A Human Eye – Essays on Art in Society, Adrienne Rich

A Human Eye, Essays on Art in Society by Adrienne Rich is a wide-ranging collection of discussions on using art for engaged-citizenship.  Rich says that poets tend to see the world with greater clarity than others, and so, have a duty to use their art to defend truth and justice.  As Rich explains at the beginning of the book, “Amid profiteering language, commoditizing of intimate emotions, and public misery, I want poems that embody—make into flesh—another principle.  A complex, dialogic, coherent poetry to dissolve both complacency and despair (2).”  In her hopeful wish for poetry – Adrienne Rich explains that we need art in order to resist mental colonization by the dominant culture.  The white supremacist society many of us are forced to live in doesn’t want us mixing art with politics, yet we must make art that engages with the world in order to live with integrity – we must believe in poetry of longing and necessity – of art as a way of melting through one’s own skin for the common good.  Rich says that the solution to problems of society is only conceivable in poetic terms.

Subjects in A Human Eye range from Iraqi poetry, Muriel Rukeyeser, James Baldwin, the correspondence of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, and LeRoi Jones.

The book contains the essay, “Three Classics for New Readers: Karl Marx, Rose Luxemburg, Che Guevara,” which discusses how these three young intellectuals “shared an energy of hope, an engagement with society, a belief that critical thinking must accompany action, and a passion for the human world and its possibilities (57-58).”  Rich explains how the writing of Marx, Luxemburg and Guevara expresses the belief that society has to undergo radical change before artistic possibilities can be realized.  The three writers felt that revolution was necessary because it was the only way to bring release from numbed senses.  A recurring theme in their work is passion for the human world and its possibilities – and urgency.  The world is facing cataclysmic changes and life robbing violence and destruction – this is why we have the immediate need to use our creative work as resistance to the horror.

“That the working people who brought forth the raw and manufactured resources of the world could move toward political and economic emancipation these writers saw as a necessary (if not inevitable) evolution in human history.  Revolutions were all around them, mass movements, strikes, international organizing.  But it was not just the temper of their times that drew them into activity…they observed around them the accelerating relationship between private ownership and massive suffering, capital’s devouring appetite for expansion of its markets at whatever human cost—not least its wars.  In that awareness they also saw the meaning of their lives (58).”

People around us are dying at the hands of evil industries.  How can we stand it?

Guevara, Luxemburg and Marx believed that freedom expanded to all would expand societal imagination and spirit.  In bourgeois society, artists have to be part of the market – and to sell themselves requires them to be censored.  If artists didn’t have to seek profit – we could be much freer and truer in creating.  In capitalism, the means of using art as protest is crushed because only the privileged can do it – uneducated masses have their time consumed by labor – and are conditioned to embrace numbing amusements in their free time – like boozing and guns.

“Che envisioned that society as a whole must be converted into a gigantic school.  Those who hope to educate must be in constant and responsive touch with those who are learning; teachers must also be learners.”  -65

We all have something to learn from others, and the ones higher along in learning must be selfless in sharing their knowledge, and humble in realizing they still have more to learn.

It brings to mind the song cut from the cloth by the incredible indie punk duo the Evens:

Cut from the cloth, and cut quite severely
Is this my world I no longer recognize
I’m hearing common words, common expressions
But nothing is common in my eyes
 
How do people sleep amidst the slaughter
Why would they vote in favor of their own defeat
Get out to the well and check the water
Results were incomplete
 
Cut from the cloth
 
Cut from the cloth, and dead to the masses
Just another case to be eulogized
But I’m breathing, breathing with no assistance
And responding to stimuli
 
Can anyone explain these new laws of nature
Why would they rule in favor of their own defeat
Cynics are excused from standing up to problems
Because they can’t get out of their seats
 
Cut from the cloth, ran out screaming
I hope that none of this will stick to me
Everyone is nice, everyone is kind now
At least they’re nice and kind to me
 
Why would they fold up something so precious
Why would they sing in favor of their own defeat
Maybe they found their voice while out shopping
The price was hard to beat
 
Cut from the cloth..

 

This song is urgent in a Marx, Luxemburg and Guevara way – seeing clearly how inside out the world is – the earth that our lives depend on is being killed – thus we’re killing each other.  The song declares independence from the destructive, materialistic mode of being.  Saying I’m dead to this country whose cloth I’m cut from – I’m outside society – I don’t want the wrongs and horrors of society to stick to me.  “Cut from the cloth,” is an excellent example of a modern protest song.  The lyrics are poem and performed in such a cool, mind tingling way  – the song cuts straight to the point, and is earnest and not cliché.  This fear and confusion and feeling powerless below the corporate war machine looms big today.

 

Raising consciousness is never easy.  It always takes an unpopular avant-garde ready to risk imprisonment.  -Adrienne Rich

 
 
References:
A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, Adrienne Rich, 2010
“Blood, Bread and Poetry: The Location of the Poet,” Adrienne Rich, The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Autumn, 1983), pp. 521-540Published
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Filed under literature review, manifestos, truth speakers

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