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Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?
Monday, 27 May 2024 15:17

Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?

Published in Cultural Commentary

In the closing Winter Lecture for the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton discusses the origin and uses of culture. Half-way through the piece, Fran Lock and Alan Morrison provide a complementary chorus of new poems. We are deeply grateful to the LRB and 'the dreadful Terry Eagleton', as King Charles called him, for their kind permissions to republish his lecture.

In​ Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley finds himself living in Beersheba, the area of Oxford we know as Jericho, home at the time to a community of craftsmen and artisans who maintained the fabric of the university. It doesn’t take Jude long to realise that he and his fellow craftsmen are, so to speak, the material base without which the intellectual superstructure of the colleges couldn’t exist: without their work, as he says, ‘the hard readers could not read, nor the high thinkers live.’

He comes to recognise, in a word, that the origin of culture is labour. This is true etymologically as well. One of the original meanings of the word culture is the tending of natural growth, which is to say agriculture, and a cognate word, coulter, means the blade of a plough. The kinship between culture and agriculture was brought home to me some years ago when I was driving with the dean of arts of a state university in the US past farms blooming with luxuriant crops. ‘Might get a couple of professorships out of that,’ the dean remarked.

This is not the way culture generally likes to see itself. Like the Oedipal child, it tends to disavow its lowly parentage and fantasise that it sprang from its own loins, self-generating and self-fashioning. Thought, for idealist philosophers, is self-dependent. You can’t nip behind it to something more fundamental, since that itself would have to be captured in a thought. Geist goes all the way down.

art for arts sake

There’s n irony here, since few things bind art so closely to its material context as its claim to stand free of that context. This is because the work of art as autonomous and self-determining, an idea born sometime in the late 18th century, is the model of a version of the human subject that has been rapidly gaining ground in actual life. Men and women are now seen as authors of themselves, as a result of the deepening influence of liberalism and possessive individualism and – to perpetrate a dreadful cliché – the rise of the middle classes. (If you open a history book at random, it will say three things about the period you light on: it was essentially an age of transition; it was a period of rapid change; and the middle classes went on rising. That’s the reason God put the middle classes on earth: to rise like the sun, but, unlike the sun, without ever setting.)

You can’t have culture in the sense of galleries and museums and publishing houses unless society has evolved to the point where it can produce an economic surplus. Only then can some people be released from the business of keeping the tribe alive in order to constitute a caste of priests, bards, DJs, hermeneuticists, bassoon players, LRB interns, gaffers on film sets and the like. In fact, you might define culture as a surplus over strict need. We need to eat, but we don’t need to eat at the Ivy. We need clothes in cold climates, but they don’t have to be designed by Stella McCartney. The problem with this definition is that a capacity for surplus is built into the human animal. For both good and ill, we’re continually in excess of ourselves. Culture is reckoned into our nature. King Lear is much concerned with this ambiguity.

Wanted: Culture, to legitimate the social order......

Since the material production that gives birth to culture is racked by conflict, bits of this culture tend to be used from time to time to legitimate the social order that strives to contain or resolve the conflict, and this is known as ideology. Not all culture is ideological at any given time, but any part of it, however abstract or high-minded, can serve this function in specific circumstances. At the same time, however, culture can muster vigorous resistance to the dominant powers.

TE banksy

Banksy musters some vigorous resistance to the dominant powers

This resistance is more likely to occur, curiously enough, once art becomes just another commodity in the marketplace and the artist just another petty commodity producer. Before that, in traditional or pre-modern society, culture generally serves as an instrument of political and religious sovereignty, which means among other things that there are steady jobs for cultural workers as court poets, genealogists, licensed fools, painters and architects patronised by the landed gentry, composers in the pay of princes and so on. In those situations you also know more or less whom you are writing or painting for, whereas in the marketplace your audience becomes anonymous.

