“All Art is Propaganda,” by George Orwell, Collected 2008.
The title of this book should be refined in the way Orwell does in these essays, which cover a period from 1940 – 1949. All art is also propaganda. Orwell is not a crude observer of art – the latter meaning a way with words or images or music or any artistic skill. He can consider these characteristics separately from the political import or subtext of any story or painting. And yet the latter is there. Stubbornly there. We American “moderns’ tend to be blind to the propaganda of the TV program or the painting at the local gallery. After all, isn’t what we are after merely escape or decoration? What does it matter? Who cares?
It is useful to compare Orwell’s essays with David Foster Wallace’s essays. (see “Consider the Lobster,” reviewed below.) One has well-formed opinions, while the other is still groping towards some kind of a belief outside of the perceptive hipster-liberal. They are products of their times, and unfortunately, that does not reflect well for Wallace. Both, however, agree that the ‘truth’ is what they are after. This search killed Wallace. It did not kill Orwell, who was made of sterner stuff.
In these essays, Orwell focuses most of all on the ‘common man’ of England. Orwell takes each subject - language, polemics, crime novels, boy’s magazines, Kipling, socialist literature – and talks about it from the that perspective – though being ‘common’ is a slippery title. Orwell could not help but be class-conscious, no matter his reputation. He observes how bloody and brutal English copies of ‘yank mags’ were at that time. Orwell would not believe current movie conventions, in which the worship of power through barbaric violence is celebrated constantly – after all, the main character on American television is a .45 handgun. His de-construction of bad academic or political writing is hilarious, and useful to anyone who practices either. Here is a sample comment: “Successful speakers will stick to the working-class pronunciation, even if it is wrong.’ On describing utopia: “Heaven is as great a flop as Utopia – though Hell, it is worth noting, occupies a respectable place in literature…”
The best part of these essays are his portraits of Tolstoy, Dali, Gandhi, TS Eliot, Swift, HG Wells, Dickens and Graham Greene. He calmly and fairly takes apart every one of them. Here are some choice comments - Orwell on Dali: “He is as anti-social as a flea.” And yet a ‘great draftsman.’ On Swift: “He is a Tory anarchist.” On Gandhi: Because they are “incompatible …one must choose between God and Man.” Orwell felt Gandhi had chosen the former. In the end he praises Gandhi for not soaking the world in blood, but ridicules his pacifism nevertheless. Gandhi was reported to have advised the Jews of Europe to commit suicide to protest anti-Semitism, and advised non-violent resistance against the invasion of China by Japan.
The real tension running through these writings is his opposition to the majority of English leftists, who supported the USSR thoughtlessly, through every twist and turn – before, during and after the war. Did he, then, become an apologist for capital, a Solzhenitsyn, an Irving Howe, so repulsed by Stalinism that he traded sides? There is little evidence of that here. He consistently opposes capitalism, but questions the easy answers many leftists give to certain un-spoken quandaries. He does lump the whole left together so many times that he does become during this period the iconoclastic voice, the individual ‘truth-teller,’ separate from any organized group.
The one word that dominates these essays is ‘totalitarianism’ – whether of fascism or so-called ‘socialism.’ This is why he says, ‘in this age, art cannot be non-political.’ Has that age ended? I do not think so, though the sharp ideological atmosphere of 1940s England are a distant memory, as is the USSR. Of today, Orwell would feel that American cultural products consisting only of escapism or decoration are symptoms of the ‘spotless mind,' so desirable to the mandarins. Take Johnny Depp, who has become an odd clown for the recession generation. Orwell would note the fake commodification of dissent represented by the ‘escape into wickedness,’ as he describes Dali. Neo-liberal world capitalism and religious fundamentalism are the new shapes of totalitarianism. I think Orwell would have no problem pointing this out.
I got the book at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, April 16, 2012