Swans Commentary » swans.com April 25, 2005  



The Art And Politics Of Film
A Conversation at the Swans Café...


John Steppling & David Walsh


Part III




Read the first part of this conversation, published on March 28, 2005, and the second part, published on April 11, 2005.


(Swans - April 25, 2005) 


I'll be briefer this time too.

It is impossible to leave the question of religion without citing the beautiful and truthful passages of Marx from 1844 (from Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right):

"The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man -- state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion ... is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

This is entirely à propos in the U.S. at present. The collapse of the labor movement, the decline in political and social consciousness, the resulting decline in social engagement by much of the population, the great and growing economic insecurity, the vast social polarization (80 percent of the American work force would have to toil 385 years to make what the average American CEO makes in just one!) ... how could this brutal, frightening, "heartless" situation not produce a certain desire to have Jesus in one's corner? No one else is, apparently. Many people feel only the abyss beneath their feet; it is hardly surprising that they should cast their eyes upward.

This is not the same thing, however, as saying that the U.S. is being swept by some vast and deep-going religious fervor. Not at all. It's highly contradictory. The Schiavo case did not go over with the population. Seventy percent, under conditions of an unprecedented media blitz, rejected the zealots outright. Too many people have had experience with such episodes in their own family, and there is a distrust of the Christian Right.

Objective tendencies in modern life work against religious prejudice, but there has to be a concerted campaign by artists, scientists, intellectuals in the U.S. and elsewhere against such backwardness. A form of clerical fascism is emerging that poses the most serious dangers. One cannot overestimate the need for a progressive cultural revival in the U.S.

And it is entirely appropriate that in the midst of the theocratic mania into which the ruling elite has fallen, or a considerable portion of it, that a film like Sin City should appear. Two sides of the same demented coin.

Sin City is a product of the Rodriguez-Tarantino school, based, of course, on a comic book. Endless beatings, killings, torture, cannibalism, thuggery and general viciousness. A stupid, repugnant work, witless, dull, inartistic. Whenever the violence pauses and the filmmakers are obliged to insert dialogue, the essential puerility of the project emerges.

The issue of torture in particular is not a small one. We know, because various columnists told us so, that torture became a subject at Washington dinner parties shortly after September 11. Or, one might say, September 11 provided the pretext and incentive for discussions that the participants had been working toward for a protracted period of time. The decay and crisis of bourgeois-democratic institutions did not begin then, but those processes were given a great boost. Something was unleashed in the ruling elite, in the so-called intelligentsia and among a section of pseudo-artists. They no longer had to hold back, they could be themselves!

Bloody, lawless, sadistic revenge against one's enemies has become an ever-more acceptable theme in film and television. Kill Bill and Sin City are stupid, filthy works. The filmmakers of course are not entirely conscious of the significance of their efforts; no, no, if they were more conscious, they would not be half so useful. They are disoriented, bitter at real and imagined enemies, confused, socially ignorant, "playful," profoundly unserious. Getting wealthy in the process, of course. This is not genuine "nihilism," it is a mere market product, without the slightest sincerity or depth.

Such films (along with television programs like 24 on Murdoch's Fox Television) are helping to accustom and inure the US population to the torture of prisoners and other forms of mistreatment and abuse. They play a material role in the drive toward a police state. There is a whiff of fascism in the artistic air.

I received a letter rejecting my comments on Sin City, arguing that, after all, the film was anti-establishment, anti-authority, that I was exaggerating its reactionary character, etc. The letter writer hadn't thought it through at all. One has only to read the right-wing Web sites and blogs to see the same kind of porno-sadistic language as one finds in Kill Bill and Sin City. Much of it is directed against authority, of a kind. There is a right-wing and a left-wing critique of bourgeois democracy. We opposed Clinton, but we were not indifferent to a coup attempt in the guise of a manufactured sex scandal.

In any event, in my view, the systematic exposure and discrediting of certain charlatans, like Tarantino, is an essential task of film criticism today. It is an elementary act of cultural hygiene. The aura surrounding such figures, created by sycophantic critics, should be dispelled, their reputations shattered and their intellectual-artistic poverty laid bare. These things have real consequences.

