Music and Literature Engaged in the XNUMXst Century

El Lissitzky, Proun 1 E from Proun, 1920
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By DANIEL BRAZIL*

Chico César reinstates a debate that had been deadened in Brazilian art since the 1960s

Recently, singer-songwriter Chico César provoked controversy on social media when he surprisingly responded to a fan who asked him to avoid songs of a “political-ideological nature”: “You are much bigger than all of them. You don't owe them anything. They owe you. Your hands are clean. Don't put them in the fire for any of them."

The listener revived, perhaps without realizing it, an old polemic in the artistic milieu that revived after the Soviet Revolution and branched out during the XNUMXth century. The militant works of poets like Mayakovsky, filmmakers like Eisenstein, and countless writers, playwrights and plastic artists around the world, who somehow identified themselves with the communist dream, provoked a conservative reaction, which sought in various ways to classify art engaged as something minor, an impure thing, contaminated by ideology.

Of course, engaged art is not a twentieth-century invention. Criticizing political systems, ridiculing the powerful and putting social conflicts on stage is at the origin of Greek theater, whether in the form of comedy or tragedy. For an author like Benoit Denis (Literature and engagement: from Pascal to Sartre), not all literature that addresses social issues is necessarily engaged, otherwise almost everything that has been written, in some way, would contain elements of political engagement.

The French, by the way, deeply studied the subject in the post-war period. With predecessors as seminal as Émile Zola (J'accuse), it is natural that the influence of social issues on the arts was one of the favorite themes of authors such as Sartre or Camus (who, by the way, disagreed).

Here in Brazil, committed works by authors like Jorge Amado or Graciliano Ramos tend to be lumped together by conservative thinking. More conscious critics, such as Antonio Candido, establish another type of judgment, with well-defined aesthetic foundations, which point out why Amado's so-called “engaged” work is weaker, but – attention – not because it is political. However, almost all of the Bahian writer's work is crossed by the record of social issues, class differences, the acute record of inequalities. As, on another level, does Graciliano Ramos.

The sarcastic spirit of a Lima Barreto can be included in the label “engaged literature”, as well as the fifteen, by Rachel de Queiroz, even though they are not works of political propaganda. As well as all the dramaturgy of Plínio Marcos, certain poetry of Drummond and Vinicius, the cinema of Glauber Rocha, the painting of João Câmara. They are among the high points of Brazilian art, without giving up nonconformity.

But let's go back to Chico César. His response to the nonconformist fan deserves to be read in full: “Please, all my songs are political-ideological in nature !! Don't ask me for something absurd like that, don't ask me to be silent, don't ask me to die in silence. It's not for 'them'. It's for me, my spirit asks for it. And he's in charge. Respect, or leave. Don't see, don't hear. Don't try to control the wind. Do not think that the fury of the struggle against oppression can be controlled. I am part of that fury. I'm not your entertainment, I'm the edge of history's sword made music around the fascists' necks. And the neutrals. Don't count on me to rock you. I didn't come to put you to sleep, I'm here to wake up the sleepers”.

The response from people from Paraíba is a veritable libel on engaged art, with a high poetic voltage. It replaces a debate that had been deadened in Brazilian music since the 1960s, and that comes in a political context that increasingly resembles the dictatorship period. Once again, the country is run by the military, who try to stifle culture, the arts, and any form of libertarian discourse.

In an oppressive and obscurantist scenario, artists tend to rekindle critical discourse, denounce excesses and point to radical paths. If humanity lived in an idyllic paradise, there would certainly be no engaged art. Protest for what? (Which would not preclude high-level art, certainly, but with a very limited theme). I often remember that on the same album by Chico Buarque, from 1971, there are two masterpieces that would serve as an argument for progressives and conservatives: Construction and Valsinha.

This feeling of indignation, of nonconformity, is not limited to popular music. Returning to literature and our century, in a book released at the end of last year, (Someone will have to pay for this, Editora Faria e Silva, 2020), writer Luís Pimentel assembles a fragmented novel, with elements of chronicle and fiction, which traces back to the tragedy of police-militia violence in Rio de Janeiro. Focusing on the most trampled layer of the population, Pimentel draws small portraits of people destined for misery and anonymity, rescued here by art. Sometimes it refers to João Antônio, sometimes to Rubem Fonseca (the title is not a memory of the book The Collector?), but with its own diction, where the documentary forcefulness of certain episodes does not diminish the poetic-fictional reach of others. And many times these visions are mixed, as it happens in the works of the great masters.

A prolific writer, with works published in several genres (short stories, poetry, chronicles, children's and youth), Pimentel incorporates in this work the spirit of creative indignation of Chico César. It promotes a tightly woven blend of critical engagement, denunciation literature and conscious fiction, but without ever losing tenderness. A great little book (118 pages) destined to be a reference to an era full of injustices, where, despite everything, beauty has not yet been eradicated.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

 

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