Thursday, May 6, 2021

Salt of the Earth: A successful combination of inspiration and perspiration


Poster promoting the theatrical premiere of the 1954 American film Salt of the Earth at a (now demolished) theater on 86th Street in Manhattan. Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the leading role, is shown.
Review of the movie Salt of the Earth (1954)

Born in controversy but then ignored in its youth, the film Salt of the Earth has matured beautifully into a classic film in the neorealist style. Set in Zinc Town, New Mexico, a mining community with a majority of Mexican-Americans strike for working conditions equal to those of the white, or "Anglo" miners. The town and the mine is run by Delaware Zinc Inc. who refuse to negotiate with the workers and the strike goes on for months. The story focuses on Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacón) and his wife Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas) who is pregnant with their third child. Ramon is arrested by police and beaten in prison at the same time is wife gives birth to their new baby.

When Ramon is released he counters resistance to his activities by Esperanza and he points out their struggle is for their children's futures too. The company then uses the Taft-Hartley Act injunction on the union forbidding picketing. However, the wives realise there was nothing to stop them from taking the men's places on the picket line. A lot of the men are quite traditional and are not happy seeing their wives on what can be a dangerous and violent place on picket lines. Ramon forbids Esperanza to go but eventually relents. However, as the full film is freely available online for you to watch on the Salt of the Earth page, I will not go into full details here.

The involvement of the women is one of the most interesting aspects of the film as they rather timidly, at first, assert that their issues regarding hygiene (sanitation and 'decent plumbing') are as important as the safety of the men, and Esperanza is annoyed that 'what the wives want always comes later'. Over time the women gain more experience dealing with the police and scabs, and consequently gain more confidence in their demands too. As the mine had already been unionised the film's real narrative dwells more on showing the men how the union is strengthened by the involvement of the whole community.

Union Meeting

The production of Salt of the Earth faced many difficulties from locations, cameramen to actors. A small plane buzzed overhead and anti-communists fired at the sets. They eventually found a documentary cameraman who was willing to take the risks involved with working on the project. Later, Rosaura Revueltas (Esperanza Quintero) the lead actor, was deported to Mexico and the editors had to cut in previously filmed footage to finish the narrative.

The origin of the film's woes stretched back some years when the director Herbert Biberman refused to answer the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 on questions of affiliation to the Communist Party USA, and he became known as one of the Hollywood Ten who were cited and convicted for contempt of Congress and jailed. This meant that Biberman (as well as actors, screenwriters, directors, and musicians) were denied employment in the entertainment industry for years after.  During the making of Salt of the Earth Biberman was hounded by Roy Brewer. Roy Martin Brewer (1909–2006) was an American trade union leader who was prominently involved in anti-communist activities in the 1940s and 1950s. He accompanied Ronald Reagan on his first visit to the Whitehouse.

Brewer tried many times to stop the production of Salt of the Earth. He believed that "officers of the Writers' Guild were under the domination of the Communist Party until the hearings of 1947. During that time they began to change the mind, the creative minds, of the people who made these pictures and they didn't do it by selling them communism. They got them to accept the idea that it was the obligation of a writer to put a message in the film."

Paul Jarrico (1915–1997) the blacklisted American screenwriter and film producer of Salt of the Earth commented on Brewers statements:

"The studio reluctance to make message movies started long before the blacklist and Brewer's attribute to our cleverness in manipulating the culture of America is undeserved. We were unable to get anything more than the most moderate kind of reform messages into our films and if we thought we got some women treated as human beings rather than as sex objects we thought it was a big victory and in fact one of the reasons we made Salt of the Earth after we were blacklisted was to commit a crime worthy of the punishment having already been punished for subverting American films, it was all ridiculous."

Members of the Hollywood Ten and their families in 1950, protesting the impending incarceration of the ten

To make matters worse, Salt of the Earth had been sponsored by a Union (the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers) and many blacklisted Hollywood professionals helped produce it. After editing in secret, the release of the film was met with an American Legion call for a nationwide boycott and the majority of theaters refused to show it. For ten years the film was ignored in the USA while finding an audience and accolades in Eastern and Western Europe. In the 1960s the film was seen by larger audiences in union halls, women's associations, and film schools.

The narrative of the film was based on an actual strike which had occurred only a couple of years before the production of Salt of the Earth:

"The film recreates the 1951-2 strike against the Empire Zinc Company in New Mexico where a court injunction barred workers of the Local 890 chapter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Works from the picket line. As the strike continued, the community’s women assumed increasingly active leadership roles in the protests, defiantly picketing Empire Zinc themselves. The 15-month strike ultimately led to considerable gains for the workers and their families."

The film not only laudably covered labour rights and women's rights but also minority rights. As Mercedes Mack writes:

"On October 17, 1950, in Hanover, New Mexico, workers at the Empire Zinc mine finished their shifts, formed a picket line, and began a fifteen-month strike after attempts at union negotiation with the company reached an impasse. Miner demands included: equal pay to their White counterparts, paid holidays and equal housing. As a larger objective, the Local 890 Chapter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers was to end the racial discrimination they suffered as a product of the institutions created by the Empire Zinc company in their town. For example, Mexican-American workers were subject to separate pay lines, unequal access to sanitation, electricity and paved streets as a result of discrimination by company sponsored housing, segregated movie theaters, etc. [...]  While women continued the strike, men assumed household duties and were not the center of the movement anymore. In January 1952, the strikers returned to work with a new contract improving wages and benefits. Several weeks later, Empire Zinc also installed hot water plumbing in Mexican American workers’ houses–a major issue pushed by the women of these households."

The producers and director used actual miners and their families as actors in the film in neorealist style. Christopher Capozzola describes how:

"Paul and Sylvia Jarrico heard of the strike and went to Grant County to walk the picket line; within a year, Michael Wilson was in town. Although Wilson started the script, the men and women of Local 890 finished it, insisting in the era of Ricky Ricardo that Latino/a characters would be favorably presented in the mass media. Biberman cast only five professional actors, among them a young Will Geer (better known to television viewers as the folksy Grandpa Walton) and the leftist Mexican actress Rosaria Revueltas, who called Salt of the Earth “the film I wanted to do my whole life.” Strike participants filled the ranks, most memorably Juan Chacón, who played the leading role of Ramón Quintero. His emotional richness and sly humor make him far and away the film’s best performer."

Juan Chacón as Ramón Quintero in Salt of the Earth

In 1982, a documentary about the making of Salt of the Earth was released, titled A Crime to Fit the Punishment and was directed by Barbara Moss and Stephen Mack. The full documentary can be seen online here.

The making of Salt of the Earth was also the subject of a Spanish-British bio-picture in 2000. The film, titled One of the Hollywood Ten, was written and directed by Karl Francis and stars Jeff Goldblum and Greta Scacchi.

Theatrical release poster of One of the Hollywood Ten with Jeff Goldblum as Herbert Biberman

Salt of the Earth still stands up there as one of the great union films along with Blue Collar (1978) and Norma Rae (1979). However, its authenticity and sincerity arising from working directly with workers, and its successful production despite so many obstacles put in its way, will make it one of the most inspiring union films ever produced.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Your Honor: Justice in a Time of Collapse

 Your Honor is an American mini-series starring Bryan Cranston. 

This article contains spoilers

A well-meaning New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato, finds himself in a frightening situation when he discovers that his son, Adam, was in a hit and run accident with a son of the local mafia boss, Jimmy Baxter. Adam had been visiting the site of his mother’s death when approached by local guys. He drives off at speed only to drop his inhaler on the car floor during an asthma attack. As he struggles to drive the car and pick up the inhaler at the same time his car is in a collision with Jimmy Baxter’s son’s first spin on his motorbike. Rocco Baxter, the son, chokes to death on his own blood at the side of the road as Adam panics and drives off. When Michael realises who the dead boy was he tries to protect his son by arranging with Adam to cover up what happened.

