Thursday, 31 December 2009

Does art progress? part 2

As we explored in part 1, even a superficial assessment of the social and productive advances of history shows a broad pattern of progress: a series of leaps by which society progresses to more advanced stages. Does this apply to art? Does art also ‘progress’ through history?

Well, the answer is clearly ‘no’. Otherwise, art would get better and better over time, outstripping the achievements of the past to attain ever giddier heights of genius. Nobody could seriously argue that this has happened: we still admire Paleolithic rock paintings, Greek sculpture, and so on, and sometimes even feel they are an achievement we cannot live up to. Our real task is to explain why this is.

The problem of uneven development

When Marx discussed the relationship between base and superstructure, he used art as an example of the unevenness of that relationship:

In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure as it were, of its organisation. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare. It is even recognised that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of the arts, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society.[1]

Marx clearly believed that there is no simplistic partnership between art and social development, between social progress and artistic achievement. He continued:

Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, i.e. nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination. This is its material... Hence, in no way a social development which excludes all mythological, all mythologising relations to nature; which therefore demands of the artist an imagination not dependent on mythology.

From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?

The particular conditions of Greek society produced great art — greater in Marx’s opinion than that of the artists of his own time — but those conditions actually became obsolete with technological advancement. Marx poked fun elsewhere at “the illusion of the French in the eighteenth century which has been so beautifully satirised by Lessing. Because we are further ahead than the ancients in mechanics, etc, why shouldn’t we be able to make an epic too? And the Henriade in place of the Iliad!”[2]

All art is historically located and heavily conditioned by the prevailing forces of social production, but the relationship between art and society is uneven because art depends not just upon economic factors but many others, such as philosophy and the subjective feelings of the artist, which are not directly economically determined (see my comments here on the relative autonomy of art). The example of classical Greece shows us that art sometimes prospers more in less developed societies than in advanced ones — we will consider the reasons for this fully another time.

To return to the Grundrisse, Marx then takes the question further:

The difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

Marx’s manuscript breaks off shortly after, and this has often been interpreted as a sign that although he recognised the problem, he could not answer it. In fairness to him, the manuscript is only a draft which he did not attempt to publish. It is true that his brief attempt at an answer is not satisfactory:

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?

The passage has been dismissed by many commentators, and it is certainly an inadequate response to the problem (perhaps Marx broke off because he himself recognised this). For example there is no reason, other than the conventional preferences of a nineteenth-century German education, why the Greeks should represent the ‘childhood of humanity’ rather than, say, the Mesopotamians, or the Magdalenians — though it should be said that European thought at the time was familiar with neither of those cultures. Marx does correctly identify ‘unripe conditions’ as the reason why Greek art flowered as it did: under those conditions, in Terry Eagleton’s words, “a certain ‘measure’ or harmony can be achieved between man and Nature” which allows art to flourish.[3] Where the passage fails is in adequately explaining why art, whether exceptional or not, continues to move or ‘charm’ us even when created within a more backward mode of production, i.e. in a society that has progressed less far than our own. Marx seems to be regurgitating, in a materialist form, the sentiments about Greek art and childhood that can be found in the writings of bourgeois theorists such as Friedrich Schiller [4], and later in Jacob Burckhardt. For this reason it falls upon his successors to try to resolve the question.

The dialectic of culture

There is an alternative way to explain why art does not ‘progress’ in the way that productive forces generally do.

Social and technological progress meant that art could become hugely more diverse, more sophisticated, more large in scale. Paleolithic society had very limited productive forces, allowing for no pyramids or palaces, no jewel-encrusted metalwork, no glazed porcelain, no monumental sculpture. And yet its art retains great power to this day, despite being largely stripped by time of the context familiar to those who made it. The reason why is essentially the problem Marx was posing when he asked why Greek art still pleased us.

