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Michael Harrington

A Marxist Approach to Art

The Complex Relation between Art and Society

(Spring 1956)

From The New International, Vol. XXII No. 1, Spring 1956, pp. 40–49.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

... distinctions should always be made between the material revolution in the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the juridical, poetical, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic – in short, ideological forms – in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. – The Preface to the Critique of Political Economy


This is where a Marxist critical theory must begin – with a warning that art is different, that it isn’t “just” an expression of society. We are dealing with a phenomenon which involves consciousness, in a particularly intricate way, and we shall understand it. not so much by assimilating it to that to which it is related, but by seeing it in its own distinct qualities. To distinguish art in this way from any exact correspondence to the dynamics of economic development floes not mean that we make it independent of society. Rather, we must look for a subtle inter-action of the creativeness of man’s consciousness and its social context.

Such an introduction may seem to be the simple repetition of ideas so fundamental that they are cliches. But, alas, these ideas have too often been reserved for the ceremonial occasion – a quote from a later Engels letter is produced to refute a charge of vulgar materialism and is then forgotten as soon as an actual critical problem arises. Because of this, reiteration is a necessity if the insights of Marxism are to be an instrument for understanding art.

>FIRST, THE BASIC principle of a Marxist criticism must be developed in some detail: that art stands in a unique relation to society.

In his famous letter to Conrad Schmidt, Engels describes the action of consciousness in the realm of ideology. He writes:

“I consider the ultimate supremacy of economic development established in these spheres (those of ideology) too, but it comes to pass within conditions imposed by the particular sphere itself; in philosophy, for instance, through the operation of economic influences (which again generally only act under political etc. disguises) upon the existing philosophic material handed down by predecessors. Here economy creates nothing absolutely new (a novo), but it determines the way in which the existing material of thought is altered and further developed, and that too for the most part indirectly, for it is the political, legal, and moral reflexes which exercise the greatest influences upon philosophy.” (My emphasis.)

This statement is fundamental to a Marxist critical theory. To begin with, it gives to consciousness – or more specifically, the history of consciousness – a weight of its own, a certain limited autonomy. Secondly, it warns that the relationship between art and a society will be subtle, devious, indirect. And finally, if we can analogize Engels’ comment on philosophy to aesthetics, it grants to this area of autonomy the “greatest direct influence” upon the development of art. Marx made an even more extreme statement of the same point when he wrote:

“It is well known that certain periods of the highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, or with the material basis and the skeleton of its organization.”

And yet, paradoxically, it is precisely here, where Marx and Engels are most aware of the way in which art can be independent from a society, that they are basing themselves upon their most profound insight into the social nature of art. In 1844, Marx wrote:

“Only through the objectively unfolding richness of the human being is the richness of subjective human sensuousness, such as a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form, in short, senses capable of human enjoyment and which prove to be essentially human powers, developed and partly created.”

The growth of society, social life, is the bedrock upon which the aesthetic builds: “The formation of the five senses is the work of the entire history of the world up to now.”

In the Political Economy, Marx went into this point in greater detail. Greek art, he remarks, can be accounted for as a product of Greek society – but how then do we explain our reaction to it? Why is Jupiter still significant in the age of the lightning rod? Marx’s answer is a curious one. He compares this experience to a man remembering his childhood, and locates it in a certain sense of nostalgia, a reaction to that which will never be again. But in the last resort, he is forced to posit an “eternal charm” for Greek art. In other words, the experience of art, as distinguished from an objective analysis of its causation, is not felt as being dependent on time and place. In this one area, man, his consciousness, is transcendent of history – this is the truly unique character of the aesthetic experience.

