Monday, 3 March 2014

Artists & Writers on the Spanish Civil War

LAST Saturday's International Brigade Memorial Trust lectures at the Manchester Conference Centre entitled 'Taking Sides: Artists & Writers on the Spanish Civil War' addressed the artistic, cultural and educational aspects of the Spanish Civil War, and its impact on the intellectuals.  From education under the Republic by Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom to Valentine Cunningham, who stood in for Paul Preston who was ill, from Carmen Herrero on the International Brigades in Spanish cinema to Jane Rogoyska on the photography of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa.  

Bjerstrom gave a narrative of the 'progressive' program of the Republican government  to enrich the people in the pueblos and barrios on aspects of art and Spanish cultural identity.  He briefly considered culture as an instrument of nation building and art as a  device for individual development.  This was criticised as elitist by some on the left and as either a waste of money or giving people subversive ideas by some on the right.  
Dr. Carmen Herrero tackled the issue of national and popular cinema in Spain showing by example excerpts from three films:  Ay Carmela (1990) by Carlos Saura; Land & Freedom (1997) by Ken Loach, and Hollywood under Franco – a kind of montage of films from the 1930s to 1970s.  Ms. Herrero talked about the metaphorical elements of realisation and focused on the the social contradictions as shown in the debate in Land and Freedom about collectivisation of the land in Aragon.  She claimed that Ken Loach had tried to realise this by drawing a comparison between Spain in the 1930s and Thatcher's Britain in the 1990s.  This is precisely what Jim Allen, the scriptwriter on the film, told me when I interviewed him about the film at his home in Middleton in 1998.  Carmen talked briefly about the place of 'especento' or blasphemy in Spanish films, which is really a form of farting in Church, something which, according to the Spanish film director Luis Buñuel, Spaniards are the greatest masters at doing.  
Professor Valentine Cunningham delivered a lecture on 'The Aestheticising Tragedy:  Writers & Artists in the Spanish Civil War', and has written a book entitled 'Writers in the Thirties'.  He replaced the historian Paul Preston who would have addressed the issue of Foreign correspondents in the Spanish Civil War.  Professor Cunningham said that elegy is the essence of the writing on the Spanish Civil War and that this war was 'one of the most just wars there has ever been'; he went on to quote from Auden, Roy Fuller, Orwell and Wilfred Owen 'Strange Enemy'.  He spoke about the puncturing of holes in buildings and people that gave us writing with a 'modern version of the old way'.   

Later there were criticisms from the over 150 present at the event: claiming that Bjerstrom and Herrero were too academic, and Cunningham and Rogoyska's contributions 'lacked context'.  Not everyone agreed with this analysis and some objected.   Some jumped in to make a point about contemporary situations in Syria and the Arab Spring:  'Syria is not like Spain, it is the opposite' or Venezuela is threatened  by the right backed by a powerful neighbour (USA) and therefore is a bit like Spain.  This demand for political and social context in artistic and cultural analysis from people of a Marxist persuasion is not a bad thing in itself,  That was the point Orwell made in his essay 'The Frontiers of Art & Propaganda' (1941), when he wrote: 
'... the characteristic writers of the time (1930s), people like Auden and Spender and MacNeice, have been didactic, political writers, aesthetically conscious, of course, but more interested in subject-matter than in technique.'  Orwell added that the best criticism had been the work of Marxist writers '... who look on every book virtually as a political pamphlet and are far more interested in digging out its political and social implications than in its literary qualities in the narrow sense.'   

All this demand for 'social and political context' both in the 1930s and now at the International Brigade lecture theatre would be useful, if it wasn't accompanied with advocacy of certain political cookbook values or what many regard as a correct view of the 'reality' of everyday life.  It seems to me that some of the best writing on Spain, has been ethnographic, sociological and anthropological.  Debunking art for art's sake is one thing, but if as Orwell writes:  'The only system of thought open to them at that time (in the 1930s and 40s) was official Marxism, which demanded a nationalistic loyalty towards Russia and forced the writer who called himself a Marxist to be mixed up in the dishonesties of power politics.'   Today, much of the same kind of party loyalty, and the insistence on sticking to the script, is being required of the writer and journalist by those who call themselves 'comrades'.

Can a writer give up intellectual integrity for the sake of a political cause.  I don't think you can do that, and remain a serious writer or even a decent journalist.  That is the problem that a lot of artists and writers faced in Spain in the 1930s.  It is the dilemma that even now prevails in a tin-pot way, and that even writers on Northern Voices have had to confront in recent years. 

1 comment:

Dolores said...

Thanks for this. Useful feedback.