While I was waiting to see Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands at Bumbershoot, the MC for the stage brought on local (self-described) Socialist city council candidate Kshama Sawant and asked her a question about what she’d do to foster the arts if elected to city council. (I get the impression Sawant wasn’t the only local politico they’d had onstage during the weekend, but she was the only one I saw.) I felt that she mostly dodged the question, which is a pity. Because I think that if we’re going to have Socialist candidates for public office, then we should pay close attention to what actually happens under Socialism.

So, if anyone is actually interested in what happens to the arts under Socialism, I highly recommend Josef Skvorecky’s Talking Moscow Blues.

One excerpt, of many suitable ones:

“The name of the organization was innocuous: the Jazz Section of the Czech Musician’s Union. Its membership was restricted [by the Socialist government – AMB] to 3,000– a mere club of aficionados of a type of music which long ago had ceased to excite the masses and was therefore taken off the Party list of dangerous social phenomena. When, after thirteen years of existence, the Jazz Section was for all practical purpoces finally forced out of existence, the event went unnoticed in the U.S. Time did publish a story but ran it only in its European edition. In America this act of “minor” repression was apparently not considered newsworthy. And indeed, the bloodless demise of a small group of jazz lovers pales in the reddish light of a world where even genocide is quickly reashing the status of newsunworthiness. …

Apparently jazz, that generous gift of America to the world, has never been good for Communists in power. …[O]nce the Communist cause metaporphosed from liberating people to closely watching them the jungle sounds of freedom became suspect: sometimes they were deemed supremely dangerous, at other times only alien to the new socialist man. The criterion was simple: if a music fills a football stadium with raving youngsters, it signals danger; if it fills only a smoky jazz club with nostalgic middle-aged men, it is just a nuisance. A well-entrenched Marxist state can tolerate such nuisances. Therefore, in Czechoslovakia, jazz was under fire only until Elvis Presley and the hippy shake reached first the proletarian, then the new upper-class dance halls. After that, the ideological gunmen switched their attention from the saxophone to the electrified guitar.” – Josef Škvorecký, “Hipness at Noon”, as reprinted in Talking Moscow Blues

It should be pointed out that the above passage was written by Škvorecký whilst he was in exile for daring to attempt to publish un-Socialist novels. Three years after it was written, the leaders of the Jazz Section were imprisoned for daring to support and perform unapproved and insufficiently Socialist music and for publishing for its small membership unapproved or suppressed works of music and literature.

So it’s a pity that Ms. Sawant dodged the question. I think the attendees of Bumbershoot would have liked to hear an answer to the question of what Socialism actually means for art.

Art under Socialism is art stifled by the need for government permission and formed by the threat of censure, censorship, imprisonment, and violence.