He asks a friend to organise the destruction of Adam’s car but it ends up in the hands of a teen, Kofi Jones, who is caught with the car after running a red light. The police discover that this was the car involved in the hit and run when a piece of the motorbike is dislodged from underneath the car. Jimmy Baxter now believes it was Kofi who killed his son in a crime gang hit. Kofi is sentenced without parole for the hit and run. Things escalate when Jimmy’s other son kills Kofi in prison and Jimmy has Kofi’s family house blown up, basically getting his retaliation in first. For Judge Michael Desiato, things go from bad to worse as the more he uses his middle-class power and influence to protect his son, the greater the negative effect this has on the working-class family and friends of Kofi, extending out like ripples in a pond. Or worse still, more like the Butterfly Effect, as the initial freak accident sparks off intergang rivalry and then further knock-on wider repercussions on a political level.


 Bryan Cranston at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in 2018


Your Honor, starring Bryan Cranston, combines elements from Breaking Bad (well-meaning professional gone bad) and The Sopranos (ruthless mafia boss) in a show which goes beyond middle-class fascination with organised crime and its ill-gotten wealth and demonstrates the disastrous effects that chess-like power-plays have on the ordinary people caught up in the resulting tsunami of deadly consequences. While the powerfully corrupt seek revenge outside the system, and powerful professionals try to avoid justice within the system, the working class can only hope for ‘saviours’ (e.g. empathetic lawyers) or fair-minded judges conscious of the social context of much crime (like Judge Michael Desiato). Like a Greek tragedy, the more Judge Michael Desiato tries to avoid Fate, the more he brings about the show’s ironic deadly ending. Had he just trusted the institutional justice system in the first place, the final outcome would most likely not have been so tragic.

The fact is that the struggle against the ideology of revenge (i.e. ‘an eye for an eye’) is one that has been going on since the Enlightenment, the intellectual and philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The insidious effect of revenge on the judicial system, unpredictable and outside of the law, was a motivating force for philosophers like Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) to try and establish a fairer system not based on fear or favour. Thus:

“Enlightened reformers moved away from corporal punishment, seeking to design a penal system that would make punishment more useful, edifying the prisoner while simultaneously repairing the damage the prisoner had inflicted upon society. Central to these plans were work and imprisonment. Work was a common corrective technique, and many reformers believed the regularity and discipline of labor would lead to the moral rejuvenation of the wrongdoer while serving social needs at the same time.”

Thus, the two main modern theories of retributive justice (or punishment for wrongdoing) are Utilitarian theories that “look forward to the future consequences of punishment, while retributive theories look back to particular acts of wrongdoing, and attempt to balance them with deserved punishment.”

Justitia by Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556.
Justitia carries symbolic items such as: a sword, scales and a blindfold

At the very least Enlightened views on justice try to reform the criminal, stop him from repeating the crime, while at the same time, deterring others. The main purpose of punishment, then, is to create a better society and avoid revenge.

Leon F Seltzer summarises the important differences between justice and revenge:

“1. Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational.
2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon.
3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication.
4. Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure.
5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance.”

The cycles that Seltzer discusses can be seen, for example, in the Gjakmarrja (English: “blood-taking”, i.e. “blood feud”) or hakmarrja(“revenge”) of Albanian culture referring to the social obligation to commit murder in order to salvage honour. Gjakmarrja can be initiated when a guest is killed, failure to pay a debt, or rape. The profound consequences of the gjakmarrja on society is shown when the feud extends over many generations or leads to family members living in shame and seclusion for the rest of their lives, imprisoned in their own homes because they refuse to pay with the lives of their family members.

The overwhelming psychological power of revenge in Your Honor is demonstrated by the fact that the narrative centres around a judge, an important representative of the modern justice system. It shows why it is so important to gain general acceptance of a system of punishment that deters others from committing crimes while at the same time preventing criminals from repeating their crimes. In this way justice acts like a controlling carbon rod in the potential fission of escalating cycles of revenge.

We live in a time when disillusionment with the justice system (short sentences, crimes committed on bail, clever lawyers getting offenders off, etc.) is amplified in the popular press, making the justice system appear to be a lot more ineffectual than it actually is. However, Your Honor, with its relentlessly depressing atmosphere and its narrative of desperate actions and reactions gives us some inkling of what societies would be like if that was the norm rather than the exception, and when your honor is more important and sacred than life itself.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 


Monday, April 19, 2021

Kalashnikov: the amateur inventor who shot to global fame


AK-47: Kalashnikov (2020) is a biographical film about Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (1919–2013), the inventor and designer of the AK-47 automatic rifle. This Russian film, released in February of last year, follows the young Kalashnikov as he is bombarded by Germans during WWII and is interspersed with flashbacks of his childhood. Disturbed by the failure of a newly designed gun that nearly gets a comrade killed when it jams, he examines the parts and lists out various problems with the new design. 

An amateur inventor who had been playing around with various types of primitive gun designs since he was child, Kalashnikov goes back to work in a steam engine workshop after being injured in battle. There he is assigned a desk and tools, and struggles to assemble a new gun design he had been drawing up. Help is at hand when the other workers in the workshop offer their after-hours services to help him tool the parts necessary for his new design. After this, his life takes many twists and turns as he struggles to perfect his design and gain acceptance through inventor competitions, testing ranges and the military hierarchy.

The story focuses on his drive and sincerity in producing a safer gun that would help the Soviets win the war. Although the gun he is famous for was not produced until 1947 ("Avtomát Kaláshnikova" (Russian: Автома́т Кала́шникова, lit. 'Kalashnikov's Automatic Gun'), its reliability and design ensured its wide use in many armies around the world in subsequent decades. The film also strives to show Kalashnikov as a role model for how someone with a basic education (Kalashnikov left school after seventh grade) can achieve so much in the way of plaudits and global fame.

In AK-47: Kalashnikov, the testing processes of the gun were not complete successes but Kalashnikov is given more promotions and more help in developing his ideas. With the development of new technologies, a simplified, lighter version of the automatic rifle was developed which soon became the most ubiquitous variant of the AK-47. In the real world, the popularity of the design meant that "approximately 100 million AK-47 assault rifles had been produced by 2009, and about half of them are counterfeit, manufactured at a rate of about a million per year. Izhmash, the official manufacturer of AK-47 in Russia, did not patent the weapon until 1997, and in 2006 accounted for only 10% of the world's production."

Kalashnikov's first submachine gun

The film is beautifully shot with realistic battle scenes and panoramic landscape settings. The relations between the soldiers, and between the soldiers and their superiors are developed without the stereotyped or charicatured portrayals seen in films like Enemy at the Gates (2001), as Kalashnikov gets help and encouragement all around him, even at his lowest points when he feels like giving up. Moreover, in these days of instant-everything and easy consumption access to any product, it is refreshing to see male and female workers with so many skills (including his drafting technician who becomes his wife) bringing an idea from drawings through precision tooling to the finished gleaming weapon.

Kalashnikov himself did suffer "spiritual pain" about whether he was responsible for the deaths caused by his weapons, but also believed that their use was defensive rather than offensive. The AK-47 has been used in many anti-colonial wars and received the ultimate praise when appearing on some national flags and coats of arms. Of course like any weapon his guns have been used in terrorist organisations but one could argue that overall its reliability and simplicity evened up the stakes in many an asymmetrical war.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (1919–2013)
Kalashnikov at the Kremlin, December 2009

Kalashnikov was hospitalized on 17 November 2013, in Izhevsk, the capital of Udmurtia and where he lived and died on 23 December 2013, at age 94 from gastric hemorrhage. A statue dedicated to Kalashnikov was commissioned by the Russian Military Historical Society and unveiled in Moscow in 2017. It is a 7.5m (25ft) monument, which shows Kalashnikov holding an AK-47 in his arms. However, it was soon spotted that the technical drawing of the gun etched onto a metallic plate at the base of the monument was actually of an StG 44 rifle used by the Nazis during WWII.

The symbolism of this mistake was not lost on the public, a country that lost millions of its people at the hands of the Nazi invasion which started on Sunday, 22 June 1941. The section of the metallic plate with the gun design was soon removed with an angle grinder.






Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Shrinking Ireland: Global Warning in Local Communities


​Portrane Beach, 2021
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

A recent walk at a local beach revealed to me how fast coastal erosion is affecting local communities. This area where I live is essentially a peninsula with two large popular beaches, Donabate beach and Portrane beach which are joined by cliffs, on the coast of north County Dublin, Ireland.

I have already written about erosion at Donabate beach and erosion at the cliffs over the years but, in a far worse condition, is Portrane beach.

As can be seen from photos I took in 2013 compared with the ones I took a few days ago, coastal erosion is happening at a significant rate. 

​ Portrane Beach (looking south), 2013
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

​ Portrane Beach (looking south), 2021
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

According to one local resident, David Shevlin,

"“We live in the midsection of the beach and our property has lost upwards of about 20 metres of established garden since 2018. [...] At the current rate of erosion, our garden was 30 metres and it’s gone to 20 metres in two years so it doesn’t take much to calculate that we don’t have very long."

​ Portrane Beach (looking north), 2013
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

​ Portrane Beach (looking north), 2021
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The local council has tried to stem the rate of erosion with concrete Seabees before more permanent groynes are constructed. A groyne is a structure built perpendicular to the shore, that interrupts water flow and limits the movement of sediment and can be made out of wood, concrete, or stone. According to a local spokesman the Seabees will be "an interim solution pending the installation of specially designed Y-shaped groynes structures which will be complemented by a beach renourishment scheme in order to achieve a suitable beach level. This will reduce incident wave energy along the coastline by limiting the prevailing water depth and thus mitigating the threat of erosion."

The seriousness of the problem can be seen as the Seabees are almost completely submerged at high tides.

​Seabees, Portrane Beach, 2021
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The Housing and Planning Minister, Darragh O’Brien, has commented that:

“Around Ireland, it’s projected that by 2050, the impact of coastal erosion could potentially affect up to 2 million people who live within 5km of the coast, all the major cities, and much of the country’s industry and infrastructure and utilities, including transport, electricity and water supplies.”

A European Commission document describes Irish vulnerability to climate change:

"Ireland is the third largest European island. It is situated at the north-west of continental Europe. The coastline measures 4 577 km, bordering the Atlantic Ocean on the north-west and the Irish Sea on the south-east.  More  than  50%  of  the  population  lives  within  15km  of  the  Irish  coastline.  Most  of  the  population  is  concentrated  in  cities,  with  the  major  coastal  cities  being  Dublin,  Cork,  Limerick  and  Galway."

They further note that: "Approximately  20%  of  Ireland’s  entire  coast  is  at  risk  of  erosion.  Sea  Level  Rise  (SLR)  combined  with  an  increase  in  severity  and  frequency  of  coastal  storms  is  expected  to  exacerbate  the  problems,  especially  along  the  Atlantic  coast."

​ Portrane Beach, 2021
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

Historically, vertical seawalls were common but now flat-sloped revetments (sloping structures placed on banks or cliffs in such a way as to absorb the energy of incoming water) using rock or unusual shaped concrete units are used to reduce impact on beaches.

It is interesting to see that "in the US hard structures such as revetments and groynes are no longer allowed in many states because of potential negative impacts on the beach and coastal protection is provided by nourishing the beach with sand brought in from external sources. This is called beach nourishment and is now the most common method of coastal protection worldwide but is rarely used in Ireland and it needs to be repeated every three to five years to replenish lost sand. This recurring cost does not fit well with how Irish projects are funded."

​ Portrane Beach, 2021
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

It can be seen that engineers are under serious pressure to come up with new ideas to deal with coastal erosion and, maybe over time and with more experience and newer technology, they will be able to limit erosion with more success. However, we know the seas are rising and despite efforts to hold back the waters, it seems that what is really needed is global action now before large swathes of the planet become uninhabitable.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Culture of Slavery v the Culture of Resistance

'Inde etiam habitus nostri honor et frequens toga; paulatimque discessum ad delenimenta vitiorum, porticus et balinea et convivorum elegantiam. Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset'

('They adopted our dressing fashion, and begun wearing the togas; little by little they were drawn to touches such as colonnades, baths, and elegant talks. Because they didn't know better, they called it 'civilization,' when it was part of their slavery')
Tacitus, Agricola


The general problem of culture today is its ability to facilitate and support negative aspects of society through encouraging escapism, diversion and ignorance regarding many important issues of contemporary life, such as economic crises, repressive legislation, poverty, and climate chaos. Or worse still, the use of culture to promote elite views of society regarding power and money, as well as imperialist agendas through negative depictions of a targeted ethnic group or country.

In this, some would call a neo-feudalist age, we see echoes of an earlier feudalism with its abuse of power and wealth that the philosophers of the Enlightenment tried to deal with and rectify. The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.

It was led by philosophers such as Cesare Beccaria, Denis Diderot, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Hugo Grotius, Baruch Spinoza, and Voltaire. Their concerns about injustice, intolerance and autocracy led to the introduction of democratic values and institutions, and the creation of modern, liberal democracies.

A painting of the 1840 Anti-Slavery Conference. The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, by Benjamin Robert Haydon (died 1846), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1880 by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Oil on canvas, 1841. 117 in. x 151 in. (2972 mm x 3836 mm). This monumental painting records the 1840 convention of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society which was established to promote worldwide abolition.

However, a new movement in the arts and literature arose in the late 18th century, Romanticism, which emphasized inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual. Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, aristocratic society and politics, and the scientific rationalization of nature. Romanticism became the basis of many subsequent cultural movements whose common feature has been anti-science and individualism.

The Romanticist influence can be seen in ‘mainstream’ mass culture and high culture in terms of its emphasis on formal experimentation or emotions over sociopolitical content. Romanticist reaction stressed “sensibility” or feeling, and tended towards looking inwards. It was a movement whose ideas have come to dominate much of culture today.

Weighing scales, planets, and fractals

Romanticism is portrayed as having left and right aspects. If we picture a weighing scale with opposing ideas, for example,  we can have the radical opposition to fascism (Romanticist Expressionism) on one side and the radical right of National Socialism on the other side. However, what if this weighing scale was on one side of an even bigger scale? On the other side of that bigger scale would be Enlightenment ideas. 

Little weighing scale on one side of an even bigger scale

We rarely get to see the Enlightenment side of the larger scales. We live in a society where we are generally presented with the small scales two-sides-to-everything (the bi-party system, good Nazis [only following orders] v the bad Nazis [gave the orders], this 'good' person v that 'bad' person, good cop v bad cop) but the reality is that they are usually different sides of the same coin. Similarly, on the smaller scale, the left and right aspects of Romanticist ideas are also two sides of the same coin, because what they both have in common is their rejection of science and reason.

Yet, on the big scales, the Enlightenment side we find progressive politics, the left opposition who were the first to be put into the concentration camps in the 1930s, the community workers, writers, and activists who work diligently today for change in the background are all squeezed out of the large, dominant media-controlled picture.

The problem with this skewed picture is that understanding what is going on becomes as difficult to ascertain as the movements of the planets were to the ancients. Seeming to go in all sorts of strange directions, the ancient Greeks called the planets 'planeta' or 'wanderers'. The movements of the planets were perplexing in a geocentric (earth-centered) universe. It was only with the application of modern science, putting the sun at the center of a solar system, that the odd movements of the planets suddenly fell into place and made sense. We have the same experience of 'revelation' or understanding when science is applied to many different difficult problems in various aspects of history, philosophy and society itself.

'Planets appear to go in one direction, take a looping turn, and then go in the opposite direction. This appears because of the differences of our orbits around the Sun. The Earth gets in an inside or outside track as we pass them causing a planet to look as if it had backed up and changed direction. They wander around the sky.'

The word 'science' comes from the Latin word 'scientia' meaning 'knowledge' and is a systematic exploration that allows us to develop knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.  The development of science has allowed us to determine what is truth and what is falsehood. Truth is defined as the property of being in accord with fact or reality and the application of science allows us to verify truth in a provable way.