So you see why I'm still unsatisfied with "mystery" and so forth. We are not discussing these things in a vacuum. Events are pressing. I apologize, but I'm very much concerned with earthly matters. I think you slightly misinterpreted Voronsky. His point was that the artist doesn't create beauty or ugliness, that they exist independently, that the artist needs to go beyond his ego and "surrender," "sink in" to the real. That's where I believe our concentration needs to be, whatever the artistic means or forms we choose in the end. What is the present state of life on this planet? What is the psychology of men and women? What are they feeling and thinking? Does this feeling and thinking correspond to the character of their lives? What is their economic state? Are they suffering? In what ways are they suffering? What is to be done?

Art ought not to be instructional, because that is not art's purpose. Hegel wrote about this very well. He made the point that by making art into instruction the content is "expounded directly and obviously as abstract proposition, or general theorem," and not indirectly in the concrete form of the work. But this divides the work and makes artistic form a mere "husk which is expressly pronounced to be mere husk." This is didactic art, much so-called political art. The form is a mere coating for an undissolved lump in the middle.

To that, he opposes the idea that the "work of art ought to bring a content before the mind's eye, not in its generality as such, but with this generality made absolutely individual, and sensuously particularized." Art has "the vocation of revealing the truth in the form of sensuous artistic shape." This is what I meant about Anna Karenina. Stating the theme in a single sentence has nothing to do, literally, with the artistic experience of the novel. It is an experience of an entirely different kind.

Art ought not to be instructional, but it needs to be illuminating, it ought to be truthful about human life. And the truth of human life is, first and foremost, a social truth. We need to go on the offensive against the complacent, the self-deluding, the falsely comforting. We live in harsh times. Someone has to speak harsh truths. Art needs to make a moral appeal...

I agree with you about Scofield's Lear -- and the theater today. It is in a thoroughly wretched state, like a railway station in some provincial town on a line that has been more or less abandoned. No one cares terribly what goes on there, the building and equipment are run-down and out-of-date, although the occasional train still comes through, more or less out of habit.

The theater in the U.S. at least has all the defects of cinema, without any of the latter's strengths, a mass audience, resources, technical innovation. A revival there too begins, in my view, with having something to say to an audience. I don't think the problem is the acting. I see some quite exceptional performers. Of course actors need to be more discriminating and stop fooling themselves about the rubbish they do much of the time, but that is not a new problem.

"Language is the forgotten dimension of today's film -- language and voice. Too many of today's actors seem not to be interested in serving the play or film." No, indeed. But my experience teaches me that when they are presented with substantial material, actors will respond with great energy, loyalty and self-sacrifice. Even today, when the slightly-more-serious-than-average work comes along, one can tell the difference in the actors' bearing and approach.

The general cultural situation is dismal and debased at present. However, again, there are objective tendencies working toward a rebirth of a critical culture. First and foremost, of course, the social crisis and the impasse reached by the existing order. Serious art contains an element of protest, and in our day, that protest must and will gravitate toward a criticism of the foundations of the profit system. Second, there are technical changes, the Internet, which is making our conversation possible, computerization; in cinema, digital video, lightweight equipment of various kinds.

Naturally, when more complex works are placed before audiences, there will be difficulties. People used to decades of undemanding and bland commercial films will have problems at first with artistic efforts. I have confidence in people. In any event, there is no way around the problem. The great work of the next period will create new audiences. Accommodating oneself to the present backwardness, as too many do, or considering it inevitable or insurmountable, would be a fatal mistake.





I agree with just about all of this. My only arguments stem from, I think, how we choose to talk about things like "nature" and "mystery." I understand your reluctance to allow for any mystification --- and I agree that's crucial in this particular historical moment. I think in terms of Voronsky, for example, you misread me a bit. What you describe his saying (above) is exactly what I was trying to describe in different terms. It is all about how we look at the world "out there." It's just that "out there" contains an awful lot of "in here" as well. That's not, to my mind, mystification, or religious voodoo, it's just how I see the dialectic of the creative process.

