All Art is Propaganda

[This is part of the Release the Kraken! series.]

July 17, 2013

In “No Local,” that I just finished reading, Greg Sharzer mentions George Orwell’s book “The Road to Wigan Pier”. Because I almost never buy books any more, preferring to borrow them from the library instead, I checked to see if the library near me had a copy. They didn’t. They did, however, have a collection of essays, that is itself a collection of previous collections of essays, titled “All Art is Progapanda”.

I liked the title right away, especially having delved into the ideological underpinnings of reform movements in this neighborhood. I didn’t think it would deal with art as a means of reproducing the ideology of any particular class, but more in the sense of Althusser’s dictum that ideology is material.

It was nothing of the sort. The title comes from the first essay, on Charles Dickens:

I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his ‘message’, and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message’, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda.

What I want to quote from here is from an essay titled “Inside the Whale”. He writes about Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, but it’s as if he’s writing about the “East Village”:

During the boom years, when dollars were plentiful and the exchange-value of the franc was low, Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen. In some quarters of the town the so-called artists must actually have outnumbered the working population — indeed, it has been reckoned that the late twenties there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them impostors. The populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruff-voiced lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance, and along the Seine banks Notre Dame it was almost impossible to pick one’s way between the sketching-stools. It was the age of dark horses and neglected genii; the phrase on everybody’s lips was ‘Quand je serai lancé’. As it turned out, nobody was ‘lancé’, the slump descended like another Ice Age, the cosmopolitan mob of artists vanished, and the huge Montparnasse cafés which only ten years ago were filled till the small hours by hordes of shrieking poseurs have turned into darkened tombs in which there arc not even any ghosts. It is this world — described in, among other novels, Wyndham Lewis’s “Tarr” — that Miller is writing about, but he is dealing only with the under side of it, the lumpen-proletarian fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels.

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