In this sense truth is like a fractal. Fractals are geometrical shapes that have a certain definite appearance. When we magnify a fractal we see the same shape again. No matter how much we magnify the shape, the same geometrical patterns appear infinitely. Truth is similar to a fractal in that whether the truth of something is held by one person, a group of people, a community or a nation its essence remains the same on a micro or macro level.

'Fractals appear the same at different levels, as illustrated in successive magnifications of the Mandelbrot set. Fractals exhibit similar patterns at increasingly small scales called self-similarity, also known as expanding symmetry or unfolding symmetry.'

The heliocentric view of the universe remains true even if only one person believes or many believe, even in the face of powerful forces. For example, Galileo's championing of heliocentrism led him to be investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, where he was found guilty of heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. The truth eventually came out and Galileo was pardoned by the Roman Catholic church (359 years later).

Contradictions and falsehoods

It has often been said that the truth will set you free. We live in a society of contradictions and falsehoods where lies, cheating and deception contradict reality. However, many refuse to see the truths of modern society, while others are actively involved in creating the deceptions that maintain the status quo. We know that people are 'unfree' and we accept many different levels of this condition: captivity,  imprisonment, suppression, dependency, restrictions, enslavement, oppression.

We may even see this condition as applying to others and not to ourselves. But if we examine closely and truthfully our own position in the societal hierarchy we may recognize our own powerlessness: the contradiction between our view of ourselves and the reality of our situation. Although we vote and we recognize the social contract by rendering taxes to the state, the fact is that very little of substance changes and generally things seem to get worse.

As I have written elsewhere, the fact is that we are triply exploited: we are taxed on wages, alienated from wealth created (profits), and we pay interest on the money borrowed from the wealthy to pay for the capital and current expenditure needed for the maintenance of society and fill in the gap created by the wealthy in the first place.

How is this system of exploitation maintained? Aside from the obvious threat of imprisonment for nonpayment of taxes, and the existence of police and army to enforce the laws of the state: the most influential, and sometimes most subtle tool, is through culture.

The culture of slavery

Culture has a long history of use and abuse, from the bread and circuses of Roman times to the social media of today.

In modern society mass culture helps to maintain this system of exploitation and keeps people in general from questioning their position in the societal hierarchy. The middle classes are lulled into thinking they are free because of better wages making for an easier life, while the working class work ever harder to achieve the benefits of the middle class: higher education, higher status, higher wages. (It has been suggested that the middle class are essentially 'working class people with huge debts' e.g. large mortgages.)

However, in general, people work in a globalized system of exploitation in states that support and maintain it thus making wage slaves of the 99 per cent.

Slaves in chains during the period of Roman rule at Smyrna (present-day İzmir), 200 CE.

The traditional definition of slavery is 'someone forbidden to quit their service for another person and is treated like property.' Modern slavery takes on different forms such as human trafficking, debt bondage, and forced labour:

"Experts have calculated that roughly 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves between the 15th and 19th centuries; today, an estimated 40.3 million people – more than three times the figure during the transatlantic slave trade – are living in some form of modern slavery, according to the latest figures published by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation. Women and girls comprise 71% of all modern slavery victims. Children make up 25% and account for 10 million of all the slaves worldwide."

While this may apply to the most extreme cases in modern society, the majority of workers have no control over the wealth they produce:

"one of the defining features of the employment relationship in all capitalist countries is that the worker’s will is, by law, “subordinate” to the employers. The employer has the right, within broad bounds, to define the nature of the task, who performs it, and how. This shows up in all kinds of surveillance, control, and submission — also known as maximizing productivity and extracting profit."

The investors and the shareholders benefit the most, while the employees receive wages of varying levels according to the demand for their particular skillset.

We are encouraged to accept this way of life and there are plenty of different state methods to make sure that we do. However, culture is an important tool of soft power, in particular, mass culture.

The role of mass culture is absolutely essential for the creation, maintenance, and perpetuation of a broad acceptance of the ever-changing forms of technological 'progress' and geopolitical shifts in modern capitalist societies, particularly as the global financial crisis (corporate and national debt) deepens.

Culture on three levels

To do this, modern mass culture operates on three different levels. The first level is creating acceptance through diversion and escapism and turning people into passive consumers. Secondly, through the overt representation of elite ideology. Thirdly, and more controversially, through covert manipulation of mass culture to benefit the agenda of elites.

In the first case, consumption becomes inseparable from the ideas of enjoyment and fun. Earlier twentieth century theorists of the Frankfurt School saw consumers as essentially passive but later theoreticians such as Baudrillard saw consumption as an unconscious social conditioning, consuming culture to achieve social mobility by showing awareness of the latest trends in mass culture.

Secondly, overt representation of elite ideology is evident in mass culture that glorifies the upper classes and promotes racism and militarist imperialism. In particular, mass culture depicting historical and contemporary events can be portrayed from an elite perspective.

Thirdly, conscious manipulation of the masses using psychological means, and more controversially, predictive programming. In the 1930s Edward Bernays was a pioneer in the public relations industry using psychology and other social sciences to design public persuasion campaigns. Bernays wrote: "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits."

'For Adorno and Horkheimer, the culture industry creates false needs to keep us purchasing products we do not actually need by manipulating our psychological impulses and desires.'

Another form of mass manipulation is the concept of predictive programming. Predictive Programming is the theory "that the government or other higher-ups are using fictional movies or books as a mass mind control tool to make the population more accepting of planned future events."  It is by its nature hard to prove yet the many extraordinary coincidences between events depicted in mass culture and later actual events is, at the very least, disconcerting. For example, the film The Manchurian Candidate depicting the son of a prominent U.S. political family who is brainwashed into being an unwitting assassin for a Communist conspiracy, was released in 1962, a year before the assassination of J F Kennedy in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, an emotionally disturbed 'communist sympathizer' who declared his innocence and believed he was being used as a 'patsy'.

Thus, these three levels allow elites to control how the past, the present, and the future is depicted in mass culture, according to national and geopolitical agendas.

Cultural producers

In their defense, the role of cultural producers has never been easy, and the more money or support that is needed for a cultural project, the harder it is to maintain an independent position.

While with modern production methods and technology it is easier to produce books, films and music independently of the major producers and distributors, in the past elite pressure, censorship, and imprisonment were common.

Pushkin, for example, in his Ode to Liberty, exclaimed with indignation:

"Unhappy nation! Everywhere
Men suffer under whips and chains,
And over all injustice reigns,
And haughty peers abuse their power
And sombre prejudice prevails."

However, later during the time of Nicholas I, he changed and 'adopted the theory of art for art's sake':

"According to the touching and very widespread legend, in 1826 Nicholas I graciously “forgave” Pushkin the political “errors of his youth,” and even became his magnanimous patron. But this is far from the truth. Nicholas and his right-hand man in affairs of this kind, Chief of Police Benkendorf, “forgave” Pushkin nothing, and their “patronage” took the form of a long series of intolerable humiliations. Benkendorf reported to Nicholas in 1827: “After his interview with me, Pushkin spoke enthusiastically of Your Majesty in the English Club, and compelled his fellow diners to drink Your Majesty’s health. He is a regular ne’er-do-well, but if we succeed in directing his pen and his tongue, it will be a good thing.” The last words in this quotation reveal the secret of the “patronage” accorded to Pushkin. They wanted to make him a minstrel of the existing order of things. Nicholas I and Benkendorf had made it their aim to direct Pushkin’s unruly muse into the channels of official morality."

Pushkin’s contemporaries, the French Romanticists, were also, with few exceptions, ardent believers in art for art’s sake, the idea of the absolute autonomy of art with no other purpose than itself.

In the twentieth century, Ars Gratia Artis (Latin: Art for Art’s Sake) would become the motto for the American media company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to designate art that is independent of political and social pressures.

