Though The Dialectics of Art is largely a compendium of old articles from the International Socialism Journal, it is none the worse for that, and can be strongly recommended as a collection of essays by a very intelligent Marxist who has spent a lifetime thinking, talking, and teaching about art. I gained fresh understanding of art in general and fresh insight into artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Tracy Emin. The book is pretty well guaranteed to set any of us thinking, and to heighten our awareness when engaging with art, especially if we also take the trouble to read some of the commentary around it. A good place to start would be Ian Birchall’s review and the discussion on the RS21 website (here).
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. I think critical commentators have been quite right to focus on this as a somewhat troublesome formulation. 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?
Perhaps they are all non-art? The Lascaux paintings were produced in the service of primitive hunting rituals. The Venus de Milo was a pagan fertility idol. The Palatine Chapel mosaics were depictions of ancient religious myths filtered through a 12th century feudal worldview. Holbein’s portrait was a dazzling, flattering, power-worshipping depiction of the idealised Renaissance prince. All of these were created by artists (or should it be non-artists?) working for patrons – the tribe, the city-state, the Norman king, the Tudor court.
John covers himself by telling us that he is concerned only with Western art from the Renaissance, but I do not think he can get away with that: either he is offering a definition of art per se or he is not. To be of any use, the definition of an abstract category like art has to be generic. 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’? 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, so let’s talk about the actual artworks.
On the other hand, I think critics who diss John’s arguments by falling back on simplistic class-reductionism are quite wrong. Chris Nineham is surely guilty of this in a 1999 article written in response to John’s first presentation of his core argument that art is work produced by unalienated labour. Chris says that all forms of artistic production in class society must reflect the pervasive alienation: that unalienated artwork is, therefore, impossible (here). Thus he concludes:
First, I think we are deluding ourselves if we believe that any aspect of our lives completely escapes the alienation imposed by capitalist relations. Despite our best efforts, everything from our health to our personal relations is deeply affected by our lack of control over the central social processes.
Secondly, the idea that artistic production is unalienated could easily encourage an uncritical attitude to art. It could even lead us to accept the simplistic and elitist distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture so beloved of the right.
This seems quite wrong. I will have more to say about these arguments below, but let me register two stark objections at this point. It simply is not true that everything that happens in class society is necessarily alienated; this is hopelessly one-sided (or, in more technical language, undialectical). Again, I find myself in agreement with Ian Birchall’s review. Alienation is not a fixed quantity. You have only to open your eyes to see this. Compare the social experience of the specialist consultant and the ward nurse in an NHS hospital with that of the domestic on the minimum wage who works for the outsourced catering company. Or to give a historical example, I do not believe that the master stonemasons who carved the sculptures that adorn our cathedrals, or the fresco painters who decorated the interiors, were particularly alienated when engaged at their work.
Nor is it ‘elitist’ to distinguish between good and bad art. Most ‘low culture’ in capitalist society is garbage delivered by corporate media. Sorry if this sounds elitist, but Big Brother and The Apprentice are moronic crap, whereas the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Picasso are monuments of creative achievement.
Oddly, as far as I can see, there has been relatively little reference to Trotsky in this debate (though John himself makes numerous references in The Dialectics of Art). I say ‘oddly’ because Trotsky was a voracious reader of contemporary literature, published extensively on the subject, and was a leading protagonist in the Proletkult (‘proletarian culture’) debate after the Russian Revolution. A handy collection of his work was published by Pathfinder in 1970 under the title Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art.
As it happens, this collection was edited and introduced by one Paul Siegel, who was the son of New York Jewish radicals who had migrated from Tsarist Russia, became himself a lifelong revolutionary activist in the US, and became also a leading Shakespeare scholar with an international academic reputation.
This, as far as I am concerned, is all happy coincidence, for I want to refocus the art debate by reference to Trotsky’s analysis of art and literature in general and Siegel’s analysis of Shakespeare in particular. I find the former insightful but inconsistent and incomplete. I think the concrete example of Shakespeare shows why this is so. And I would suggest that the generalisations we can safely make about Shakespeare as an artist allow us to hazard a somewhat fuller definition of good or important art (as opposed to art in general).
I am sure that I am not the first to have noticed this – it may even be something John talks about in his book that I have forgotten – but I want to draw attention to what seems to me a fairly obvious inconsistency in Trotsky’s theory of art. On the one hand, he makes free use of terms like ‘bourgeois culture’, ‘bourgeois art’, and ‘bourgeois literature’, with the clear implication that all works produced in the bourgeois epoch must necessarily carry this label.
In my view, these terms are effectively meaningless. They imply an extreme form of class-reductionism that turns artists into automatons and propagandists. We do not label the windmill ‘feudal’ and the steam engine ‘bourgeois’, because each is a machine, a piece of technology, inherently incapable of having a class identity. No more should we label Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ‘feudal’ or Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd ‘bourgeois’. What would we mean if we did so?
And in fact, elsewhere, Trotsky is quite clear that culture is a collective human achievement and a cumulative process, with each generation building on all that has gone before. This immediately loosens the connection between a specific artwork and the epoch in which it is produced.
