Socialism and the Arts

A summary of a lecture given by Labour member and musician Adam Pounds to the Romsey branch meeting on 5th March 2020.

The foundation stone on my school read:

William Morris, artist, poet and socialist lived near here after which this school is named.

(William Morris: 24th March 1834, Walthamstow – 3rd October 1896, Hammersmith, London)

Walthamstow was an enlightened borough with an emphasis on the arts and education. However, the division caused by the establishment of Secondary Modern and Grammar schools resulted in the lack of opportunity for many. This would be addressed by the introduction of the comprehensive system in 1967.

Libraries were an important public asset because if you had an enquiring mind you would seek out things that interested you in a completely different environment. There was a Libraries and Arts department and the borough had established a lively Arts Council where several councillors sat as well as arts activists.

The term ‘arts’ needs a very broad definition. It would be easy to think that we are referring to painting, music, dance, drama and ceramics etc.

William Morris defined art in a much different way;

‘And first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of all the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of the things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must be either beautiful or ugly, either elevating or degrading to us, either a torment and burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure and a solace to him. How does it fare therefore with our external surroundings in these days? What kind of account shall we be able to give to those who come after us of our dealings with the earth, which our forefathers handed down to us still beautiful, in spite of all the thousands of years of strife and carelessness and selfishness?’

(A.L.Morton 1979 – Political Writings of William Morris)

This takes on a whole new meaning and touches on the dangers of mass production.

Morris went on to say:

‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

This can be applied to our general environment. It is very easy to give in to utilitarian necessity rather than enhancing it. The word I use is brutalisation.

The product of brutal environment is brutal people.

That’s why the introduction of the flower beds at the co-op in the Broadway and at the Romsey ‘R’ are so important. (note that they have been respected and not vandalised).

The introduction of high art is also essential because it belongs to the people – everyone – it is their heritage.

Another Morris quote:

‘I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’

The use of imagination and the sharing of ideas and beauty is important to us all as human beings.

It is the one thing that conservatives and fascists do not want because it puts you in control rather than a dictatorial state.

We can now take this further to look at the culture industry where the same thing applies.

Here, we are looking at music, television, art, dance and many other areas.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) was a philosopher, sociologist, psychologist, musicologist, and composer known for his critical theory of society. He was a follower of Marx.

His thoughts on popular culture are as follows:

‘The assembly-line character of the culture industry, the synthetic, planned method of turning out its products (factory-like not only in the studio but, more or less, in the compilation of cheap biographies, pseudo-documentary novels, and hit songs) is very suited to advertising: ….

The effect, the trick, the isolated repeatable device, have always been used to exhibit goods for advertising purposes, and today every monster close-up of a star is an advertisement for her name, and every hit song a plug for its tune.

Advertising and the culture industry merge technically as well as economically. In both cases the same thing can be seen in innumerable places, and the mechanical repetition of the same culture product has come to be the same as that of the propaganda slogan.

In both cases the insistent demand for effectiveness makes technology into psycho-technology, into a procedure for manipulating men.

In both cases the standards are the striking yet familiar, the easy yet catchy, the skilful yet simple; the object is to overpower the customer, who is conceived as absent-minded or resistant.’

(Adorno, Horkheimer – Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947.Publ. in English 1972)

This is a dark way of looking at things .. but isn’t it true? Our most recent and acute example is surely ‘Get Brexit Done!’

So, it is clear that the free capitalist market demands that we do not think but just obey. We have to give credit to writers like Orwell who could see this so clearly.

Art and socialism go together. Every right-wing monster has hated artistic expression and not wanted to encourage it in our schools or wider communities.

Taking this further, there was an enlightened report released in 1999 and headed up by David Blunkett called All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education

(National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education)

‘Obviously, there are people with exceptional creative gifts. The élite conception of creativity is important because it focuses attention on creative achievements which are of historic originality, which push back the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding. These achievements constitute the highest levels of creativity. Education must certainly nurture young people who are capable of such achievements. But there are other considerations.’

Democratic Definition 27 states;

‘In our view, all people are capable of creative achievement in some area of activity, provided the conditions are right and they have acquired the relevant knowledge and skills. Moreover, a democratic society should provide opportunities for everyone to succeed according to their own strengths and abilities.’

This leads on to thinking about community arts and the value of people taking part. It makes them think, it has proven health benefits and stops them being slaves to the market machine.

On a personal note, I want to destroy the myth of elitism in classical music.

Returning back to that London borough, I can reflect on a positive education and the opportunity to develop myself.

The London Borough of Waltham Forest originally consisted of three separate boroughs – Walthamstow, Leyton and Chingford. It still returns three MPs – Labour narrowly lost Chingford this time. Walthamstow was a mixed class area, Leyton was pretty working class and Chingford generally lower to upper middle class. When the borough was amalgamated, there was a terrible outcry from many Chingford residents who considered that the amalgamation would impoverish their area.

The borough had its own music centre and youth orchestra. It was here that I met my future wife, Dinah and I am sure that she would agree with me that the orchestra brought together young people from all different socio-economic groupings.

The social interaction was incredible as was the development of high art in music. Some of the most working- class members went on to professional careers.

Sadly, classical music has been handed back to the elite and we must take it back – it is ours as much as theirs.

Of course, under Tory cuts the arts are always the first to suffer and many schools are now without music and drama. This will contribute to the Tory criteria of developing fodder for the capitalist machine while leaving a revolving door for the privately educated – this also applies to other areas such as law and high finance.

A last thought:

A few years ago, there was on interview on the Frost programme with Labour MP and deputy leader John Prescott. John was informed that the ending music to the programme was going be some jazz.

His response? ‘Great! And the good thing is that it isn’t class-based like classical music.’

Who made classical music class based? Isn’t it in our hands to encourage people to be more enlightened? To be more creative? To be producers in their own right and not just consumers?

I moved to Romsey in in 2018 and I want it to be a free thinking and creative town. It is so easy to get swamped by advertising, mass hysteria and celebrity. Above all, people must be able to find themselves and they can do this by contributing to and appreciating the arts and the environment.

We, as the people of Romsey together with our councillors need to be creative. A good example of this was the summer festival during the closure of Mill Road bridge. It is still talked about and has created a lasting legacy.

This creative approach is far more beneficial than just being reactive.