ARTISTS AND POWER
“For every noble lord, bishop, gentleman or priest enjoying his life of cultured leisure, there exist thousands of impoverished men, women, and children living in desperation. Noble wealth is the blood of The People… [T]he substance of The People is devoured by this class of voracious parasites. The aristocracy’s ‘culture’ is parasite culture.”
— Marat, French revolutionary, 1792
“Culture is the blossom on human society sprung from growth that originates in the soil of existence; labouring man (homolaborans) is the root, arts and philosophy are his flowers… The ruling ideas of a society are the ideas of the ruling class.”
— Friedrich Engels, 1852
“Bourgeois socio-economic hegemony over the proletariat means the hegemony of bourgeois culture within the proletariat… Working-class consciousness struggles to emerge from a cocoon of dominant bourgeois consciousness.”
— Antonio Gramsci, Marxist imprisoned by Mussolini
“…[A]rt leads us into the ideal realm, where alone we can find pure joy, pure happiness, pure love.”
— from an art catalogue, Vienna, 1902
By Charles Jeanes
Hollywood movies: what they reveal about power in society
My attention has fallen on the question of what culture tells us about power in our society. A new Coen Brothers’ film, Hail Caesar!, provokes these thoughts. On February 5th, movie critic Katherine Monk dismissed the film’s pretensions as “intellectual debate… a Marxist dialogue.”
As an historian recently recovered from Marxian dogmatism, I was intrigued by her remark. I know well the Marxian model, hypothesizing “an economic base supporting and articulating a cultural superstructure.”
Engels’ remark quoted above summarizes the thesis that underpins the political sociology of historical materialism (Marxism); Gramsci elaborates it. Before there is culture, there is human labour and social power. In class societies, the ruling class extracts surplus from exploited labouring classes, and culture will replicate the distribution of power in those societies – thus culture is an instrument in the service of the most powerful in society.
Nature, Nurture, Culture, Power
A human is a social animal; one does not live alone but in a group, variously labelled tribe, community, society, or social collective. We need others. How many others it is “natural” for humans to live among in a society is indefinable. Natural is an adjective that, when applied to humans, invokes certain difficulties.
But we do know our original norm at the dawn of homo sapiens was a situation of living in quite small collectives, of twenty to fifty individuals, probably all related through the generation four times earlier in time. The world of the aboriginal tribesman in the Kalahari bush, depicted in the entertainment film The Gods Must Be Crazy, is representative of what earliest humans experienced as normal and natural: small communities and subsistence living.
Early humans knew everyone in their community in person, by appearance, voice, smell, and personality; close relatives and not-so-close were easily distinguished by children. The Stranger from outside was everyone else in the world, not naturally trusted as The People (one’s own group) were to be trusted.
The physical, biological nature of the brain of that early homo sapiens has not been altered in present specimens of humanity after a quarter-million years: this point is emphasized vigorously by authors of classic studies in ethology such as The Human Zoo, African Genesis, The Naked Ape, and The Imperial Animal. We modern humans have no different grey matter than primal ones.
Nurture of children in such basic communal conditions was uncomplicated, and indubitably then as now, child-rearing had the purpose of instilling the culture of the people. Social living demands consensus norms be known by all. A mature adult must absorb cultural learning in the course of growing up.
Culture refers to what is inside the mind of people in a community sharing their living space, including of course their language and their teachings about the physical world and the world unseen. Worship, dress, art, food, technology, music, child-rearing practices, and a multitude of other behaviours are learned in culture. Humans never existed who did not possess a culture.
Any human society has politics as part of its culture. Who has power, and over whom is it exercised? Those are questions with cultural answers.
Power is a quality with material, physical and tangible ingredients; property and strength are measureable parts of it. But intangibles such as character, talent, and social dominance are every bit as significant to the cultural datum of power.
Parents have authority over offspring, adults over children, because such power is functional, it works to keep children safe. All power probably was functional in the earliest unrecorded human collectives, so that a skilled person could lead others in a specific activity, such as hunting or building, worship or healing, in which an individual had a proven talent.
But a more general political leadership, as with a chief or matriarch, is not so easily explained. A person who presumes to give orders, to speak for the whole, to lead in a variety of situations, is a political power in the collectivity.
Somewhere in the deep past human societies developed structures wherein certain individuals possessed constant authority to order others. Hierarchy was born. Species with social hierarchy, such as primates, lions, horses, and crows, are ordered this way by instinctual behaviours. The gorilla who is the group alpha attains his post by violence against other males. He alone has sexual access to his harem of females, and keeps it until unseated by another male.
