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Today is:
A Very Brief History of the
Relationship Between Politics and
Art in the Second Half
of the Twentieth Century
By Peter Kinoy

If you think that everything in this country and in our world is fine, then read no further….

But if you, like millions of Americans, are dismayed, frustrated and concerned about the direction our society seems to be heading then you might want to read this piece.

We all want a better world, but wanting alone is never enough. As skilled and experienced media producers we know that it takes hard work to get what we want. For those of us involved in the creation of “independent media” what we want is to be able to produce, distribute and view media as we see fit, without the interference of corporate money and control. We want an environment or atmosphere in which independent media can flourish.

Unfortunately the atmosphere surrounding the production and distribution of independent media is increasingly non-supportive. It is fouled with commercialism, the fear of political ostracism, and increasingly strangled by the concentration of carriage access in the hands of a few mega-corporations. This atmosphere nurtures fewer and fewer projects, forcing well meaning and creative people to savagely compete for what little support there is. While competition between ideas and styles is a natural and healthy process, competition for survival is a killer. The environment needed to sustain the fragile eco-system of independent media is falling apart, and independent media may be a dying species.

Dedicated people have worked for many years on various aspects of the independent media puzzle; the funding, the access to the means of production, and the various ways in which an audience can interact with the work. We have media conferences, media foundations, and some excellent organizations to represent us. This fall alone has seen a “Labor Media” Conference in New York, a “Community Media” Conference” in Seattle, “Media Advocacy Day” called by the AIVF, and “Media Democracy Day” in Canada. It isn’t as though there hasn’t been organizing within the media community. The problem is that organizing by our own groups, while important, is just not enough. To insure the health of independent media we must create a working alliance with groups that are beginning to build a poor peoples’ movement in this country and are fighting for their survival. To understand the reasons why this alliance is necessary let’s take a brief look at the arts and media in the US during the past seventy years.

Independent media does not exist as an entity separate from the rest of society. Along with the arts it is a sensitive barometer reacting to how open or closed is the society in general. In periods of fear and repression the arts, and independent media, shrink, reverting to innocuous and banal forms of expression. In times of political openness there exists a much richer variety of artistic, and media expression.

Diego Rivera's Crossroads and many other works brought the poor peoples' and workers' movement into the foreground.

In the 1930’s, propelled by the hardships of the Great Depression, mass movements of workers demanded government accountability. Political ideas about where the country was headed were hotly and openly debated. Movements of the employed and unemployed laid the basis for landmark legislation for social security, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation and more. Federal and State programs like the WPA employed thousands of artists creating a cultural explosion that wouldn’t be seen again until the 1960’s. Photographers went around the country documenting America and its people. Musicians started community orchestras in the most out-of-the-way places, and muralists adorned the walls of schools, libraries and post offices from big cities to small towns. Playwrights, sculptors, actors, and musicians all participated in this moment of creative upheaval. Many artists who would eventually take their place on the world stage, and be recognized for significant contributions, got their start in these programs of the thirties.

What's left of Hiroshima after the US dropped the A Bomb

The beginning of the 1940’s were the war years. The U.S. emerged from WWII the leading world power. We had the A bomb, and soon the H bomb. On the home front US business fought back against the labor movement of the thirties and forties. Militant union organizers were accused of being communists, and if there was any doubt about how far the government would go in its red-baiting witch hunt the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as atomic spies served notice. Senator Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin saw reds everywhere, and thousands of Americans were fired from their jobs, and black-listed from getting others. This was particularly true in the areas of intellectual work such as teaching, science, and the media. A pall of fear fell over the intellectual, political, and cultural life of the nation. The spectrum of what was acceptable narrowed in mass-culture and media. For the most part blues, jazz, and the naturally rebellious culture of African Americans remained within the black communities and few whites crossed the rigid color lines to hear it. The FBI routinely checked rough cuts of the weekly “March of Time” newsreels before they were run in movie theaters. No amount of organizing by artists or progressives could thaw the chill of the cold war and McCarthyism. Then came the Civil Rights Movement.