That said, I think this Marx line is the essential point: "To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions."

I think this is what artists are supposed to be doing, at least in part (or at least in large part).

I watched Roy Andersson's Songs From the Second Floor the other day. A film that never found an American distributor (it's a Swedish film). It's a seriously flawed film, and yet it contains some startling moments and has, over all, a rather supportable discipline and intent. Andersson is a big TV commercials director, however, and one can see, literally, the contamination this causes in his work. The film fails in the end because he doesn't rise above the reflexes of advertising. Filmmakers like Tarantino or Rodriguez are simply empty vessels that continue to stick together the flotsam and jetsam of previous eras' work and edit it in ever more hyperventilating ways, and then trot it out as radical. It's not, of course; it's reactionary and the sadomasochism quite disturbing (compare the exploration of sadomasochism in Fassbinder, at times, or Pasolini!). People like Paul Thomas Anderson or Sam Mendes are petty bourgeoisie hacks, essentially, and hardly worth serious analysis. The gradually corrosive effects of a lifetime in the culture industry can be seen in a Scorsese. He simply cannot remember what originally drove his vision. Overall the conditions are so suffocating -- the rule of the corporate ethos so imposing, that artists seem crippled almost as soon as they begin to work. When a film like American Beauty is awarded so much acclaim, it is hard for the young filmmaker not to -- at least subconsciously -- internalize this aesthetic (sic). American film schools talk about Spielberg as if he is an artist. Million Dollar Baby is talked about as "art." It's going to be an uphill struggle.

As for actors. I am sure good scripts would help elevate their talent -- however, they so seldom get good scripts that I wonder if they can remember what the difference is. I recall seeing Angelina Jolie in her first film part....Michael Christofer's Gia....and she was revelatory. I thought, amazing, what will this girl eventually do? The answer is Laura Croft, Tomb Raider. One of my favorite actresses from a decade or so ago, was Karen Young. Last I saw her was in a wasted role on The Sopranos. There was nowhere for Karen to develop her gifts. Benicio Del Toro ends up in junk like 21 Grams -- a film so hopelessly stupid that I couldn't even begin to discuss it. The point is that the system smothers talent when it does arise. There were no directors to nurture Jolie or Karen Young, and I see none to help a Del Toro.

I agree about the new forms of religious fascism. The Pope was a poster boy for such obscurantism, and so are folks like DeLay and Fallwell. We have an army run by zealots like Jerry Boykin, and our culture is slowly being consumed by such backwardness and social myopia. I'm not sure this translates into quite the need for such a prescriptive call for opposition to all things religious. That said, I tend to almost totally agree when you point to the dangers we see already in the form of "intelligent design" and faith-based re-hab. So I agree for the need of a cultural revival -- absolutely. How will it arise and from where will it come? I don't know. There are objective forces at work, contradictions in the material conditions, and yet I also fear the near total hegemony of this marketing culture. I don't think one can overestimate the powerful effects of TV advertising and print marketing campaigns. The branding of everything and everyone. It is so pernicious and pervasive at this point that I have to wonder at how it will be overturned. I wish I shared more of your optimism on this, and I hope you're right.

I would argue, however, that the far right fundamentalists (Robertson, Fallwell, DeLay et al.) are less the problem than are the health food Clinton liberals. The educated liberal class that has accepted the dumbing down process, even welcomed it, and canonizes things like Lord of the Rings and Gladiator is really more of an obstacle to a cultural revival than are the cartoon nut case Jesus freaks. The far right, the blow-dried anal compulsive fanatics are never going to really win over a lot of the populace (as you point out in terms of the Schiavo story) but the Clinton-latte libs are much more presentable and palatable -- yet in terms of culture they are possibly even more destructive. The shift toward the police state can be seen in TV cops shows, in Hollywood films like SWAT or Enemy of the State, and this material was developed in "liberal" Hollywood