Human political order, by analogy with animals, might well originate by violent fights between rivals. The alpha ruler (kings etc.) is a man of martial ability and strength. He is not only a warrior, but a man of character, followed because he demonstrates wisdom in his judgements and success in his decisions on behalf of the whole. Also by analogy and by empirical evidence from history, the alpha keeps a coterie of near-peers around him, his all-male posse, known as lords.
Human culture is exponentially more complex and variegated than the social behaviours of other mammals. Accordingly, the relationship between power and cultural creatives (“artists”) in human society is fascinating.
Religion, Ideology, World-view
It is verifiable by empirical observation that ideas buttress power, and power promotes some ideas while discouraging others to spread. Human history is replete with ideas justifiably termed “dominant” among significant majorities and ideas that are “marginalized” in a minority. When we look for evidence of a society’s history, religion is the easiest ideological phenomena observed in past human societies because religious personnel have so frequently been the keepers of records which inform us. The Bible is a book of history as well as theology, and has been treated respectfully has a source of history for the Israelites and other mid-Eastern peoples of the ancient world.
Religion, as I wrote recently in The Arc, gives its adherents an explanation of their world and a sense of meaning for their lives. It cements a culture and society. But it also provides a career, vocation, profession or “job” for personnel in the solid institutions of religion. Religious personnel are by definition people with power, the power to lead and to mould the ideas of people in their culture.
Ideology, as I intend to use it, is the larger phenomenon of which religion is one example. Law and legality are other ingredients of ideology, and examples can be multiplied. Ideas are intangible, invisible, and have enormous power to motivate and justify actions that are very much witnessed and felt.
One ideology, observable in cultures across time and space, is the ideology that sets one fraction of a society above another in a simple dichotomy of nobility and commons. A mass of evidence supports the generalization: human societies very, very frequently justify inequality (in property, in law, in privilege, etc.) by reference to the supposed superiority by birth-and-blood of the nobility. Slaves fare worst of all; have a quick look at Plato’s ideological defence of slavery.
A “world-view” describes the ideological system of a culture’s dominant shared understanding of the physical world humans inhabit, the view that creates a glue for many other ingredients of culture. A world-view also explains the intangible social world, so the political system, the economic structure, the philosophies and values of the society are parts of culture’s ideological content. Religions possess world views. So do non-religious ideas, such as the premises of Western materialist sciences like physics and astronomy. Societies would never work harmoniously without this.
Religion and other ingredients of ideology are self-evidently fused into the artistic products of a culture. Music, painting, and literature express ideas.
Do artists serve the ideologies of the powerful more consistently than the ideologies of the weak? Again, a fascinating topic… for a little later.
I prefer not to digress into long discussions about definitions, and government is one of those words that invite long dispute over meaning. One can try to define a word with other words. Government defined this way is: rule, law-making, regime, political order; or, it is how power is institutionalized.
There is a fashionable substitute for “government” current in popular speech; some people prefer the word “governance” for reasons not entirely clear to me.
Analogy can clarify definition. By analogy, I would define government as an institution of politics: like or as a church (temple, mosque, synagogue) is an institution of organized religion, or as armies are institutions of war, as courts and prisons are institutions of legalized justice, as a school is an institution of formal education, or as a factory is an institution of industrial economics.
Government can be seen in action, embodied in persons, and felt by the governed population in the experience of its consequences in their lives.
“Politics” is an abstract concept, all about power and relationships, and are not experienced concretely in the way that acts of government are seen and felt. But government is the method by which politics is made manifest in the world.
The relationship of government to cultural creatives and “the arts” is one of the ways power is manifested; power can enhance and promote one artist and suppress and undermine another. A fascinating topic for investigation… soon.
I will spend little time on explicating law, beyond the sketch I have given above about law as ideology and law-making as action of government.
There have been a multitude of ways that cultures explain their laws. Reference to religious sanction, in holy texts of revealed truths, has been a very common way to explain law. Reference to universal moral codes, also derived very often from religious authorities, has been another widely-observed source of law. Our Western civilization is replete with texts of legal philosophy ever since Moses.
For myself, I have never been persuaded that law is anything other than an invented set of rules to adjudicate among people who live in society and must needs have a consensual method to resolve difference of opinion. The opinions of the powerful are self-evidently often given precedence in culture, and law has been employed to empower the noble elite and subjugate the commoners.
Education: What is “the mainstream of culture”?
Canadians are accustomed to think of educational systems as ways to teach our children, in which we adults democratically participate via our role in elected governments. What do we teach our children? That is often a very vexed question. Deciding what curriculum to teach so that our future generation of citizens has a basic grasp of cultural facts, is a complicated process.