Of course, while some believe that art should not be politicized, others think that if art was not a social endeavor then it would be used as a commercial item only available to the rich, e.g. a profitable escapist product while simultaneously maintaining and promoting a conservative mindset.

'During the Cold War period, films were an important factor in the persuasion of the masses. They would be used in various ways, to present the ideal image of their country and to distinguish a national enemy, to name a few.'

However, any thoughts of art as a progressive tool were soon quashed by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) in the USA, a body which was set up in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and any organizations with left wing sympathies.

Dialectic of Enlightenment

Not long after, a theoretical analysis of consumerist mass culture was published in a book by Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) in 1947 entitled Dialectic of Enlightenment in which they coined the term the Culture Industry. For Adorno and Horkheimer "the mass-media entertainment industry and commercialized popular culture, which they saw as primarily concerned with producing not only symbolic goods but also needs and consumers, serving the ideological function of diversion, and thus depoliticizing the working class."

They believed that the production of culture had become like a "a factory producing standardized cultural goods — films, radio programmes, magazines, etc.— that are used to manipulate mass society into passivity."

Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood 1937-38 oil on canvas; 56x84 in. (142.2x213.4 cm)

More significantly, Adorno and Horkheimer also believed that the scientific thinking the Enlightenment philosophers had developed "led to the development of technologically sophisticated but oppressive and inhumane modes of governance."

Adorno and Horkheimer believed that because the rationalization of society had ultimately led to Fascism, science and rationalism provided little optimism for future progress and human freedom.

However, this view of the history of science and its relationship with human emancipation is, according to Jeffrey Herf in '"Dialectic of Enlightenment" Reconsidered', one that ignores many progressive movements and changes brought about by Enlightenment ideas, and that Horkheimer and Adorno's view of modern society and politics simply reduced modernity to technology, science, and bureaucracy. Herf outlines many of the events, institutions, laws, rights, treatments and other human benefits that Adorno and Horkheimer (and others) had ignored:

"In Weber's sociology, Heidegger's philosophical ruminations, or Dialectic of Enlightenment, the panoply of ideas and events associated with the 1688 revolution in Britain, the moderate wing of the French Revolution, and the ideas and institutions that emerged from the American Revolution, and then from the victory of the North in the American Civil War, are simply absent. As a result of this paucity of historical specificity, Horkheimer and Adorno's view of modernity during World War II was a very German caricature that did not include ideas about the extension of citizenship, British antislavery, American abolitionism, feminism in Europe and the United States, and the rule of law. Theirs was modernity without liberal democratic ideas and institutions, the rule of law, and the freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, and of religion or unbelief. [...] Dialectic of Enlightenment presented modern science as primarily an exercise in the domination of nature and of human beings. Theirs was a view of the history of the scientific revolution that left out Galileo's challenge to religious authoritarianism and Francis Bacon's liberating restatement of the role of evidence in resolving contentious issues. From reading Horkheimer and Adorno — as well as Heidegger and Baumann — one would conclude that modern science was first and foremost a source of control, and would have no idea of how modern medicine, unthinkable without the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, had come into existence." [1]

Thus, Adorno and Horkheimer's view leaves us with an almost Nietzschian nihilism, that knowledge is impossible, and life is meaningless because to try and improve society will fail and ultimately only increase oppression. Without action, Nietzsche predicted a society of 'the last man', the "apathetic person or society who loses the ability to dream, to strive, and who become unwilling to take risks" and slave morality characterized by pessimism and cynicism. A society which has not only lost its 'will to power' but also its will to revolt.

The culture of resistance

Throughout history, oppression has been met with resistance in many forms such as uprisings, rebellions, and insurrections.

'Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
The Peasants' Revolt, also named Wat Tyler's Rebellion or the Great Rising, was a major uprising across large parts of England in 1381. The revolt had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death pandemic in the 1340s, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years' War, and instability within the local leadership of London.'

The resistance often starts with strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience, leading to mass movements of people who ultimately reject the old system of governance and change it for a new system which can be anti-colonial, anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist. The rise of resistance seems to generally develop in three stages, each affecting culture in very different ways. These different stages could be called criticism, substitution and implementation.

Irish Citizen Army group outside Liberty Hall. Group are lined up outside ITGWU HQ under a banner proclaiming "We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland!". Photo taken in early years of WWI.


Resistance often begins as criticism of the policies or nature of government, or the state. This can be aesthetic or intellectual resistance appearing, for example, in various art forms. Critiques can be of an ideological nature, or simply highlight social problems and issues. Resistance can take the form of criticism of officially sanctioned culture through demonstrations and boycotting.

It may also take a violent form, for example, the blowing up of colonial statues in Ireland (see my comprehensive list of statues blown up in my blog post here). The blowing up of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin in 1966 was celebrated subsequently in two different ballads which became immensely popular, an aesthetic critique arising out of a violent 'critique'.

On a formal level resistance can also be 'form-poor' as struggle without help from educated or trained professionals is left to amateurs.


Gradually, a new ideology, a different reading of history, a new set of artists and writers produce culture which eventually substitutes the old culture with a new culture as the movement gathers momentum.

The less costly forms like art, music, ballads, books etc. can become very popular and important elements of the resistance itself. The more expensive cultural forms are difficult to produce in the new culture, e.g., cinema, theatre, opera, TV etc., (unless of course if the format is changed like in community theatre substituting for state theatre).  Digital equipment can be vastly cheaper to use for the making of movies for mass viewing assuming that the outlet for presentation, the internet, is not closed off through censorship.


The final stage is implementation, whereby popular resistance takes control of the state and is able to implement progressive culture as state policy. This is particularly important for the most costly art forms which also gain access to state finance and auditoriums. It allows movies, for example, to cover ignored themes such as histories of resistance, or to show past events from more radical perspectives than the previous elite mindset and agendas.

These different levels of cultural change: criticism, substitution, and implementation can be a long process or all come together in a short span of time.

The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789, during the French Revolution.

I have tried to show in my previous examination of ten different art-forms (see: art, music, theatre, opera, literature, poetry, cinema, architecture, TV, and dance articles) that since the Age of Enlightenment there has been a strong vein of radical ideas relating to social progress. Over the centuries radical culture has looked at the plight of the oppressed using different forms such as naturalism, realism, social realism, and working class socialist realism.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization would have universal application globally. They also believed in the idea that empirical knowledge should be the basis of society and that with these ideas political and societal change would strengthen civilization itself. While social progressivism, as a political philosophy, is reformist in nature, it also has the potential to snowball into more radical action through discussion around questions as to who runs the state and ownership of the means of production.

The form and content of the culture of resistance has many aspects. Some emphasize change on the community level, developing the skills, community spirit, and artistic sensibilities of the community members whether they be producers, creators or observers. An important element of this strategy for social change is encouraging critical thinking through participation in active dialogue. General themes for discussion have been, for example, gender equality, human rights, the environment and democracy.

The Bash Bush Band musical protesters at Bush's 2nd inauguration, Washington DC.

Others have taken a more radical approach of examining human conflict and its sources. They look at human conflict from a social perspective and see society in terms of conflicting economic classes. By portraying economic classes in conflict they hope to evolve or expand a working class consciousness or at least an understanding of, and empathy with, oppressed groups. Radical artists, writers, composers etc are encouraged to take a scientific approach and work against superstitions and blind practices. As radical cultural producers they try to present the truth and inspire wide-ranging social and political activism.

Future of culture?

Modern resistance, often in digital form on the internet today, is now subject to a creeping censorship as big tech tries to slow down the efficacy of the internet at making widely available different perspectives on many different issues. At the same time, big tech tries to portray technological progress as social progress, and is at the forefront of liberal campaigns for individual rights at the expense of mass movements for collective or group rights. Such group rights allow for organizations to speak for, and negotiate on behalf of trade unions, trade associations, specific ethnic groups, political parties, and nation-states.

However, internet censorship and the gradually increasing power of the state (through police, courts, and prisons) using current and new legislation will be able to continue unabated, that is, unless the slave culture that facilitates it is shaken off and a new culture of resistance is born. 


