Cultural revolution Brazilian style

In the 1950s, culture and politics traveled a two-way street, serving the interests of artists, intellectuals, and the Communist Party

Filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos during the shooting of Como era gostoso o meu francês (How Tasty Was my Little Frenchman), 1971

ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AEFilmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos during the shooting of Como era gostoso o meu francês (How Tasty Was my Little Frenchman), 1971ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AE

Brazil was undergoing a process of modernization in the 1950s, and political parties and groups on the left, as well as movements within the arts, believed that a national-democratic or socialist revolution was possible in Brazil. “Artists and intellectuals played a significant role in constructing the utopian ideal of a ‘revolutionary Brazilianness’ that would allow a people and a nation to achieve their potential,” says Marcelo Ridenti, professor of sociology at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). Yet even today it is a complex challenge to understand this intertwining of politics and culture, which attracted major names from Brazil’s cultural pantheon who belonged to the Communist Party, like writer Jorge Amado, filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos, intellectual and politician Caio Prado Jr., singers Nora Ney and Jorge Goulart, playwright Dias Gomes, and painter Di Cavalcanti, among others. “We can’t plug this issue into a simple equation that assumes that these artists and intellectuals became Communist militants because they wanted to transform their knowledge into power. Nor can we assume that these intellectuals were simply manipulated by the leaders of the Brazilian Communist Party [PCB],” explains the professor, who analyzed the question in the project Communist artists and intellectuals in the establishment of the intellectual field and the culture industry in Brazil.

“At a time like the present, when researchers are trying not to politicize topics, it’s important to uncover how culture and politics mingled during such a period of turmoil, from the 1950s through the 1970s,” Ridenti observes. According to the researcher, a number of artistic and intellectual fields that became firmly established in Brazil in the 1950s could only do so as a result of internal struggles where Communists had an important role, and where PCB members or ex-militants on occasion gained positions of greater recognition or prestige. Many of them changed their political convictions over time. Most took themselves through a process of self-criticism about their activities during the period, even those who continued to identify themselves as leftists or who were still Communists. Later on, there was much complaining about how the party had cultivated a “decorative” or “instrumental” relationship with these individuals – in other words, how it sought only to garner prestige or spread its political line. Other criticisms were lodged about the despotism of the party leadership, which was quick to scrutinize the creative imagination of these militants. “This is just partly true. These artists were only able to rise to the positions they did thanks to their history as organized militants; this was a far cry from the party simply manipulating these artists and intellectuals. It was a two-way street,” Ridenti notes.

Scene from O pagador de promessas, by Dias Gomes (English titles: The Given Word and Keeper of Promises), 1960

ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AEScene from O pagador de promessas, by Dias Gomes (English titles: The Given Word and Keeper of Promises), 1960ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AE

“The party did indeed have a narrow, dogmatic political line; it didn’t leave much room for its intellectuals; it contributed almost nothing to the analysis of the Brazilian society’s specific situation; and it bore the marks of centralism and of authoritarian relationships. But there were trade-offs that kept artists and intellectuals in the party despite it all,” Ridenti goes on. In his opinion, the PCB’s cultural activities in the 1950s should not be caricaturized, as they constituted an expressive component of Brazilian culture. “The culture industry was not yet fully entrenched in Brazil. As modernization came, many artists and intellectuals were looking for a space that was neither the Church nor the State, at that time the main organized institutions in an era when universities were still in their growing phase,” he recalls. These intellectuals – most of who came from the burgeoning middle-class, fueled by Brazil’s modernization – didn’t fit in either of these two places. “The PCB offered an opportunity to organize and it was a forum for cultural and political debate that provided access to a network of magazines around Brazil and to contacts abroad.”