But Trotsky, as I understand him, further argues that a distinction must be made between the historically specific (and therefore class-based) aspects of an artwork and the more generic aspects which concern the human condition in general. He advances this distinction in his polemic against the exponents of Proletkult, who rejected all previous culture as hopelessly tainted by its class origin in favour of a wholly new proletarian culture.
Trotsky was, of course, right against the crude workerism of Proletkult, but his own argument was problematic. It is an example of dualism, not dialectics, for it invites us to read an artwork as comprising two separate elements, one historical relic, the other timeless abstraction, not as an integrated whole. This will not do. And it was not, in fact, Trotsky’s position in his most intelligent commentaries.
Consider two statements from 1938. The first is from an article entitled ‘Art and Politics in Our Epoch’:
… art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for these major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.
I think this is quite incompatible with any concept of ‘bourgeois art’. Likewise the following, this time from Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, part of Trotsky’s attempt to build a Fourth International in the face of Fascism and Stalinism:
… the role of the artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various forms which are hostile to him.
… the ideal ‘self’ … marshals against the unbearable present reality all those powers of the interior world, of the ‘self’, which are common to all men and which are constantly flowering and developing. The need for emancipation felt by the individual spirit has only to follow its natural course to be led to mingle its stream with this primeval necessity – the need for the emancipation of man.
Nor is it simply the case that the ‘mature’ Trotsky advanced a better argument than the ‘young’ Trotsky, for we find essentially the same idea in articles written before the revolution. In an obituary written following the death of Leo Tolstoy in 1910, for example, he had this to say of the great writer (who was, incidentally, a landowning aristocrat and a conservative anarchist and pacifist):
… he passionately sought the truth and, having found it, was not afraid to proclaim it. Truth in and of itself possesses a terrible, explosive power: once proclaimed, it irresistibly gives rise to revolutionary conclusions in the consciousness of the masses.
This is quite close to Ernst Fischer’s conception of art in The Necessity of Art (1959), a study that I consider pretty seminal. He says, for example,
Different classes and social systems, while developing their own ethos, have contributed to the forming of a universal human ethos. The concept of freedom, though it always corresponds to the conditions and aims of a class or a social system, nevertheless tends to grow into an all-embracing idea…
The more we come to know of long-forgotten works of art, the clearer become their common and continuous elements, despite their variety. Fragment joins fragment to make humanity.
There is much of this argument of Trotsky’s and Fischer’s in John’s The Dialectics of Art. His essay on Michelangelo, for example, is a quite brilliant reading of the artist, summed up in the title, ‘Michelangelo and Human Emancipation’, and also when he writes in his conclusion that Michelangelo expressed more than any other artist ‘the hope and dream of the Renaissance and the despair and misery of the betrayal and crushing of that dream’.
But I want to push the argument one stage further. I do not claim any originality for the general idea I wish to advance, but I do think that it deserves much more emphasis and that it has got rather lost in the recent debate. And I shall use Shakespeare as my case study.
Much of the vast academic literature on Shakespeare is, needless to say, flawed by the inability of most mainstream scholars to see the whole. They study the language, the plots, the characterisation, the literary influences, and so on, but without any attempt to provide contemporary social context. Shakespeare becomes a free-floating genius without time or place. The same can be said of most mainstream academic commentary on the arts.
Central to Paul Siegel’s work was his insistence that Shakespeare had to be studied in relation to what he called ‘the Elizabethan Compromise’. His argument was that the late Tudor monarchy rested upon a balance between three social classes: a traditional feudal-type aristocracy in relative decline; a new court-based aristocracy of service created by the Tudor monarchs; and a rising mercantile bourgeoisie concentrated in London, other port cities, and the south-eastern counties.
I think this is broadly correct, though I would add a fourth class: ‘the middling sort’ (as they were known at the time) of minor gentlemen and yeoman farmers in the countryside and small traders and artisans in the towns; the class from which both the new aristocracy and the mercantile bourgeoisie were recruited, and which was a mainstay of the Tudor monarchy, the Reformation, and, in due course, the Revolution.
But the balance between these forces was, in the nature of things, unstable. The decline of old ties of feudal service and patronage, the commercialisation of social relations, the growing dominance of the cash nexus, etc, all in the context of a fast-developing capitalist economy, meant that traditional values were in question, new ideas were being advanced, and no-one any longer was quite sure where they stood. It was an age of social transition and therefore an age of uncertainty.
This is the very foundation-block of tragic drama. And it just so happens that Shakespeare was writing at the precise moment of the Elizabethan Compromise’s breakdown, a process which began around 1590 and was to culminate in the revolutionary outbreak of 1640. His first play, 2 Henry VI, was written in 1590-1, his last (under sole authorship anyway), The Tempest, in 1611-12.
For what is the essence of tragedy? It is a conflict which permits of no simple solution. It is a clash of opposing forces that is also a clash of alternative values and worldviews. It is contradiction. Astute scholars like E M W Tillyard (The Elizabethan World Picture) and A C Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy) have detected a clearly defined moral sense behind Shakespeare’s plays, a moral sense derived from a common Elizabethan zeitgeist. Evil, they argue, is the work of malevolent characters who violate the moral order in pursuit of ambition, honour, vengeance, or some other private purpose.
