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Culture, commerce and class society

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
Art can portray inspiring ideas that challenge society, but it cannot be removed from its political and economic context, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue 2089
Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. A director of popular thrillers, Hitchcock has since been studied as a major artist of the cinema

The government’s culture secretary Andy Burnham last week launched a high profile initiative aimed at encouraging children to get more involved in the creative arts.

The “Find Your Talent” scheme will involve ten local authorities spending £135 million over the next three years to give children the chance to go to the theatre, get experience in film and television, and learn how to play musical instruments.

Teaching unions greeted the plan with scepticism, pointing out that it was the government’s narrow focus on numeracy and literacy testing that has been responsible for driving cultural activities out of schools.

“We still have an overloaded curriculum, particularly in primary schools,” said Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. “Its clutter needs to be stripped out to enable schools to be culturally creative.”

Despite these concerns, most parents and teachers will welcome any initiative that gives children some kind of access to culture and helps them to develop their creative abilities.

But the government has a wider agenda. Find Your Talent is one of 20 schemes drawn up by ministers to “promote creativity in Britain”. The government is set to unveil these plans in a green paper on culture this week.

The green paper reportedly includes plans for academy schools specialising in creative arts, as well as a “five year plan” to make the country “more competitive in creative industries”. Even culture is ultimately about capitalist values and making money, it seems.


These initiatives demonstrate that culture, commerce and politics are all deeply intertwined. This raises the question of what attitude socialists should take to culture, and whether it is an arena we can or should “intervene” in.

The paradox is that while the arts can point to new possibilities in the world, they are also a product of this world. Culture might embody values above and beyond economics, but it is produced and sold as a commodity, just like anything else under capitalism.

So the inequalities that structure our society are reflected in culture. In particular, the fact that wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of an elite minority generates a “class divide” in the arts – the division between so called “high” and “low” culture.

Some people argue this division is simply a question of quality. According to this theory, we get cheap culture and the rich have luxury culture.

It certainly is true that culture is something that takes time and effort to appreciate. And in our society the rich have far more spare time and cash than the majority of working people.

This leads to a situation where the rich have far more access to the best that culture has to offer, and where entire branches of the arts become cut off from the majority.

The attitude of socialists to this should be clear. We stand for an equal society, free from exploitation and oppression, where every one of us can develop his or her potential to the full.

And we want the best of “high culture” to be available to everyone, rather than being enjoyed only by a wealthy minority.


But is this all that socialists have to say about culture? If it were, our position would be indistinguishable from that of an “enlightened” liberal who views the arts as a means of progressively civilising the world.

If so we would ultimately agree with the liberal judgement that “high culture” is better than “low culture”, and that “high culture” embodies universal human values that transcend class divisions.

The problem here is that different kinds of culture are not simply comparable to different kinds of bread, some being cheap and nasty while others are expensive and wholesome.

Art is not something we just passively consume or enjoy – it also actively shapes the way we think about the world, generating values, attitudes and assumptions that have a direct political impact.

This is clear the moment we look at art historically. A painter like Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a master in terms of style and technique.

But the reason he received so many commissions from the rich and powerful was that his art served a political purpose – boosting the power of the Catholic church at a time when it was fighting back against the Protestant Reformation.

So the messages and values of “high culture” do not transcend class – they are designed to exalt the ruling class and help maintain society in its current state. A socialist approach to culture cannot restrict itself to questions of access, but also has to critique the form and content of that culture.

The same applies to so called “low culture”. Popular entertainment is not just big business, it is also a means of disseminating political messages to the masses that keep us in our place.

Hollywood films, for instance, typically feature a lone individual hero triumphing over adversity through sheer effort – a vision of the world that dovetails with capitalist values of individual competition.

Conversely, it is sheer snobbery to believe that only “high culture” is capable of artistic excellence.

It is not the case that because something is produced for “mass consumption” – TV, pop music, film or popular novels – that it is a lesser art. All of these forms have produced stunning works of art.

The 20th century, for instance, saw a sustained and astonishing series of innovations in popular music forms ranging from jazz to rock to disco.

Much of the creativity that drove these innovations came from people at the bottom of society – black Americans, urban working class youth, or marginalised countercultures.

Moreover, culture cannot be easily compartmentalised into “high” and “low” versions. The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute was seen as “low culture” when it was written in 1791. Now it is an epitome of “high culture”.

You can trace lines of influence from modernist composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen to street music styles such as hip-hop. And conversely, much of so called “high culture” draws its inspiration from popular art forms.


Socialists should campaign for access to the arts and encourage people to learn about and participate in our rich cultural heritage. We should also cultivate and encourage a critical intelligence that ferrets out the ideological content of seemingly innocent or “neutral” notions of beauty.

Creativity and artistic excellence are not qualities monopolised by those at the top of society. We should search out and champion what is valuable in popular art forms.

This does not mean romanticising “low culture” or dismissing “high culture”. Nor does it mean blinding ourselves to the fact that under capitalism the vast majority of art and culture will promote ruling class values.

Artistic questions cannot be reduced to political ones or to judging culture purely in terms of its ideological content. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in his book Literature and Revolution, “A work of art should be judged in the first place by its own law” – on whether it is a good or bad work of art.

Socialists should take an active interest in the cultural world around us, and seek opportunities to exploit the contradictions found in all forms of culture.

We should also develop and sustain links between the arts and radical politics, such as the Love Music Hate Racism campaign against the fascists, or the successful concerts put on by the Stop the War Coalition.

At its best, art can hold out the promise of transforming the world. It is the task of socialists to make that transformation a reality – which in turn would create the material conditions for an art that is truly universal and exalts all of humanity.


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