Cultural Marxism? A review of The Dialectics of Art

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.

Painting of a rural landscape by Peter Paul Rubens entitled A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning
A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Peter Paul Rubens

John Molyneux, The Dialectics of Art (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020) 271pp, £17.99

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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). [1]

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). [2]

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.

Cover of book The Dialectics of Art by John Molyneux

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[3] 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’. [4]

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.

References

[1] 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’.

[2] 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.

[3] See Chris Nineham’s critique and John’s reply.

[4] My immediate response was to say I never heard Keats play guitar.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The argument for ‘art’ as a sphere of unalienated labour begs the question what is ‘art’? As John writes, it emerges in its modern sense as a distinct category in the 18th century, and is then retrospectively applied to large areas of human activity from the past which were never perceived as such at the time.

    It is a term which in practice is used in various different ways (for example ‘art’ lessons at school) but the one that concerns us here is the art industry. Within this context, the meaning of the term is determined by a set of institutions that police the (fluid) boundaries of ‘art’ and decide what is and isn’t permitted entry at a particular point in time.

    The nature of these institutions has changed radically over the decades – for example from the conservative official Salon of late 19th century France that excluded the Impressionists to the self-consciously avant-garde likes of the Serpentine and Whitechapel galleries in London today.

    But ‘art’ in this sense is simply what the industry produces, regardless of its merit. Marcel Duchamp summed this up neatly way back in 1917 when he submitted a (signed) urinal to an exhibition committee – an action he performed as part of the anti-art Dadaist movement.

    It seems fruitless (and idealist) to me to pursue any other definition. Of course we can and should champion the stuff we like or admire, regardless of its relationship to the ‘art’ institutions. But whether or not it has been labelled ‘art’ by those who have the power to do so is fairly irrelevant.

    In a socialist society these hapless categories of art – and artists – would wither away as such activity would become part of our daily existence as rounded human beings.

    Regarding the idea that ‘art’ is unalienated labour, one doesn’t have to look far to find abundant evidence to the contrary. Are the minions slaving away in the studios of Hirst and the Chapman brothers to produce their ‘art’ unalienated? Hirst once employed 250 people – from accountants to artisans – in the production of his ‘art’. In all likelihood many of Hirst’s ‘artistic creations’ were never blessed by the magic touch of his hands.

    This is not a new phenomenon. Many of the celebrity ‘artists’ of the past had studios full of assistants helping them to produce their work – up to and including the application of paint – but they only received a fraction of the renumeration and recognition of their masters. And a good deal less creative freedom. But that freedom was severely limited even for their masters, who were often given detailed instructions by those who commissioned the work.

    Even when we look at the case of individual artists, who produce work ‘authentically’ their own, we find that in order to survive they are frequently forced to make all sorts of miserable compromises. Ultimately, they have to adapt to the demands of the market – either that or get a second job – or have a wealthy family. (And the market these days is remarkably vacuous, and dominated by the superrich)

    Finally, regarding the second of the two criteria John suggests for his definition of art – striving to unite form and content. This is certainly not peculiar to the sphere of ‘artistic’ activity – for example it is a fundamental principle of design.

  2. Here is my response to Ian’s review of my book. I submitted this to RS21 but they refused to publish it as an article, a legacy of their split with the SWP in 2013-4 and somewhat ironical in view of the comments immediately above, so I’m posting it here. I’m quite keen to try to focus debate on what my arguments actually are as opposed to just what is said about them.