[1] Jeffrey Herf, "Dialectic of Enlightenment" Reconsidered Source: New German Critique , FALL 2012, No. 117, Special Issue for Anson Rabinbach (FALL 2012), pp. 81-89 Published by: Duke University Press [p84] Stable URL:

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Diversity in Dance Today: Enlightenment and Romanticist perspectives

 The drum is always there. In life and death. In between is dance. Always the drum is everywhere.
Peniel Guerrier

I don't think this world was made for a small minority to dance on the faces of everyone else.
H.G. Wells (In the Days of the Comet)

Nothing happens until something moves.
Albert Einstein


The dance group Diversity's 'I Can't Breathe' routine evoked around 24,500 complaints from members of the public when it aired on ITV on 5 September, 2020. The performance was inspired by the killing of George Floyd in the USA. Its choreography references progress from stock market bubbles, the growth of digital shopping, the effect of mobile phones on family life, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, to the killing of George Floyd, and then ending with street protests and the riot police. The show was a spectacular mix of spoken word, song, visual and stage effects, as well as Diversity's trademark blend of complex routines, breakdancing, backflips and theatricality.

Diversity's 'I Can't Breathe' routine -

While the troup garnered much international praise for the 4 1/2 minute anti-racist performance, the many complaints focused on its political content. According to Ashley Banjo, troupe member and choreographer, "We got bombarded with messages and articles … horrible stuff about all of us, our families … it’s sad."

This level of negative public reaction to a dance routine on TV in the UK was unprecedented.

Dance has been an important part of of TV entertainment, especially in the UK and the USA, since the 1960s with shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train, dance groups on Top of the Pops and in more recent decades, shows such as Dancing on Ice‎, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and Strictly Come Dancing‎.

However, maybe the innocuousness of such TV history has lulled people into seeing dance as pure entertainment, safe from the radical social commentary that other artforms put on display now and then in theatres, galleries and cinemas.

The history of dance shows that it has always been with us, and, like with other art forms, dance has a mixed history of social and radical roles. It has also, like other art forms, been highly influenced by Enlightenment and Romanticist ideas in more recent centuries, changing how we see and understand the role of dance in society today.

In this article I will examine how dance has changed since the Enlightenment and why it has had an increasing popularity in the last century. I will also look at the potential for a radical dance culture to become a vehicle for increasing social and political awareness on a global scale.

Early and medieval dance history

Dance has been a part of human culture from prehistoric times to Egyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures from c. 3300 BC. Folk dance, in particular, has been an important part of festivals, seasonal celebrations and community celebrations such as weddings and births.

In Europe during the Middle Ages there are references to circular dances called 'carole' from the 12th and 13th centuries. People also danced around trees holding hands in a leader and refrain style. These dances and songs became the carols we know today.

From a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, c. 1430.
Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) is a medieval poem in Old French, styled as an allegorical dream vision.

However, the literary history of dance in terms of detailed descriptions goes back to Italy in the middle of the fifteenth century after the start of the Renaissance. During this time there also developed a divergence between court dances and country dances, between performance and participation. Court dancers trained for dances for entertainment, while anyone could learn country dances. At court formal display dancing would be followed by informal country dances for all to participate in.

Dance at Herod's Court, ca. 1490, Israhel van Meckenem, engraving. Couples circling in a basse danse.

Ballet also began at this time developing out of court pageantry in Italy at aristocratic weddings. Its choreography was based on court dance steps and performers dressed in the formal gowns of the time rather than the later tutus and ballet slippers.

It was then brought to France by Catherine de' Medici in the 16th century where it developed into a performance-focused art form during the reign of Louis XIV where: "His interest in ballet dancing was political motivated. He established strict social etiquettes through dancing and turned it into one of the most crucial elements in court social life, effectively holding authority over the nobles and reigning over the state."

By the 17th century ballet became professionalised and its challenging acrobatic movements could "only be performed by highly skilled street entertainers."

The Enlightenment and ballet in the 18th century

It was ballet that also became a focal point for criticism by the Enlightenment philosophes during the 18th century. Philosophes (French for 'philosophers') "were public intellectuals who applied reason to the study of many areas of learning, including philosophy, history, science, politics, economics, and social issues."

The philosophes "argued that ancient superstitions and outmoded customs should be eliminated, and that reason should play a major role in reforming society." They desired to see "the development of art forms that gave meaningful expression to human thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and they disregarded merely decorative or ornamental forms of art."

Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810) was a French dancer and balletmaster, and is generally considered the creator of ballet d'action, a precursor of the narrative ballets of the 19th century. His birthday is now observed as International Dance Day.

Denis Diderot, for example, (one of the editors of the quintessential enlightenment project: the Encylopédie) wrote in his essay 'Entretiens sur 'Le Fils Naturel'':

"I would like someone to tell me what all these dances performed today represent — the minuet, the passe-pied, the rigaudon, the allemande, the sarabande — where one follows a traced path. This dancer performs with an infinite grace; I see in each movement his facility, his grace, and his nobility, but what does he imitate? This is not the art of song, but the art of jumping. A dance is a poem. This poem must have its own way of representing itself. It is an imitation presented in movements, that depends upon the cooperation of the poet, the painter, the composer, and the art of pantomime. The dance has its own subject which can be divided into acts and scenes. Each scene has a recitative [type of singing that is closer to speech than song] improvised or obligatory, and its ariette [a short aria]."

To achieve this the philosophes argued for more naturalism in style and less of the "contrived sophistication and majesty" of earlier Baroque aesthetics. This criticism eventually led to new forms of ballet "that attempted to convey meaning, drama, and the human emotions" in particular the ballet d'action: "a dance containing an entire integrated story line".

 Ballet in the 19th century: Romanticism

Enlightenment ideas which led to the 'Age of Reason' and classical ideas of order, harmony and balance gave way to Romanticist emphasis on emotion, individualism and anti-rationalist medievalism. The "vogue for exotic, escapist fantasy which dominated Romanticism in all the other arts" soon affected ballet in two major aspects: a new preoccupation with the supernatural, and the exotic. The plots in Romantic ballet:

"were dominated by spirit women—sylphs [imaginary spirits of the air], wilis [a type of supernatural being in Slavic folklore], and ghosts—who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men and made it impossible for them to live happily in the real world. Women dancers were dressed in diaphanous white frocks with little wings at their waist, and were bathed in the mysterious poetic light created by newly developed gas lighting in theatres. They danced in a style more fluid and ethereal than 18th-century dancers and were especially prized for their ballon [the ability to appear effortlessly suspended while performing movements during a jump] as they tried to create the illusion of flight."

The second important Romantic influence in ballet was:

"a fascination with the exotic, which was figured through gypsy or oriental heroines and the use of folk or national dances from ‘foreign’ cultures (such as Spain, the Middle East, and Scotland). Such dances were considered highly expressive both of character and of exotic local colour, though in some countries, such as Italy, indigenous dances were featured in ballets whose plots reflected that region's surge of nationalist feeling."

An early example of the Romantic ballet is La Sylphide which was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1823 starring Marie Taglioni:

"La Sylphide is a story ballet about a supernatural female creature, half-woman, half-bird, who is doomed to an eternity of dancing. The Sylphide falls in love with a peasant man, James, who is soon to be married. However, James falls in love with the sylphide and leaves his wedding to spend his life with her. The ballet takes a turn when James consults a witch on how to keep the Sylphide from flying off. The witch tells him to tie a scarf around the Sylphide’s waist, and James obeys. The scarf ends up killing the Sylphide, and James is ultimately killed by the witch in an attempt to avenge her death. The Sylphide is symbolic of an unattainable dream, and James is the naive hero who pursues her. This ballet was the first romantic ballet and typifies the romantic themes of fantasy, supernaturalism and man vs. nature."

