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Cultural Debates of the Sixties

Mirta Aguirre’s seminal essay “Notes on Literature and Art” (1963) is part of an ongoing cultural debate about revolutionary aesthetics and the relationship between art and ideology. This debate, triggered in part by Fidel Castro’s controversial 1961 speech “Palabras a los intelectuales” (“Address to Intellectuals”), produced numerous essays roughly representing two contrary positions: art seen as universal or art seen as social practice. In 1965, Guevara also referred to this debate in “El socialismo,” when he defined what revolutionary art ought to be. Guevara did not want the new revolutionary art to be influenced by socialist realism, but he also rejected capitalist art:

Los hombres del Partido deben tomar esa tarea entre las manos y buscar el logro del objetivo principal: educar al pueblo. Se busca entonces la simplification, lo que entiende todo el mundo, que es lo que entienden los funcionarios . . . se reduce el problema de la cultura general a una apropiacion del presente socialista y del pasado muerto (por tanto no peligroso). Asi nace el realismo socialista sobre las bases del arte del siglo pasado. . . . El capi- talismo en cultura ha dado todo de si y no queda de el sino el anuncio de un cadaver maloliente. . . . Pero, por que pretender buscar en las formas congeladas del realismo socialista la unica receta valida?” (Guevara 1977c, 266)20

Citing and reversing the surrealist “cadavre exquis” (exquisite corpse) to eliminate “bourgeois art,” Guevara undermined his own cause. By rejecting historical art, Guevara and Aguirre set the conditions for an expression that could only lead to socialist realism. Not surprisingly, then, socialist realism soon made its presence felt in Cuban letters.

To understand the full scope of the controversy about socialist realism, let us return to Mirta Aguirre’s essay. In the 1960s, partisans of culture as universal did not support a social understanding of art whereby form was determined by class. For them, there was no ideological divide between form and content. Advocates of art as social practice, in contrast, thought socialist realism was the genre best suited to representing the objective social conditions of reality.21 In 1963 a group of ICAIC cinematographers raised the issue again in a letter-manifesto defending art as the representation of a universal reality not simply and necessarily determined by social classes (Molina 2006, 22).22 Aguirre’s essay was an indirect response to the letter and in turn triggered a chain of consecutive responses (Aguirre 2006, 17-126).23 The extensive reaction to the essay resulted in part from its ambition to define socialist realism as a materialist practice in which aesthetics is defined by knowledge.24 In reaching that goal, Aguirre argued that materialism has surpassed idealism in art. Thus, more than a defense of dialectical materialism, her essay is above all an effort to demystify canonical Western culture. Although the responses to her article deal with many other issues, I am primarily interested in the debate between materialism and idealism.

While Aguirre claims that dialectical materialism is not a political imperative, she condemns idealism in art. Materialism needs to take idealism to task: “[un] apresurador recurso marxista de la derrota del idealismo [[an] urgent Marxist appeal for the defeat of idealism]” (Aguirre 2006, 43). An important part of her argument consists in demonstrating that idealism is a bourgeois ideology. The essay, however, does not successfully provide a rigorous definition of idealism as an abstract theoretical concept. Disregarding its highly philosophical complexity, the essay only conceives of idealism as a political and aesthetic signifier. By opposing it to materialism, Aguirre only defines idealism as an equivalent of capitalist European culture. She maintains that Cuba needs to create its own literature, one suited to the advancement of revolutionary ideals (not necessarily dialectical materialism). Basing her argumentation mostly on formal elements, Aguirre claims that a culture based on idealism does not produce knowledge. Instead it only fosters escapism, sentimentalism, and aesthetic pleasure.

The works that Aguirre demonizes are all foreign, mostly European. In spite of this, she devotes part of her essay to discussing the formal elements that socialist realism can borrow from European art.25 Thus comes the crux of the argument in all its contradictions. If idealism and materialism are opposed philosophies, and Marxist-influenced works need to combat idealism, how can socialist realism adopt formal techniques from European art inspired by idealism? Aguirre does clarify that form and content do not always correspond, but if socialist realist form takes after idealism, why does it not become idealist, too? This is what she fails to explain rigorously, a failure that results from the conceptual vagueness of her understanding of idealism.

