The debate amongst Marxists over the question of art has a long history. Both John Molyneux, the author of the new book The Dialectics of Art, and reviewer Ian Birchall have participated in it over the course of many decades. In his assessment of Molyneux’s book Birchall ranges across many aspects of the debate and its relation to the totality of Marxist theory, including alienation, ideology, individual taste, the question of comparative judgements and the validity of the category of nonart.
John Molyneux, The Dialectics of Art (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020) 271pp, £17.99
John Molyneux will be well-known to many on the left, as author of books on Marxist theory and a prolific contributor over five decades to the press of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain and more recently in Ireland. But he also has a lifelong interest in visual art. He was formerly a lecturer in art history; back in the days when the SWP’s Marxism event offered a lively exchange of exciting ideas, John frequently spoke on topics from art history, and for a time organised an art exhibition associated with the event.
Now he has produced a book devoted to both theories of art and specific examples from art history, including articles previous published in International Socialism and elsewhere. Some may regret that it is only now that John has found time to draw together his ideas in book form. With fewer paper sales and demonstrations, and less short-term political journalism, he might have developed his work earlier. In my view this would be mistaken. The strength of John’s work is precisely that he brings to it ideas and experiences from outside the world of art. Hence his thoughts are far more interesting than many self-contained and self-congratulatory products of art criticism, which John sometimes mocks as ‘wonderful nonsense’ (pp. 81-82). 
John’s aim is to give a Marxist perspective on the history of (mainly European) art since the Renaissance. This is a valuable and timely project. Recent attempts to discredit Black Lives Matter by calling it ‘Marxist’ will hopefully encourage young activists to enquire what Marxism actually is. A good place to turn would be John’s little book What is the real Marxist tradition? But those young activists also have cultural tastes and commitments, and it is important to argue that Marxism is not just a set of political and economic doctrines, but offers an account of the totality of human experience and development.
John comes to the task with an extensive knowledge of Marxism, deploying his familiarity with the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. At the same time he warns against what he calls a ‘semi-religious’ attitude to the classic texts (p. 243). A quotation may be used to clarify a point, but it can never be used to settle an argument, as all too many Marxists have believed.
John is particularly concerned with the question of ideology – the complex of ideas used to legitimate and preserve the existing oppressive order. He is well aware of the pervasive power of ideology. Some years ago he wrote an article in Socialist Worker in which he stated that ‘as products of a society in which racism and sexism (and many other reactionary ideas) are all pervasive, we all – black or white, male or female, Jew or gentile – retain traces of them.’ (Socialist Worker 1052, September 1987) The party leadership was outraged at the suggestion that they had not totally liberated themselves from the dominant ideology, and John was reduced to silence.
There is no such problem here. John shows how social relations – class and property – define how objects are depicted in art. ‘A hunter-gatherer and an eighteenth-century squire do not have the same relationship to a horse or a bull.’ And ‘social change’ explains ‘the different meaning of trees to Hobbema, Van Gogh and Mondrian’ (p. 70). Even politically progressive artists cannot escape the trammels of ideology – Picasso the anti-fascist painter of Guernica was guilty of misogyny (p. 133).
But John wholly rejects the idea, put forward by one of the followers of the French Communist Party philosopher Althusser, that art is nothing but ideology. On the contrary, he argues, ‘art… constitutes not just a passive reflection of social relations, but also an active, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, response to them.’ (p. 70, my emphasis) In other words there is a constant contradiction within artists’ work.
Hence John’s repeated use of the word dialectic. He does not provide a definition of this difficult and often misused term – but in his launch presentation at Bookmarks he suggested ‘how change occurs through contradiction’. His concern is to show that art is in a constant process of change and development, and that this development is driven by contradiction. Thus modern artists are ‘torn between the fact that many of their sympathies lie with the poor and the oppressed and the even more powerful fact that the key to their economic survival and success lies with pleasing the rich and superrich’ (pp. 204-05). 
The most illuminating parts of John’s book are where he develops the argument with reference to particular artists and their work. Thus he examines the work of Michelangelo and Rembrandt in the context of their time, the beginning of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It was a period of change, but all the potential was not realised. For John, Michelangelo expresses ‘the hope and the dream of the Renaissance and the despair and the misery of the betrayal and crushing of that dream.’ (p. 95) It is an experience that has a powerful echo for those who, like John and myself, lived through 1968 …. and its aftermath. While Rembrandt could not have held an anti-capitalist position, he could and did ‘rebel… against the experience of capitalist social relations, against the way capitalism treated people’ (p. 112), notably in his depiction of beggars.