The world no longer owes the cultural worker a living. Ironically, however, it’s the integration of art into the market that gives it a degree of freedom. Once it’s primarily a commodity, culture becomes autonomous. Deprived of its traditional features, it may curve back on itself, taking itself as its own raison d’être in the manner of some modernist art; it is also free to serve as critique on a sizeable scale for the first time. The miseries of commodification are also an enthralling moment of emancipation. History, as Marx reminds us, progresses by its bad side. In the very process of being pushed to the margin, the artist begins to claim visionary, prophetic, bohemian or subversive status – partly because those on the edges can indeed sometimes see further than those in the middle, but also to compensate for a loss of centrality. A movement called Romanticism is born.

....and so capitalism gives culture a job to do

At roughly the same time, so is industrial capitalism, which with admirable convenience gives culture a job to do just as it’s in danger of being driven out by philistine mill-owners. There’s now a growing divide between the symbolic realm and the world of utility, a divide that runs all the way down the human body. Values and energies for which there isn’t much call in the workaday world of bodily labour are siphoned off into a sphere of their own, which consists of three major sectors: art, sexuality and religion. One of these endangered values is the creative imagination, which was invented in the late 18th century and is nowadays revered among artistic types, though organising genocide in Gaza requires quite a lot of it too.

The distance that opens up between the symbolic and the utilitarian, while threatening to rob culture of its social function, is also the operative distance you need for critique. Culture would expose the crippled, diminished condition of industrial-capitalist humanity through its full and free expression of human powers and capacities, a theme that runs from Schiller and Ruskin to Morris and Marcuse. Art or culture can issue a powerful rebuke to society not so much by virtue of what it says but because of the strange, pointless, intensely libidinal thing that it is. It’s one of the few remaining activities in an increasingly instrumentalised world that exists purely for its own sake, and the point of political change is to make this condition available to human beings as well. Where art was, there shall humanity be.

TE cropped show culture some love2

PCS workers issuing a powerful rebuke to society 

The harmonious realisation of one’s powers as a delightful end in itself: if this is what the aesthetic comes to be about, it’s also the ethics of Romantic humanism, which includes the ethics of Karl Marx. The aesthetic becomes important when it isn’t simply about art. Marx’s thought concerns the material conditions that would make life for its own sake possible for whole societies, one such condition being the shortening of the working day. Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work. For Oscar Wilde, who was closer in this respect to Marx than to Morris, communism was the condition in which we would lie around all day in various interesting postures of jouissance, dressed in loose crimson garments, reciting Homer to one another and sipping absinthe. And that was just the working day.

7. Photo opkennardphillippspigment print 2005.width 1000

Half in love with the powers that repress us? Image by kennardphillips

There are problems with this vision, as there are with any ethics. Are all your powers to be realised? What about that obsessive desire to beat up Tony Blair? Or should one realise only those impulses that spring from the authentic core of the self? But by what criteria do we judge this? What if my self-realisation clashes with yours? And why should all-round expression beat devoting oneself to a single cause, like Alexei Navalny or Emma Raducanu? Do human capabilities really grow malevolent only by being alienated, lopsided or repressed? And what if we’re half in love with the powers that alienate and repress us, installed as they are inside the human subject rather than purely external to it?

Hegel and Marx have an answer of a kind to the problem of clashing self-fulfilments, which goes like this: realise only those capabilities which allow others to do the same. Marx’s name for this reciprocal self-realisation is ‘communism’. As the Communist Manifesto puts it, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. When the fulfilment of one individual is the ground or condition of the fulfilment of another, and vice versa, we call this love. 

Jesus

And the hands that act on it...

by Fran Lock

their charnel austerity, logged in the body.
a city repellent to memory, walk. this bleak
referendum of razors, indifferent justice,
law like a nail knocked into hunger. the law
is a meat-hook with your name on it, kid.
breathe. with the rhythm of syndrome,
the dark particulate scraped from a lung.
breathe. stertor, stridor, inspiratory stress.
productive cough that closes the throat.
their mouths are feudal thresholds. have
alphabets, inscribed against empathy.
say: this is the world, and what're you
going to do about it? step out. step out
of step. break that masochists pact,
patterned into apathy: work-or-death
and worked-to-death. the moment
becomes the movement, the moment
we decide to move. flip this tyranny
of tyrian shekels; pathologies of profit,
their sick vocations of control. love.
as conspicuous sabotage, direct action,
conductor of heat and dissonance. in
a world we cannot occupy or exit, be
the hand that lights the match, the arm
that bears the torch.

