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Rocks & Arts: Fighting Corporate Culture

By Amiri Baraka

The Sisyphus Syndrome is the name of a jazz opera I wrote with music by David Murray that we performed in Paris and Milano last February. The title is my appropriation of W.E.B. Dubois’ comment likening the Afro American struggle to the Greek myth of Sisyphus who, because he refused to die when ordered, was punished through eternity by having to roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it rolled back down.

The study of history will confirm this grim characterization of U.S. social life. For instance, while the election of Barack Obama gave many of us great joy and fantastic expectations, this was the rock rolling up the mountain experience. But since that time we have the rock slamming down the mountain again, from Sarah Palin to the Tea Party dope fiends.

There’s no more resonant example of tragic contradiction throughout our history than the perversion of the 14th amendment. Passed after the overthrow of Chattel Slavery it was intended to give Equal Protection under the law to every person in the U.S. But, according to some observers (see Thom Hartman’s book, Unequal Protection, The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights), a clerk of the court – a former railroad president – changed the language of the actual decision to address a matter not originally at issue. The upshot was equal protection for corporations which the legal ruling endowed artificially with personhood.

The irony was that a law intended to protect the rights of ex-slaves, particularly in the south, was twisted to protect corporations who were now said to possess the same rights. Though of course a corporation is not human any more than a corpse is alive. Even if it’s an entity with the power of, say, General Motors, whose gross income is larger than the entire GNP of Afro America. (At 700 billion a year, Afro America ranks 16th in the world. General Motors is 15th.)

It’s not cynicism to say than that in exchange for Emancipation from the private owner, black and white workers could now be wage slaves to the corporate entity, now protected as a fake human being, just like Frankenstein or the Golem.

This is another aspect of what Obama’s presidency should teach us, the corporate domination of the U.S. and the corporate domination of the world. What is called Globalization. The international domination of the world by imperialism. If we followed the struggle to pass the very modest healthcare bill against the power and strength of the corporations and their ubiquitous lobbyists.

The Sisyphus Syndrome is reflected, for instance, in how the Extreme Court reacted to Obama’s internet reliance on small donors to finance his campaign by removing restrictions on corporate monies for political campaigns. Thus threatening to make the term democracy a sham by putting elections directly under the power of corporate cash.

When the U.S. economy was revealed to be in turmoil and tottering, particularly around the banks and financial sector and the auto industry, I published a copy of Unity & Struggle, which we distributed in Denver during the Democratic Convention and in D.C. at the inauguration, that declared: “President Obama, No Bailout.” We called for the nationalization of banks and the auto industry. But as we saw, there was a bailout, and despite the President’s rationale for bailing out the billionaires – i.e. so that pension funds could be saved and loans made to small businesses – the banks are still not lending and thousands of foreclosures are still going on. While a few big financial firms and banks went under too, in the main the Jaws of that crowd survived and got bigger.

When I asked a real millionaire whom I’d met because his wife had backed a magazine I wrote for back in the 60s why millionaires cared so little about art and artists, he told me: “because they’re not predictable.” As if markets were. But it’s the human factor that frightens them. That fact that artists might have the brazen nerve to speak truth. One poet wrote, “you have the freedom of speech/as long as you don’t say anything.” And that’s certainly been my experience. Lenin sadi, when artists say they are free, i.e. without restraints, it means that they enjoy being prostitutes.

Democracy presupposes that “freedom,” but when the 6/10th of 1 percent that run the society say “freedom” or “liberty” they mean something entirely different. They mean their ability to do what they want with our world, without interference.

If we try to understand that the U.S is, itself, in essence a Corporate Dictatorship, then it will be easier to understand why the arts, even education, for the people, is undervalued. As the man said, the “unpredictability” of the arts, artists etc. means that art may say something the corporations oppose or detest.

Suppose we are burdened, we extreme cases, by Keats and DuBois, believing their charge that the only directives the artist must follow are Truth and Beauty? Then woe is us, since in a world where corporate control drenches everything in lies (whether lipstick or liquor) and demands ugliness, or at least shallowness, as beauty-proof accessories to keep many of us from knowing truth. Then where does that leave us?

There is a censorship based on the rule of corporations and their monopoly capitalist ideology. But that doesn’t mean only the excision of words or images in certain paintings (as Rockefeller once did when he spotted Lenin in one of Diego Rivera’s murals which he’d commissioned). Corporate control means that certain areas of human experience, of human thought cannot even be expressed. And if by some great effort, those thoughts get out, corporate influence will render them (according to other soi disant artists) inartful or otherwise inappropriate.

Beyond censorship, the other tragic dimension of corporate control is that it trivializes for the sake of commerce all thought that’s not ruled out of bounds. A world that once spoke of art adhering to the will of the prophets has been bent and mutated by those with an addiction to maximum profits.

The superficiality and childishness of much that is allowed to appear as “Art,” no matter what genre, is disgusting. The most common requirement for wide distribution of work in the U.S. is that the producer must agree with the rigged contradiction between the state and the corporate lobbyists who are masquerading as elected officials on the nature of reality. And naturally on state policy, foreign and domestic, as well. While arts criticism should be a vehicle of class struggle, as Lenin directed, in a society such as the U.S., most arts criticism is a form of advertisement. Though much of it maintains a basic element of class struggle since mainline critics are members of the same prostitution ensemble, so their gig is to kill what might challenging to the corpses and push the pap the corpses sell.

Any reasonable person ought to see that despite budget cuts sweeping our nation, as a result of the Wall Street engendered economic collapse, the Wall Streeters are still getting their big million-dollar bonuses. Fuld being questioned by Congress on television was asked was it true he got away with 134 million dollars Personally at the collapse of Lehman Bros. NO Senator it was only 34 million. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs hustles the same kind of question, but it’s revealed he got a 60 million dollars bonus as the people were facing 6,000 foreclosures a day.

Meantime, public arts programs – in elementary & high school and university – are being cut back to almost nothing. In Newark, where we are building, in partnership with the Smithsonian, a Museum of Afro American Music, our budget has all but disappeared. Wherever you look across the country, it’s the same thing. And not just with Arts programs. Housing, daycare, any program that benefits the working class or poor is just about doomed. And the big dogs have always thought of art as superfluous. A scientist working for years on animals’ aural comprehension of music found out his funding proposals were getting rejected because he kept mentioning “music.” The New York Times reported that once he removed that offending word and offered more general scientific terminology, his proposals were accepted.

But we all should have some understanding of what’s going on, why money for the arts is shrinking or already gone. What we must do now is figure out how to respond and resist. As artists, as citizens, there’s one answer, broadly, in all such cases. Unity & Struggle! Artists themselves must organize a national, international and even regional response.

1 We should not use our art for (someone else’s) entertainment. We should keep in mind that one of the most formidable weapons in social struggle is Art!
2 How can that poem, article, painting, concerto, song, sculpture lend its strength and power to defend the arts and attack their attackers?
3 We must have national-international means of consolidating our concerns and our Forces

a.Website b.Internationally distributed news letter c.Enlist forces/organizations not just persons so that whatever is consolidated is a broad alliance of opinion and action

From October, 2010

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