Letter from Caracas: State of the Arts, No Magic Bullets

Chris Gilbert & Cira Pascual Marquina

Not infrequently we are asked by North Americans, most often by artists but sometimes by art administrators: What is the role of art in revolution? How can or how could art function in the Bolivarian process? What is the role of artists? How can artists help? 

It is interesting the kind of error that is involved here, mostly an error of bad faith and self-aggrandizement on the part of artists but one that has an interesting ontological dimension, not unlike when logicians wonder about WHAT is being referred to in the subject of the sentence “Unicorns do not exist.”

A magic animal and magic bullet. Presumably, that is what such questioners are looking for. But the truth is that magic animals and magic bullets do not exist. Instead, revolutions—as well as non-revolutionary political change—are primarily advanced through political organizing, which is a long, arduous and usually uncelebrated task (one that inevitably involves setbacks).

Of course, in conditions of extreme alienation—the condition at the center of imperialism—it is not surprising that people (especially the dominated elements of the dominant classes) look for magic bullets. Nor is it surprising that other people (the dominating elements of the dominant classes) are willing to fund wandering searches, searches that not only reveal little but also take up the time of people who might otherwise be engaged in the kind of political activity that advances things. The pacts made between these two class sectors, their quiet or overt agreements, are best identified as opportunism. This is what most of the artworld’s critical practices amount to (mind you, the remainder is not something better but worse: court art).

So it is a question of focus. It is not the aim of revolutions to eliminate creative cultural work. A socialist revolution aims to create full beings and full lives, and art and other cultural activities are surely part of those lives. But when North Americans wonder about the role of art or artists in a revolution, they are usually not asking about the important tasks of imagination and reimagination of which art forms a part. Nor are they asking about the contributions to social solidarity and diversions that art offers. Rather they are asking about what special thing they can do that is not as difficult and slow in its development as political organizing, that is not as dangerous as militancy accompanied by force, and that (perhaps most importantly) does not take them out of their accustomed role and contexts as middle-class subjects.

This is not to say that artistic activity in the global North, in the center of imperialism, is not a site where some degree of consciousness-building can take place and even a measure of resistant activity, often under the smokescreen of “artistic autonomy.” We know from experience that in the centers of power the excuse or pretext of art can occasionally and temporarily secure funding and semi-public sites that are not completely instrumentalized by power.

However, the big picture should always be kept in view—because that picture is kept in view by the funders in the dominant class. They support art as an efficient form of brain- and hand-drain from radical activity (as well as, of course, a cheap way to acquire cultural capital). This means that for those on the active left aiming to use the funding sources of art for resistant ends, the following question should frequently be asked: Given the inevitable appropriation of a measure of the symbolic activity of art by power, and given that work in this area takes one away from other forms of organizing (since expropriating money from the art context for political activity always requires significant quantities of time in the form of regressive socializing and time-consuming paperwork) how does an activity that takes shape under the auspices of art measure in the balance?

One should not be fooled by the facility with which certain “middle” (read: opportunist) positions are received in the artworld or think that the efficiency with which these positions can be implemented and disseminated in any way compensates for the actual class interests they promote. We are reminded that V.I. Lenin, in one of his invectives against opportunists, points out that the relative ease with which the opportunist Südekum was able to disseminate his views (views that were left only in name but in fact represented bourgeois interests) had a very simple explanation: The bourgeoisie was all too willing to publish them; meanwhile they were censoring and killing those who were advancing the viewpoints of the more radical tendencies 1.

We believe that if the above question is asked honestly and the values of working inside and outside of an art context are weighed in good faith—not favoring the ease of disseminating a light or opportunistic view over the struggle of disseminating a view that is genuinely aligned with the working class—then some 90 percent of the time the answer will be that one should work otherwise. Moreover, we do not see how these questions can be asked honesty or the big picture kept in view unless one frequently works outside of the art context. Unless that is done, one will not be able to keep one’s view uncluttered by the “perks” that context offers of the kind Südekum and other opportunists benefited from which made them feel efficacious and important.

To come at last to Venezuela: Here, seven years into the Bolivarian process, people have been making art vigorously—drawing, painting, choreographing, dancing, composing, singing. A great deal of very interesting art and crafts is being made. Tambour making and playing, for example, is very advanced and diversified, while in the popular neighborhoods—where the new law of consejos comunales allows the organized community to control the local application of public funding—there is much interest in creating houses of culture where, for example, children will receive video production training or learn to play the cuatro (a Venezuelan stringed instrument, not unlike a guitar), films will be screened and discussed, and people can gather, organize, and socialize. Also some very important work of the imagination is taking place—right alongside the work of organizing—in the rich array of community and alternative media and in the radically experimental public television station that is Vive.

Not surprisingly, music is a fellow traveler in the Bolivarian revolution, as it has been in every revolution in history. Music builds solidarity and its lyrics can become ideological points of reference. The latter is the role of the music of the great Venezuelan composer and singer Alí Primera today. Before, in the Fourth Republic (1958-1998), his voice kept alive the idea of revolutionary struggle. It was a voice difficult to censor, as music always is (though in fact in 1985 Primera was likely assassinated for his music, as were Victor Jara and so many of the Nueva Canción generation). Today in revolutionary Venezuela Primera’s music helps to provide a set of common ideological “sites,” a grammar of agreed points of reference in marches and mobilizations as much as in discourses.

To some it might appear to be a liability that a great many of the museums in Caracas have gone on in form and content much as they did before, seeming to not keep pace with the Bolivarian revolution’s tremendous and far-reaching advances. Perhaps their spaces should be turned into cineclubs or given over to the rich crafts traditions of Venezuela or made into community centers. On the other hand, people clearly enjoy the access they now have to the spaces and products of “high culture”—spaces from which working class people were often excluded previously if for no other reason than the economic (having to pay admission). Surely that desire should be honored as long as it continues to exist. However, and this is really the point, the reworking or replacing or elimination of these “major” institutions—for “major” you can substitute the term “magic bullet”—is not a key task of the revolution. That will come in due time: as the revolution goes forward on the economic, educational, military, and political fronts that are actually at its center.

October 15, 2006

1. V.I. Lenin, “La Bancarrota de la II Internacional,” Obras Escogidas, Tomo III (Buenos Aires: Editorial Cartago, 1973), 265, 6.