    In Response to Ian Birchall

    John Molyneux

    I would like to start by thanking Ian Birchall for his very fair, indeed generous, review of my book on art . I was particularly pleased that he appreciated the various studies of particular artists and their work which form the central section of the book but which are often neglected in favour of focusing on the more controversial theoretical arguments in the first two chapters. And it is nice that he thinks ‘The strength of John’s work is precisely that he brings to it ideas and experiences from outside the world of art’, though I do lack the expertise of the specialist scholar.
    However I would also like to respond to Ian’s disagreements, especially with a view to clarifying, for the purpose of further discussion, what exactly I am arguing.
    On the thorny issue of ‘what is art?’ Ian says he is ‘very dubious as to how important the question is’. But in addition to the problem of people rejecting Pollock, Hirst and so on as ‘not art’ there is also a significant historical issue involved. The concept of art as a distinct area of creative human activity has not always existed. It arose first in the Renaissance and was consolidated in the 18th century. Why? My argument is that ‘art’ in this sense developed in parallel with but also in tension with the spread of wage labour and capitalism. As human labour, the means by which the human race created itself, became more and more alienated and commodified, so art emerged as a distinct and separate sphere in which the producer/artist controlled the process of production even if they had to sell their products. This point, which I support with a good deal of argument and quotations from Marx and Morris etc, seems to have been missed by Ian. It also has substantial political implications.
    Also there is a misunderstanding I’d like to clear up. Ian writes, after giving some examples, that ‘resistance to alienation exists everywhere – there is nothing unique about art.’ This is true but actually it is an important part of my argument and in the book I give a number of examples of unalienated (producer controlled) labour. Art, I say, is only one form of this and that is why I propose a second element in my definition of art, namely that it involves a striving to unite form and content. Again Ian seems not to have taken this into account.
    On the question of making comparative aesthetic judgments I am aware that this is a contentious and sensitive issue – people often feel they are being told what they should and shouldn’t like. Nevertheless as I argue in the book I think that, at a social level, judgment, if not ranking in some strict order of merit, is inescapable. I also think most individuals make such judgments even if not in systematic or thought out way. Indeed it seems to me that Ian makes such judgments in passing, without noticing it, even in this review. Thus he writes ‘There are poems, paintings, songs etc., which may vary in quality [my emphasis – JM]’. Exactly. Also, ‘We can all learn greatly from the work of art critics who point to the strengths – and the weaknesses – of a work’. Well if I point out that work A has many strengths and only a few weaknesses but work B has grievous weaknesses but few strengths, I am actually making a comparative judgment. Indeed in one sentence on Rubens and 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’ makes three evaluative aesthetic judgments, none of which I happen to agree with, as a basis for a comparative assessment.
    It also seems to me an inescapable fact that in virtually all spheres of human endeavour people differ in their levels of achievement . This is true of mathematics, science (not everyone is Newton or Einstein , running, chess, mountain climbing (some people can scale Everest, Ian and I couldn’t manage Ben Nevis), singing (we don’t all have voices to match Paul Robeson, Aretha Franklyn and Maria Callas) and revolutionary politics – I assume Ian and I agree that Lenin was a greater revolutionary Marxist than Zinoviev and that Tony Cliff (‘the most remarkable person I ever met’ – Ian Birchall) stood somewhat above some of his erstwhile comrades. So why would it not also apply to art? Indeed it is manifestly the case that Michelangelo was an above average carver of stone and that Titian was more skilled in the handling of paint than Jack Vettriano. Of course making judgments between Michelangelo and Verrocchio, Rembrandt and Hals, or Picasso and Dali is more nuanced than this but that is why I discuss, extensively, the criteria on which such judgments have been made in the past and what Marxism might add to these. Overall it seems to me if we can’t distinguish art from non-art and we can’t make judgments of quality, which are inherently comparative, we are in a very weak position to make an critical analysis of it at all.
    But there is one last point on which I want to insist most strongly. Ian writes:
    “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.”
    The last sentence here is seriously misleading and unwarranted. As Ian should know, I have always stood completely against any idea of state (or party) imposition in the sphere of art and I repeat this in the book, frequently citing approvingly Trotsky defence of artistic freedom against Stalinist dictation and conformity. As far as I’m concerned Ian should be able to listen to The Monkees and gaze at David Hockney to his heart’s content, before or after the revolution.

  3. Engaging review and makes some strong critical points. The terms ‘ideology’ (both sociological and epistemological) and ‘alienation’ need careful disinterring from some common misleading uses. The idea that art is ‘work produced by unalienated human labour’ deifies artists, if its art its unalienated if its alienated its not art? Who decides? The Executive Committee. This only serves to demonstrate the myopia of using definitions as conclusive, determinative and final instead of sign posts on a journey to understanding. Perhaps the most worry aspect of this review is the revelation that Molyneux was gagged by political considerations – that’s not the Marxism I embrace or the politics of working people. What is scandalous is that this happened and those in the SWP knew it was happening but did nothing about it. Marxist politics if it is to succeed has to be open, transparent, self critical, and democratic it cannot be the opaque politics of the SWP or the Vatican.

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