This contradiction, and the theoretical fuzziness of idealism, determines her discussion of socialist realism as the dominant style of sixties and seventies poetry. As the form privileged by Marx and Engels, realism becomes immediately and by default the style that can re-create and transform the conscience of objective reality (Aguirre 2006, 44). Dialectical materialism has revolutionized art by surpassing the idealist abstraction of reality and its decorative aesthetics. In order to show the latter, the essay fights against the three chief criticisms of Soviet socialist realism: its dogmatism, its dull aesthetics, and its lack of argumentative complexity. First, Aguirre elaborates on two of the characteristics of dialectical materialism: the subordination of aesthetics to ideas and the rejection of obscure language.26 Thus, for example, Aguirre recognizes the importance of art’s aesthetics but privileges its ideas: “En el arte, el sentimiento estetico, la apreciacion de lo bello, su production, tiene una importancia de primer orden. . . . Pero no por eso el arte deja de tener por finalidad algo mas alto: la revelation de la esencia a traves del fenomeno que con mayor perfeccion la exterioriza entre todos los que la contienen [In art, aesthetic feeling, the appreciation of the beautiful, its production, is of primordial importance. . . . But art nonetheless has a higher purpose: the revelation of essence through the phenomenon that most perfectly expresses it, among all those phenomena containing that essence]” (ibid., 57). Then, she sets forth her article’s three premises. First, she posits realism as the style best suited to dialectical materialism. Second, she asserts that realism is not a method or a historical style but on the contrary the artistic channel to the scientific truth of dialectical materialism. Most important, she claims that realism can be articulated through different stylistic forms, as long as they provide clarity. Third, she argues that dialectical materialism has debunked idealism.

To explain the first point she argues that from a materialist perspective, art must have the transformation of reality as a goal and clarity as a necessary condition: “Lo que en los hechos supone que, a mayor necesidad de comunicacion—comprension—, mayor necesidad de claridad. . . . El realismo socialista, que no menosprecia en el arte la belleza, lo entiende como vehiculo de la veracidad, como camino del conocimiento y como arma para la transformation del mundo [Which in practice implies that, the greater the need for communication (comprehension), the greater the need for clarity. . . . Socialist realism, which does not undervalue beauty in art, understands it as a vehicle for veracity, as a path to knowledge and as a weapon for the transformation of the world]” (Aguirre 2006, 52-53). Once Aguirre has established these premises, she attempts to refute the critiques of socialist realism. She first acknowledges that aesthetics is what distinguishes art from the sciences, as we saw above in her discussion of the importance of aesthetics art and art’s “higher purpose” of revealing “essence.” “Lo bello [The beautiful], she adds, “es la manera intrinsicamente propia de existir que tiene el arte, a diferencia de la ciencia” “[is art’s intrinsically characteristic mode of existing, in contrast to the sciences]” (ibid., 57). Second, and most important, she argues that realism can be rich in form and complex in thought. A Hegelian interpretation of mediation allows her to advance her argument: “El dogmatismo es tan enemigo del arte como de la ciencia. La verdad es multiforme y multiformes son los procedimientos que permiten encontrarla. . . . Si una de las grandes riquezas del marxismo-leninismo, uno de los secretos de su inagotabilidad es el flexible y cambiante encadena- miento que establece entre la verdad absoluta y la relativa, ipor que tender, en arte, a dar caracter de metafisicas verdades absolutas a ciertas tecnicas, estilos, generos o escuelas? [Dogmatism is as great an enemy of art as it is of science. Truth is multiform, as are the means that enable one to find it. . . . If one of the great assets of Marxism-Leninism, one of the secrets of its inexhaustibility, is the flexible and changing linkage it establishes between absolute and relative truth, why the tendency in art to give certain techniques, styles, genres, or schools the character of absolute metaphysical truths?]”27 (ibid., 47). If aesthetics is the essential characteristic of art and the differentiating element between art and sciences, how is the beautiful determined? Following Aguirre’s train of thought, it seems that content and form are equally important when it comes to art. Drawing on Lenin, Aguirre argues there is an absolute objective truth and a relative truth conditioned by history. Is there also and absolute and relative aesthetics? To answer this question, Aguirre demonstrates that the revolution has put in place the ideological conditions of possibility for an open dialogue concerning aesthetics. To support her argument, she indirectly refers to Fidel Castro’s famous declaration from “Palabras a los intelectuales” (1961): “Dentro de la Revolucion: todo; contra la Revolucion: ningun derecho [This means that within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing] (Castro 2001 [1961], 81). As Aguirre puts it, “Las contradicciones esteticas son inevitables en el camino hacia el comunismo, y el reconocimiento de ellas y su libre elucidacion ayudan mucho, entre otras cosas, a que el dogma- tismo no enraice con facilidad en lo artistico [Aesthetic contradictions are inevitable in the path toward communism, and the recognition of these and their free elucidation contribute greatly, among other things, to preventing dogmatism from easily rooting itself in the artistic]” (Aguirre 2006, 60). In spite of this claim, one of the essay’s main goals is to prove that realism is the style best suited to re-creating and transforming reality, and reflecting the consciousness of objective reality.

