In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn refers to the arts* as holding a society’s “secret thoughts” (p. 443-444). This notion came up during his discussion of early twentieth-century precursors, in poetry and music dating to the Harlem Renaissance, for the developing Civil Rights Movement. The arts, for the repressed, were a repository for revolutionary thought in a country where social control, Zinn argues, was at a premium.
This train of thought is not entirely new to the blog (or me), since I covered it, indirectly at least, in a review Richard Cándida Smith’s 2009 book, The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century. That work narrates “art as knowledge” in the development of postwar California, particularly in relation to ethnicity and race. That thought was less secret than expressed as an indirect road map for helping Californians cope with the present and chart a peaceful, pluralistic future. [Aside: Here’s an interview with Cándida Smith on the book.]
Lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory, and critical theories in relation to art and thought, particularly the “avant-garde” in relation to art, form, and thinking. As I understand Critical Theory, generally, its school of adherents held that the best art turned on itself—provoked critical thinking and questioning about the state of things. This often means avant-garde art. That style promoted nonconformity and human emancipation rather than simple happiness, rest, or complacency. Paraphrasing Jurgen Habermas, that kind of art, or free expression, is an intentionally distorted communication that fights the power-protecting distorted communication of ideology. Adorno, as I understand his thinking on these matters, argues that art allows for a “mimetic reconciliation with the other” (assumed to be through nonconformist avant-garde forms of expression in the context of late/state capitalism and the dominant culture industry). Since art often communicates indirectly or subtly (unless it’s communist art), it houses and forwards nominally “secret thought.” And that art helps us grope toward democracy, what Habermas called the “unfinished project of modernity.” This kind of movement is clearly evident in Cándida Smith’s book.
My deepening relationship with Critical Theory has not yet involved a careful reading of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Does he deal with avant-garde art as, in its best form, turning on itself? I didn’t see a citation of avant-garde expression in that essay. I mean, thinking and art are mostly likely to lie in cutting edge expression in the eyes of Critical Theorists.
Anyway, let’s discuss this more. It seems that Adorno and Benjamin are the two Frankfurt School members who deal most prominently with the arts. Where in Habermas’ work does he deal with the public consumption and usage of art? Does Zinn engage Critical Theory anywhere in his corpus? Which intellectual historians, either today or recently, put Critical Theory to use in their works? Is there a USIH model of applied theory out there, for us seekers, or are we on our own?
*And, by the way, when I refer to “art” or the “arts,” I mean art broadly conceived—as the written word (particularly in “fiction”) as much as on canvas, through music, or the theater. – TL