Marxism is about political love. I mean love, of course, in its real sense – agape, caritas – not the sexual, erotic, romantic varieties by which late capitalist society is so mesmerised. We’re speaking of the kind of love that can be deeply disagreeable and isn’t necessarily to do with feeling, that is a social practice rather than a sentiment, and which is in danger of getting you killed.

Agape

by Alan Morrison

agape - agape - agape -
love without possessiveness
platonic love
spiritual love
political love
love without possessions
love unfettered by desire
love without covetousness
love without expectation
hearts without property
hearts freed from property
love devout in poverty
agape - agape - agape -
love as common ownership
unconditional love
universal love
communism of souls
souls in common ownership
hearts & souls in fellowship
no hedges in heaven
only untethered purple heathland
lavender heather
lavender ever
& ever
love as common good
numinous communism
eudemonia -
welfare of all
capitalism can never
make us happy
pits us against ourselves
in pursuit of profit
& empty property
only love without covetousness
love without possessiveness
love for one & all
universal
unconditional
can approach that utopian
conception to be happy
agape - agape - agape -

Wanted: Culture, to buy off anarchy

Early industrial capitalism had another mission for culture to accomplish. A new actor had just appeared on the political scene – the industrial working class – and was threatening to be obstreperous. Culture, in the sense of the refined and civilised, was needed to buy off the other half of Matthew Arnold’s title, anarchy. Unless liberal values were disseminated to the masses, the masses might end up sabotaging liberal culture. Religion had traditionally bred a sense of duty, deference, altruism and spiritual edification in the common people. But religious belief was now on the wane, as the industrial middle classes demythologised social existence through their secular activities and, ironically, ended up depleting what had been a precious ideological resource. Culture, then, had to take over from the churches, as artists transubstantiated the profane stuff of everyday life into eternal truth.

What else was happening around the time of Romanticism and the industrial revolution? The revolution in France. One might do worse than claim that this was what thrust culture to the fore in the modern age – but culture as a riposte to the revolution, as an antidote to political turbulence. Politics involves decision, calculation, practical rationality, and takes place in the present, whereas culture seems to inhabit a different dimension, where customs and pieties evolve for the most part spontaneously, unconsciously, with almost glacial slowness, and may therefore pose a challenge to the very notion of throwing up barricades.

The name for this contrast in Britain is Edmund Burke, who came from a nation, Ireland, where the sovereign power had failed to root itself in the affections of the people because it was a colonialist power. In Burke’s view, this rooting wasn’t happening in revolutionary France either, since the Jacobins and their successors didn’t understand that if the law is to be feared, it is also to be loved. What you need in Burke’s opinion is a law which, though male, will deck itself out in the alluring female garments of culture. Power must beguile and seduce if it isn’t to drive us into Oedipal revolt. The potentially terrifying sublimity of the masculine must be tempered by the beauty of the feminine; this aestheticising of power, Burke writes in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, is what the French revolutionaries calamitously failed to achieve. You mustn’t, to be sure, aestheticise away the masculinity of the law. The ugly bulge of its phallus must be visible from time to time through its diaphanous robes, so that citizens may be suitably cowed and intimidated when they need to be. But the law can’t work by terror alone, which is why it must become a cross-dresser.

TE Edmund Burke caricature 1790

Edmund Burke pontificating against the French Revolution

Burke believed that the cultural domain – the sphere of customs, habits, sentiments, prejudices and the like – was fundamental in a way that the politics to which he devoted a lifetime were not, and he was right to think so. There have been some suspect ways of elevating the cultural over the political, but Burke, who began his literary career as an aesthetician, neither despises politics from the Olympian standpoint of high culture, nor dissolves politics into cultural affairs. Instead, he recognises that culture in the anthropological sense is the place where power has to bed itself down if it is to be effective. If the political doesn’t find a home in the cultural, its sovereignty won’t take hold. You don’t have to detest the Jacobins or idealise Marie Antoinette to take the point.