Modern, free-market-capitalist, democratic, middle-class, open societies in the West appear on the face of very incomplete evidence to be more complex than any before in history. It is material affluence that enables such complexity, meaning that determining what is “the main content of The Culture” is nearly impossible. Language is one of the few common denominators in such a pluralistic culture, but even that may be fragmenting in post-modern times.
We no longer inhabit “Christendom” so religion is no cement to hold the West together. Materialism and science, however, function quite well as substitutes for the medieval Catholic Church as our matrix for a world-view. Social critics of America such as Bob Dylan refer to a “monoculture” that has homogenized American music, architecture, products, and tastes, “flattening” the regional peculiarities that used to exist in the US as recently as the 1970’s. A franchise commercial store like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart is the same wherever one finds it in the country. This is a form of cultural conformity and monotony.
Schools used to be thought of, by Marxists especially but not exclusively, as a way for norms of the dominant class to be inculcated in the young. Education was a form of social control, to produce citizens and workers who “fit in.” The purpose of state-funded schools was to generate basic conformity with the needs of a system of politics and economics. This analysis will not do anymore.
Where is the main stream?
In the pluralistic West, there are simply too many varieties of culture (elite, pop, sub-, alternative, niche, underground, street, etc.) to sum up education as instilling a consensus culture. But there is certainly a mainstream of culture.
There are also markers of extreme diversification of cultural taste in things like music, fashion, political alignment, and spiritual practices. The internet brings us all kinds of choice; as consumers of cultural artifacts, we assert individual personality and identity through our material possessions and our “sense of style” in our search to be unique spirits. Oprah is a prime purveyor of the value of intense personal individuality: “You are one-of-a-kind. Find your unique gift.” This phenomenon of individualist ideology cuts against conformity.
Oprah is also an indicator that American culture is cemented by celebrity, where a mass of people share knowledge of a few celebrated “stars” in entertainment, sport and public life. Mass media has astounding potency to achieve unity of cultural referents; Marshall McLuhan, the guru of mass media in social theory, made a strong case for understanding Adolf Hitler as the first political leader to fully exploit the power of radio and film for his purposes. McLuhan referred to the German people being “tribally switched-on” by the “hot medium” of radio.
The materially-consumptive societies of the rich West allow for an astonishing array of cultural products and ideas to co-exist. Western societies still work, despite the empirical evidence of fracturing and fragmentation of culture into social splinters and pseudo-tribes. We are not so diverse as we pretend.
I notice that Americans are a mystery to many outside observers who try to understand how their society, so riven by apparent conflict, still functions as a political, economic, and national whole; Canada or Ireland seem to me to be less troubled by such divisions. The relative cultural openness of our affluent democracies and free societies jostling in apparent anarchy ultimately is not incompatible with a knitted cultural fabric, no matter the cacophony of tones.
Without endorsing a completely Marxian social model, one can recognize one common denominator of modern culture: the phenomenon of “jobs.”
Income is a necessity in order to subsist in the social order of the West, and a job and its paycheque are universally understood as a basic fact of life here.
Work is not always a job, and for much of human history it was not, but in the modern condition of capitalist market economies, a job defines a great deal about one’s identity. One’s job determines one’s place in society in several ways. I accept the truths of social class developed by Marx, and I am convinced there is a ruling class. The members of this class possess capital.
Karl Marx himself was averse to being absorbed into the world of paid labour while he lived in England, preferring extreme poverty while contributing to intellectual culture in his books and pamphlets. Yet he was eager that his daughters receive a proper bourgeois education so they might avoid poverty.
Social Class and Social Control
So far in this column, I have only hinted at the intriguing question of whether being an artist of some description is a “job,” and whether artists are freer than other workers from the power of ruling elites in politics and the economy. I had first to lay out some groundwork for describing culture and social order.
But now I wish to take the question of power, class, and cultural work under consideration. Are the creations of cultural producers (“artists”) assimilated to the power-and-wealth distribution of a society, so that an elite or ruling class dominates culture, even in pluralistic conditions of the post-modern West?
The answer to that is a simple yes. Explication need not be detailed extensively. Self-evidently, art and other cultural products are controlled by the profit-and-loss calculus of the capitalist market. Successful artists in the economy we live within are artists who sell their art and live well from the profits. Their products would not sell if they were in any substantial way a threat to the power of the ruling class.
