On the same Easter Week of the 1916 rising, a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition was held in Dublin. Chaplin, well-known to be a socialist as well as the world’s leading entertainer at the time, had a mass following among the Dublin working classes.
Truth be told, among many in the Dublin working class, there was probably as much interest in the Charlie Chaplin competition as there was in what the crowd of poets with guns and big ideas were at in the GPO. There were many dozens of entries to the lookalike competition and the various merits of each were discussed in newspapers and among young and old in working class communities. For many, the Chaplin lookalike competition must have seemed a supremely important event, and the unannounced eruption of the Rising an unwelcome distraction.
The story goes that about halfway through Easter Week — while field guns pummelled the GPO from across the street, and the rebels inside did their best to hold tough and return fire — one of the most impressive of the Chaplin lookalikes decided to amble Chaplinesquely right down the middle of O Connell St, in between the hostile lines.
Both sides, it is said, ceased fire and both sides, it is said, looked on in appreciative amazement at the slick and entertaining performance — as unexpected and courageous as the Easter Rising itself.
Once he/she/they had finished the cannon-silencing performance, they turned and bowed in both directions, and a general applause broke out. No observer could have told which portions of the noise of the applause was British Loyalist, and which emanated from the clapped hands of Insurrectionary Irish.
Minutes later, once the fabled impersonator was out of range, the unresolved hostilities resumed and bullets sought heads to explode in every direction.
Art does not ask or expect of its appreciators that they subscribe to one political point of view or another; does not inquire as to whether they be on one side of the class and anti-imperialist struggles or the other.
Mozart was popular among the officers of the death camps. Trotsky recognised the avid fascist Céline as the greatest of inter-war French novelists. No contemporary liberal novelist could or presumably would claim to be of equal artistic stature to the religious reactionary Fyodor Dostoevsky.
So it’s not the purpose of this essay to dispute this fundamentally supra-political aspect of art. Great art disintegrates all borders, ignores all our divisions. Within this universally levelling effect, the aesthetic bears a radical promise of no nations, borders, classes or any kind of unequal and agitating divisions on Earth — “all the people together in harmony,” as John Lennon sings it.
Art is Utopianising in its collective effect on us as a species — it unites us by temporarily obscuring or abolishing our real divisions and without asking for a sacrifice of our individuality. Though of course it does so only temporarily, only in the realms of feeling and imagination, and without much actual impact on borders and class divisions in the here and now.
It is important not to have the illusion that making art, generally speaking, is a kind of political activism. Art is most often not political activity so much as it is the suspension or deferral of political activity.
Bertolt Brecht wrote many songs and poems and plays and novels aimed at, and enjoyed by, millions of German workers in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascism came to power anyway and would likely have done so in exactly the same way had he never in his life bothered to write a single line.
All the protest songs and singers of the 1960s and 1970s couldn’t prevent the election of Reagan and Thatcher.
There certainly are occasions when art and artists can make a centrally important contribution to social causes. The relationship between Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League is one such good news story, as is the successful resistance to the Carnsore nuclear reactor here in Ireland.
Others will have more examples, I’m sure, but all will be exceptions to a general rule of artistic creation, which is that it takes place in a separate sphere from political activity, and with its own traditions and orientations which are different to and even opposed to political activity. Activism always seeks to highlight the social divisions that anthropologists argue it is art’s social and evolutionary role in human societies to paper over and obscure.
On the other hand, this grand distinction between spheres of activity makes anyone trying to fuse them a priori a subversive. And it is obviously true that a poem on a picket-line or an artistic online video can inspire and promote causes.
But it is usually the case that artists make their best contributions to social movements in the same way as plumbers or nurses — that is, by handing out leaflets, turning up to meetings and demos etc. — by blending in rather than standing out.
Similarly, the cultural value and aesthetic quality of a work of art has nothing to with the class background or political opinions of who has produced it or who is relaying or performing it.
Nor does the personal morality of the artist have any bearing at all on whether the music they compose will be beautiful, or the book they write un-put-downable.
W.B Yeats lived a long and luxurious aristocratic life paid for by the hard labour of Irish peasants. He owed the inspiration of many of his plays and poems to the lore of Irish peasants. The music and diction of much of his poetry is simply a refined version of the daily speech rhythms of the Irish peasantry.
