The “Proof of the Pudding”: Dialectics of Art/Brecht

From time to time I am lucky enough to write about the dialectics of art, or art in relation to both the society of our time, and to the audience.

Brecht, who I find very difficult to read, is someone who strove to bring out the revolutionary implications of art, the ability of art to make people throw off accepted wisdom to more fully embrace reality along with that reality’s impetus for development and change.

As I write, whether it is in the longer form of my novel (underway) or the short forms of letters/emails/essays, the need to use the methodologies of artistic creation and the output from those methodologies to challenge my own accepted wisdoms and those of my readers is one important dimension of the work.

Artistic methodologies intersect with philosophy when not trivialized by a lack of human dignity and respect for self and for the reader. I think political activism is similar, though the method of work is different. Both require a huge amount of organized work and critical thought arising from the very core of who we are in our hearts, and the partisan nature of our interaction with our friends, our society, our reality as working people – workers in the fields and factories and schools and fast food joints as well as workers in the world of creation and expression for the two need not be mutually exclusive.

Portrait of Cosette by Emile Bayard, from the original edition of Les Misérables (1862)

The challenge to see what is so deeply accepted as “normal” that it has become effectively invisible to the consciousness is central to both the process and the output, for me, of art. That is not to say art is a direct exercise in political work as the two are not the same work. The methods of art are different then the methods of philosophy or political/revolu-tionary struggle but are no less important in education and moving masses of people, and certainly can aid in the process of peeling away the facade of invisiblity, of “normal”, from the assumptions of our society and exposing the underlying processes of retardation or acceleration of development on a social and personal scale that define our lives.

Becht morphs into Amanda Palmer & Meow Meow sing “German Misrere” by Eisler on

This is a wonderful combination of the political, comedy, burlesque and so much more going on in a stage performance.

Amanda Palmer and Meow Meow arise directly from the intersection of burlesque and Brecht, who understood “that its not destiny…or kings who have the absolute power to change their life. Looking at small people like we do, like we play them in our theater, maybe they learn a little bit to behave like thinking human beings.”

There is more than a tinge of eliteism in that statement, but that may be in part due to language problems. I suspect Brecht meant to challenge the audience to reject the status quo, rather than to behave like human beings. However, one also has to ask who comprised Brecht’s audience.

One of the issues that Brecht brings to the fore is what he calls “the art of being a spectator”. In my view, this is directly related to the art of being a listener. I spend a lot of time as a union field organizer listening to members. The “listening” has a number of simultaneous purposes.

Too often the people whom I represent are ignored and dehumanized. To listen is an action that acknowledges the humanity of the speaker and responds to the dignity that their personhood, their humanity, deserves.

In the stories that I hear I am directly encountering the exploitation and dehumanization that occurs on a massive scale in our society. I listen always to both the personal and the social dimension of the experience, and the dialog between the two.

In the act of listening I have to maintain a distance if I am to be effective as a partisan for the member that I have to represent, and on a human basis too. I cannot accept the presentation I am being given as the definitive description of reality. I must view the presentation as the speaker’s relativistic experience of reality as they wish or are able to present it to me.

The alienation that Brecht discusses includes all three of the dimensions I’ve mentioned, as I understand it. A connection to human beings, the ability to listen critically while at the same time being partisan for the individual or group (when appropriate), and maintaining the distance that acknowledges the relativistic nature of the presentation and can place that presentation against the background of the social struggles and the opposing dimensions of change and oppression in a society.

Thus, to me alienation of the audience or alienation as a listener is a vital gift that the audience must bring to the play or a listener to a moment of listening, whether it is to an individual speaker or to a social production like a play.

Brecht speaks to the question of whether the character must change or whether the audience must change. Brecht is using the play to drive the audience to want to change themselves, not because the impetus to change is resolved by the character (hero) of the play. I do not stand against using art to illustrate change, but I am strongly sympathetic to the idea of the work of art illustrating a reality alien to the audience without resolving the conflict and pushing the audience to look at our lives instead of the life of the character.

One of the key concepts that Brecht may have understood is that every organization must undermine itself by constantly being challenged by its constituent members. This is because every bureocracy takes on its own interests in conflict with the interests of the members of the organization, and that conflict must be conscious, with protections for the members to together, and in the majority, undermine their own bureocracy in order to meet the democratic and class conscious needs of the mass of the people. This may be the basis of his critical and ongoing support for East Germany despite the workers struggles that are discussed in the video, and about which I know nothing. I do not forget, for example, that the BBC is an anti-communist propoganda machine in its own right, and had to find a way to undermine Brecht’s consistent Marxism.

Bertolt Brecht speaks in the House Committee on Un-American Activities:

Brecht was not a member of a Communist Party of his time. I see this as a weakness in his understanding of Marxism as I don’t think it is possible to be a Marxist or to understand Marxism as a philosophy divorced from the struggle to strengthen and organize the working class in our Communist Parties.

There are dimensions that always appear missing to me when I see Brecht plays such as the Three-Penny Opera. Because the audience’s alienation was so important, this work has been mutated into a oddly humorous musical drained of the fierce critique of society that Brecht I am sure meant to include in his depiction of the wonders of exploitation by small-scale business people.

I believe Brecht was more related to the French novelists like Victor Hugo than he may have been comfortable with acknowledging. Despite his “dialectical” method, he strove to illustrate on a canvas the social struggles of his time, much like Hugo and others did in prior generations of social upsurge for democratic rights.

It isn’t possible to understand Brecht except in the context of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, and the tremendous social transformations that this war (I see them as one war) engendered. Even in US military propoganda films of the time a tremendous humanity toward the downtrodden shows through. Soviet, US, French, and Italian film all had moments of reaching incredible hights of artistic expression in response to the war, including Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, Vittoria De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” (alternatively “The Bicycle Theives”), John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, and many more.

There is much to learn from Brecht, but even more to learn of the importance of being engaged in the struggles of the time in which you live. These times shape us as individuals and social beings. Art provides many different modes of expression to the struggles of the time.

Each of us as working people in a hostile society must struggle to see beyond “normal” into the underlying dynamics that define our society of the moment, and which influence our ability to develop as human beings. Our humanity and dignity demand such a struggle since both are constantly being attacked by the culture and economic social relations in which we live.

We can learn from teachers like Brecht, Chaplin, Ford, and others how to express our personal views through art in regards to the struggles of our time. Even more important, we must learn to listen to each other with critical compassion and to struggle always toward a more humane and caring understanding of ourselves in a social context and engagement in the struggles of our times.

Art is not an ivory tower to be scaled by the people with unique gifts of insight or expression. Art is a methodology by which we can challenge ourselves as artists to grow and develop, and our audience can come away with a sense of the tension between their own experience and that of another or the larger society, as well as hope in the ability of people united to effect change over time and through struggle.

It is sometimes enough to show a pair of shoes to speak volumes as to the humanity of working people and the challenges we face every day.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Boots

Vicent Van Gogh's Boots

And, finally, Phillyfenix in a personal artistic statement on her life experience, as an example of workers using art to express themselves.

We are all struggling every day to be whole, human, to live with dignity and to reject despair and cynicism. Art can play a large role in helping us in that goal, as well as in expressing the humane revulsion and desire for change that many feel in response to living in a society that is brutal and exploitive, and in a cultural context that reinforces the norms of such a society.


About rico49

Writer, progresive activist, open source software developer. Working to meet the needs of under- and un-employed people globally and in the United States.
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