He also looks at more recent – and controversial – artists. He makes a spirited defence of Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings were widely denounced as not being art at all – but were also promoted by the CIA to challenge the conservative artistic doctrines of the USSR. John shows that Pollock’s work was not the product of chance but showed ‘a highly controlled process’ (p. 181), and that the results were of considerable aesthetic value.
Likewise with the notorious ‘Young British Artists’ of a few years ago, and in particular Tracey Emin. Emin provoked the wrath of the right-wing press with such works as My Bed, which appeared to be simply the chaos of her own bedroom but was in fact ‘a consciously constructed work’ (p. 157). John also shows how her work is a deliberate response to the way women’s sexuality is treated in our society. He notes that Emin, having acquired considerable wealth, has become a Tory, but insists that this does not invalidate her earlier work, nor negate her continuing artistic skill (pp. 169-70). There is a link between art and politics, but it is not a simple one-to-one correspondence.
So far, so good. John’s book contains many valuable insights, both about art in general and about particular artists, far too many to enumerate here. I for one, as someone relatively ignorant of visual art, will look at many of the works John discusses with greatly increased understanding and appreciation. (Unfortunately the book has only a few rather inferior black-and-white illustrations. But almost any work discussed can be brought to the computer screen in a matter of seconds.)
However, I was less convinced by some of John’s more general arguments, especially in the two introductory chapters. I note my reservations not to undermine John’s work in any way – it should be widely read and discussed – but to encourage the further debate which the book will undoubtedly give rise to.
In his opening chapter, perhaps provoked by the way artists such as Pollock and Damien Hirst have been dismissed as ‘not art at all’, John confronts the question of what constitutes art. I must admit that any discussion of the question reminds me of a satirical poem by Kipling, The Conundrum of the Workshops, with its repeated refrain ‘but is it Art?’ I am very dubious as to how important the question is. The main function of a definition is to exclude, to say that certain works are ‘not art’. There are poems, paintings, songs etc., which may vary in quality and in how they are received. But what more do we learn by declaring that some are ‘art’ and some are not? John recognises that there are ‘problematic transitional cases between art and nonart’ (p. 9). I would argue that there are so many that the attempt to establish a boundary becomes futile.
This becomes more obvious when John puts his neck on the line and actually lists examples of art and nonart. Using musicians rather than painters, he lists some performers who are ‘art’ – and some who are not. The Beatles, we learn, are art – but ‘manufactured pop stars’ like the Monkees are not. [p. 36] Were the Beatles not ‘manufactured’? Who decided that Ringo should replace Pete Best? The attempt to draw such boundaries seems to me both impossible and pointless.
I pondered this further while listening to Daydream Believer, with its vivid evocation of one of the most familiar manifestations of alienation – getting up in the morning. So what can be said of my response to this piece of nonart – is it somehow tainted, shameful even?
John bases his argument for the definition of art on a refined version of an idea he originally developed in articles in the International Socialism journal and which he claims to be an original contribution to Marxist theory (p. 24). Art, according to John, is ‘work produced by unalienated human labour’ (p. 20), whereas elsewhere labour is outside the control of the worker.
I remain unconvinced. John notes that many artists ‘went on working right up to their deaths and long after any economic compulsion had disappeared’ (p. 19). But capitalists continue accumulating money, though they have far more than they could ever spend. Dictators cling on to power when a comfortable retirement would be available. Is this also ‘unalienated’ labour?
John himself provides ample evidence of the alienation of artists, of the way their control over their products is restricted by a variety of constraints deriving from capitalist society. And while he is quite right to stress the enormous power of alienation in capitalist society, is it quite as all-embracing as he claims? Again I am dubious. Throughout society, not just in art, workers attempt to resist alienation.
Take John’s own former profession – and mine – teaching. The rewarding activity of engaging with developing minds is constantly obstructed by incompetent, bullying managements. There is a battle for control. And no imposed syllabus, however authoritarian, can determine every word and gesture in the classroom.