However, it was also the 19th century which saw the creation of what is considered by many to be the finest achievement of the Classical style, Sleeping Beauty. As Victoria Rose Niblett writes:

"Sleeping Beauty is opulent, returning to the intermingling of traditional French court dances in the choreography and the refinement of the Apollonian [relating to the rational, ordered, and self-disciplined aspects of human nature as opposed to Dionysian characteristics of excess, irrationality, lack of discipline, and unbridled passion] expression. This was a shift away from the emotional exploration of the Romantic period and back to reason and rational philosophy. [...] In the Romantic period, dance was designed by the external power of the music, but in the Classical period choreographers had a more influential role with the construction of the symphony. This involvement allowed choreography to follow an academic, pattern-oriented structure that insured the association between dance and music. [...] While Romantic ballet focused on fragile and emotional femininity, Classical ballet focused more on the type of femininity that could be expressed in the refinement, strength, and charm of the female character."

A publicity photo for the premiere of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty (1890).

While this era saw the rise of ballet as a truly international art form, Romanticism in ballet declined rapidly "as ballets were so weighted towards the feminine and the febrile", while "male dancers were frequently relegated to the role of porteur [supporting the ballerina]".

Folk dance and Herder

The rise of nationalist feeling in the 19th century was also associated with the new emphasis on local culture and traditions. Folk dances attained a new significance as the spread of nationalist and socialist ideas gave a new emphasis and importance to the culture of the peasants and the working classes. In Ireland, for example, céilí dances were popularised by Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) in its goal to promote Irish cultural independence and de-anglicisation.

It was the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) who recognised the importance of traditional culture. Herder established fundamental ideas concerning the intimate dependence of thought on language which "appears in its greatest purity and power in the uncivilized periods of every nation." Hence Herder's interest in collecting ancient German folk songs. His focus upon language and cultural traditions as the ties that create a 'nation' "were extended to include folklore, dance, music and art."

Portrait of Johann Gottfried Herder

Herder developed his folk theory to the point of believing that "there is only one class in the state, the Volk, (not the rabble), and the king belongs to this class as well as the peasant". His idea that the Volk was not the rabble was a new idea at this time, and thus Herder laid the basis for the idea of "the people" as the basis for later democratic ideologies.

Therefore, as Vicki Spencer writes:

"Herder's intention, then, was not to urge moderm intellectuals and artists to reject the philosophical and intellectual features of their own culture in favor of the simple naivety of earlier folk literature. Instead, he argued that their relationship to their own culture needed to change, in order to capture the complexities and spontaneity in the way of life, language, and character of their own unique culture." [1]

Moreover, Herder believed it was important to look back through history for the nation to 'grow organically' into the future. According to David Denby:

"Herder believes in a human drive towards perfection and self-improvement, but this is a process which operates always in given contexts and within given constraints, which must be understood and respected historically. It is when societies are denied the  opportunity  to  grow  organically  that  they  fail  to  progress. Tradition and progress are not opposites: progress must emerge out of a social and historical tradition if it is to take root, and, conversely, ‘a living tradition was  inconceivable  without  the  progressive  emergence  of  new  goals’." [2]

Later, Herder's ideas on folk culture became strongly associated with Romanticism and national chauvinism. However, Herder "understood and feared the extremes to which his folk-theory could tend" and he "refused to adhere to a rigid racial theory, writing that 'notwithstanding the varieties of the human form, there is but one and the same species of man throughout the whole earth'."

Thus Herder saw the importance of understanding one's own culture as a foundation stone for future national projects to be built upon, and not about seeing the past as a Golden Age to be nostalgic about as in Romanticist theory.

The twentieth century and Modernism

By the beginning of the twentieth century folk dance was firmly established and formed an important part of national culture. Many countries around the world had state folk dance ensembles by the middle of the century. In particular this could be seen in the Soviet Union after the Russian revolution of 1917 where the state supported and promoted folk dance as part of the culture of the people. The Red Army Choir, an official army choir of the Russian armed forces, was set up in the 1920s, and by the 1930s was touring with an ensemble of dancers.

The Alexandrov Choir with Dance Ensemble, Warsaw 2009
(Also known as the Red Army Choir and the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army)

Ballet continued life after the revolution too but with new revolutionary content. As Georg Predota writes:

"Ballet companies had to cope with a mass exodus of leading figures of the stage, but also defend against grassroots Communist voices that decried ballet as an artificial, frivolous art form, a decadent playground for grand dukes hopelessly out of touch with reality. Yet gradually, government policy opened the former bastions of imperial high culture to the masses, making ballet performances available to a wider audience by distributing free or subsidized tickets."

For example, the Russian ballet, The Red Poppy, with a score written by Reinhold Glière, was created in 1927 and was a huge success. It had a modern revolutionary theme, as Predota notes:

"Set in a port in Kuomintang China in the 1920’s, The Red Poppy eventually became the first truly Soviet ballet. The story tells of the love between a Soviet sailor and a Chinese girl, who is eventually killed by the sailor’s capitalist rival. The tyrannical British imperialist commander of the port sanctions her murder, as Tao-Hoa tries to escape her homeland on board a Soviet ship. As she falls dying, she gives her compatriots a red poppy as an emblem in their fight for freedom."

A scene from the 1927 production of The Red Poppy

In Europe the ballet company Ballet Russes, was formed in 1909 and toured Europe as well as North and South America. Although set up by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev (and even used Russian dancers), the company never performed in Russia. It became part of the Modernist movement with music commissioned from Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky and the designs of Picasso, Rouault, Matisse, and Derain.

Modernism - an extension of Romanticist thinking - emphasised individualism, art for art’s sake, suspicion of reason, subjectivism and rejected Enlightenment ideas. In the arts, Modernism tended to emphasise constantly changing form over sociopolitical content and this became particularly notable in the twentieth century.

Dance in general also developed in many different directions in the twentieth century but the Modernist movement set the stage for dance trends and styles in the United States and Europe which tended to emphasise individualism and diversion, and then later developed into freestyle. This could be seen in western concert or theatrical dance where modern dance continued as an art form:  

"Modern dance is a broad genre of western concert or theatrical dance, primarily arising out of Germany and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern dance is often considered to have emerged as a rejection of or rebellion against, classical ballet. Socioeconomic and cultural factors also contributed to its development. In the late 19th century, dance artists such as Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan and Loie Fuller were pioneering new forms and practices in what is now called aesthetic or free dance for performance. These dancers disregarded ballet's strict movement vocabulary, the particular, limited set of movements that were considered proper to ballet and stopped wearing corsets and pointe shoes in the search for greater freedom of movement."

Later in the twentieth century, as in the other arts, dance was affected by Postmodernism from the 1960s to the 1980s. While Postmodernism rejected the grand narratives [e.g. Christian ideology, Freudian psychology, political democracy etc.] and ideologies of Modernism, it was similar to Modernism in that it also rejected Enlightenment ideas and was thus another form of Romanticism. With Postmodernism, the politicisation of dance or the use of dance as a form of collective resistance to capitalism and imperialism, became a more remote prospect as "the postmodern dance movement rapidly developed to embrace the ideas of postmodernism, which rely on chance, self-referentiality, irony, and fragmentation." For example, Postmodern dance incorporated "improvisation, spontaneous determination, and chance", cast non-trained dancers, and changed the relationship of dance to the tempo of accompanying music. Later it became more conceptual and abstract while distancing "itself from expressive elements such as music, lighting, costumes, and props."

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère, Paris, in 1926

As Postmodern dance distanced itself from the masses, popular dances in the form of novelty and fad dances went to the other extreme, regularly spreading among the people like wildfires that soon burnt themselves out. They took different forms: solo dances, partner dances, group dances and freestyle dances. From 1909 to the mid 1940s there was: The Grizzly Bear, Charleston, Duckwalk, Carioca, Suzie Q, The Lambeth Walk, Thunder Clap, Conga, and the Hokey cokey. During the 1950s there was Bomba, The Chicken, Bunny Hop, The Hop, The Meatstick, Madison, The Stroll, and Hully Gully. The 1960s had Shimmy, Twist, The Chicken Walk, The Gravy ("On My Mashed Potato"), The Loco-Motion, Martian Hop, Mashed Potato, The Monster Mash, The Swim, Watusi, Chicken Dance, Hitch hike, Monkey, The Frug, Jerk, The Freddie, Limbo, Batusi, and The Shake.

