Response to Neil Faulkner

Author John Molyneux responds to a review by Neil Faulkner of his most recent work 'The Dialectics of Art'.


Neil Faulkner’s review of and response to my book is very welcome. I appreciate its generosity and comradely tone and would particularly thank him for his comments on my analysis of Michelangelo. His observations about Shakespeare and the historical conditions that shaped his greatness are both stimulating and well-founded. In many respects they parallel my own take on Shakespeare (see John Molyneux, ‘Shakespeare: 400 years on’, Irish Marxist Review 15,)

The points he makes about Trotsky’s views on are art are interesting and merit more discussion. His objection to the term ‘bourgeois art’ is reasonable in so far as it is used in any mechanical or reductionist fashion, but I think there may be a case for using it in a broad historical sense, as in ‘art of the bourgeois epoch’. That is an issue we can return to on another occasion.

However, there are three points that I think require an immediate response. The first is purely factual. Faulkner says in his opening line that The Dialectics of Art is largely a compendium of old articles from the International Socialism Journal. It is not a hostile comment, but it is not actually true; of the book’s 238 pages of text, 120 were newly written, 46 were from other publications, and 56 were from IS Journal. But this is not an important matter.

More significant is the slippage that occurs in Neil’s description of and response to my definition of art. He writes:

The substantive debate largely revolves around John’s claim that art – as opposed to what he considers to be non-art – can be defined as work produced by unalienated labour and characterised by a fusion or unity of form and content.

He then states:

We appear to have a distinction between works that are an expression of class-based ideology in the service of wealth and power (non-art) and work that is an expression of the artist’s own critical observation and insight (art). When I try and apply this in practice, the distinction immediately breaks down. Where do I place the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Venus de Milo, the Palatine Chapel mosaics in Palermo, or Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII?

And continues:

And as the argument proceeds, one gets the sense that what John really means is that art is whatever he finds meaningful, while non-art is whatever he considers bland and uninteresting. In which case, could we not say ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’?

Thus he begins by stating my position accurately; then immediately changes it into a formulation of his own which I did not use and says the latter breaks down in practice. I’m tempted to say ‘well it would’. Let me take one of Neil’s own examples: the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII. (Actually there are several such portraits with, as so often, disputes about their provenance, but for these purposes this doesn’t matter. I will assume he means the one in Rome.) This is both ‘an expression of class-based ideology in the service of wealth and power’ and clearly a work of art by my definition in that it is produced by non-alienated labour and characterised by a fusion of form and content. By ‘non-alienated labour’ I mean, and state clearly in the book, work that is controlled by the worker/producer (see The Dialectics of Art, p.34). As it happens, the Holbein is also, in my view, both an expression of class-based ideology in the service of wealth and power (non-art) and ‘an expression of the artist’s own critical observation and insight (art)’. But then art tends to be complex like that.

And when Neil argues that ‘what John really means is that art is whatever he finds meaningful, while non-art is whatever he considers bland and uninteresting’, he is completely mistaken. My definition relates to the category of art not its quality. As I wrote:

I know from considerable experience that when I try to define the concept of art many people think I mean good or great art. They think if am arguing that Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided (his cut-up cows) is definitely a work of art that this can be answered by saying that they don’t like it or don’t think it is any good. This misunderstands my point. There has always been any amount of mediocre or downright poor art (or poetry or music etc) – the art galleries, libraries and music shops are full of it – but it is still art. In the same way there are Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and the lads kicking a ball around in my local park, but they are all playing football, just as there are Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen and myself and others worse than me who all play chess. It is the category I’m concerned with here not the quality. (pp.13-14)

To go back to my discussion with Ian Birchall, the later works of David Hockney are definitely art by my definition, as are the sculptures, in my view rather ‘bland and uninteresting’, of Anish Kapoor.

Thirdly Neil objects to me limiting the applicability of my definition to Western Art from the Renaissance onwards (i.e. art in the bourgeois era). He writes:

I do not think he can get away with that: either he is offering a definition of art per se or he is not… But I think Ian Birchall is right in his review of the book to doubt the usefulness of arguments over definition. We all know roughly what we mean by art.

The difficulty here is that the concept or category art that we use today is of relatively modern origin. It did not exist before the Renaissance (this is discussed at some length in the book) and the difficulties this can lead to are illustrated by Neil’s own definition of good or great art:

It is also, as Trotsky put it ‘a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic’; that is, it gives expression in some way to the contradictions of class society and humanity’s yearning to be free.

But the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, which I for one think are absolutely wonderful, cannot possibly be an expression of the contradictions of class society, nor are they a protest against reality. Does Neil think the Venus de Milo was those things?

Finally, I think that the not inconsiderable controversy stirred up by my book, and particularly by this section of it, precisely suggests that we don’t ‘all know roughly what we mean by art’ in any sense beyond the fact that the word has a broad common usage – a point made by Marcel Duchamp and much other modern art. This also leads me to expect that this debate will continue in various forms.

The Dialectics of Art can be purchased at Haymarket Books.

John Molyneux is a revolutionary socialist based in Ireland and the author of many books, including, most recently, The Dialectics of Art.

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