Thus, for Marx and Engels the role of consciousness in relation to art was dual: in one sense, it separates art from society, granting to it a certain autonomy of development; but in a deeper sense, the source of this autonomy is, exactly, social life, the historical development of the five senses. The latter point is important to a Marxist philosophy of art, the former to a critical theory. Given all of Engels qualifications, we can arrive at a sort of negative rule: that we cannot argue from the existence of a certain kind of society to the necessity for a certain artistic style or even content. We will always be faced with an empirical problem in which the economic influences, but does not determine, the aesthetic. As Arnold Hauser has remarked, “... the same style can be connected with very different social forms ... the same social system can be connected with the most various styles of art ...”

Two concrete cases should suggest the actual workings of this complicated relationship of art to society.

In Historical Materialism, Bukharin attempted to defend a fairly mechanistic theory of art and society, insisting that style is a social determinant. In doing this, he wrote:

“With the growth of the bourgeoisie, with the battle and victory, a new style was brought forth, the best representative of which is, in French painting, David. This style was the embodiment of the bourgeois virtues of the revolutionary bourgeois.”

But here is Plekhanov on the same point:

“The example of David shows better than anything else that French classicism at the end of the eighteenth century was conservative ... only in form. Its content was entirely steeped in the most revolutionary spirit.”

Thus, for Plekhanov, it is possible to have a conservative form contain a revolutionary content, and to do so in a period of ... social revolution.

Plekhanov’s description is more in accord with reality than Bukharin’s. As Hauser points out in his Social History of Art, David’s painting was supported before the revolution by both aristocracy and government. He also notes that bourgeois taste would seem to have been more logically impelled toward the sentimentalism of Greuze or the naturalism of Chardin. That this did not happen, he argues, was a function of the specific needs of the bourgeoisie at that time (the development of the heroic, “Roman” virtues). Thus, the complexity of the matter, Bukharin notwithstanding: an tin bourgeois form made the transition from ancient regime to revolution and in doing so was transformed in content so as to become the revolutionary expression of the bourgeois spirit.

To take a second example. In his Studies in Iconology, Erwin Panofsky writes.

“The Middle Ages were by no means blind to the visual value of classical art ... (but) classical motifs were not used for the representation of classic themes, and conversely, classical themes were not expressed by classical motifs.”

And, “It was the privilege of the Renaissance proper to reintegrate the classical themes with the classical motifs.” Here again, perhaps even more dramatically than in the case of David, we have the subtle role of the past in the relation of art to society. The classical consciousness persists in a distorted manner (form separated from content) in an age which was the very antithesis of the classical period. There is a reintegration in still another period in which the classical model is understood according to the needs of a non-classic age.

But does this then mean that artistic form, and even content, are completely independent of society in their development? Not at all. As Wylie Sypher observed in his Four Stages of Renaissance Style:

“If style is a mode of representation, yet the artist is bound to represent the world in which he lives, to which he belongs. Therefore not all kinds of style are available at any given time, since a style is modified by the artists’ own vision, and his vision in turn, by the world he inhabits.” (my emphasis)

In other words, there are certain broad limits. The development of art and Elizabethan society did not provide a basis for the novel, this was a fundamental limitation. Yet within this broad structure, it made it quite definitely possible for Shakespeare to be something much more complicated than an expression of “the dynamic force of individuality” (Caudwell’s phrase). One need only contrast Henry V with Lear to see the point.

Let me conclude this part of the discussion with an example of an excellent analysis of the massive and complex inter relationship of art and society. The quotation is from Panofsky's Meaning in the Visual Arts.

“In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for instance ... the traditional type of the Nativity with the Virgin Mary reclining in bed or on a couch was frequently replaced by a new one which shows the Virgin kneeling before the Child in adoration. From a compositional point of view this change means, roughly speaking, the substitution of a triangular scheme for a rectangular one; from an iconographical point of view, it means the introduction of a new theme to be formulated in writing by such authors as Pseudo-Bonaventure and St. Bridget. But at the same time it reveals a new emotional attitude peculiar to the latter phases of the Middle Ages. A really exhaustive interpretation of the intrinsic meaning or content might even show that the technical procedures characteristic of a certain country, period or artist, for instance Michelangelo’s preference for sculpture in stone instead of in bronze ... are symptomatic of the same basic attitude that is discernible in all other specific qualities of his style.”