Party membership gave legitimacy to certain groups and individuals who wanted to make an impact with their work or keep from losing prestige. “The great example was Jorge Amado, whose talent was complemented by his connection to the PCB, which had a global network of contacts that facilitated the publication of his novels in a number of countries. At the same time, he lent his prestige as a writer to the party and was elected representative to the 1946 Constituent Assembly on the PCB ticket,” says Ridenti. In 1948, Amado went into exile in France, where he joined the international peace movement and made a worldwide name for himself. “With all due respect to Amado’s talent, this wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for his party ties. This relationship is what afforded him access to a network of contacts in various European countries, and he saw his novels translated into many languages as a result. The same was the case with Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who, with the support of the PCB, traveled to France and other countries where he was able to meet a number of filmmakers,” the researcher says.

Singer Nora Ney at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport in 1969

ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AESinger Nora Ney at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport in 1969ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AE

Amado’s work was a showcase for socialist realism in Brazil and even after he had distanced himself from the party, he never officially cut ties with the Communists. “He ducked out of the party. He only won his autonomy as an author after he published Gabriela, cravo e canela (1958; tr. Gabriela, Cloves and Cinnamon, 1962),” says Ridenti. Yet these rewards created a dilemma for the artists, as they came to witness the international persecution of dissident militants. “They also took part in these Communist networks as the reproducers of thought and policies forged within the world’s dominant countries, rather than being the shapers of original thought,” Ridenti says. “From the 1940s to 1950s, during socialist realism, the party truly wielded a good deal of control over the Brazilian artists and intellectuals who had connections to the PCB. But this relationship was generally flexible, because the party wasn’t very concerned about culture; this explains why artists tried to develop a cultural policy for the PCB in the 1970s, since it didn’t have one,” remembers historian Marcos Napolitano of the University of São Paulo (USP) and author of the study “Cultural policies and democratic resistance in Brazil in the 1970s.”

“There was an enthusiastic movement, where intellectuals and the party came together to conceive a project of revolution for the nation. The party and left-wing intellectuals were the great models, for example, for filmmakers interested in doing political art and – in theory – in doing art that politicized. Unfortunately, the party could have made more and better use of these artists’ analyses,” observes sociologist Célia Tolentino of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) in Marília, São Paulo, who studies the topic as part of the FAPESP-funded project Social thought in literature and film. “The artists were not pawns of the PCB; they got something out of the relationship too,” Ridenti notes.

Whether an artist enjoyed greater or lesser autonomy from the party depended on his career outside of politics. Ridenti points out that the PCB did not meddle in the life or work of leading personalities like Dias Gomes or Oscar Niemeyer, to cite two examples. The party did exercise more influence over lesser-known individuals, although not in any organized way. “So if there were cases where the party acted in an authoritarian fashion towards the artists, the question remains: why did many of them stay on as militants anyway? There was this feeling of belonging to a community that imagined itself part of the world vanguard and that could provide support and organization for artists and intellectuals struggling for prestige and power, and for distinction and renown in their own fields, for themselves and for the party,” Ridenti says. Through this movement, the Communist artists were laying the ground for future renewal. “The 1960s film genre known as Cinema Novo would not have been possible without the earlier history of disputes in the field of film, incited by Communist filmmakers,” the researcher observes.

Jorge Amado receiving Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1960

ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AEJorge Amado receiving Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1960ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AE

“The same holds true for the growth of Brazilian soap operas and TV as a whole. After the 1964 coup d’état, the PCB lost its hegemony among intellectuals and artists, who after 1968 ended up taking shelter at Rede Globo, even though this television network supported the dictatorship. Personalities like Dias Gomes, Ferreira Gullar, Gianfrancesco Guarnieri, and others not only found protection there; they saw television as offering a means of programmatic continuity and they believed it was a way of talking to the  people. This is why they were accused of having sold out, when they were [in fact] continuing their cultural policy,” says historian Francisco Alambert of USP and author of the article “Mario Pedrosa: art and revolution,” among other works. “With the development of civil society and of the culture industry, the popular classes gradually found their voice, and they no longer needed intellectuals to speak for them. The cultural sector grew ties to the market and to the university, drawing members away from parties and weakening the idea of revolution, breaking the link between culture and politics,” says Ridenti.

“But we can’t forget what happened in the past. We need to understand the dilemmas and contradictions felt by the human figures from those times, who are often depicted as bigger-than-life individuals in writings about them,” the researcher concludes.