What is the role of art in society? During the Harlem Renaissance, luminaries such as W.E.B DuBois argued that all art should serve as propaganda and should stem from classical traditions whereas others such as Langston Hughes sought to make art of and about the people, eschewing the position that art should be “lofty.” Throughout A Long Way from Home, Claude McKay addresses this discussion, in various ways, but he also, more importantly, highlights the ways that art provides insights into one’s inner-self, especially when he relates the story of Ivan Opfer’s portrait of Le Corse.
During the 1920s, McKay worked at Max and Crystal Eastman’s socialist magazine The Liberator. While there, he received some poems from e.e. cummings and argued for their inclusion in the magazine. Particularly, “Maison” caught McKay’s attention, and on the poem, McKay says, “It created something like an exquisite palace in Chinese porcelain. . . . but the author had also placed in it a little egg so rotten that you could smell it.” McKay argued with cummings about the egg, but the poet said that he intended the egg to be in the poem, and McKay accepted the poet’s position.
McKay liked cummings’ not for its social or political nature but for its artistic nature; however, the substitute editor-in-chief, Robert Minor, did not agree. Instead, Minor accussed McKay of being “more of a decadent than a social revolutionist” for liking the poems. Since the poems did not have any political attributes, Minor did not see them as valuable. McKay, on the other hand, looked at art for its “intrinsic beauty” over its “social significance.” This did not mean, of course, that the art does not contain social commentary; rather, McKay sees art for its universal beauty and what it tells us about the human condition. Minor disagreed with McKay, so cummings’ poems did not appear in The Liberator.
McKay’s political leanings, as he makes clear throughout his memoir, coincided with The Liberator and other socialist and Communist organizations; however, he always viewed himself not as a social activist but as a poet. Writing about the above incident, McKay says, “I said that my social sentiments were strong, definite and radical, but that I kept the, separate from my esthetic emotions, for the two were different and should not be mixed.” McKay drives this point home during his trip to Russia when the Communist Party wants him to speak about the conditions of African Americans in the United States. McKay constantly tells them he came to Russia “as a writer,” to chronicle Soviet Russia and its achievements “for the Negro press.” Yet, the party worked to present him as a mouthpiece, as a token to promote their party positions, and McKay did give “political” speeches, but he states that he felt wrong giving them.
At the opening of the Congress of the Communist International, Grigory Zinoviev asked McKay to stand up and address the crowd. McKay declined, reiterating that he “came to Russia as a writer and not as an agitator.” When the interpreter relayed what McKay said, Zinoviev turned red with anger. McKay sees that Zinoviev and the party want to use him “for entertainment,” to hold him up as a token example of the “good” that the party does for oppressed people across the globe. McKay did not want to play in this game. He wanted to observe and to let his art and writing speak for itself, not for a political cause where others viewed him as nothing more than a pawn to move around the chess board as they lingered in the background making decisions to lift up their own positions.
Following his time in Russia, McKay went to France, and in Paris he saw Louise Bryant who reminded him, “Remember our conversation in New York, and don’t try to force your stories with propaganda. If you write a good story, that will be the biggest propaganda.” McKay took Bryant’s advice, writing novels about the individuals who lived and worked in Marseille in Le Joliet. Banjo and Romance in Marseille arose out of this time, and those novels do not have a direct political thurst. Rather, they present life in Marseille for Blacks, Arabs, and other from around the world who live and work in the town. However, they each explore various political themes, and we can determine, through different characters, McKay’s political positions. They are good stories that, as Bryant says, are “the biggest propaganda” because they do not proselytize of appear as distinctly political works of art.
McKay’s art carries a message, as all art does, but it also exists as art in its loftiest forms. What art does, as McKay shows later, is serve as a mirror into ourselves. That is why Shakespeare, partly, remains with us. He shows us ourselves, the human condition. That is what art does. That is why we still read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or others. They reflect back upon us, the reader, showing us ourselves within society. What we see reflected back at us, though, we may not like. This was the case with Ivan Opfer’s portrait of Le Corse.
Last post, I wrote about Le Corse’s racism and his comments about the group of Senegalese he passes with McKay as they walk along the Quay. He calls them savages and insolent. The painter Jules Pascin introduced McKay and Le Corse, and Pascin painted a portrait of Le Corse. The French officer liked Pascin’s portrait because it presented Le Corse in a favorable light; however, he disliked Opfer’s and kept it hidden because, as Le Corse tells McKay, “[H]e made me look like an apache and I don’t really look like that. I couldn’t stand it. Pascin and the other artists painted me nice.”
When McKay sees the painting he “recoiled” in terror because he felt as if he “had been thrust into the presence of an incarnate murderer.” The portrait even bothers McKay; however, as he looks at the image, McKay sees that Opfer caught Le Corse’s true essence; it was “a perfect picture.” According to McKay, while Pascin and other presented Le Corse in a romantic nature, “Opfer had penetrated straight into his guts and seized his soul to fix it on that canvas.” For McKay, Opfer’s portrait presents the racism and hatred at the core of Le Corse, the tendencies he showed McKay as the walked the Quay. This true representation of Le Corse’s core caused the man to come face to face with himself, and as McKay puts it, he did not like the image bevaise “he was afraid of his real self.”
Art does not have to be explicitly propaganda to be propaganda and to have an impact. Art, at its core, moves us. It shows us the world, but more importantly it shows us ourselves. When we look at a piece or art, listen to a song, or read a book, we examine ourselves and our relationship to the world that we inhabit. We may be afraid of what we see, but that is the power of art. It causes us to confront ourselves, our fears, our insecurities, our loves, our very beings. Amidst individuals who argued that all art should solely serve as propaganda, McKay highlights the universal nature of art and its role in helping us see ourselves for who we truly are and the world for what it truly is.
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