But back to those Kerry voters, those MoveOn.org types, and how they affect culture. If all right-wing zealots were somehow annihilated tomorrow, I don't think much would change in the world of art and culture. If all the libs were to disappear, I think we might start to see some real opposition forming, culturally speaking. The bland relativist PC posturing of most liberal artistic product is just abysmal and mind numbing. The far right might go to watch a good wholesome, I don't know, Neil Diamond concert -- who cares -- but the liberal embrace of faux-art, of faux-seriousness...Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison, Tony Kushner or films like American Beauty; this sanctioning and bestowing of an official cultural imprimatur tends to do more, in terms of stopping real revolutionary creativity, than anything else I can think of. Clinton can bomb Belgrade and install deadly sanctions on Iraq, but he's a Democrat so it's alright. This privileged class cares only to protect its property and privilege. The artistic institutions, mostly liberal, are compromised just as totally as those run by Republicans. Lynne Cheney or Tipper Gore...or, gulp, Hillary -- it's all the same philistinism. The educated class, mostly liberal, who controls museums and galleries, who runs University writing programs and film schools (at least in the U.S.) has totally accepted the consumer-based world view, has uncritically embraced notions of popularity as a substitute for quality. Most importantly, they squash dissent every bit as effectively as John Bolton. The systemic compromises of Hollywood are in evidence at every Cineplex in the Western world, and I can testify from first hand experience how writers and directors willingly censor themselves in an effort to not lose work. The climate in Hollywood has gotten worse due to the far right. The Bush era has cast an even more sinister shadow over that grotesque landscape. I am reminded of Lynch's Mulholland Drive, where "Hollywood" is seen as a leprous old derelict rooting through a dumpster behind a cheap coffee shop. I think that about sums it up. It's a very toxic and mendacious industry.

So, yes, in conclusion, art contains protest. This protest can take many forms, the subversive element is often disguised at times, but it has to be there for art to stay alive. Right now, art feels dead. Film feels dead. I hope it will change, and I tend to think it will. I think audiences are continuing to go see Spiderman 7, but they aren't satisfied. I think there are new film communities in unexpected places...in Nigeria, in Taiwan, in China -- in South America slowly -- and this is likely where the future lies. I hope so.





Needless to say, I'm far from disagreeing with you about the rottenness of America's so-called liberal politicians. The Clintons are a repugnant duo. And having been the subject of slanderous, venomous (and ongoing!) right-wing attacks for the past decade and more hasn't made them a jot wiser. On the contrary, their response is to slide continually farther to the right.

Or consider the issue of church and state. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, no hero of mine, was obliged to declare, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote ..." What a sea-change, to a Bush reaffirming his belief that Christ came to earth as a "living God," with Clinton close behind in his train!

American liberalism has been entirely hollowed out by social processes. In the end, the vast resources and industrial-financial dominance of the U.S. made the New Deal possible, a program of limited social reform. The loss of American hegemony, the rise of major rivals in Europe and Asia, the growing international trade war and jockeying for economic position, have rendered a new program of social reform impossible. The US ruling elite is neither willing nor able to grant any concessions to the population. Far from it, every social gain and constitutional right is under attack.

But the bankruptcy of liberalism has another side to it. Its impotence and emptiness, reformism without reforms, also flow inexorably from the devil's bargains that American liberalism made in the middle of the 20th century, first with Stalinism in the 1930s (The Nation, The New Republic, Walter Duranty of The New York Times, Malcolm Cowley, various "friends of the Soviet Union" who remained silent or openly supported the Moscow Trials and the genocide carried out against socialists by Stalin) and then with the McCarthyite witch-hunters after the war. Liberalism in the U.S. long ago forfeited any moral or political raison d'être.

Its present state is the inevitable working out of a political degeneration under conditions where many of its constituents have vastly enriched themselves and find themselves the most devout defenders of the status quo. After all, Kerry had one consolation from his defeat last November; Bush's policies would help make him even richer. For such people, the attacks of the extreme right, and even the establishment of an authoritarian regime, are merely an inconvenience.

I don't believe, however, that they are the greater danger. Illusions in the Democratic Party certainly form the major obstacle to political development in the U.S. The population will have to come to understand that no section of the Democrats will defend living standards, jobs, democratic rights (including abortion), constitutional rights or anything else vital to the well-being of broad layers of the population.