It is not that art is somehow immune to the processes at work everywhere else. The development of art, like that of society, follows the dialectic, as concisely described in a literary context by Trotsky:

Each new literary school — if it is really a school and not an arbitrary grafting — is the result of a preceding development, of the craftsmanship of word and colour already in existence, and only pulls away from the shores of what has been attained in order to conquer the elements anew.[5]

Every ‘school’ of art arose in a particular set of social conditions which heavily influenced artists’ choices of form, medium, subjects and so on. Each new school inherited artistic norms from art forms that came before, but adopted new elements that both represented a complete break and renewed elements from its predecessors.

However, art differs from technical progress in an important respect. Art is created by human beings primarily not as a use-value but as a spiritual value. The fundamental character of art is the objectification and affirmation of our human nature — or in Sánchez Vázquez’s phrase, revealing our “human essence” [6] — in concrete, sensuous forms. And whereas use-value can be revolutionised by social advances, increased efficiency of production, technological breakthroughs and so on, it is not appropriate to try and understand our human nature or ‘essence’ in the same way.

Human nature

By ‘human nature’ we mean the characteristics that all human beings have in common and which distinguish them from other species. These include, as Marx himself noted, “eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things”[7], to which we might add further needs such as water, sleep, warmth, air to breathe and sexual relations. These needs are complemented by particular physical abilities including a hand with opposable thumbs, an enlarged brain and a vocal tract capable of complex speech. This collection of characteristics began forming before we were humans at all, and was further defined and made human by our discovery of tools and the associated advances of language and self-consciousness. Although we have experienced huge social and cultural evolution, these basic needs have remained the same for hundreds of thousands of years.

A connected though different concept is that of ‘species-being’, which Marx formulated in the 1844 Manuscripts [8]. Although he did not refer to it subsequently, it remains as a thread underlying his views on human nature and society. Humans must be productive in order to survive. More than that, they are social, active, universal and productive beings who take pleasure from seeing their human powers confirmed and objectified through the products of their free labour [9].

The rock paintings, figurines, etc of the Paleolithic outstrip early handaxes as aesthetic achievements, because Homo sapiens is a more advanced species than the early humans that preceded us and indeed is the only species capable of creating art. By contrast, the art of the Paleolithic and the art of today are both the work of the same species. This human or species ‘essence’ is almost identical, in a biological sense, to what it was 40,000 years ago when art truly flowered. In the words of Colin Renfrew quoted before on this blog: “a child born today, in the twenty-first century of the Common Era, would be very little different in its DNA — i.e. in the genotype, and hence in innate capacities — from one born 60,000 years ago.”[10] Of course, our humanity cannot be reduced to DNA or biology — more on that in a moment.

The development of the forces of production creates new needs, and results in a diversification of forms in art: a surplus of labour and better productive technique allowed more sophisticated feats of architecture during the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions; metallurgy allowed artworks of bronze, silver, gold and other metals; the invention of photography and moving pictures simultaneously created brand new art forms; the internet has given us streaming audio and video, virtual reality, etc. In a purely technological sense these represent not just an increase in the quantity of available forms but an increase in quality.

However, they are ultimately only tools — the spiritual element of their use, that is, the decisive element in works of art, can only be introduced by human beings. Renaissance frescos are more technically advanced than Paleolithic rock paintings, because they involve the use of plaster as well as painting techniques such as egg tempera which allow artists wider control of their medium — but whether they are necessarily artistically superior is open to debate, because technique and media are not the only criteria by which we judge works of art. A feeble artist does not create better work than a highly gifted one simply because he or she wields a mouse and monitor instead of a stick of charcoal. Although the materials and forms change, the sophistication, ingenuity and imagination with which humans forge a work of art exist within the same species boundaries: there is no reason to believe that the artists of today have ‘progressed’ to being innately more gifted than those of prehistory.

