René Magritte on the Revolutionary
vs. Folk Art & Stalinism
The Communist point of view is my own. My art is valid only insofar as it opposed the bourgeois ideal in whose name life is being extinguished.
René Magritte, Les Beaux Arts (Brussels), no. 164, May 17, 1935, p. 15
I distrust this folk art the Fascists have chosen to promote. Art-for-the-people is spurious because it is based on a superficial point of view. I too am part of the people. What a painter must do is to see mankind in workman’s overalls. This is what Courbet did when he painted Les Casseurs de Pierre (The Stone Breakers), which caused a scandal among gallery-goers because its subject was new. For that matter, I have often met with greater understanding from the working class than from the most refined aesthetes. As for the snobs, they have wildly applauded Surrealist projects because they have to be "with it." Today, they are being lulled by the deplorable singsong of Existentialism, and tomorrow. . . .
René Magritte, Clarté, December 16, 1945
Nevertheless, the Party wants to get some use out of artists who are incapable of inventing new emotions, and requires them to engage in political agitation. Yet since artists cannot go on strike, the absurdity of artists’ political agitation is only too obvious.
The only correct attitude the Party can take with regard to the aesthetic question, and which it is refusing to take, is that of requiring an artist to give his works a revolutionary content. This is our conviction, and it prevents us from attending the meetings at Antwerp, which will be held with the absurd notion of seeking ways for artists to engage in political agitation.
René Magritte et al., Lettre au Parti Communiste de Belgique, 1946
On the other hand, in order to attract the interest of the artistic, political, and literary population, this title was chosen because of the "sensitivity" to current events that makes these cultivated individuals so impressionable. Having thus gained the attention of this group for the few moments it is capable of maintaining a semblance of thought, one notices that on their level—the level of unskilled art—folk objects are the equivalent of the so-called secrets of alchemy in another area.
Just as propaganda for alchemy could only be made with an ignorance of today’s scientific knowledge, so the arguments for folk art can only be explained by the reprehensible ignorance of spiritual things shared by the cultural specialists who are responsible for or support this shameful enterprise.
Whereas the least objective of minds would readily judge the call for a return to alchemy to be an attempt to destroy scientific progress and a desire to return to the adoration of icons or to the fear of forbidden fetishes in the hope of rediscovering a so-called age of gold, a parallel and large-scale endeavor in favor of folk art is now underway and is being supported by both those who are for reaction and those who seek change in the world economic system.
The agreement these opponents have reached on the benefits of folklore is unusual and significant enough to merit examination.
The fact that the Catholic and revolutionary newspapers are united in this affair leads one to believe that what divides them exists on another level than that of cultural matters, and that there is nothing to keep them from agreeing on "minor questions."
In short, these political foes give little importance to the feelings a man has about life and the enhancement of those feelings by artistic means. What divides them makes them alike, These foes are made of the same stuff: second-rate stuff that has nothing to do with either the noble spirit of the alchemists or with the enthusiasm of unknown folk artists. Alas! This stuff is the stuff of inertia, an inertia made monstrous by its permanence and its extent!
There are some men here on earth who know what true intellectual honesty is and who want no part of this inertia nor expect any help from it. The countless others are indifferent, passive, clumsy calculators, or dishonest. Their number is not enough to make them right.
In the artistic sphere in 1949, we are called upon to dismiss the case involving the fraudulent attempts to revive feudal obscurantism based on folk material. Also, to refuse to respect the myriad selfish hopes one could place on this kind of undertaking.
Simple honesty demands that such attempts—doomed, in any case, to failure—be called by their rightful name: the sign of contemptibility.
René Magritte, Nous N’Avons Pas Choisi Le Folklore, 1949
NOTE FOR THE COMMUNIST PARTY
The workers have been exposed to paintings under poor conditions as a result of initial confusion in regard to artistic activity and political action. While the political struggle must, under present circumstances, concentrate on the demand for our rights to, for exampIe, adequate nourishment and minimum comforts, the battle being waged by revolutionary artists can now be understood as a response to a maximum need: the conquest of the mind’s wealth, a conquest that must never be abandoned.
In their encounter with artists, the workers were only permitted to contemplate those pictures strictly limited to the plastic expression of political ideas or sentiments; and the architects of the Party’s cultural policy are making the error of leading the workers to believe that this is the only kind of painting for which they are suited.
Although the pictorial translation of political ideas is useful for illustrating Party posters, it does not automatically follow that the artist’s only valid role is to paint pictures that in more or less lyric terms express the social struggle, and that the workers must forgo the pleasure of looking at pictures that can enrich their minds without teaching them class consciousness.
Class consciousness is as necessary as bread; but that does not mean that workers must be condemned to bread and water and that wanting chicken and champagne would be harmful. If they are Communists, it is precisely because they hope to attain a better life, worthy of man.
For the Communist painter, the justification of artistic activity is to create pictures that can represent mental luxury, a luxury for Communist society quite different from the useless, ostentatious, tasteless luxury of the existing exploiting classes.
To want systematically to exclude this luxury from the socialist world is to condone a sordid and culpable establishment of mediocrity, at least insofar as the mind is concerned.
A better life cannot be conceived without some real luxury. It cannot be achieved without political struggle and the difficult struggle waged by revolutionary artists, those who do not limit their efforts solely to the expression of political ideas or to the representation of familiar scenes in the life of the working class for the purpose of edification.
René Magritte, Note Pour La Parti Communiste, April 24, 1950
Progressive atheists and Fascist Catholics are not very interesting. While on the way to Antwerp yesterday, I passed near the camp at Breendonc [sic] (the Belgian Buchenwald), and the memories this camp brought back are far from being able to provide any rationale for the universe. As for the progressive atheists you mention, who dream of horsewhipping the whole world, they are obviously incapable of making anything but trouble. We don’t have to do anything about such "engagés" so long as they leave us more or less in peace. However, when "culture" is at stake, their titles—Catholics, Fascists, atheists, progressives, etc.—are reason enough for one to be disgusted at the prospect of collaborating with them. For them, it’s not enough to take a "quick turn round the floor with a modicum of elegance." They wouldn’t hesitate to stop you if it were necessary.
Letter from René Magritte to G. Puel, May 22, 1955
SOURCE: Magritte: The True Art of Painting by Harry Torczyner, translated by Richard Miller (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), pp. 55-57.
Explanation Explained by René Magritte
René Magritte: Écrits Complets (Complete Writings: Contents & Indexes)
From Paul Klees Creative Credo (1920)
Max Beckmann on Painting, the Intellect, the Senses, Individuality, & the Abstract
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