A Revolution of Artistic Values

Part of a political revolution toward socialism will necessitate a revolution of values. Those values won’t come from the top down but from culture up. We can use Denning’s notion of a “cultural front”—in this case, to save us from our cultural ass. Right now the United States is working at a deficit. Our identities and aesthetics are deeply tied into capitalism—no disrespect to rapper Cardi B and her love of money, but unlearning money worship and our worth being determined by what we can accumulate is going to be vital to any socialist change. And as during the 1930s and ’40s, and in so many times in American history, there will be a symbiotic relationship between the creation of cultural space and the creation of political change. I am but a mere comedian / web journalist / podcast host. I don’t think I can offer a blueprint of how the arts industry will work in a democratic socialist society. But I’m an artist, so I can imagine one.

Firstly, it has to be noted that if and when other democratic socialist goals are met, the life of cultural workers will inevitably improve. If we don’t have to worry about health care, affordable housing, of going into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for college training in our chosen craft, we’re already in a far better place. But there should absolutely be a plan for arts and culture under democratic socialism, just as there should be for health care, housing, and more.

Culture, like wealth, does not trickle down. Any top-down imposition of music or theater won’t last and will probably suck. Still, government can create the space in which art can flourish. Fighting for that space will be the beginning of a cultural front in and of itself. Just as Federal Project Number One put artists to work, we need a bold New Deal–style plan for cultural workers that can do the same. Think of what a half-billion-dollar infusion into the arts would mean today. We might expand the NEA’s and NEH’s reach, offer tax incentives for small venues, and give assistance when they are under threat of closure. We could bolster local film production, offer localized and accessible studio space, increase grants for artists, and—just as during the New Deal—employ cultural workers on large-scale murals and projects. We could make Burning Man free.

If the arts are to thrive under democratic socialism, they should be independent and free of censorship, from both the right and the left. We need none of the McCarthyist onslaughts nor the imposed “socialist realism” of the Soviet Union, no disrespect to the artists who made some incredible agitprop. Of course, propaganda and art are crucial to selling a broad national project to the people—they raise consciousness and stir political activity. But marrying the state with artistic direction is not the goal.

The Danes, while a tough crowd at my shows in Buenos Aires, have established the so-called arm’s-length principle under their Music Act of 1971, where the government can decide a framework for funding music but doesn’t meddle in which projects get approved. Ted Cruz shouldn’t decide who goes to SXSW (or really anything).

Given that so much of artistic production is disseminated and consumed via the internet, television, film, and radio, I don’t see how any bold proposal for the arts in the twenty-first century can survive without dramatically democratizing telecommunications. That means not only protecting net neutrality but breaking up telecommunications monopolies that have a grip on our cultural consumption. It might also look like major private-public partnerships between places like Netflix and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Beyond the critical interplay of media, rebuilding artistic industries will need robust and inclusive unions. That means expanding all entertainment unions—SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Arts), the Writers Guild of America, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees—and making membership more accessible. It also means organizing the unorganised cultural workers, including web creators, bloggers, stand-up comics, musicians, and other smaller-stage performers. Yes, a spoken-word guild.

The socialist democratization of the arts would increase the sites of cultural creation. In the stand-up world, being called a “local comic” is always a knock, usually implying that you’re in a B comedy town that’s fighting tooth and nail to keep open its handful of performance spaces. You’re a big fish drowning in a tiny pond. Oftentimes performers simply end up moving to Los Angeles or New York to be wholly swallowed by a whale.

But in a radically democratized art world that would decentralize production, we could stop the cultural drain toward the coasts, and smaller cities and towns would become competitive, medium-size lagoons. Same goes for the film and television industry. If suddenly there were funds for people to tell their own stories rather than have them warped through Hollywood’s gase, how would that kind of representation shape local communities?

If some of the monetary incentives behind arts were gone, our winner-take-all, race-to-the-bottom entertainment culture would shift dramatically. Robot pop would have to compete with diverse and original music that would actually stand a chance at a record deal. The alternative and subculture scenes would flourish and find new audiences, with messages that don’t merely glorify money.

I know what some of you are thinking when I talk about supporting different kinds of underground culture: “I’m just not that into burlesque.” Well, imagine if dancers made more money that the dollars they picked up in their thongs, and had the funding to nail that triple-axel bra removal and leave you breathless.

If the world in which artists are allowed to operate expands—from the streets to opera houses—art itself will get better and culture will thrive. Cultural work under democratic socialism will mean more work. (Not to mention far fewer creeps in entertainment.) And with $10 Hamilton tickets, The Color Purple playing in public parks, and Toby Keith charged with animal cruelty, my guess is fascism in America doesn’t stand a chance.

Art is more than entertainment; it is an experience, an education, and a collective mirror to gaze at our multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith pluralist democracy—one with some pretty sweet talent. Our democracy also has deep wounds and a deep history of struggle that we can honor through our cultural work. We can remember the play The Cradle Will Rock and think, “Let’s stage a revival, but with Beyoncé!”

Told you.

Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Fiorentini. This excerpt originally appeared in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.