Illustration from Flickr user madsofa.

By Manash Bhattacharjee

When German troops entered Paris, Pablo Picasso sat there and drew an apple. It is an anecdote which symbolised for the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin a supreme act of art’s imperviousness to even the most alarming noise of history. As if Picasso’s act was a turning away from the provocations issued by the fascists entering his city. Sorokin misreads the gesture by making it seem like an apolitical, harmless exercise. There cannot be a more defiant act, where art asserts itself politically with confident ease in the face of violent provocation. Instead of folding up and vanishing from the spot as the troops violated the space of Paris, Picasso claimed that very spot, and made a memorable gesture of art’s politics.

For Sartre, only prose “exposes the world” with an intention to change that world.

Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning with his famous book, What is Literature (1947), raised the question of commitment in art and what he meant by littérature engagée (committed literature). With his characteristic style of analysis, Sartre made the controversial claim that only prose writing is committed writing, that the transparent nature of prose allows it to reveal the truth. It is a typically Sartrean notion of praise seeped in a paradox: prose writing is the only form suited to committed writing not because it is the best or the most elevated form of writing, but because it fulfils the instrumental role of revealing matters of immediate political importance. The directness of prose, for him, best conveys the political issues at hand and offers a possible direction for action. The practise of committed writing needs to possess a translatable force that contributes to action in the real world of politics. Only prose “exposes the world” with an intention to change that world. For Sartre, committed writing is that which intentionally produces (the promise of) committed action.

Poetry does not fulfill Sartre’s criteria for committed writing; rather it is a negative engagement with the world in the form of “bearing witness.” The authentic poet, be he Arthur Rimbaud or Pierre Emmanuel, is a figure of failure, someone who chooses to lose in order to win. Poetry is granted a negative purity, an affective instrument where language is used to symbolise “anguish transformed into a thing.” It is incapable of instrumentality, and hence unsuitable for carrying out the writing meant for bringing about real changes. Similarly, Sartre found art—Picasso’s Guernica, for instance—failing to register a political charge by searching for “Beauty” which expressed a “moral commitment” instead of a political commitment. The Guernica paintings, in Sartre’s opinion, transformed “cruelty into abstract figures” without effectively addressing the banality of political facts.

The language of art and poetry are also translatable into politics: the placards by students at Tiananmen Square carried lines from Bei Dao’s poem, ‘The Answer’.

Sartre’s (political?) hierarchy of committed art and writing was severely challenged by writers and intellectuals. But Picasso’s art and his gesture when the Nazis marched into Paris provoked the frontiers of political imagination back in 1940. By locating an essential instrumentality in the relationship between art and political action, Sartre fails to find deeper connections between the two. Symbolic representations of political reality do translate into direct language that politics can use for its own purpose. Poetry and art contribute to political sensibility by not merely appealing to the senses, but also by drawing irrational links between their mediums and politics. Symbols and images don’t lack correspondence with politics just because they aren’t framed within a rational and logical language. Political action is not purely a logical movement of forces towards making an event. The language of art and poetry are also translatable into politics: the placards by students at Tiananmen Square carried lines from Bei Dao’s poem, ‘The Answer’. The poem, in a defiant tone against official lies, proclaims: “…Let me tell you, world, / I—do—not—believe! / If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet, / Count me as number thousand and one…”

Rationalist thinkers like Sartre prefer a (counter–) rationalist approach to political assertion, while more Nietzschean thinkers and artists seek recourse to the irrational by challenging the hegemonic powers’ reason-based edifice. The irrational, or the Dionysian, challenges the Apollonian spirit of rationality that contributes to the ordering of power. Nietzsche offers his twist to Plato’s relationship between truth and beauty by asserting that the truth of beauty is closer to the Dionysian. Walter Benjamin, who highly endorsed Plato’s equation, thought the “representational impulse in truth is refuge of beauty as such”. For Benjamin, the Nietzschean unmasking of beauty as a (critical) mode of truth-seeking has to render “justice” to art, where criticism cannot undermine the beautiful in art. From Nietzsche’s and Benjamin’s endorsements of beauty, it is possible to delineate the politics of art: the affirmation of beauty, threatened by reason, seeking refuge in the opposite. Art becomes political in its effort to rescue beauty’s truth by questioning and resisting its disfigurement by power. Picasso’s Guernica, representing such a disfigurement, provides us with exceptional political clues to its aesthetics. Kafka’s parables—“abstract forms” offering deep insights into the nature of power and alienation—have provided intellectuals a better understanding of power than Sartre’s essays.

