The work of Bertolt Brecht developed during an artistic dark age: the rise of Nazi Germany. His productions of The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny were disrupted by catcalling brownshirts, violently antagonistic to his proto-communist, Jewish, and American (especially Negro-) influences. He later described this period’s work as “too bourgeois” and ultimately founded communist East Germany’s Berliner Ensemble, which despite the brilliance of his work continues to make enemies of critics who extrapolate some Stalinist apologia where there is none.
Opponents of political art’s positions often can’t see the aesthetic merit of the work itself. Historians are not unbiased, so that politics can lead to one’s near-total obliteration from the record (like Brecht’s collaborator, composer Hanns Eisler). This cows artists, who make only allusive criticisms or tepid, obvious critiques.
We are once again living in hazardous times demanding more than lukewarm scolding. Where is an artistic discussion on ecopolitical remedies as dynamic as Brecht’s stark sketches? Brecht was internationally persecuted for most of his career, but was never an apparatchik. Besides the ongoing revisionist assaults on his plays (continuing long after the “defeat” of communism), he was hauled before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee and driven from the U.S., and Eisler was deported.
A similarly monolithic campaign against today’s artists seems unnecessary because they haven’t compromised Hollywood. Brecht’s film adaptation of The Threepenny Opera was more pro-communist than the play, creating enormous studio friction. But the movie Hangmen Also Die! of Brecht, Eisler and Fritz Lang is irrelevant enough now to not even merit a critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, likely because its anti-Nazi propaganda doesn’t set up communism as its opponent.
Climate change is not perceived by industry and government as the threat communism was, which itself required the Soviet Union’s arsenal to lend it urgency. Grist wrote an artists’ call to arms regarding climate change: artists and (today) scientists are the harbingers of transformation, and their outcries unite here. We must tirelessly herald climate change until it reaches critical mass, so to speak.
Before lamenting futility, artists should remember that our work bears witness for posterity, as in this couplet from Brecht: “In the future, they won’t say the times were dark! / Rather they will ask, why were their poets silent?”