Marxism and art

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1072 (September 3, 2015). [PDF] Rex Dunn responded in Weekly Worker 1074 (September 17, 2015). [PDF]

Marxism cannot definitively judge, let alone prescribe, and also cannot tie down art to its (supposed) context of production. But Marxism can raise consciousness of history and historical potential for social change – in all domains.

Clement Greenberg defined ‘avant-garde’ art as having a “superior consciousness of [the] history [of art]”, where ‘kitsch’ elides that. But the necessity of such consciousness is a symptom of the need to overcome capitalism. We may need avant-garde art now, but its criteria didn’t apply before capitalism and so won’t apply (in the same way) after capitalism.

This is what Howard Phillips shies away from in condemning “transcendence” – even while also writing that good art should “point beyond” its context (‘Dylan and the dead’, August 13). As Adorno wrote, art is the attempt to make something without knowing what it is. In other words, art goes beyond theoretical understanding or analysis through concepts, and so must be experienced aesthetically. That aesthetic experience can either affirm society as it is or point beyond it. Often it does both. Art is dialectical – as anything under capitalism.

Certainly one can essay at what makes art good or bad. But the art itself cannot be reduced to such theoretical essaying. As Walter Benjamin put it, art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no-one.

Specialisation is necessary: critics are not artists; artists are not politicians. There are important interrelations among art, criticism and politics, but they are not the same thing. Marx’s Capital was not a work of economics or even of political economy, but rather a (political) critique of political economy. Such critique pointing beyond existing social conditions, with consciousness of potential historical change (ie, beyond the law of the value of labour) could indeed be attempted in any domain (eg, in the physical sciences), but would remain speculative, provisional and disputable. The dialectic is unfinished.

The question is whether Marxist theoretical critique helps potential possibilities – both within and pointing beyond capitalism – become better realised in practice. That effect will always be indirect or oblique. Critical theory is not prescriptive or programmatic, but it is critical. Good critical theory can have some – however indirect and weak, but still productive – effect on the practices of art: on its production and consumption.

But, above all, we need not Marxist art or theory, but Marxist politics. Without that there is only pseudo-theory (pseudo-critique), pseudo-art (ie, kitsch: art without historical consciousness), and pseudo-politics.

The problem with Stalinism, in art as in all other domains, was not in its authoritarianism, but in its opportunist adaptation to the status quo (which required authoritarian enforcement), at the expense of more radical possibilities for changing society. | §

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