Despite his aversion to Jacobinism, Burke ended up feeling some sympathy for the revolutionary United Irish movement, an extraordinary sentiment for a British Member of Parliament. The Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, also an MP, was even more dedicated to the United Irish cause. He was, in fact, a secret fellow-traveller – a fact that, had it been widely known, might have wiped the smiles off the faces of his London audiences. The United Irishmen were Enlightenment anti-colonialists, not Romantic nationalists, but the rise of Romantic nationalism in the early 19th century once more brought culture to the centre of political life.

Nationalism was the most successful revolutionary movement of the modern age, toppling despots and dismantling empires; and culture in both its aesthetic and anthropological senses proved vital in this project. With revolutionary nationalism, culture in the sense of language, custom, folklore, history, tradition, religion, ethnicity and so on becomes something people will kill for. Or die for. Not many people are prepared to kill for Balzac or Bowie, but culture in this more specialised sense also plays a key role in nationalist politics. There are jobs for artists once more, as from Yeats and MacDiarmid to Sibelius and Senghor they become public figures and political activists. In fact, nationalism has been described as the most poetic form of politics. When the British shot some Irish nationalist rebels in 1916, a British army officer is said to have remarked: ‘We have done Ireland a service: we have rid it of some second-rate poets.’

Wanted: Culture, to rival religious faith

The nation itself resembles a work of art, being autonomous, unified, self-founding and self-originating. As this language might suggest, both art and the nation rank among the many surrogates for the Almighty that the modern age has come up with. Aesthetic culture mimics religion in its communal rites, priesthood of artists, search for transcendence and sense of the numinous. If it fails to replace religion, this is, among other things, because culture in the artistic sense involves too few people, while culture in the sense of a distinctive way of life involves too much conflict. No symbolic system in history has been able to rival religious faith, which forges a bond between the routine behaviour of billions of individuals and ultimate, imperishable truths. It’s the most enduring, deep-rooted, universal form of popular culture that history has ever witnessed, yet you won’t find it on a single cultural studies course from Sydney to San Diego.

For​ the liberal humanist heritage, culture mattered because it represented certain fundamental, universal values that might constitute a common ground between those who were otherwise divided. It was a ground on which we could converge simply by virtue of our shared humanity, and in this sense it was an enlightened notion; you didn’t have to be the son of a viscount to take part. Since our shared humanity was rather an abstract concept, however, something that brought it back to lived experience was needed, something you could see and touch and weigh in your hand: this was known as art or literature. If someone asked you what you lived by, you gave them not a religious sermon or a political pamphlet but a volume of Shakespeare.

The self-interest of this project, as with almost all appeals to unity, is obvious enough: culture, like the bourgeois state for Marx, represents an abstract community and equality which compensate for actual antagonisms and inequities. In the presence of the essential and universal, we are invited to suspend superficial distinctions of class, gender, ethnicity and the like. Even so, liberal humanism captured a truth, albeit in a self-serving form: what human beings have in common is in the end more important than their differences. It’s just that, politically speaking, the end is a long time coming.

Wanted: Culture, to make profits and fight wars for political demands

The vision of culture as common ground was challenged from the late 1960s by a series of developments. Students were entering higher education from backgrounds that made them disinclined to sign up to this consensus. The concept of culture began to lose its innocence. It had already been compromised by its association with racist ideology and imperialist anthropology in the 19th century, and contaminated by political strife in the context of revolutionary nationalism. From the end of the 19th century, culture became a highly lucrative industry, as cultural production was increasingly integrated into production in general, and the manufacture of mass fantasy became deeply profitable. This, we might note, isn’t yet postmodernism. Postmodernism happens not just with the arrival of mass culture but with the aestheticising of social existence, from design and advertising to branding, politics as spectacle, tattoos, purple hair and ridiculously large glasses. Culture, once the antithesis of material production, has now been folded into production.

Modernism, now a century behind us, was the last time culture offered itself as a full-blooded critique of society, a critique launched mainly from the radical right. If it does so no longer, neither does culture in the sense of a specific form of life. Most such life-forms today are out not to question the framework of modern civilisation but to be included within it. Inclusion, however, isn’t a good in itself, any more than diversity is. One thinks fondly of Samuel Goldwyn’s cry: ‘Include me out!’

