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The Dialectics of Art
Saturday, 10 April 2021 22:46

The Dialectics of Art

Published in Visual Arts

John Molyneux introduces his new book, The Dialectics of Art

This book is the product of a love of, and engagement with, art that goes back to my childhood in London in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It consists of a combination of case studies of particular artists – Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Tracey Emin, Jackson Pollock and others, written at various times over the last thirty years – with four new reflections on art and art history. The latter deal with the questions: what is art, how art is judged, how art develops, and the dialectics of modernism.

As its title implies, the book is written from a Marxist perspective and the terrain it covers is visual art in what might be called ‘the bourgeois epoch’ i.e. from the Renaissance to the global present, with the primary focus being ‘Western’ (European and American) art.

The central theme running through the book, both in the theoretical chapters and the case studies, is the dialectical tension that has existed and continues to exist between art and the capitalist system. On the one hand visual art, throughout this period has been controlled and dominated by the rich and powerful, the ruling class in Marxist terminology; this was so with the Medicis and Popes (some of the Popes were Medicis) in Florence and Rome, with absolute monarchs in the early modern era, through to the Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Saatchis and Gagosians of modern times. On the other hand artists, while often depending on these people have for their survival, have frequently baulked at their masters or even, through their art, been in outright rebellion against them.

Michelangelos David with pedestal 300 dpi

Michelangelo and Rembrandt are both examples of this. Michelangelo had Lorenzo de Medici as his patron and worked on the Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II (of the rival della Rovere family) but he produced the David sculpture to celebrate the driving out of the Medicis by the people of Florence, and clashed repeatedly with Pope Julius.

REMBRANDT slf prtrt beggar2

Rembrandt was a highly successful society portraitist in Amsterdam in the Dutch ‘golden age’ but also continually produced works, like his moving etchings of beggars and his many studies of Jewish people, that were at odds with the taste and requirement of his patrons. Moreover the pattern continues through the likes of Goya (both painter to the Spanish court and the producer of the devastating Disasters of War) to Picasso or Rivera, Emin or Banksy in the modern era.

My argument, in Chapter 1, is that this tension derives not just from the left-wing or rebellious characters of many artists but from the very nature of art under capitalism. Art develops historically as a distinct sphere of activity (and this applies to poetry, literature, music, etc as well as painting and sculpture) in the bourgeois period because it is the product of creative labour, that is labour controlled by the producer themselves  – ‘unalienated labour’ in Marxist theoretical terms – in opposition to the spreading alienated wage labour on which capitalism rests. This is linked to what I suggest is the other main characteristic of art, namely a striving for the unity of form and content in that the meaning of a work, not just its subject but the totality of its ideological, emotional and psychological associations, are embedded in the totality of its form i.e. every colour, every brush stroke, every dimension and so on. Only creative labour, I suggest, can deliver that intimate unity. Though none of this, unfortunately in my view, changes the fact that to survive artists usually have to sell the products of their creative labour as commodities and as part of capitalism.

What makes great art?

Another issue the book considers is how aesthetic judgments are made: what makes some art works better than others and what makes great art. Some people find this question very annoying, distasteful even, because they feel it reeks of snobbery or elitism or is an attempt to dictate taste to people. But individuals often feel that some judgment of art is unavoidable at a societal level and in practice most individuals make choices about art. What the book does is look how those judgments have been made in the past, on the criteria have they been based on (for example skill, naturalism, realism, expression and emotional power) and then goes on to ask if Marxism has something to add to these previous criteria.