The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould addressed the same issue when he wrote about Paleolithic cave art:

We are, in short, surprised, even stunned, to discover that something so old could be so sophisticated. Old should mean rudimentary — either primitive by greater evolutionary regress toward an apish past, or infantile by closer approach to the first steps on our path toward modernity. (These metaphors of grunting coarseness or babbling juvenility probably hold about equal sway in the formation of our prejudices.) As we travel in time down our own evolutionary tree, we should encounter ever-older ancestors of ever-decreasing mental capacity. The first known expressions of representational art should therefore be crude and primitive. Instead, we see the work of a primal Picasso — and we are dumbstruck.[11]

Why, in Gould’s view, hasn’t art progressed over time? Because “the twenty-thousand-year span of known parietal art does not reach deep into our apish ancestry... the painters of the first known parietal art were far closer in time to folks living today than to the original Homo sapiens.” Gould points out that evolutionary change within a species over its geological lifetime is slight, especially for widespread, successful species. He suggests that, rather than assuming that we are creatively more advanced than our ‘caveman’ ancestors, we

consider instead the great satisfaction in grasping our true fellowship with the first known Paleolithic artists. There but for the grace of thirty thousand additional years go I. These paintings speak so powerfully to us today because we know the people who did them; they are us...

Don’t think of the Paleolithic as a time of ancient primitivity, but as a period of vigorous youth for our species.

Whether a man or woman is native American, European, Indian, Chinese, African or of some other division of the fabulously diverse human species, he or she can appreciate the art of any other culture and era, because the products of all our labour are the products of a humanity that we share equally. This is possible at some level even when most of the social context is absent or lost, as in the case of Paleolithic art. Social progress means we now have vastly more knowledge, technique and a longer and more diverse cultural history, but — even allowing that culture occasionally stretches to exceptional standards, as Marx believed was true of Greek art — the reach of our human powers is the same. All works of art, whether of the Paleolithic, the early civilisations or of our own time, are in part an affirmation of broadly the same species characteristics.

Change and human nature

This does not mean, of course, that no change in human nature is taking place. Humans are active, productive beings whose humanness is the result of our labour changing our very organism. As Engels observed, “[Labour] is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself”[12] (see our discussion of this here). Paul Blackledge summarised the historicity of human nature:

Marx and Engels argued that it was only through history that men and women create themselves as social beings. If the first action of history is that which aims at satisfying some basic needs — to eat, drink, maintain warmth, etc — then in satisfying those needs real historical men and women, as opposed to humans understood as a transhistorical category, would create new needs. By historicising human needs in this way, Marx historicises the concept of human nature itself: for if it is our nature to aim at satisfying our needs, and if our needs’ capacities change through history, then so too does our nature itself change.[13]

Marxism does not accept that there is a fixed human nature that transcends history, but that does not mean that there are no universal elements within that nature. On a certain level we are biological organisms like any other animal, with biological needs which change only at a very slow evolutionary pace. The position has been clarified by the Marxist academic Sean Sayers:

Two opposed positions have dominated recent controversy in this area. On the one hand, Marxism is sometimes treated as a form of ‘anti-essentialism’ or ‘anti-humanism’ which rejects the notion of human nature altogether. Others, by contrast, maintain that this leads to a disastrous relativism and that Marxism must hang on to the notion of a universal human nature in order to provide a grounding for its social theory and critical values. Often it is assumed that these are the only alternatives. But they are not: Marxism, I argue, involves a historical account of human nature distinct from either... These views... lead neither to moral relativism nor to an untenable universalism, but to a historical form of humanism.[14]

Our human nature is a mixture of both relatively unchanging biological needs — such as the need to drink water — and needs and wants that change as society changes: new objects of desire are created, new conditions of life, new sorts of relationships between people, which expand and redefine the totality of ‘human nature’. In other words, we have a historical nature that contains biological elements within it. As Sayers comments: “We are both historical and material beings, and we are the one on the basis of the other. It is not a matter of either/or.”