Hezbollah guerrillas
McCarthyism in full swing

A huge portion of Americans were second-class citizens, segregated and oppressed by law. This situation ran afoul of the image the US wanted to project to the rest of the world as the purveyor and protector of “democracy.” Blacks had fought along side whites in WWII and now refused to resume their old roles. The US economy was booming and they wanted their fair share. As the civil rights movement grew across the Southern United States other parts of the society were drawn into this battle. While southern blacks spearheaded the movement, unions, students, artists, and independent media all joined the fray. Music had always been a constant accompaniment to the struggles of the African people transported to America. Lonesome field hollers, low-down blues, rollicking dance tunes, and Sunday church spirituals kept the spirit alive through tough times. In the Civil Rights Movement the old songs now rang out reinvigorated with the spirit of victory. The first area in the dominant society and culture to reflect the powerful changes taking place in the South was popular music. Elvis Presley was a white boy singing black, and the kids went wild.

The 1960's gave birth to the civil rights movement.

By the end of the 1950s the country was shedding off the drab cloak of cold-war hysteria. JFK was elected, and the anti-nuclear movement, which had come into being right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was re-kindled in the “Women’s Strike for Peace.” There was also the folk music revival that gave birth to the explosion of new musical forms in the 1960’s. Independent media activists took the new 16mm cameras that had been developed in WWII and now adopted with Nagra Tape recorders to record these civil rights battles. Suddenly it seemed possible to do almost anything. It was no longer “un-American” to be different. The Civil Rights movement had made this huge change possible, and flowing from this new openness came the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and an explosion in media and the arts. By the mid sixties the Civil Rights Movement had made enormous strides in breaking down southern segregation, and in raising the legal status of African Americans. However, the dream of equality lay unfulfilled because of the economic gulf between black and white. It was at this point that Martin Luther King began to preach a “poor peoples movement.” This would be a movement not of blacks, but of poor people, black and white, to fight for economic justice. The assassination of King in 1968 put an abrupt end to his fledgling “poor peoples campaign.” By the start of the 1970s the full repressive apparatus of the FBI was brought in to subvert and crush the black power movement of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.

America's Outrage over Vietnam mirrors themany protests against the war in Iraq.

Likewise the anti-Vietnam War movement dissipated by the mid 70s leaving a handful of isolated radical groups to be subverted and destroyed by government agents. The institutions born of the cultural revolution of the 1960s flourished throughout the 1970s. From the creation of the Public Broadcasting System to hundreds of media collectives this was a moment of promise and high hopes for a sustainable independent media. Yet without the nourishment and open atmosphere swirling around a mass social movement all of these alternative media producers and distributors suffered. Attacks from the right soon began against the open nature of PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The spectrum of what was acceptable to be funded by foundations grew narrower. Independent producers were forced into strictly commercial ventures, and independent media was stifled.

The past thirties years have seen a country without a mass movement for social change. These three decades have also seen an expansion of the US economic model into every country on the globe. Everywhere this model takes root there arises a concentration of wealth on one hand, and intense poverty on the other. Even here in the US, in the heart of the wealthiest nation on earth, there are millions of people in abject poverty. Another 45 million Americans are at terrible risk because they have no access to healthcare. The real standard of living for most Americans continues to fall. In the arena of information exchange a handful of mega-corporations now control all mass communications. The transformation of all media and art into saleable commodities has left no space for independent media. It costs $60 to see an off-Broadway play, a popular concert, or to get good seats at the ballpark. We are experiencing great culture for the rich, and the leftovers for the rest of us.

The sum of these conditions set the stage for a poor peoples movement. A poor peoples’ movement would open the doors for a true re-vitalization of independent media, but this movement cannot come into being all on its own. The forces arrayed against it are too strong. It needs the help and support of other parts of the society, in particular the community of independent media producers. By throwing in our lot with a poor peoples’ movement we have, to paraphrase a 19th century philosopher “nothing to lose but our corporate chains.”

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