This "disillusionment" is a complex process. A population does not change political orientations like one changes one's shirt. However, in one's distaste for the cowardice and wretchedness of the Clintons, Kerrys, Gores, Liebermans, etc., one should not lose sight of the danger represented by the emergence of this "clerical fascism." We did not support Clinton during the phony sex scandal, but we were not indifferent, unlike a great many unserious people, to what replaced him!

The Republican and Democratic party represent different wings of the ruling oligarchy; their differences are often bitter and acrimonious, but tactical in character. Democrats like Gore (and individual supporters like billionaire George Soros) are made anxious by the consequences of the Bush administration's radical, reckless policies, which are tearing up 50 years of American bourgeois policy, destabilizing the world and, ultimately, they fear, likely to ignite social explosions. The Republican right prefers the "nuclear option." This element is the most predatory, rapacious, shortsighted and brutal. Both parties are hostile and opposed to the interests of the mass of the population, which is essentially disenfranchised at this moment. This disenfranchisement is a burning problem that cannot be postponed without producing the most fearful results.

Stepping back for a moment: I have found this discussion extremely interesting and helpful. I find it fascinating that, by the logic of the conversation itself, we have been obliged to devote a considerable amount of time, if not the majority of time, to politics and philosophy. That's as it should be. The question of cinema in our time cannot be addressed seriously, in my opinion, unless its relationship to social evolution and problems of social and artistic perspective are tackled head-on.

I repeat what I said at the outset: these things need to be discussed and discussed again! No one has a monopoly on truth. And I appreciate this forum. But we need others. We will continue our efforts on the WSWS along these lines. Critical analysis of artistic and social life needs to be revived, made widespread and become available to thinking elements worldwide. New structures and organizations will have to be created for such work, as well as the making and distribution of a new kind of cinema: rich, evocative, poetic, critical. One of the great problems of artists today is that they don't take their own work seriously. Art has consequences. Every artistic representation is an argument about the state of the world and the state of art, either approving, disapproving or expressing disinterest.

Social conditions are preparing a massive radicalization. The new Pope spoke recently about the threat represented by "global secularization." He is quite right. Objective tendencies, the logic of world economy and history, are not hospitable to those who would have us return to the 16th century. The world's population could be united today in a common struggle against capitalism unlike any time in history. There has been a cultural-intellectual regression, bound up with the difficulties of the past century. But we understand: events have produced the current moods and events will change them. This change will not arrive on our doorstep, however, as a gift from an anonymous benefactor. It has to be fought for. I repeat: it has to be fought for. The potential in the situation will only be realized through conscious human intervention.

I am confident about the future of cinema, including American cinema, because I'm confident about the future course of social development. The two are intimately linked.

I'll conclude with these passages from the Breton-Trotsky "Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art," from 1938:

"In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must under no pretext allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who urge us, whether for today or for tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula complete freedom for art.


"It should be clear by now that in defending freedom of thought we have no intention of justifying political indifference, and that it is far from our wish to revive a so-called pure art which generally serves the extremely impure ends of reaction. No, our conception of the role of art is too high to refuse it an influence on the fate of society. We believe that the supreme task of art in our epoch is to take part actively and consciously in the preparation of the revolution. But the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art."


Thank you again for this opportunity, and let's ensure that efforts toward clarifying the complex problems of film and politics, art and life, continue and deepen.


I would recommend:


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Internal Resources

The Art And Politics Of Film Part I

The Art And Politics Of Film Part II

Conversations at Swans Café

Art & Culture on Swans


About the Authors

David Walsh is arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site, and the author of many incisive and critical essays on contemporary art and culture from a Marxist standpoint. You can read his film reviews at http://www.wsws.org/sections/category/arts/walsh.shtml - You can also read a lecture, "The Aesthetic Component of Socialism," David delivered on January 9, 1998 to the International Summer School on Marxism and the Fundamental Problems of the 20th Century, organized by the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) in Sydney from January 3-10, 1998.

John Steppling on Swans (with bio).



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Open Letter to Howard Dean - Michael DeLang

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Published April 25, 2005