Nevertheless, he enthusiastically supported the war crimes of extra-judicial torture and execution of socialist and republican POWs from peasant backgrounds during the so-called Irish civil war. Yet he remains the most melodious and memorable Irish poet of the early 20th century.
Margaret Atwood’s practical support for apartheid Israel in breaking the cultural boycott does nothing to reduce her status as one of the pre-eminent global novelists.
Conversely, some of the worst poetry ever written has emerged from council estates where a local loudmouth has discovered an online rhyming dictionary and decided to inflict their thoughts on world affairs on us in toddleresque rhymes.
So when we talk about how injustice and inequality manifest themselves in class society in relation to the arts, we are not talking about anything to do with aesthetics or the internal qualities of works of art.
Demanding increased access to art for workers
Working class people, despite the obstacles they face, make and appreciate art in countless ways and by various means. There, obviously then, is no one way of being a working class artist, and there is no ‘working-class aesthetic’ as such. Therefore, a socialist party should have no aesthetic policy or prescriptions whatsoever.
The role of a socialist party or movement is to campaign for increased working class access to the arts, period. It is never to poke its nose into the processes of artistic creation. A Stalinist policy of interference in artistic creation and limiting artistic freedom must be totally rejected and struggled against for art as well as for politics’ sake — there are no ‘socialist realist’ novels worth reading.
None of this means that we cannot highlight and unpack some distinctive ways in which working class communities have evolved artistic traditions, and which are markedly distinct from the dominant bourgeois way of doing things — ways that might incorporate something subversively political, above and beyond the artistic.
My focus is on illustrating just this kind of politicised working class literature. For any worker to start making art is by definition to make the case that we are not born solely to consume and be exploited — that we too, just like the bourgeoisie, are capable of both creating and appreciating on the higher plane of art. It is in this sense that we can agree with Michael Hartnett when he writes, “the act of poetry is a rebel act”.
The work of art is always concrete and historical, whether it be artefact or current. Art has all the apprehensible qualities of the real, whether it is a song that passes us by in three minutes or a statue of a mother deity that has withstood 65,000 years on Earth. Because of this, we can both share an encounter with an artwork, and differ widely in our opinions of it, as we can with all other historical events and objects.
But we can say definite true things about works of art as well. We can keep in mind that the work of art is a self-contained object that can only be authentically judged in relation to other self-contained objects of the same kind. As stated above, we cannot judge art by the nature of the person or person who produces it. The work of art is supremely indifferent to the name and nature of he/she/they who made it, be they saint or sinner.
And yet class is a determining factor in who gets to make art and appreciate it in so many unjustly political ways.
1) Working class access to arts education.
Access to quality arts education is not provided at all in many Irish public secondary schools, and only at the most rudimentary, amateur, and unenthusiastic levels in most of the rest. Despite the overwhelming pedagogic evidence of a hugely positive impact on teenage mental health, there is no creative writing curriculum in public secondary schools.
Even more disgracefully in the year 2019, there is no multimedia creativity education (production of podcasts, videos etc.) whatsoever in Irish secondary schools. By contrast, private schools have all of the above. Well-off parents can and do pay for additional extra-curricular arts education, giving their children a huge advantage.
2) The lack of Arts Council support for predominantly working class art forms.
Literary funding in the Arts Council goes almost exclusively to predominantly middle- and upper-class forms such as the page poem, opera, and so-called ‘literary’ fiction.
There are no funding streams for performance poetry, rap, storytelling, singer-songwriters or bands, online video, podcast, digital music production — all forms that are far more accessible to and engaged with by working class people as both producers and consumers of art.
This is nothing but institutional class prejudice.
3) The cost of being an artist.
Many successful writers (it takes 15-25 years to become a successful writer) are sustained by crucial financial support from their well-off families.
Most of us do not have such parents and so we are systematically excluded in yet another way.
So to level the playing field, we need not a few legislative tweaks, not just a token couple of panels on ‘being a working class writer’ at literary festivals few working class people have ever heard of, but a complete overhaul of education, art funding, and arts access from the bottom up — that is, a revolution.
(c) Dave Lordan
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Parts 2 and 3 of this article to follow.