August 30, 1948 p.13
The Artist -- Conscience of the People
by Herbert BibermanHerbert Biberman, member of the "Hollywood 10" was the feature at the Second Annual California Labor School Cultural Conference in San Francisco held last week. He spoke on the subject of "The Artist -- Conscience of the People." A portion of this address is reprinted below.
Freedom has become today the main, I may almost say the single major concern of the people and the artist. And in this moment, the American artist can find his freedom only by fighting for it with unparalleled devotion--devotion to the battle to raise the conscience of the people above the animalism of the commodity market place.
This is the artist's life work. And his achievement in this honored role in American life has been very great. Perhaps the colonies would have won their revolution without Tom Paine. But, if you will permit me a most obvious play on a word--it would have cost infinitely more pain. But the contribution of Paine was not only to his adopted country's independence. Tom Paine became part of the raison d'être, the reason for, this country--he has become part of the material substance of our culture, available today in sustaining this country as conceived.
The culture of a people, the configuration of their soul, the instinct developed in them as a people is not created from scratch in every crisis. The culture of a people is a thing of history. It is man-made history. Man is therefore the inheritor of his past and thus also the creator of his ensuing history. A people's culture is a reflection of the living and the living dead. And the artist who has woven the story and temper of the people's ascent to ever increasing control of their fate, this story which the artist makes into a legible continuity for all to possess, this story he also helped to inspire and create.
A MOMENT OF RESPITE
When Lillian Hellman at the end of the second act of "Another Part of the Forest" has the terrorized mother of a rising rapacious southern bourgeois family rush to her Negro housekeeper and plead to be allowed to creep into her bed for comfort--and we realize that only there did she find any human compassion--a moment of respite from the brutalization of her class. You did not see this in the motion picture version. The white supremacists could not expose their sisters to this truth.
When in Edward Bellamy's novel "The Duke of Stockbridge" dealing with Shay's rebellion following the war for American independence, an illiterate mechanic and a young intellectual march together to protest to the tax collector, the mechanic turns to his companion and says, "I'll hold the gun, you sass the aristocrat"--one feels that the memory of Tom Paine the artist and intellectual had not died out in the minds and hearts of the soldiers so recently returned from successful Revolutionary War--and that the mechanics demand that continuance of the unity which had served both artist and worker so well in the achievement of the first step of their common freedom.
Surely the words "Waiting for Lefty" will not soon be forgotten in respect to the struggle of the American workers for economic security and the preservation of their union.
And Dalton Trumbo's pamphlet in defense of Harry Bridges did more than pay tribute to a man. It raised the American people to the highest level of their conscience--and as a reward won for them Bridges' presence among them as a creative force all through the trying years that followed. I trust the same can be done for Trumbo.
THE FIRST BLOWS
But the artist as the conscience of the people does more than create images of truth for the people to rally to; does more than create the legible story of their own history for the people; does more than encourage their belief in themselves which is the sine qua non for achieving freedom--in every crisis the artist has personally taken the first blows from the enemy of the people's freedom--the blows of blacklist, prison, death.
For three hundred years the great Russian artists wrote with exiles looking over their shoulders. Not one of the first rank who did not at least just narrowly escape imprisonment. I often think of Gorky's dismissal from the Russian Academy because he came to America on a lecture tour to collect funds for the Russian workers. And of Chekov, not a political man, who immediately resigned from the Academy in protest--an action which in itself was tantamount to placing his head on the block.
The enemies of the people know the artists of the people at their real worth. They know that Zola destroyed the filthy anti-democratic and anti-Semitic cabal against Dreyfus and against France, and that similar deeds, with perhaps less magnificence have been common in every land. In America this power of the artist is also well known--but is it always sufficiently well known by the people?
Howard Fast, the ablest historical novelist in America, half a dozen of whose novels have reanimated millions of our people with the clean, sweeping story of our people--has been sentenced to prison. The Supreme Court of this land has refused to review his case. And when recently a meeting was called in Los Angeles to petition the President for executive clemency--in that city of two million--not three hundred people appeared.
This is noted not in complaint. It is noted because this is unhealthy for the people, for the workers; for the fight for freedom cannot be won without a vigorous art; without the most dynamic and close relationship between the workers and the artists.
...IF NOT I--WHO
Surely the American workers will fight to keep their artists alive and creating. If the workers will not, who, then, will?
There is a Chinese proverb with which both workers and artists must reckon in this great crisis of human freedom. "If not I--who? If not now--when?"
Not to understand the reality of this danger is to give our enemies the green light to remove some of the vocal chords of the people, preventing the people from being able to cry alarm, to sound the call of solidarity throughout their land.
It is in this sense, in this pervasive sense, that the crisis in culture is a crisis not primarily for the artists but for the workers, since the workers are the fundament of our people, and it is their call sounding through the artist that must be protected and augmented at all costs.