artists have had a well-defined and clearly understood relation to some part of their society, some group of consumers. In a primitive tribe or collective, art is the expression of the whole tribe—later some people may be specially good at it, or hereditarily trained to it, and take on the production of artifacts as their work, but they work surrounded by the community, and work for the community’s immediate and obvious benefit. In other periods of history, the artist has produced for a court, for a personal patron, for a religious sect, or for a political party. It is only with the dominance of the capitalist system that the artist has been put in the position of producing for a market, for strangers far away, whose life styles and beliefs and needs are completely unknown to him, and who will either buy his works or ignore them for reasons that are equally inscrutable and out of his control.
 
            In the sphere of production, Marxists call the attitude that results from this process “commodity fetishism.” The processes of production and distribution - that is: the gathering of raw materials, the inventing of machines and processes, the organization of labor into successive stages of work on the different stages of manufacture, distribution, marketing, advertising, and all the rest—all make up a process so infinitely complex that neither the consumer who buys the finished product nor the producer of any one stage of it, has any clear idea what is going on. You buy a chair. You have no idea who made it, what the materials in it are and where they came from and what they originally cost, how much the labor in it cost, and how much the price of the chair has been jacked up by profit and by waste like advertising. All of this is no more mysterious to you than it is to the factory worker who made one ingredient of the plastic that the seat of the chair is made of. In this kind of economy, objects are regarded as though they had originated by magic and appeared in the hosps, not as if they were made by people for other people to use.
 
            Most critical theory as currently practiced is an extension of this commodity fetishism into the realm of culture. A poem is not thought of as something made by a man for other men to use—it is thought of as having come about by some incomprehensible process, and for no clear end but its own existence. It is thought of in this way even by its producer, the poet. Like the factory worker he sends his product out into an unfriendly void. The use of his product, if any, is conjectural; he probably thinks it has none to anyone but himself. How can he be other than alienated from his work? How can he justify its existence, when he cannot see or know the people who use it, except by making its clear lack of relation to his society into an artistic creed, which becomes in its turn a critical dogma?
 
            Art has not always been isolated in this way. An Italian fresco painter knew exactly who he was decorating a church for—who would pay him and what families would worship in that church. Voltaire knew who he wanted to reach with Candide, and what he wanted them to think. Even Samuel Richardson managed to get In touch with a circle of correspondents, whose reaction to his books he could judge as he went along and thus determine whether he was achieving the desired moral effects. And contemporary Soviet poets are in touch with mass audiences who will flock to hear them read their latest. Writers in conditions like these are not alienated from their own work to the extent that they think it isn't good for anything, and isn't meant to reach anyone but a few friends.
 
            In the period of bourgeois culture that is drawing to a close, two kinds of art have been produced: “high-brow” and “lowbrow” as they are often called. Both have served the political end of pacifying or immobilizing parts of the population potentially hostile to the system as it stands. “High-brow” culture is directed at the upper middle class students, and intellectuals, who tend to take jobs such as teachers, health workers, social workers, etc., whose social function in our society is to control the lives and minds of others. This form of culture militates against the perception of the political solutions to political problems by purveying ideas which are in their implications and social use, if not in the motives of the people who produced them, reactionary. These are the central ideas of the art of the modern period, expressed in its form as well as its content. Some of them are:
 
            1. That life is absurd, meaningless.
 
            2. That we are all victims, and to be conscious is to despair.
 
            3. That any communication or understanding between human beings is a priori impossible because the human condition is one of quintessential isolation.
 
            4. That one's perception of reality is both subjective and uncontrollably fragmented; that there is no way of integrating the different parts of one's experience and the external world.
 
             5. That most of life and most people are disgusting, vulgar and stupid. The class bias inherent in the word “vulgar” is quite conscious in this formulation.
 
            6. That there are no real objective truths, including the above.
 
            This is what most serious modern literature teaches us. It's no accident. The extreme inhumanity of our civilization—its class system, its racism, its gross commercialism, its male chauvinism, its institutionalized violence, its imperialist wars — all these factors make consciousness almost unbearable to people who have not looked behind these symptoms to their causes and cure, who do not see that they make up the fabric of a particular social and economic system which is different from those of the past and can be superseded in the future. What has been made by people can, in the long run, be understood and changed by them.
 