Again I am now increasingly dependent on carers. Their work is often unpleasant, with long inconvenient hours. I sometimes tell them they need a union. Yet they often show kindness and generosity far beyond formal requirements. And some tell me they are happier meeting and helping people than they would be working in an office. Perhaps it’s what they think I want to hear. Perhaps not.
Above all, on a production line there is a constant struggle for control and against alienation – there are some vivid examples in Tony Cliff’s The Employers’ Offensive. In short, resistance to alienation exists everywhere – there is nothing unique about art.
Closely connected is John’s concern, in Chapter 2, to find a basis for making aesthetic judgements. In itself this is an important question. Artistic appreciation does not happen spontaneously, in a love-at-first-sight fashion when the observer confronts the work. We can all learn greatly from the work of art critics who point to the strengths – and the weaknesses – of a work and enable us to develop a more mature and informed response. John’s analyses in this book serve that purpose, and serve it very well.
Where I cannot follow him is when he attempts to make comparative judgements, to rank works in order of merit. This seems to me quite unnecessary. Some years ago playwright David Hare provoked a futile pseudo-controversy about whether we should affirm that ‘Keats is better than Bob Dylan’. 
Of course one could, equally pointlessly, state that Shakespeare is better than David Hare. It would tell us absolutely nothing about either Shakespeare or Hare. Such arguments are always more about the judge than the judged. Keats hardly needs the praise, and it is scarcely relevant to those seeking to appreciate Dylan. But Hare’s purpose was to signal that he had the superior judgement to make the comparison, and thus was superior to the riff-raff who actually liked Bob Dylan.
In a tantalising footnote John tells us that ‘the question of capitalist mass or popular culture and the Marxist analysis thereof is complex and interesting, but it will have to wait for another day.’ (p. 255) I hope the day soon comes and that I live to see it.
John acknowledges that many aesthetic judgements derive from ‘upper class arrogance’ or ‘snobbery’ (pp. 15, 47). In fact I think it is not so much the upper class proper – I doubt if Richard Branson spends a lot of time on Keats – as a layer of academics and writers seeking to preserve their own status by establishing an aesthetic hierarchy. But he cannot resist the temptation to demonstrate his method by making a comparison of two art works.
He contrasts two landscapes – A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Rubens and Garrowby Hill by Hockney (pp. 62-63). He judges that the superiority of the Rubens is ‘obvious’. I have to say that if I were offered the choice which of the two (reproductions) I would prefer to have hanging on my wall, I should unhesitatingly choose the Hockney. The Rubens merely reproduces – with great skill – a scene that can be observed in ‘real life’, whereas Hockney offers an inventive and imaginative use of colour. Doubtless John will disagree vigorously.
This leads to an even more fundamental question – that of individuality. John cites Marx’s definition of a socialist society – ‘the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.’ (p. 177) If we reject the competitive individualism which is the dominant ideology of modern capitalism, we also recognise that the end of capitalism would mean a massive unleashing of individuality.
Our response to art derives from experience, from association, and from personal taste which may have biological roots. Under socialism we should be free from the tyranny of ‘fashion’, which as John recognises, heavily determines what might appear to be a ‘purely personal decision’. (pp. 43-44) Fashion is the very negation of style. As Marx wrote ‘My property is the form, which is my spiritual individuality.’
I once read a novel by a French Stalinist in which the author gives a brief vision of a communist future. At a railway depot, when the working day ends, all the workers are loaded into coaches and taken to the opera. No alternative for those who might have preferred New Orleans Jazz or death metal. Everyone will appreciate the same universally recognised ‘great art’. I don’t think John quite believes this, but some of his arguments point dangerously in that direction.
On the contrary in a socialist society there would be an enormous diversity of artistic taste. Of course we should all argue vigorously in defence of our choices, and we should all learn from the arguments, sometimes changing our minds, sometimes not. But there would not be, and could not be, a definitive hierarchy.
I have stressed these disagreements, not to undermine John’s book, but because I think it is an important contribution to an ongoing discussion about art and socialism. Hopefully others will take the arguments further.
 A student of art history once told me he had devoted much effort to his first essay, but got a mediocre mark. His second essay he copied from an exhibition catalogue and got an ‘A’.
 I might note that this view of dialectics based on the dynamics of human development makes a nonsense of the argument John has made elsewhere that there is a dialectic in nature; but that is another debate.
 My immediate response was to say I never heard Keats play guitar.