Celan’s poetry translated the black soul of the Holocaust into his peculiar language, enhancing our sense and sensibility of politics.

Among the intellectuals who responded to Sartre was Adorno, who, fifteen years after Sartre propounded his idea of committed writing, spoke of art as an autonomous object. As defined by Adorno, autonomous art treats the question as politically as Sartre, taking its objective away from the market and its commodification, but rejects the notion of art as an a priori commitment to a particular political ideal. Art and literature, in his view, have more devious means of getting to the heart of politics, as politics itself is full of strange signs and motives. To grasp the strange through intricacy is an effective way to grapple with the meaning of politics, and this move provides the means to understand the deeper mechanisms of politics to control life. But Adorno made a momentous overstatement later in terming “barbaric” all poetry that would come after Auschwitz. It was infinitely disproved by Celan, whose poetry translated the black soul of the Holocaust into his peculiar language. Celan may have been a “loser” in the Sartrean sense, but his writing enhances our sense and sensibility of politics.

Today the world is quite different from Sartre’s and Adorno’s time. Communism is no longer a dominant ideology in world politics. But the experience and fear of fascism and other forms of totalitarian regimes—the concerns of Kafka and Celan—are very much alive. Capitalism has managed to lure more and more people into the idea that talent and creativity that showcases an individual’s insular preoccupations is ideal enough. What suits the market best is the creation of self-seeking individuals who exploit the Ayn Rand formula: aggressive individualism, rationalism and a conservative ego. It is an alarming paradox that people who want more happiness would also support a war and warmongers. One recalls Georges Bataille, who announced in his lectures in the spring of 1938, that society’s repressed ugliness becomes a source of attraction and hence desire for a monstrous form of beauty. The mass suppression of Eros allows Thanatos to plunge itself into people’s hearts. Death is the sovereign redeemer of a society looking for mass glory. Society is being made obsessed to chase a history-less passion: success. Success is the loud-speaking pimp in the marketplace, promising everybody a paradise of whores. But the wispy whore of such a paradise is elusive.

The world exists as an instrumental object to be devoured for self-projection. It is an inverse love of the fetish object, where the self is the only fetish object.

Sartre’s idea of the poet as “loser” is no longer a philosophical euphemism meant for individuals who remain faithful to a craft that makes it impossible for them to gain the world, thus forcing them to live the life of an elevated failure. Even poets and artists have escaped the temptations of failure, plunging themselves into the daily succor of mass adulation. Navigating successfully through the high-chambers of cultural and social life demands a fluid economy of the self. This creates an endless surplus of what I call ‘private poetry’ or ‘private art,’ where the world exists as an instrumental object to be devoured for self-projection. It is an inverse love of the fetish object, where the self is the only fetish object. The artful cousin of the idiot in Macbeth’s soliloquy today tells the tale in contrived sounds and righteous fury that still signifies nothing.

It is time to remember Sartre and his preoccupation with committed literature. Enough criticism of Sartre’s position has broadened the meaning of what committed art and literature is. It is necessary to rescue art and literature from its mass oriented deluge, its self-aggrandizing preoccupations, as much as from Stalinist notions of deliverance. Revolution is no longer a singular idea. We are witnessing a return to plural times. Each era contributes new ideas to the ever-growing complications of history. We can respond to these complications politically through the translatable quality in all forms of art and literature and their irrational power of beauty. During modern times, all radical movements in art and literature have put forward ideas in opposition to bourgeois conventions and power. They have taught us: To pose is (also) to oppose. The idea of commitment is part of this oppositional force in art and literature. Time we return to the idea of commitment, albeit as a freer and more diverse idea than Sartre’s, that addresses the predicaments of the present. It is worth imagining the figure of Picasso, both provoked and unprovoked by the marching of the Nazis into Paris, rendering his thoughts and protest silently onto the bold fire of his canvas.

The author is a poet, writer and political science scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His first book, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems, was published by The London Magazine. He is currently working on a novel.

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