300px After Hans Holbein the Younger Portrait of Henry VIII Google Art Project

I stress in the book that serious Marxists have not attempted and should not attempt to judge art by dogmatic or narrow political criteria. It cannot be reduced to left-wing socialist art versus right-wing capitalist art, or anything similar. Rather what Marxism adds is an understanding that great art gives powerful expression to changing social relations. For example a portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein is not just remarkable resemblance of the king but also depiction of the social relations involved in the institution of absolute monarchy. Similarly Edvard Munch’s The Scream and many works by Francis Bacon are powerful expressions of the alienated human condition under modern capitalism.

the scream

This criterion is employed in the specific case studies. The art concerned is always situated in its historical and social context, using the Marxist method of historical materialism but it is seen as a creative response to that context not as a mechanical reflection or expression of it. Thus Rembrandt is seen as a creative and critical response to the new social relations that emerged with the Dutch Revolt and the establishment of the Dutch Republic. Andy Warhol is located in the context of the postwar economic boom and celebrity/consumer culture it generated, but he is also seen as producing a double-edged critical response to it - and so on.

GREAT ART ANDY WARHOL Marilyn

The last chapter traces certain dialectical patterns of development in modern art. It identifies in particular a democratising tendency in terms of both subject matter and materials: from mythology, religion and portraits of the rich and powerful in oils, marble and bronze through paintings of ‘the people’ (Courbet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, early Picasso etc.), followed by the everyday and everyday materials (cubist collages, Duchamp’s ready-mades, industrial materials like neon and bricks, city and household detritus), to the social turn in the 21st century. But then in opposition to this, a pull exerted on rebellious artists, drawing them back to the establishment. This co-opted and incorporated them into the art world of the millionaires and the corporations: Picasso and Matisse, Dali, Pollock (and his use by the CIA), Hirst, Kapoor, Emin, and even Banksy.

tracey emin my bed300dpi

The book also offers a provisional assessment of where art is at now. and suggests that contemporary and future art cannot fail to be shaped by the changed relationship between humans and nature embodied in the arrival of the Anthropocene and the multi-dimensional ecological crisis faced by humanity. From the caves of Lascaux, to Gainsborough, Constable and Cezanne, art has always responded to changed relations (which are also social relations) with nature. 

Finally, The Dialectics of Art envisages a future in which capitalism and alienated labour are overcome and all work, all production starts to take on a creative artist character, as part of a collective project to shape and build a sustainable and humane world.

Os Semeadores
Saturday, 10 April 2021 22:46

What Do Marxists Have To Say About Art?

Published in Cultural Commentary

Richard Clarke introduces some of the main Marxist insights into the nature and value of art, and its links to political and economic realities.

Most Marxists would say that the value of a work of art such as a painting, or the pleasure they get from it - in its original or as a reproduction - is above all else an individual matter, not something that ‘experts’ (Marxist or otherwise) can or should pronounce upon. At the same time experts can enhance that pleasure, for example by explaining the technique and methodology of the composition of a painting. Again, this is no more the exclusive province of a Marxist than (for example) a commentary on the technical skills embodied in the design or manufacture of a washing machine.

However a Marxist approach may help to deepen the appreciation or understanding of an art work by revealing the historical context of its production and the relation of a work of art or of an artist to society. Art, just as any other human activity, is always created within a specific social and historical context, and this will impact on the art work itself. This is why Marxists argue that one can only begin fully to appreciate and understand a work of art by examining it in relation to the conditions of its creation.

Here a fruitful starting point for discussion is a materialist view – looking at the production and consumption of art, the position of artists in relation to different classes, and the conflicts embodied in a work of art and in the history of which it is a part. For example, Ernst Fischer’s seminal essay The Necessity of Art (1959) is a Marxist exposition of the central social function of art, from its origins in magic ritual through organised religion to its varied and contradictory roles within capitalism and its potential in building socialism.

The Marxist art critic John Berger in his Ways of Seeing (a 1972 four-part television series, later adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing) was hailed by many people for helping to deepen their understanding of art. Berger argued that it was impossible to view a reproduction of ‘old masters’ (generally paintings by European artists before 1800) in the way they were seen at the time of their production; that the female nude was an abstraction and distortion of reality, reflecting contemporary male ideals; that an oil painting was often a means of reflecting the status of an artist’s patron; and that contemporary advertising utilises the skills of artists and the latest artistic techniques merely to sell things for consumption in a capitalist market. 