Finally, Aguirre tackles the crucial discussion of form and content, by offering a broader philosophical reflection about materialism and idealism, in which she reductively associates the first one with content, and the second one with form. This argumentative logic thus posits that idealism is concerned with aesthetics, whereas materialism deals with content. The implication of this reasoning is the undermining of aesthetics, at the expense of content. This is indeed the main idea of the type of socialist realism that she defends, and it is also the untenable position that her entire essay conceals. One of them has to do with realism. By becoming materialist and scientific, realism has revolutionized art. Aguirre analyzes several other styles, such as surrealism, culteranismo, and abstract art, but she measures their political effectiveness by comparing them to realism, the model of dialectical materialism. Thus, by subordinating all the other styles to realism, she simultaneously posits the latter as the socialist poetics par excellence.

Paradoxically, Aguirre’s Leninist understanding of realism is far from being Marxian, since for Marx and Engels, realism has its roots in the nineteenth-century bourgeois novel, whereas Aguirre thinks that nineteenth-century realism has deep roots in philosophical idealism. Jean Renoir’s film La bete humaine (1938), inspired by Emile Zola’s novel of the same title, offers perhaps one of the best visual examples of nineteenth-century realism. The film opens with a long sequence of a train at full speed. The frame of the first scene is engulfed by the train, which like a beast is being fed charcoal by a machinist covered in soot, played by Jean Gabin. In Marxian terms, we can argue that the machinist’s existence is determined by his social relations to the forces of production. He is more like an animal than a machine, as Marx argues: “In his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal” (Marx and Engels 1978, 74). As a result, he is barely visible and moves as in a perfectly choreographed dance to the rhythm of the machine. Naturalist realism such as Zola’s is precisely the style that can present an objective exploration of social issues, as it specifically focuses on the representation of the working class. Marx and Engels, who were the point of reference in the Cuban debates about aesthetics during the 1960s, praised nineteenth-century realism for its truthful representation of reality.

Although they did not produce an aesthetic theory per se, Marx and Engels wrote a great deal about realism, and about literature in general. In an 1888 letter to Margaret Harkness, for example, Engels calls Honore de Balzac’s La Comedie humaine one of “the greatest triumphs of realism” (Marx and Engels 1947, 42).28 Marx and Engels see the writer as a thinker, an educator whose role is to unveil social truths and reveal the inner workings of society: “Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances” (ibid., 41). In his writings about literature, Marx comments on several genres and historical periods and shows admiration for the Western classics. In addition to French realists such as Balzac and Zola, he admires Shakespeare, Shelley, and the realists Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens.

