Content and Form: No Art Above Class

Every artist, every scientist, every writer must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative.
—Paul Robeson

On October 24th, the May Day Student Organization hosted a public art show, Content and Form. We called for artists of all mediums to submit pieces that illustrated any of six selected quotations from the MDSO’s program. The submissions included drawings, sculpture, graphic art, and spoken word. The artworks prompted debate and discussion among MDSO members, artists, and audience members on the relationship between art and politics. This article summarizes and develops some of the most important ideas discussed at the event.

Bourgeois artists and academics often claim that art is an expression of pure subjectivity, and that its points of departure are abstract values such as love, passion, and beauty rather than politics. Even “leftists” often reject what they would call a “utilitarian” view of art that subordinates it to politics, effectively upholding the bourgeois line that art should be judged solely according to subjective taste. In our opening remarks to Content and Form, we put forward a basic thesis against these bourgeois and petty-bourgeois distortions: art is a social product, and there is no art that transcends class society. Art therefore cannot be purely subjective. Definite class standpoints produce definite conceptions of society—for example, the feudal opposition to atheism, or the modern bourgeoisie’s opposition to the materialist worldview. These conceptions are then reflected in literary and artistic works which serve the needs of one class or another. For art to be revolutionary today, rather than reflecting the experiences of individuals or expressing a timeless human nature, it must reflect the class standpoint and interests of the revolutionary class: the proletariat.

There is no art for art’s sake; cultural endeavors never stand aloof from class projects and definite political lines. For example, mainstream bourgeois art today, from movies to music to novels, distracts audiences from the class struggle and promotes individualism, careerism, and complacency. The superhero movie genre in particular is illustrative in respect to the class character of art: those who wish to transform society are portrayed as insane and villainous while the heroes of the films are strongmen with exceptional powers who strive to maintain the status quo. The masses, to the extent that they are depicted in these movies, are passive spectators and victims.

Rejecting the decadence of ruling-class aesthetics does not mean rejecting the entirety of the inherited cultural past, in the vein of avant-garde futurism. The art of the past reflects the wealth of experience and accumulated knowledge of its own era. However, we must subject ruling class aesthetics to a ruthless criticism, transforming past artistic forms and infusing them with a new content drawn from the contemporary life of the working people.

A revolutionary art must furthermore bear a double character, a positive and a negative element. It must both expose the exploitation and oppression wrought by the capitalist system, based on a scientific analysis of our society, and point to the necessity, possibility, and urgency of socialism. Many accomplished works by petty-bourgeois writers and artists reflect only the madness and decadence of capitalism’s imperialist stage, without pointing to the road which will lead us out of a society based on exploitation and oppression. Regardless of their artistic merit, such “radical” works are steeped in pessimism and self-eulogizing, and cannot be described as revolutionary. Truly revolutionary art dares to be optimistic, promoting a positive political project. It not only criticizes the decaying and reactionary elements of our society, but typifies, universalizes, and praises the revolutionary initiative and courage of the masses.

Proceeding from this optimism, revolutionary art must also contain an imperative to political action. It must indeed be “utilitarian” in the sense that it must serve as a tool for liberation in the hands of the proletariat and the people, uniting the revolutionary camp around a common political project. Against the cynical point of view that reduces art to pure self-expression, we affirm that art must be evaluated on whether it advances or retards the revolutionary process, whether it unites or disorganizes, educates or obscures, inspires action or encourages complacency. To those who complain that artistic creation is no longer “free” in this vision, we say that it is in fact revolutionary art which is the most free—free of careerism, self-interest, and craven pandering to the misery of bourgeois politics.

As we have repeatedly emphasized, the subjective forces of the revolutionary camp remain weak in our current juncture, with an organized working-class movement conspicuously absent in the national and global political scenes. Meanwhile, capitalists of various nations and countries mobilize for imperialist war, a desperate remedy for capitalism’s acute crisis. To understand art’s combative role in the politics of socialist revolution, we must proceed from these facts. Revolutionary art must serve the strengthening of our subjective forces and promote the urgency of agitation, propaganda, and organization. In this dark moment, it must point towards the light—towards socialism.


Joseph Garfinkel, @gINKnyc

Luke Fallon, @stealthcamosubversive

Maria Flores, @flower.tears._

Matt Goddard, @mwgodd

Zoe Pyne, @pyneart

Noah Rezentes,

Michael Locke

Joey Capestany, @tableauofjoe