The Dialectics of Art
Friday, 14 June 2024 05:18

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.


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.

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Friday, 14 June 2024 05:18

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

SL 1

Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.


Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.