We could not predict the development which Panofsky describes, even in the broad sense that we can say that where there is capitalism, there is a free wage worker. We cannot formulate a precise term, “late feudal art,” simply by analyzing the social conditions of the period. But given the actual art of the time and its social context, we can see a maze of interrelationships, we can gain a new perspective – ultimately, we can see the art better. And that is the task of criticism.

>SO FAR WE HAVE BEEN discussing art as one type of ideology, whose development, like that of all ideology, differs from, and yet is related to, the development of society. But we must probe deeper. Some time ago, R.P. McKeon, the Chicago philosopher, summarized the current critical situation in Modern Philology. He wrote:

“The basic question among present day (critical) oppositions, perhaps, is whether one discusses art adequately by discussing something else, or by discussing art, for in the former case, other oppositions turn on what precise subject other than art should be discussed and, in the latter case, of what art itself is.”

How does a Marxist criticism address itself to this formulation? Is it simply a “reductive” theory which discusses art as something else? Does it have a conception of “art itself?” The crucial point is how the Marxist conceives art as apart from all other ideological forms, where he locates its specific difference, its particular quality. Once this is defined, we can return to McKeon’s opposition and place the Marxist theory in relation to contemporary criticism.

Once more, let Engels introduce the subject. In a letter to Minna Kautsky, he described successful didactic literature (citing Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Dante, Cervantes, the contemporary Russian and Norwegian novel) and then went on to say:

“I am by no means opposed to tendentious novels ... But I believe that the thesis must inhere in the situation and action, without being explicitly formulated, and that the author is under no obligation to provide the reader with the future solution to the historical conflict which he describes.”

In another letter, to Margaret Harkness on Balzac, he went even further, writing, “The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better the work of art.” Clearly, Engels is here making a sharp distinction between art and all other ideological forms. The relationship of a philosophy, or an economic analysis, to the solution of the historical conflict which produced it is an essential, if not the controlling, element in the Marxist evaluation of them. But here, the “situation and action,” posed in an almost Aristotelian sense, present a reality independent of even the author’s own intention and politics. We have then, at least from Engels’ point of view, a unique mode of communication.

The clearest instance in which this attitude operated was, of course, Marx and Engels’ admiration of Balzac. Balzac was pro-feudal, reactionary, legitimist, anti-working class ... and, in their opinion, the greatest novelist of his time. To be sure, Marx and Engels had a tendency to treat him as a social document rather than as a novelist (Engels said that he learned more about French social conditions from Balzac than anywhere else), but even then as a peculiar, special kind of social document. And this has a tremendous bearing on a Marxist critical theory.

It might be argued that just such a distinction is present whenever Marx discusses an ideology, for he sees every ideology as a truth upside down – as in a camera obscura, in Engels’ phrase. But the example of Balzac goes beyond that. In the case of other ideologies this fact is tolerated only so long as it is necessary. Religion is conceived as a legitimate, even a profound, expression of man’s cry of alienation only in pre-scientific times. In his own day, Marx saw it as a reactionary mystification. And yet, he also recognizes that a Greek art based on a hopelessly unscientific mythology retains its appeal – it is even a standard of excellence – in a scientific age. And Balzac is admired even though he is classically reactionary, a pro-feudalist in the era of the bourgeois revolution.

In this attitude toward Balzac and Greek art, in Engels’ letters to Minna Kautsky and Margaret Harkness, there is the basis of a fundamental generalization: that art communicates in a unique way; it is, in a sense, “beyond” politics, beyond other ideologies. This is not to imply that either Marx or Engels were New Critics. They were men of their time and place, and limited by the fact: their bias was toward a realism beyond politics. That particular bias must, I think, be recognized for what it is, as a limitation. But more important, the way in which they conceived art opens up broad possibilities for a Marxist critical theory.