But this is less than half the story. The world would be a relatively manageable place if our only problem was the malevolence of tyrants like Macbeth or sociopaths like Iago. But that is not the case, and in fact few of Shakespeare’s major characters are mere incarnations of evil. More often than not, what confronts us, and what makes the situation depicted tragic, is a collision between social forces agitated by alternative worldviews.
I am going to give just two examples, because my purpose here is to tease out what I consider to be the essence of good art, not embark on detailed Shakespearean criticism. I want to comment first on the eight English history plays that cover the entire period from 1399 to 1485. In historical order (but not, as it happens, in order of composition), they are: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Henry V, 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, and Richard III.
A central thread running through all these plays is the question of legitimacy. Is there a divinely-ordained hereditary right to rule, such that an anointed king who is the heir and successor of his royal father is inviolate (a traditional feudal perspective)? Or does the right to rule depend upon the prince’s fitness for his role, on his qualities of statesmanship, military prowess, ability to maintain order, and respect for rank, property, the rule of law, custom and practice, and the whole moral order of society (the Renaissance ideal)? When, therefore, might it be legitimate to rise against the crown to overthrow a king and place a usurper on the throne?
My second example concerns the clash between feudal honour and absolutist authority. These terms are somewhat crude, but no others immediately come to mind, so let them suffice. This is, of course, a clash of values rooted in the changing class structure of Shakespeare’s epoch. The traditional aristocracy of blood – a decaying social class based on hereditary landownership, regional power, and lordly retinues and dependants – was preoccupied with questions of family honour, obligations to kin, and, when prestige was threatened, personal vengeance and the blood feud. The new forces – the court aristocracy of service, the mercantile bourgeoisie, the middling sort – favoured centralised state power, a strong monarchy, and the rule of law, these being the essential basis of commercial enterprise and their own advancement.
We meet this conflict, these two principles of politics, repeatedly, in one form or another, in Shakespeare’s plays. It is represented, for example, in the contrast between Harry Hotspur, the young, prickly, impetuous scion of the Percies, one of the most powerful feudal families in the North, and Prince Hal, the later Henry V, whose transformation from backstreet debauchee to great warrior-king is a central thread running through 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. The duel between the two on the battlefield of Shrewsbury in 1403 – when Prince Hal slays Hotspur – represents the triumph of a new Tudor conception of monarchy. It was feudal anarchy suppressed by the Renaissance state.
These questions – and many others like them derived from the clash of ideas in Shakespeare’s age of uncertainty – were live questions for all Elizabethans. It was precisely because there was no common zeitgeist between 1590 and 1612 that we have Shakespeare, history’s greatest playwright. And not the least part of his extraordinary genius is that we do not really know what he himself thought. Despite endless speculation and debate about his views, for which the plays themselves are virtually the only evidence, we are left with little more than broad-brush guesses. Like all great tragedians, he is laying bare the conflicts and posing the questions, but leaving us to ponder the contradictions of the human predicament and attempt answers if we dare.
The social context – a society experiencing slow-motion breakdown on the road to revolution – underlies Shakespeare’s achievement. But there is a general lesson to be drawn: great art gives expression not only, as Trotsky put it, to the primeval necessity for human emancipation, but also to the contradictory character of social reality. To put it another way, great art concerns the struggle of humanity to break the shackles of exploitation and oppression.
It need not do this consciously and explicitly, in the manner of, say, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. More often the focus is likely to be more diffuse, as, for example, in Thomas Hardy’s portrayal of patriarchy and women’s oppression in Tess of the d’Urbevilles. Or, returning to art in the more restricted sense of images, while Picasso’s Guernica is the most direct expression of rage against the violence of fascism on canvas that one could imagine, and while Andy Warhol’s paintings of celebrities and soup cans are obvious critiques of the society of the spectacle and mass consumption, Tracy Emin’s My Bed, as John explains in The Dialectics of Art, draws attention, but much more indirectly, to such issues as the sexual stereotyping of women as housekeepers. ‘A messed-up house shames a woman, makes her a ‘slut’, much more than it does a man’ is John’s comment on this.
Ignoring the ‘what is art’ debate, let me conclude by offering a definition of good or great art, art that matters, art that deserves our attention. Not only does it involve an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally powerful fusion of form and content, such that we are engaged and moved; not only is it necessarily the product of unalienated labour, or at least of labour that is unalienated at the moment of the artwork’s creation; 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.
Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and historian who has been lecturing on art, especially that of ancient Greece and Rome, for about 25 years.
Anti-War Art Book Review Books Capitalism China Climate Emergency Conservative Government Conservative Party COVID-19 Creeping Fascism Economics EcoSocialism Elections Event Video Fascism Film Film Review France Global Police State History Imperialism Israel Italy Keir Starmer Labour Party Long Read Marxism Marxist Theory Migrants NATO Palestine pandemic Police Protest Resistance Books Russia Solidarity Sport Statement Trade Unionism Transgender Ukraine United States of America War