Artists Facing Politics – César Vallejo

Today commemorates César Vallejo’s 120th birthday, and I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight one of the attributes of this writer that I most admire: his ability to articulate the role of the artist within the realm of politics. Many reductionist readings of Vallejo will attribute his politics of the socialist ideologies that prevailed in Europe between the two World Wars, while other even less informed readings will ignore his politics altogether, preferring to focus on the less contentious and more easily accessible texts, in order to seat him alongside Pablo Neruda or Vicente Huidobro in a long exhausted Latin American cannon. But in César Vallejo’s writings – I am speaking of his writings in all their breadth, which is, in my opinion, the best way to read them – one finds a more complex and more compelling argument for the role of the artist in relation to politics: To foster in mankind a political sensibility that enables individuals to propel social transformation that is always already in progress and direct it toward brighter horizons. In this too often overlooked article (unfortunately most of them are) – Artistas ante la política / Artists Facing Politics – Vallejo captures this notion perfectly in the figure of the political cloud. Tonight, I share with you a new translation of this article, as my way, at this juncture, of adding a few atoms to that cloud, of increasing its density, and to celebrate an artist whose writings continue to offer artists much needed modes of articulation in the realm of politics.



Paris, November, 1927

The artist, inevitably, is a political being. His neutrality, his lack of political sensibility, would prove spiritually shallow, humanly mediocre, aesthetically inferior. But in what sphere should the artist act politically? His field of political action is multiple: he can vote, join a protest, like any other citizen; lead a group of civil volunteers, like any other statesman on the block; to head a doctrinaire movement on the national, continental, racial or universal scale, or a la Rolland. In all of these ways, the artist can indubitably be politically active; but none of them responds to the powers of political creation, peculiar to his proper nature and personality. The political sensibility of the artist is produced, preferably and in its maximum authenticity, creating political concerns and clouds, vaster than any catechism or collection of ideas that are express and, therefore, limited, from whichever political moment you please, and are purer than any poll of periodical preoccupations or either political ideals, be they nationalist or universalist. The artist must not reduce himself either to turning the tides of an electoral vote of the masses or to reinforcing an economic revolution, but rather he must, before all else, give rise to a new political sensibility in man, a new political raw material in human nature. His action is not didactic, communicative or instructive of emotions and civic ideas, already packing the air. Above all, it means stirring, in an obscure, subconscious and almost animal way, the political anatomy of man, waking in him the aptitude to engender and rise to his skin, new civic concerns and emotions. The artist is not circumscribed to cultivating new vegetation in the field of politics, or in geologically modifying that field, but rather he must chemically and naturally transform it. This is what the artists did prior to the French Revolution and as the creation thereof; this what the artists have done prior to the Russian Revolution and as the creation thereof. The harvest of such political creation, brought about by true artists, is visible and palpable only after centuries, and not the next day, like what occurs with the superficial action of the pseudo-artist.

Diego Rivera believes that the Latin American painter must take men and the social strife of Latin America as artistic motifs and themes, as a political medium to combat the aesthetic and, therefore, economic imperialism of Wall Street. In this way, Diego Rivera lowers and prostitutes the political role of the artist, converting it into the instrument of a political ideology, in a cheap didactical medium of economic propaganda. “It is an incontrovertible truth,” says Rivera, “that the power, in the first place, is an aesthetic factor economically shifting the reference of consumer goods and in the second place, a psychological factor capable of channeling the mind and will of the proletariat down the shortest path toward the achievement of what befits its class interests.” Diego Rivera forgets that the artist is the freest of beings and works far above political programs without being outside of politics. He forgets that art is not a medium of political propaganda. I am talking about true art. Any versifier, like Mayakovsky, can defend, in good futurist verses, the excellence of Soviet sea fauna, but only a Dostoevsky can, without pigeonholing the spirit in any political, concrete and, therefore, already annihilated creed, give rise to great cosmic urgencies of human justice. Any versifier, like Déroulede, can stand up strait before the crowd and shout whichever democratic shouts he pleases, but only a Proust can, without registering his spirit with any political party, of his own or of anyone else, gives rise to, not new political tones in life, but new chords on which those tones ring.

Diego Rivera manufactures a record and intends to give it to the artists of America, so that they may take it upon themselves to make it spin. All political catechism, even the best of the best, is a record, a cliché, a dead object, when compared  to the creative sensibility of the artist. This political action is fine in the second-rate hands of a look-alike or knock-off artist, but not in the hands of a creator. Aside from that, it would be good, even in Rivera’s theory, to be able to discover the gunpowder; but history does not offer any example of an artist who, departing from political parties or polls, of his own or of others,  has managed to realize a great work. Theories, in general, hamper and hinder creation.

Before shouting on the streets or getting locked up in jail, the artist must create, within a tacit and silent heroism, the great, deep political aqueducts of mankind, which only over the centuries become visible and flourish, precisely, in those ideologies and social phenomena that later echo in the mouths of men of action, apostles and opinion-leaders we mentioned above.

If the artist refuses to create what we might call political clouds in the human wilderness, reducing himself to the secondary and sporadic role of propaganda or of the barricade itself, to whom would that great spiritual thaumaturgy fall?

By César Vallejo

[Mundial, No. 394, 31 December 1927.]

Translated by Joseph Mulligan

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