In the 1970s it was Sprinkler, Penguin, Hustle, Time Warp, Bump, Tragedy, Grinding, Car Wash, Electric Slide, Robot, The Running Man, Y.M.C.A., and Little Apple. The 1980s saw Moonwalk, Cotton-Eyed Joe, Harlem Shake, Agadoo (aka Agadou), Superman (aka Gioca Jouer), The Safety, Lambada, Thriller, The Hunch, Wig Wam Bam, Cabbage Patch, Da Butt. In the 1990s there was The Carlton, Locomía, Boot Scootin' Boogie, Do the Bartman, Hammer, The Humpty, Vogue, The Urkel, Achy Breaky Heart (Line dance), Macarena, Saturday Night, Tic, Tic Tac, Thizzle, La Bomba (not to be confused with Bomba), The Roger Rabbit, and Tootsee Roll.

As can be seen from the quantity cited and the regularity of change there is no end to Modernism's ability to move with the markets or keep up with the constantly changing mass consumer pop music scene. A few styles of dance had periods of mass popularity and are still going today as social dances encouraged by regular classes in, for example, jive, salsa, and ballroom dancing.

Cinema also aided the popularity of dance in the twentieth century as can be seen in films featuring ballet in the 1940s (The Red Shoes), tap dancing in the 1950s (Singin' in the Rain), modern dance in the 1960s (West Side Story), disco in the 1970s (Saturday Night Fever), club/performance partner dancing in the 1980s (Dirty Dancing), tango in the 2000s (Chicago) and modern dance theatre in the 2010s (Pina). The global popularity of Hollywood musicals and Bollywood song-and-dance sequences have made dance an important element to be considered in any new film musical.

Rehearsals for West Side Story, 1960
American dancer, choreographer, and director Jerome Robbins (1918 - 1998) (in white) demonstrates a dance move to American actor George Chakiris (left, foreground) during the filming of 'West Side Story,' directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, New York, New York, 1961.

In terms of live performance the Irish stage show, Riverdance, featuring Irish step-dancing, opened in Dublin in 1995. It went on to perform in over 450 venues worldwide and has "been seen by over 25 million people, making it one of the most successful dance productions in the world." The show also incorporated international dance elements of flamenco and tap dancing.

Thus the twentieth century has seen an explosion in interest in dance in general, and in the quantity of styles and techniques. It also has seen the overt politicisation of dance in nationalist and socialist struggles, and as an art form as affected by Romanticist and Enlightenment ideas as every other major art form.

 The 21st century and new debates

Dance has become even more prevalent in the 21st century with the internet and global satellite media, for example, through  apps like TikTok and dance shows on TV. Riverdance is still touring and ballet is as popular as ever. Novelty and fad dances still come and go. Social dancing and traditional dance are still in demand due to classes, competitions and people's natural love of dance as a form of socialising.

Riverdance cast at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, 2019.

However, it could be asked if popular dance has simply become a form of social catharsis, and performance dance as escapism and diversion? Is there a role for dance in progressive culture? The negative reaction to Diversity's 'I Can't Breathe' radical narrative may have been simply an overreaction in a society unused to seeing dance used in a critical setting. The connection between dance and story has become relevant again as Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic strategies have waned in popularity. 21st century ballet has seen discussion revolving around narrative or story ballet (has plot and characters), as Alastair Macaulay writes: "Nowhere more than in narrative has ballet become the land of low expectations. Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they would never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical."

Hanna Rubin discusses issues relating to choreography:
"Choreographing story ballets that will appeal to contemporary audiences presents unique challenges even for experienced dancemakers. A too-literal approach or too-traditional staging can seem quaint or flat. And what makes a suitable narrative for those coming of age in a digital era, where there are no strictures on what can be searched, seen and shared? How can a story ballet hold audiences' attention? If mere distraction becomes the goal, how can a ballet achieve the resonance that will give it continued life?"

However, choreographer Helen Pickett notes that "[n]ew stories are being created from other people's histories". She points out that traditional ballerina roles haven't always been empowering ones. "Putting the female on the pedestal was a way to say she is untouchable, but not in an elevated way — in a way that she is perhaps suffering [...] There was a lot of that in the Romantic era: Giselle goes nuts for her love."

In her own work, Pickett has featured strong female characters, and has worked on an adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible for the Scottish Ballet. This is certainly an interesting direction as The Crucible was a "dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692–93. Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the United States government persecuted people accused of being communists."

Scottish Ballet’s The CrucibleTheatre Royal, Glasgow . Image: Jane Hobson.
Based on the play by Arthur Miller. Choreographer: Helen Pickett.
"The real trick of telling the story of The Crucible through dance is not to overexplain everything." Helen Pickett in The Scotsman

Yet, although laudable, progressive narratives of resistance can also be cheapened. According to Macaulay: "'Spartacus,' the Bolshoi Ballet’s biggest hit of the last half-century, reduces its freedom-fighting story to the dimensions of trash (irresistible and sensational trash in the right performance), as enjoyable as “Flash Gordon” and scarcely more serious."

Finding the right balance between form and progressive content in ballet may be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century for many reasons: conservative owners/backers/critics, the negative effects of Modernism and Postmodernism on form and ideology, and the lingering effects of Romanticist over-emphasis on emotion and the individual rather than on context and sociopolitical struggles.

Similarly with other forms of dance. The synthesis of the new with the old can make for exciting and engaging art (like 'I Can't Breathe') when it is based on the stories of people's actual lived lives.

While Diversity have the luxury of prime time television and a mass audience to present their views and choreographies, other choreographers work on their stories in more difficult situations, as Veronica Jiao writes:

"There are countless choreographers who have dedicated their entire body of work to the story-telling of blackness in America (Kyle Abraham, Camille Brown, Okwui Okpokwasili and the collaborators/choreographers of Urban Bush Women, to name a few). There are the nameless choreographers working four part-time jobs in order to share their stories and experiences in a downtown factory-turned-studio-turned-theatre."

Dance has truly taken its place as a significant global cultural movement. While there are still social divisions in dance today, as in the past, the difference is that the performance dances of the elites have the potential to be radical and progressive, just as the group dances of the masses today can be self-absorbed and escapist.

The future of participative dance will also depend on the level of engagement of people in sociopolitical struggle. In the past, in Ireland, for example, people flocked to traditional dance as it tied in with their nationalist and socialist beliefs. It was a way of connecting their past to a perceived or hoped for future. Similarly, in sport the Irish people flocked to Gaelic games while the previous mass support for cricket dropped dramatically as cricket was perceived to be a 'British' sport. People seek what gives their life meaning as they become more politicised, and this leads to pride in their own radical culture and radical history as a form of resistance. Participative dance will no doubt change again on this more conscious basis because it is an important part of people's social and cultural lives. 


Dance has had a long journey through human history. It has always been associated with people's celebrations and festivities as a collective expression of human emotions. However, over time particular dances became more and more associated with different classes and groups as societies grew ever more complex. During the time of the Enlightenment, dance became a focus of research and criticism. Performance dance became imbued with Classical ideals and participative dance was seen in a new way as an important part of the heritage of all the people, and not backward or even inferior as in the past. Later, such dances took on even more powerful roles with revolutionary content and state folk ensembles. However, Romanticist ideas turned dance in on itself, shearing it of sociopolitical ideals and progressive content. That is, until Diversity hit the stage with a performance which may yet prove to be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of dance.

[1] Vicki Spencer, In Defense of Herder on Cultural Diversity and Interaction, The Review of Politics , Winter, 2007, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Winter, 2007), pp. 79-105 Published by: Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics

[2] David Denby, Herder: culture, anthropology and the Enlightenment, HISTORY OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES Vol. 18 No. 1
© 2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) pp. 55–76

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.