The Spike or Victoria College Review 1941
Revolutionaries Despite Themselves
Revolutionaries Despite Themselves
'Neither Ministers nor soldiers nor princes are to blame for the world war, but Art for Art's sake. 'When this statement was made by Kurt Hiller twenty-five years ago it must have seemed merely a silly paradox but today it is easier to see the truth behind Hiller's exaggeration and to realise that the divorce between art and social reality, if not in itself important as a cause of war, was a product of those conditions which led also to war. We know that until a definite historical period—in England the end of the 18th century—the art-work was not regarded as something isolated and unaccountable but as a relation between the artist and his patron or public and some of us believe that the reversal of outlook that then occurred was the natural consequence of the change that began somewhat earlier in the system of production. We see in this changed view of the artist's work a reflection of the apparent chaos in economic relations where the bond between consumer and producer, worker and em-ployer, was obscured and the apparent connection was between men and commodities. This leads ultimately to the phenomenon known to the economist as 'commodity fetichism' and to the artist as 'art for art's sake.' In the same way the surrealist who seeks 'freedom' and 'self-expression' by escaping from social relevance into the re- page 40 cesses of his sub-conscious is reflecting misconception typical of his class and age both as to the nature of freedom and as to the relation between the individual and society.
Unfortunately, however, some of the people who quite correctly condemn the severance of the historic and essential relationship between the poet and society are themselves guilty of scarcely less grave mistakes regarding the nature of art. In the legitimate emphasis which they lay upon the necessity for art—and particularly poetry—to have social importance they are apt occasionally to confuse the function of the poem with that of the political pamphlet. In fact, while the ultimate function of the poet like that of the political theorist is to enable man to alter his environment, he does this not as the theorist does by illuminating and systematizing reality but by a temporary distortion of reality emphasising and deepening the emotional relation between the reader and his surroundings.
That art was of this nature has been more or less intuitively guessed by all great writers. Shelley wrote 'Poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting on the cause."William Watson, minor poet though he was, put the matter very happily when he wrote
Song is not truth, nor wisdom but the rose
Upon truth's lips, the light in wisdom's eye.
But only with the development and application of dialectical materialism by Marx and with the illumination that Freudian psycho-analysis cast on the obscurities of the human mind could such statements be developed from flashes of poetic intuition into a coherent philosophy covering not only poetry but all art and having its basis in a scientific outlook on society and the individual.
The development of such a philosophy has been attempted by numerous writers with varying degrees of success, but probably with the greatest subtlety and profundity by Caudwell who sees in art and science two antithetical but complementary techniques in man's struggle with his environment. In the 'mock-world' of the artist and the 'mock-ego' of the scientist he sees illusions necessary for the understanding— and the change that that understanding makes possible and inevitable—of the human instincts and of objective reality. The affective content of an art such as poetry, therefore, will lie not so much in the picture of external reality conjured up as in the 'autonomous complexes' released by the organisation of the words themselves—not so much as mere symbols of reality but with all the emotional associations and 'feeling-tones' gained by social use.
Although Caudwell did not make the point there is implicit in his theory a solution of the argument as to whether the artist fulfils himself by fleeing from reality or facing it. Here there has been too often a tendency to regard the fetters of objective reality— 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth '—as the only alternative to hiding in some aesthetic ivory tower. But the artist does escape, he does build a dream world, and this escape is to discover and express the reality of his own feelings more deeply and by this means to make it possible to change external reality. 'Escapism' of this sort which is socially desirable and necessary—and I would include a prose work such as Joyce's Ulysses in this category—is of course the very reverse of that found inpage break page 41
the popular novel whose technique of movement in time demands the building up of a representation of concrete reality which, as such, should be true to life. Aesthetic gin of this kind offers us a wish-fulfilment only and does not develop the wish itself as does art by bringing our emotions into consciousness and thereby changing them. The gratification offered to the unchanged wish by the baser forms of escapism is analagous to the 'pie in the sky' of the other-worldly religions and serves the same reactionary purpose. The true artist on the other hand is always a revolutionary, frequently despite reactionary political views. However strong his personal attachment to the old order, by making men more fully conscious of themselves and consequently of their environment he causes them to change unsatisfactory conditions. This is one of the contradictions which provide the dynamic force for social change and one which becomes particularly obvious at a time such as the present when every honest art-work, whatever the opinions of its author, contains an implicit condemnation of the system under which it was born. It was not without reason that Marshal Goering remarked, 'When I hear the word "culture" I release the safety-catch of my revolver.'
The artist who disregards the changing world around him and concerns himself either with purely personal or with old and accepted bodies of experience is to be condemned not so much because he is acting in a selfish or cowardly manner but because he cannot by these means secure the emotional revelation and change which alone can be his justification. Even the birds and flowers, regarded by the vulgar as part of the poet's stock-in-trade, are not so much objects in nature as emotional groupings in the minds of men and women and the poet dare not ignore the fact that the content of those groupings is constantly changing. He may weave whatever phantasies he pleases about love in spring but if they are to have the depth, the universality, and the dynamic force that distinguish the dream of the artist from that of the neurotic they must have their basis in the feelings of men and women in the world today—a world of hate and winter in which spring gains a profounder symbolism and love becomes prophetic, not idyllic. If he closes his eyes to the civilisation in travail about him he isolates himself from the suffering, hoping, and striving which is mankind's battle for a fuller life and for the freedom which is the consciousness of that life, and out of which, in pain and in joy, all art is born.