            The other kind of culture purveyed in our society is “lowbrow” or mass culture —a kind we are taught to despise as we are taught to despise those who consume it. This art, in fact, expresses nothing about the people who consume it but their deprivation. It is a mass-produced means of social control by manipulation of the national fantasy life. It is no more a product of any working-class culture than are the can-openers and Fords produced in our factories. I'm talking about TV, Westerns, Mickey Spillane and Erie Stanley Gardner, drugstore romances, sexy novels, Mantovani and Muzak, Norman Rockwell and the Keuhns. This is proletarianized art: it implicitly expresses its consumers' consciousness of their oppression, while at the same time preventing them from changing it. Christopher Caudwell described it thirty years ago in his book Illusion and Reality:
 
            Because art's role is now that of adapting the multitude to the dead mechanical existence of capitalist production, in which work sucks them of their vital energies without awakening their instincts, where leisure becomes a time to deaden the mind with the easy fantasy of films, simple wish-fulfillment writing, or music that is mere emotional massage—because of this the paid craft of writing becomes as and wearisome as that of machine-minder ... [this art] is at once expression of real misery and a protest against the real misery. This art, universal, constant, fabulous, full of the easy gratifications instincts starved by modern capitalism, peopled by passionate lovers and heroic cowboys and amazing detectives, is the religion of today, as characteristic an expression of proletarian exploitation as Catholicism is of feudal exploitation. It is the opium of the people; it pictures an inverted world because the world of society is inverted.
 
            But times are changing. And in certain small ways, art is beginning to reflect these changes. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution it has become possible for artists to define themselves against the values of capitalist society and at the same time have an audience, a definite and large subgroup of the population, that they are producing for, an audience that also defines itself in opposition to the dominant culture. We have the makings of a revolutionary culture, that tells the truth about our society, demonstrates opposition to what is going on, and sometimes even poses alternatives. I'm not saying this is a revolutionary culture yet—you don't get a revolutionary culture until you get a revolution. But something is happening here.
 
            There are three things about this new counter-culture that I find especially interesting and positive in terms of the social values they imply.
 
            The first is that this culture is in many cases the product of collective effort rather than of bourgeois individualism. Rock groups, street theatre groups, poster workshops, art crews for demonstrations—all of these are forms of creativity that are social and shared.
 
            The second thing is that many of these cultural forms are conceived of as participatory; these would include a lot of theatre which demands audience participation and response; poetry which demands being read out loud; and music that needs dance to fulfil it, and which is participated in by people who dance.
 
            The third thing is that many of these new art expressions mix media and genres to a new extent. The rock groups that combine posters, slides, light shows, music, poetry, dance and special effects are one example. Such art breaks down very old divisions of labor; and any breakdown of the division of labor in the arts seems a hopeful sign of our growing ability to integrate different kinds of experience.
 
            This new art is often explicitly political, political in a sense that embraces all of experience, not just the narrow realm defined by polio sci. Take for instance The Cream's song called “Politician,” which begins, “Come on, baby, get into my big black car,' I'm going to show you just what my politics are.”
 
            The conditions of production and even more of distribution of this poetry are a long way from being ideal. Rock performers are exploited by their merchandisers and preyed upon by their public to a degree unusual even in the mass performing arts. There is much that is religious about mass art, and some rock performers have become to some degree human sacrifices; the confusion between the demands of their art, of their public, and of the business, and the confusion between their public performing and private selves is alienating in the extreme. But this very alienation, in artists that can hold out (and most groups are short-lived) produces a degree of political consciousness and explicitness that is incredible when you realize that it is marketed by the very forces it is battling against, and that it is accepted wholeheartedly by millions of people. Bob Dylan is the most striking example of this consciousness. He writes for kids in a language they can understand, that is hip and full of symbols of the things that oppress all of us. As in “Subterranean Homesick Blues:”
 
Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get paid off
Look out kid
It's something you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again ...
 
Ah, get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid they keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Buy yourself a candle, don't wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
Cause the vandals took the handles.
 
            Dylan is a mass poet. People follow his work and wait for his latest releases with an eagerness that no poet has received in this country since at least the Industrial Revolution. People talk about his work and his changes as if they had participated in them. They see his poetry as a process—a living, growing thing— not as a mysterious product in an aesthetic universe apart from life.
 
            This sense of art as process is crucial to the revitalization of it. As politics must teach people the ways and give them the means to take control over their own lives, art must teach people, in the most vivid and imaginative ways possible, how to take control over their own experience and observations, how to link these things with theory, and how to connect both with the experience of others.
 
 
This essay is deeply indebted to two books, Illusion and Reality by Christopher Caudwell, and Art and Revolution by John Berger. Everyone interested In such things should read both.

 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.