The fact that Marx admired these works is very relevant to understanding Aguirre’s position. Marx commended realism for its depiction of social conditions, but he also praised the elaborate metaphors and rhetorical word play of Shelley and Shakespeare. Aguirre, on the contrary, rejects formal complexity on the grounds that it obscures ideas: “La metafora, el tropo, el lenguaje figurado, en literatura o en cualquier arte, valen como instru- mentos de comunicacion. Cuando se convierten en verdaderos enigmas no facilitan ya la comprension sino que, por el contrario, hacen oscuro lo que por lo general podria ser dicho con claridad; y lo que es mas, al obligar a inutiles ejercicios descifradores niegan su propia naturaleza [The metaphor, the trope, and figurative language, in literature or in any art form, are valuable as tools of communication. When they become true enigmas, they no longer facilitate comprehension but rather, on the contrary, obscure what could in general be said clearly; furthermore, by requiring pointless exercises in code-breaking, they deny literature’s very nature]” (Aguirre 2006, 50).

Unlike Marx, Aguirre rejects Balzac and nineteenth-century realism in general for its idealism:

Pero hasta la aparicion del materialismo dialectico en el siglo pasado y, mas aun, hasta su historico triunfo practico en este siglo, el arte—inclusive el realista—habia reflejado el mundo metafisicamente, en estatica; o habia “inventado” el mundo en forma fantastica. . . . En los casos mejores, como el de Balzac, formidables observaciones realistas debidas al metodo, se marida- ban con utopicas, fatalistas, reaccionarias conclusiones debidas al sistema de ideas del autor. Gracias a Marx, la filosofia . . . com- prendio que habia que explicarlo [el mundo] de otro modo y que, ademas, se planteaba a ella el deber de impulsar, por todos los caminos, su transformacion.

[Until the appearance of dialectical materialism in the last century, however, and especially until its practical historical triumph in this century, art (including realist art) had reflected the world metaphysically, statically; or it had “invented” the world fantasti?cally. . . . In the best cases like that of Balzac, wonderful realist observations resulting from the method were paired with utopian, fatalistic, and reactionary conclusions resulting from the author’s system of ideas. Thanks to Marx, philosophy . . . understood that it had to explain [the world] in another way and that, furthermore, it was up to philosophy to drive, by all means, the world’s transformation.] (Aguirre 2006, 55)

Whereas Marx and Engels applaud Balzac for transcending his class and creating ideological alliances with the proletariat, Aguirre sees Marx’s epistemological system as key to unveil the flaws of idealist writers such as Balzac.

But Aguirre is intent on showing that socialist realism is not dull. Given the poor ideological and aesthetic reputation of Soviet-style realism, and given that she supports socialist realism’s ideology, her only convincing argument rests in aesthetics. Her criticism of formal complexity notwithstanding, she therefore insists that Cuban socialist realism could borrow sophisticated formal techniques: “Lo mismo que existe un romanticismo bien llevado con el realismo socialista, puede existir un impresionismo—u otra cosa—que le sea util. Las diferencias de enfoque ideologico no constituyen un obstaculo insuperable para la apropiacion de tecnicas o rasgos estilisticos [Just as there exists a romanticism that pairs well with socialist realism, there can exist an impressionism—or any other thing that might be useful to [socialist realism]. The differences in ideological focus are not insuperable obstacles to the appropriation of stylistic techniques and traits]” (ibid., 65). Her lengthy discussion of style weakens her point that form matters less than content, and reveals the internal contradictions of her argument, which could be summarized as follows: Art is essentially defined by its beauty, but it must be ideologically useful and clear, and socialist realism is the best poetics for that purpose. Since form and content do not determine each other, socialist realism could be as stylistically diverse as any other form. Style, however, is always ideologically determined, thus any stylistic form coming from a European tradition of philosophical idealism cannot be considered a “useful type of realism.” What seems like an open-minded way to conceive of socialist realism in fact contradicts one of her premises. If form matters less than content, and does not determine it, why would she discuss it at such length? She does because this argumentation allows her to defend the regime’s ideology as nondogmatic. This is why, in her discussion of the political potential of different historical artistic movements, Aguirre defends Cuban socialist realism, while simultaneously frowning on the Western realist tradition for its idealism. The difference between socialist realism and classical realism is that the former seeks a transformation of reality, whereas the latter is still determined by idealism: “Hay que tener presente que todas las maneras, desde Homero hasta nuestros dfas, sin excluir el realismo crftico del XIX, el naturalismo, el objetivismo y todo el realismo no socialista del presente siglo, son abierta o subrepticiamente idealistas y estan determina- das o influidas por el idealismo [We must bear in mind that all styles, from Homer to our day, including the critical realism of the nineteenth century, naturalism, objectivism, and all the nonsocialist realism of the present century, are openly or surreptitiously idealist and determined by idealism]” (ibid., 54). By assuming that only socialist realism can produce a materialist explanation of reality, Aguirre contradicts herself. First, by positing style as a historically determined form, she forecloses the possibility of borrowing from artistic forms that come from a tradition of philosophical idealism. Second, and in opposition to what the essay claims, Aguirre acknowledges form as a primary component of ideology. In other words, her lengthy discussion of form reveals the latter’s importance in conveying meaning, her previous statements notwithstanding.