All of this is sometimes known as cultural politics, and has given rise in our time to the so-called culture wars. For Schiller and Arnold, the phrase ‘culture wars’ would have been an oxymoron like, say, ‘business ethics’ (Beckett is said to have remarked that he had a strong weakness for an oxymoron). Culture in their eyes was the solution to strife, not an example of it. Now, culture is no longer a way of transcending the political but the language in which certain key political demands are framed and fought out. From being a spiritual solution, it has become part of the problem. And we have shifted in the process from culture to cultures.

TE culture wars Picture1

Both types of culture are currently under threat from different kinds of levelling. Thinking about aesthetic culture is increasingly shaped by the commodity form, which elides all distinctions and equalises all values. In some postmodern circles, this is celebrated as anti-elitist. But distinctions of value are a routine part of life, if not between Dryden and Pope then between Morrissey and Liam Gallagher. In this respect, anti-elitists who like to see themselves as close to common life are deluded. At the same time, cultures in the sense of distinctive forms of life are levelled by advanced capitalism, as every hairdressing salon and Korean restaurant on the planet comes to look like every other, despite the prattle about difference and diversity. In an era when the culture industry’s power is at its most formidable, culture in both of its main senses is being pitched into crisis.

Culture in our time has become nothing less than a full-blooded ideology, generally known as culturalism. Along with biologism, economism, moralism, historicism and the like, it is one of the major intellectual reductionisms of the day. On this theory, culture goes all the way down. The nature of humanity is culture. Behind this doctrine lurks an aversion to nature (one of culture’s traditional antitheses) as obdurate, inflexible, brutely given and resistant to change. At precisely the point where nature is capricious, unpredictable and alarmingly fast-moving, culturalism insists on regarding it as inert and immobile.

It’s not that culture is our nature, but that it is of our nature. It’s both possible and necessary because of the kinds of body we have. Necessary, because there’s a gap in our nature that culture in the sense of physical care must move into quickly if we are to survive as infants. Possible, because our bodies, unlike those of snails and spiders, are able to extend themselves outward by the power of language or conceptual thought, as well as by the way we are constructed to labour on the world. This prosthesis to our bodies is known as civilisation. The only problem, as Greek tragedy was aware, is that we can extend ourselves too far, lose contact with our sensuous, instinctual being, overreach ourselves and bring ourselves to nothing. But that’s another story. 

This video of the lecture is worth watching not only for the Q and A session, but for Terry's closing rendition in song of Raglan Road 

Terry Eagleton is a British literary theorist, critic, and public intellectual. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He has published over forty books, anmd hundreds of articles and reviews, and is the most influential contemporary cultural theorist. 

Fran Lock is an editor, essayist, the author of numerous chapbooks and thirteen poetry collections, most recently Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2023. She is a Commissioning Editor at Culture Matters, and she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review

Alan Morrison is a Sussex-based poet. His collections include A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (2009), Keir Hardie Street (2010; shortlisted for the 2011 Tillie Olsen Award, Working-Class Studies Association, USA), Captive Dragons (2011), Blaze a Vanishing (2013), Shadows Waltz Haltingly (2015), Tan Raptures (2017), Shabbigentile (2019), Gum Arabic (2020), Anxious Corporals (2021), Green Hauntings (2022), Wolves Come Grovelling (2023) and Rag Argonauts (2024). He was joint winner of the 2018 Bread & Roses Poetry Award, and was highly commended in the inaugural Shelley Memorial Poetry Competition 2022. He edits The Recusant and Militant Thistles, and is book designer for Culture Matters

 

Gaza
Monday, 27 May 2024 15:17

Gaza

Published in Poetry

Gaza: two haiku in Irish and English by Gabriel Rosenstock in response to street artwork
by Banksy.

abair, cá bhfuil sé?
an clós súgartha
in Gaza

where . . . tell me!
where will they play
in Gaza?

image 2 resized

Gaza! Gaza!
cathain a osclóimid
ár súile?

Gaza! Gaza!
when will we open
our eyes?

The Dialectics of Art
Monday, 27 May 2024 15:17

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
Monday, 27 May 2024 15:17

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.