Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Frequently Asked Questions

This page aims to provide succinct answers to the questions that most interest people regarding Marxist aesthetics. More detailed answers can sometimes be found in my articles, which I give links for when possible.

I will add more questions, answers, article links, etc to this page as we go along. Readers are welcome to suggest questions for inclusion.

1. What is art?
2. May art be political?
3. May art be used as propaganda?
4. Does Marxism advocate Socialist Realism?
5. Do Marxists want to dictate what artists are allowed to do?
6. What is this human ‘essence’ that is objectified in works of art?

1. What is art?

Art is a form of labour unique to human beings. Through our labour, we fill the world with our objects, in which are concretised all our powers and contradictions. Art and work are commonly perceived as opposites, but both are a creative process by which we objectify our humanity and see it reflected back to us. Through all production we give our human essence a concrete, sensual form, affirming it in external objects we can see and touch.

There is no firm dividing line between what labour counts as ‘art’ and what doesn’t, but art is a form of labour in which spiritual values are particularly important.

For more detail: See my four articles on the origins of art, starting here, and on the development of the aesthetic sense here.

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2. May art be political?

Yes: there is no incompatibility per se between art and politics. Artists take their materials from human experience. Politics is just as much a part of that experience as Grecian urns, romantic love and so on, and may be explored in art. Like all people, artists have — to a more or less conscious extent — political views, and these will often find expression in their work. From the stelae of ancient Mesopotamia to Emin’s My Bed, art has always contained both overt and subtle political messages.

However, politics should not be forced on works of art from outside, either by decree or by artists themselves, even with the best intentions. Politics should be an organic part of the work and arise from the artist’s own personal conviction.

Even the most political artists should be under no obligation to treat political subjects if they do not feel like it. The choice of theme must belong to the artist. There is nothing in Marx’s writings to say that art must be political.

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3. May art be used as propaganda?

Many fine works of art convey a very deliberate political message. Take two ‘iconic’ works of Western art. Michelangelo’s David was commissioned by the city of Florence as a symbol of their political independence from the Medici and other enemies; Picasso’s Guernica was a statement against fascist violence. Every statue of a pharaoh conveys a message in support of the ancient Egyptian ruling class. Did these works have a propaganda purpose? Certainly. Does this detract from their qualities as works of art? Not at all.

The problem is more how propaganda roles are played by particular works in particular cases. If the political message dominates over aesthetic quality, or is imposed from outside upon an unwilling artist, then politics and art are likely to be in contradiction. If however a work’s propaganda message is an organic part of the work as a whole, then there need be no contradiction. Nowhere do Marx and Engels demand that artists must create propaganda for the struggle. Again, the choice of theme must belong to the artist.

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4. Does Marxism demand that artists practice Socialist Realism?

Not in the least. In its early years, the USSR was founded on direct workers’ democracy and was the home of a great diversity of experimental artistic movements. Socialist Realism was a mediocre brew concocted by the Stalinist bureaucracy which, for various reasons, rose to power from the mid-1920s. This bureaucracy distorted Marxist ideas to serve a philistine agenda, and insisted upon controlling what artists and others were allowed to say.

Socialist Realism’s real roots lie in nineteenth-century Russian realism, i.e. it draws its highly conservative aesthetics from pre-revolutionary art. Some artists still managed to create true art within its confines, but the imposition of standards upon artists is unacceptable and there is no reason to claim that Marx would ever have supported it.

In fact, Marx and Engels never advocated any artistic style in preference to others. There is no such thing as a ‘Marxist style’ in art. The early Soviet leadership, including Lenin, Trotsky, and culture minister Lunacharsky, agreed that artists must find their own way. Many progressive artists who do not or did not practice Socialist Realism, from Breton and Picasso to street artists in contemporary Cuba and Venezuela, have found no contradiction between their art and their socialist politics.

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5. Surely Marxists want to dictate what artists are allowed to do?

Absolutely not. It is a common error to equate Marxism with Stalinism on this issue, and bourgeois commentators cannot be relied upon to represent the Marxist position correctly. Although Marx made no explicit statement on artistic freedom, he did write early articles supporting freedom of the press, and it is no misrepresentation of his general outlook to extend this commitment to the arts.

Lenin and Trotsky, amongst others, later explicitly insisted that the state should not interfere in the arts. The only caveat was that work should be suppressed which might assist counter-revolution in the period when the revolution was not yet consolidated. In this, they thought no differently to bourgeois revolutionaries before them, including the English poet Milton. Once the revolution was safe, restrictions could be lifted and complete freedom granted to artists. This never occurred in the USSR, because the Bolsheviks were replaced by bureaucrats who tragically distorted Marxist ideas.

Proof that a socialist revolution does not have to go down the Stalinist path can be found in Venezuela, which is actively building a workers’ state and has not suppressed or dictated to the arts in any way.

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6. What is this human ‘essence’ that is objectified in works of art?

This concerns the debate over human nature. Marx believed that there was such a thing as a universal human nature. This consists of two aspects. Firstly there are characteristics, common to all human beings, which are biologically determined and relatively unchanging: e.g. the need for food, drink, sexual relations, and so on. This doesn’t mean they are fixed forever, only that they change at a very slow, evolutionary pace. Secondly there are aspects that are cultural and historical in character, such as our institutions and intellectual concepts. In fact, even the particular forms taken by our basic biological drives are also conditioned by history.

When we create works of art, we transform the material world into objects in which our drives, our needs, our desires, our ideas, our manual skills, and so on are made concrete. The immense variation in forms across cultures is the result of the immense variety of our social, cultural and historical experience.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your great articles and summaries. I learned a lot from your blog, which was really helpful for my aesthetics class.

Eugene Hirschfeld said...

You are very welcome, Anonymous. Any time you want to comment, feel free.

BTW, I know I haven't posted for a while, but that's only because I have other projects. I will resume in due course!

ryutin said...

Great site. I am very interested in the subject matter I wonder i you could recommend me a few books for further reading - I have read Hauser's history, Berger and quite a bit of John Molyneux though haven't been able to get my hands on anything by Antal - general histories or works on individual artists, my major interests are landscape painting, Ingres and Cezanne but any good in print marxist art histories I would love to hear about.

Eugene Hirschfeld said...


Thanks for your interest. A few titles come to mind, more of a general reading list really (general Marxist art histories are pretty thin on the ground):

Klingender: Art and the Industrial Revolution
Maynard Solomon: Marxism and Art (a general anthology)
Margaret Rose: Marx's Lost Aesthetic
Ernst Fischer: The Necessity of Art, Art Against Ideology
Trotsky: Literature and Revolution
Various stuff by Terry Eagleton
Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Raymond Williams: Marxism and Literature
Berger: Art and Revolution (in case you missed that one; he discusses the Soviet sculptor Neizvestny)
Max Raphael: Proudhon, Marx, Picasso
S. S. Prawer: Karl Marx and World Literature

And so on and on. A bit random, but should keep you busy...

Kimberley Bianca said...

Thank You! your blog explains so much to me in clear language in a compressed form.

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