But, although Aguirre criticizes past realisms for their idealist roots, she is simultaneously willing to accept formal techniques that, like impressionism, have been conceived within equally idealist societies. In addition, if, as she has previously stated, the two philosophies are absolutely incompatible (“no hay conciliation posible entre el materialismo dialectico y el idealism [there is no possible reconciliation of dialectical materialism and idealism]” (ibid., 60), how can idealist aesthetics be suitable for socialist realism? Aguirre claims that romanticism and other styles can lend their techniques to realism even if their ideological stances are different. This is because, according to her, form and content are independent of each other. What, then, is the function of form in art? If art needs clarity, why would impressionist techniques serve a purpose for realism? If form is meaningless, what is its purpose? If any form can articulate different ideas, why does realism have to be the style best suited to dialectical materialism? Does this not indicate that form and content are related? The question then is, Is Aguirre really accepting a manifold way to conceive of socialist realism, or is she just petrifying it much more than she is willing to admit?

Following Marx, Aguirre conceives of knowledge as a truth of metaphysical and teleological characteristics. She posits realism, and more specifically socialist realism, to be the bearer of that truth. And she also acknowledges realism as a rhetoric that can be complemented by other formal techniques. Unlike Aguirre, however, Marx posits style as a personal idiosyncrasy. When writing about censorship, Marx describes truth in a Platonic way as the truth or Idea that transcends our perception of it. In his view, however, truth is not determined by form or subordinated by it. In other words, expression is not subordinated to realism as the socialist poetics par excellence: “Further, truth is general, it does not belong to me alone, it belongs to all, it owns me, I do not own it. My property is form, it is my spiritual individuality. The style is the man. And how! The law allows me to write, but on the condition that I write in a style other than my own, I have the right to show the face of my spirit, but I must first set in the prescribed expression!” (Marx and Engels 1947, 60).29

Interestingly enough, however, Marx also argues in different works that form and content are indivisible. The relationship between content and form is thus unlike the one between money and value. The value of money fluctuates, changing the nature or essence of the commodity. Language, however, does not change the essence of an idea:

To compare money with language is not less erroneous. Language does not transform ideas, so that the peculiarity of ideas is dissolved and their social character runs alongside them as a separate entity, like prices alongside commodities. Ideas do not exist separately from language. Ideas which have first to be translated out of their mother tongue into a foreign language in order to circulate, in order to become exchangeable, offer a somewhat better analogy; but the analogy then lies not in language, but in the foreignness of language. (Marx 1973, 162-63)

In other words, for Marx, an idea can be expressed in different styles, but the style does not change the idea. Aguirre, in contrast, conceives of form as a fluctuating value capable of transforming the idea that it articulates. Paradoxically, as we will see, this conception of style leads her to embrace idealism.

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