Rock ‘n’ roll and rap are not subversive and do not transform the ruling fundamentals of our social order, no matter how much hype has been propagated by artists of this type trying to convince their fans that music will bring a revolution. Having said this, I do agree that song lyrics, books, TV and film can alter cultural consciousness immensely, as they have done in aiding a change in rights for women, people of colour, and sexual minorities; yet all the legal equality won by these hasn’t the altered capitalist ruling order one iota.
Intellectuals are in the same social category as artists, and Noam Chomsky has documented how the intelligentsia is assimilated within the capitalist ruling class system. Chomsky has shown how commercial media, which purport to inform us about “news,” is subject to the profitability standard of capitalist economic operation. News media collapse when they cannot sell their space to advertisers in the corporate world; thus, the corporate elite exercise control over news through their withholding of ad revenue. Read Chomsky’s fine work, Manufacturing Consent; what he demonstrates for media news professionals and for academic writers is a splendid paradigm of how power in capitalism determines the ability of artists to thrive in the system — or subsist miserably at the margins of capitalist society as Karl Marx did.
But even so, artists may live with an inner experience of more freedom than other producers. Not freedom from suffering hunger and deprivation when they fail, but freedom from conformity. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut put it this way: “The arts are not about making a living. Art is a very human way of making our lives more bearable.” He urges every person to give expression to their artistic urges, no matter the worthiness of their art as judged by other people; to do so is simply good for the soul and the spirit, Vonnegut declares.
Charles Eisenstein holds up artists as people who model the kind of authentic living that humans will achieve in future, when The Sacred Economy of the Gift has become the new norm, displacing capitalism and its “narrative of control and separation.” Artists already live as if their work is their passion and they show us how to pursue that path, no matter the result in money earned. An idealized image of the artist as a truly free human being has a great appeal to artists. Living a truly free and authentic life is appealing to anyone.
Interestingly, there is a cliché going around now that tries to define work in a way that it is not a job: “Follow your bliss, do what you love – and you will never work a day in your life.” The idea advocated in this quotation is neither true nor false, but a way of interpreting reality, an ideological assertion, an effort to understand one’s life in a certain way — among many competing ways to understand one’s existence.
Ideological statements are neither falsifiable nor verifiable; when large majorities share an ideology, that is part of mainstream culture. In modern Western society, the word job is a cultural meme, universally understood. Other memes of our culture are war, competition, and money. A job is not what we love most, but within our common consciousness we have internalized the system in which a job is basic to living. (Cliché and platitude reinforce the conformity of our immersion in the social normalcy of work and jobs: “Just do your job.” “Gotta work to pay the bills.” “On payday it’s all worth it.” etc. etc.)
We might be in transition to what Eisenstein calls “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” – the title of his current book. Or we may not. In such a world all of us will be at work only on things we are good at and love to do, giving society our gifts and getting back what we need. This is not the world of jobs; this is the world of “sacred economics,” he would say.
Marxian intellectuals before the 1960’s once occupied themselves trying to imagine what the culture of a socialist proletariat would be, once bourgeois culture was overthrown. Their efforts were a misuse of some very-high-voltage grey matter. Culture historically has not been proven to be a phenomenon that political rulers or economic systems can direct or control, but successful cultural celebrities in capitalism have not ever been artists with an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda or revolutionary political programme.
George Orwell, a powerful leftist voice against Stalin, portrayed prole culture in his novel 1984 as dismally underdeveloped. Friedrich Engels and the German Socialist Party (SPD) attempted to generate a culture for German workers before WWI in workers’ clubs, with workers newspapers, libraries, and cultural centres all segregated from the haunts of the bourgeoisie. The attempt to support an explicitly socialist workers’ culture using the power of the State in the Soviet Union after the 1917 Revolution did not produce a brilliant flourishing. Except for the very brief period in the first years of the Revolution, when artistic output was astounding and Russia was the “freest country in the world,” art in the Soviet state was miserably yoked to the totalitarian impulses and designs of the Communist Party and Stalinist despotism.
Personally, I remain convinced that popular culture develops quite independently of the political and economic powers of a society, but never unrelated to the distribution of power. Artists who are celebrated and wealthy, who keep company with those whose wealth comes from capitalist corporate or government operations, are artists who do not provoke threats to these powers.
Finally, the lives of artists are as different from one another as the lives of people in any other category of work. It is pointless to assert that artists are happier or more fulfilled than other working people whose work must support them financially. But art is much less easy to define than other product. Artists do have to have some quality of persistence in work that does not generate a steady paycheque or commission. They do possess a consciousness of working to create something that comes from motivation unique unto themselves, not for the straightforward payment-for-time that most jobs promise.
A society where the majority of people feel as artists feel while working is a society I would like to inhabit.