In a million years, assuming humans are still around, we may have evolved into a new and higher species. Also it is possible that technology will eventually allow us to amend our biological nature, or control and speed up our own evolution. To try to predict such developments and what they might mean for art can only be speculative. It is not inconceivable that modern humanity can no longer appreciate some subtle aspects of the most ancient art due to evolutionary change, but this is impossible to test, and unlikely to be significant given the immense slowness of such change.

As we’ve pointed out, technological and other changes affect the media and language of art. Nobody in the ancient world created video installation art, for obvious reasons. If we were to transport somebody from the Paleolithic into the present and show them works such as Carl Andre’s brick sculpture Equivalent VIII or Damien Hirst’s pickled shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, it is very likely that they would not comprehend it as art at all (many commentators struggle with such works even today).

Yet introduce the visitor to our customs, ideas, art history, etc, and in time they would be as well-equipped to respond to those works as a contemporary person. This is because they are almost identical to us, as biological organisms and yet in addition much more: beings whose liberation depends upon, as Marx wrote, “the absolute working out of (human) creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the prior historical development.”[15] Eagleton framed it in this way:

How is it that we moderns still respond to the exploits of, say, Spartacus? We respond to Spartacus or Greek sculpture because our own history links us to those ancient societies; we find in them an undeveloped phase of the forces which condition us. Moreover, we find in those ancient societies a primitive image of ‘measure’ between man and Nature which capitalist society necessarily destroys… To ask how Dickens relates to history is not just to ask how he relates to Victorian England, for that society was itself the product of a long history which includes men like Shakespeare and Milton.[16]

Not only Shakespeare and Milton, but Chaucer, the author of Beowulf, Stone Age storytellers, and countless other tiny pieces of the long chain of dialectical interaction that composes history. The education of the Paleolithic visitor in modern art is possible because like us they are beings who can be orientated within history.

To turn the scenario around: the work of our fellow human beings of the past remains accessible to us because it is the product of a species identical to ourselves; it has been conditioned by history, but this history is not alien to humans who live later even under a different mode of production, because their nature is itself the product of it.

By acting upon nature, humans change the material forms of their means of production, and this engenders new social relations which explain the variability of human behaviour over different historical periods and cultures. To fully understand the nature of human beings, Sayers points out, we “must take into account not only the bare universal need to drink which they have as biological organisms, but the historically developed form of this need which they have as specifically located social beings.”

Yet the change upon our needs, ideas etc wrought by new social relations does not prevent us from recognising our common humanity in the very earliest works of art, and in all other human creative activity between then and now. Just as our Paleolithic visitor could be schooled in the social relations of our time, we could be schooled in theirs. Each new generation of humanity is, to paraphrase Marx, stamped with the birthmarks of the generation from whose womb it emerges. It is the connecting thread of our common humanity with its relatively unchanging set of capacities and powers that explains why art effectively does not ‘progress’ in spite of accelerating technological and social change.



[1] Marx, from the closing section of the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857). This work was part of the Grundrisse, an immense collection of notes on economics written in advance of Capital. That Marx turned to the question of art even in such a context reflects his great interest in culture.
[2] Marx, Chapter 4, Theories of Surplus Value (1863). The Henriade was an epic poem written by Voltaire in 1723 to celebrate King Henry IV of France.
[3] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976).
[4] See for example Schiller, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (1795).
[5] Leon Trotsky, Chapter 8 of Literature and Revolution (1924).
[6] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973).
[7] Marx and Engels, from Part 1 of The German Ideology (1845–46).
[8] See for example Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’ and ‘Private Property and Communism’ from the 1844 Manuscripts.
[9] Hence the satisfaction we derive from works of art. Again, the question of aesthetic pleasure is a topic in itself.
[10] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[11] Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Up Against a Wall’ from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998).
[12] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[13] Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (2006).
[14] Sean Sayers, ‘Marxism and Human Nature: a reply to Terry Eagleton’ (unpublished, 1989).
[15] Marx, from Notebook IV of the Grundrisse (1857–58).
[16] Eagleton, op. cit.

1 comment:

libramoon said...

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