Peter Nunns ’08 writes:

After visiting France and the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, Walter Benjamin commented that artists found themselves in opposite positions under socialism and capitalism. In the capitalist democracies, artists had freedom but no power; in the USSR, they had power but no freedom.

He pointed out a curious truth about liberal free-market societies. In them, we have freedom to create, write, and speak freely, but our works are only socially relevant insofar as they are directly profitable. Art is no more than a private passion – much like this diary.

By contrast, art was held up as a means of social transformation in the bad old spaces of communism – but artists could only hew into reality works that had been approved by the Party. Art could be a public passion, but it could not represent its creator’s own view.

Benjamin sought, or hoped for, a world in which the artist, with his expressive individuality, could be reconciled with the interests of society. A world in which the artist would have both freedom and power. Although the latter part of Benjamin’s dilemma passed out of existence almost two decades ago, we are still pierced by the first clause.

I would venture the speculation that the marketing and advertisement industry is the largest employer of art-school graduates in the country. In today’s capitalized America, artists are only deemed useful when they can augment the bottom line. To survive – and create – they (we?) must turn their talents to works that have been approved by the upper management.

The interesting question, of course, is this: At what point does a lack of power lead directly to a lack of freedom?

When one can’t live (or pay for canvas and paint) without selling all of their creative labour to a corporation, when health care is unavailable without doing so, when rents are too high to live near other artists and gas prices are too high to commute – then we might say that artists lose the license to create freely. If us creative individuals have no power over our society, we rapidly lose our practical freedom of expression.

When television rips all the eyeballs away from paperback fictions and zines, when advertising posters cover all the walls, when public space is supplanted by skyscrapers, what does the First Amendment mean? We become vox clamantis in deserto – voices silenced by the lack of an audience in the desert of the real.

What part of the word “freedom” does Peter not understand? There are more people doing art in America today then ever before, either in raw numbers or as a percentage of the population. Capitalism, and the wealth that it generates, makes this possible. I just love the phrase “today’s capitalized America.” Does Peter think that the America of 1980 or 1880 was any less capitalized? Does he believe that the America of 100 years ago was filled with artists, unfettered by the need of approval from “upper management?”

Or perhaps this is a parody of the incoherent musings of a rich, spoiled Eph? If so, it’s brilliant!

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