Art should be judged on its merits, and not by the politics of the artist.
This proposition may seem obvious. But there have been many who disagree.
After reading the details of a Soviet-sponsored International Conference of Revolutionary Writers (November, 1930), former Marxist writer Max Eastman put together an indictment of Communists’ crushing of artistic independence. It was titled Artists in Uniform, a reference to “Bela Illes of Hungary, who spoke in a uniform presented to him by the Red Army. Alluding to this formidable costume, he exclaimed: ‘Pen in hand, we are soldiers of the great invincible army of the international proletariat.'”
Eastman’s former colleagues in Communist Party USA were outraged, none more so than the Party’s ultra-Stalinist cultural commissar Mike Gold. A few years later, in his keynote address to a Party-controlled American “League of Professional Writers,” Gold stated how American “writers must learn” that “the working class which has created a great civilization in the Soviet Union is capable of creating a similar civilization in this country.” Furthermore, “the charge has been made that writers who ally themselves with the workers are artists in uniform. This charge is made by intellectuals who believe they do not wear a uniform — the uniform of the bourgeois. Well, we are proud of our role.”
This malignant attitude toward art spread to Hollywood, where the Party ordered its members to write party-line propaganda into the scripts they worked on. But there was a notable moment when one of the Hollywood reds, Albert Maltz, took a stand against what he called the left’s ideological “straightjacket.” Maltz, writing in New Masses, made the revolutionary argument that “a writer may be confused, or even stupid and reactionary in his thinking—and yet, it is possible for him to do good, even great, work as an artist—work that even serves ends he despises. This point is critical for an understanding of art and artists! An artist can be a great artist without being an integrated or a logical or a progressive thinker on all matters. This is so because he presents, not a systematized philosophy, but the imaginative reconstruction of a sector of human experience.”
While writing ideological tracts can occasionally produce good art, it usually produces “wasted writing or bad art.” According to Maltz: “The opportunity of the artist is conditioned by the nature of art itself. We read textbooks for facts, theories, information. But we read novels, or go to the theater, for a different purpose. The artist, by the nature of his craft, is able to show us people in motion. This is why we revere good writers. They let us observe the individual richly—a complex creature of manifold dreams, desires, disappointments—in his relation to other individuals and to his society.”
The Communists reacted sharply. Maltz’s future “Hollywood 10” co-defendant, Alvah Bessie, responded: “We need Party artists. We need artists deeply, truly, and honestly rooted in the working class who realize the truth of Lenin’s assertion that the absolute freedom they seek ‘is nothing but a bourgeois or anarchist phase.'” After leaving the Communist Party, Howard Fast recalled that Maltz “was treated as if he had committed a major crime. … Meetings were held. Mike Gold denounced Maltz with passion and language that a civilized person would reserve for pathological criminals.” Maltz was forced to recant his views, saying: “Of all that my article unwittingly achieved, this is the most difficult pill for me to swallow. My statements are now being offered up as fresh proof of the old lie: that the left puts artists in uniform.”
These events are in the past, but the sentiments are not. The left of today show the same ideological regimentation. For the past few years, Amy Zimmerman of the Daily Beast has been using her platform to demand that Taylor Swift reveal her politics. To Zimmerman, Swift’s “decision to neither endorse Hillary Clinton nor denounce Donald Trump during the 2016 election” is so outrageous that she feels the need to condemn it over and over and over again. Taylor Swift’s arch enemy, Kanye West, has been exiled from the celebrity high life for supporting Trump. And one of Hollywood’s most iconic franchises, Star Wars, has been turned into big budget SJW propaganda, and box office failures.
It will take courage to stand up to today’s cultural commissars, but it can be done. Artists once feared the wrath of Mike Gold, but today one of the only things people remember him for was a message that was left for him at his office. The message was: “Tell Mike Gold that Ernest Hemingway says he should go f*** himself.”