Berger’s work remains controversial and has been revisited many times, particularly since his death in January 2017. Many have argued that he over-simplifies and that he incorporates the deeper perceptions of others such as Walter Benjamin, working at the interface between Marxism and cultural theory. Some have asked (for example) why there is no reference to feminist theorists in Berger’s chapter on the ‘male gaze’. However Berger’s work needs to be seen in context as a polemical response to the ‘great artists’ approach which characterises much establishment art history and ‘art appreciation’ typified by Kenneth Clark’s (1969) Civilisation television series.

What is clear is that cultural expression (art, lower case) is characteristic of all human societies and that while art and society are intimately connected, the former is not merely a passive reflection of the latter. The relationship is a dialectical one. As Marx declared in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘The object of art, like any other product, creates an artistic and beauty-enjoying public. Production thus produces not only an object for the individual, but also an individual for the object’. 

A distinction is often made between the performing arts (including music, theatre, and dance) and the visual arts (such as drawing, painting, photography, film and video). Performing arts are of their nature ephemeral, and as Robert Wyatt, the communist percussionist of the ‘60s psychedelic rock group Soft Machine, declared, ‘different every time’. The performance is the initial product, although it may be recorded, reproduced and subsequently sold.

‘Art’ (as in painting, on canvas) is sometimes presented as the highest point in the development of ‘civilised’ culture. Jean Gimpel, an historian, diamond dealer, and expert in art forgery, attacked the concept of ‘high art’ in his book The Cult of Art (subtitled Against Art and Artists). He argued that the concept of Art - especially oil paintings, on transportable framed canvas - is specifically a product of capitalism, personified in the Florentine artist Giotto ‘the first bourgeois painter’ of the Renaissance and his successors.

Under the patronage of the Medici and other nouveau riche Italian patrician families, the ‘artisan’ workmanship of frescos on church walls or decorated altarpiece was superseded by the movable (and marketable) canvas. In short, it was commodified. ‘People no longer wanted a 'Madonna' or a 'Descent from the Cross' but a Leonardo da Vinci, a Michelangelo or a Bellini.’ The cult of art and the artist was born.

Yet it was not until the eighteenth century that the distinction between ‘artisan’ and ‘artist’ became fixed. Even today people can be heard asking – of everything from the Lascaux cave paintings to some suburban topiary — ‘but is it Art?’ High art of course also produced its supposed antithesis - the artist in his garret (women artists were to a degree excluded from the equation), suffering, sometimes starving in the cause of art unless they are lucky enough to be ‘discovered’, often only after death. With capitalism, for the first time the artist became a ‘free’ artist, a ‘free’ personality, free to the point of absurdity, of icy loneliness. Art became an occupation that was half-romantic, half-commercial.

Dire Straits’ ‘In The Gallery’ is a song about the conversion of use-value (the worth the artist or her audience see in an art work or the pleasure they get from it) into exchange value. Harry is an ex-miner and a sculptor, ‘ignored by all the trendy boys in London’ until after he dies, when, suddenly, he is ‘discovered’ (too late for Harry, of course) – the vultures descend to make profit from his work.

In The Gallery

Don Mclean’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ carries a similar message. The principal difference (beyond the tempo of the songs) is that Harry is politically engaged, very much of this world whereas tormented Vincent (Van Gogh) was ‘out of it’ - unlike his post-impressionist erstwhile friend, Paul Gauguin, who asked his agent what ‘the stupid buying public’ would pay most for and then adjusted his output accordingly.

Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

Irrespective of their recognition or fame, art and artists are frequently presented as apart from, sometimes above, society. For Marxists it is clear that the arts and artists are an integral part of society. In terms of aesthetics and policy however, Marxists would suggest caution - the history of art within socialism is a mixed one. The early flowering of post-revolutionary Soviet avant-garde art is well known. Constructivism strived to put art at the service of the people. The subsequent rise of socialist realism as ‘official’ art was an attempt to make art more accessible (and it existed alongside a flourishing variety of unofficial art forms).

constructivist image

Left: Gustav Klutsis – Workers, Everyone must vote in the Election of Soviets! Right: Russian Propaganda Poster

In the United States modern art was promoted as a weapon in a cultural cold war with the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist realist’ art forms. In the 1950s and 1960s, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Farfield Foundation, and other covers, the CIA secretly promoted the work of American abstract expressionist artists - including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - in order to demonstrate the supposed intellectual freedom and cultural creativity of the US against the ideological conformity of Soviet art.

jackson pollock autumn rhythm number 30

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Even when art is oppositional, capitalism has an uncanny knack of appropriating it. The Royal Academy’s 2017 exhibition of Russian revolutionary art was accompanied by vicious and ignorant curating – presumably to disabuse any who might otherwise have been inspired by the works on display. Banksy’s graffiti, a determinedly uncommercial form of art ‘for the people’ (maybe a modern equivalent of the Lascaux cave paintings?) is now ‘in the gallery’ – decidedly a collector’s item with a price tag to match. Another (dead) graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 depiction of a skull was auctioned in May this year for more than $100 million. Banksy’s own comment on this is conveyed on a wall of the Barbican where a posthumous exhibition of Basquiat’s work runs until January 2018 (admission £16). City of London officials are currently considering whether (and how) this fresh graffiti might be preserved.

banksy tribute jean michel basquiat

Within capitalism, as its crisis deepens, ‘high art’ (provided it is portable, saleable, in a word, alienable) is – next to land and other property – one of the best investments that there is. A recent example is Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, ‘saved’ for the nation in March 2017 at a cost of £4 million, through a fund raising exercise to pay its owner, Diageo. This multinational drinks conglomerate (profits last year £3 billion on net sales of £10.8bn, 15% up on the previous year; CEO Ivan Menezes’ salary £4.4m) graciously agreed to accept just half of the paintings ‘estimated value’ of £8 million. More than half of this money came from the National Lottery - itself sometimes described as a ‘hidden tax on the poor’. 

The Monarch of the Glen Edwin Landseer 1851

Edwin Landseer,The Monarch of the Glen

Gaugin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (‘When Will You Marry’?), painted in 1882 and, like his others, presenting a romanticised view of Tahiti, sold for $300 million in 2015 — just topped by de Kooning’s Interchange the following year. A 24ct gold bracelet, designed by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese ‘dissident’ and ‘champion of democracy’, inspired by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (the deadliest earthquake ever, 90,000 dead, between 5 and 11 million homeless) sells for a modest £45,500 from Elisabetta Cipriani, (ElisabettaCipriani). The majority of artists and their artworks of course, never reach such dizzy heights.

The role of the artist in society remains a controversial subject. In the meantime it is clear that art and artists can and do play a vital role and that artistic freedom and license are crucial. Perhaps a good model is that followed in the former Yugoslavia and other socialist countries (as today in Cuba). Artists were not paid or employed as such by the state, although the arts in general were and are given generous state support. As in capitalist countries artists had to make their living through commissions, though these would be more likely to come from community associations, trades unions, local councils and the like, rather than from wealthy patrons or investors. Many would have to supplement their incomes by teaching, or by doing other jobs. But their social position was recognised and their social security contributions were paid so that on ill-health or retirement they would not suffer.

In both the appreciation, understanding and, indeed, production of art, and whether you love or loathe his own designs, one assertion that all socialists would surely agree with is that of the communist William Morris, who declared ‘I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few...’, (Hopes and fears for art). What is certain is that art - of all types - can enrich our lives. It can also be galvanising, a force for social progress. But it is also clear that art that is subject to capitalist market forces involves a chronic distortion of the artistic product and process in which art works are valued for their price tag rather than their intrinsic quality. A Marxist approach can deepen our understanding of art provided that we avoid dogmatism and accept that this is an area of debate - one to which we can all contribute.

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Morning Star on 14 August 2017.