Christopher Caudwell realized some of those possibilities. In his essay on bourgeois aesthetics in Further Studies in a Dying Culture, he saw that art was "not ‘just’ a social product,” that it had its own "peculiar quality.” This, he felt, derived from the fact that it dealt with affective material, that it “creates a mock world which calls into being a new affective attitude, a new emotional experience.” In a talmudic sense, one cannot justify this attitude in terms of what Marx and Engels actually wrote about art. But taking their suggestion from their attitude toward Greek art and Balzac, it is consistent with their general theoretical approach.

This is not to say that a total disjunction is made between the cognitive and the affective, with science on the one side and art on the other. That is a tendency which develops out of contemporary criticism’s penchant for making the dichotomy between the symbol (which refers only to itself, inwardly) and the sign (which simply designates an external referent) absolute. This attitude has deep social roots (which will be discussed in the next section), and it is on the critical high road that proceeds from Coleridge’s definition of poetry in the Biographia Litteraria. It must not be confused with a Marxist theory, for it makes art, this affective communication, totally autonomous, it fails to perceive the delicate inter-relation of form and meaning, of art and society.

One modern critic, Elisio Vivas, has however made a statement similar to Caudwell’s, and it is worth quoting. In Creation and Discovery, he wrote:

“... what poetry uniquely does is to reveal a world which is self- sufficient. It does not communicate in the ordinary sense of the term ... But by means of the self-sufficient world (it) reveals, we are able to grasp, as the poem lingers in memory as a redolence, the actual world in which we live.”

The crucial point here, as in Caudwell, is that art is saying something about the world, not so much directly, but in the way in which it changes our own perception: that we see differently because of it.

Take Balzac. At his best, he is not simply a documentor, he is an artist. Cousin Pons is a petty-bourgeois monomaniac, to be sure, but not simply that. He is also a uniquely presented human being, a tragic figure, there is something in his situation and action, a truth, which is beyond all these. Ideally, Pons sees the world for us, he changes us. Again, it must be said that this particular notion has no textual – and talmudic – justification in either Marx or Engels, yet it is, I think, a realization which can easily be contained within the framework of their general conception of art.

Now to apply this to cases. In his Studies in European Realism, George Lukacs wrote:

“... which of the two, Balzac or Flaubert, was the greatest novelist, the typical classic of the 19th century? ... The question arises whether it is the unity of the internal and external world or the separation between them which is the social basis of the greatness of the novel.”

To begin with, note an interesting equation: that the “greatest novelist” is the same as the author of the “typical classic.” But beyond that, is Lukacs’ generalization sound? If we take it as an attempt to derive artistic worth from an examination of the artists’ ideology, then the Marxist must answer, no. It can be true only if it means that other things – including genius – being equal, that a certain vision of the world makes it more possible to create a masterpiece. But if it is used as a way of evaluating the actual Balzac and the actual Flaubert, it amounts to an ideological criticism, and one which we must therefore reject.

Moreover, Lukacs attempts to hedge on Balzac – perhaps in order to pay his respects to his Stalinism. In dealing with Balzac’s reactionary politics, he writes:

“Only illusions motivated by the social environment depicted, i.e. illusions – often tragic illusions – which are historically necessary, do not prevent the writer from depicting social reality with objective truth.”

But what does this mean? If Lukacs is simply saying that Balzac’s illusions are historically necessary since they develop out of his class position, then all illusions are historically necessary. If he means only illusions which are necessary for progress, then he isn’t talking about Balzac.

But then, what of a Stalinist like Brecht? Or an anti-Semite like Pound? To a certain extent, their politics mar artistic value simply by being too loud and obnoxious (and this is often true of writers who have democratic politics). But at times, this does not happen. Brecht’s To Posterity or Pound’s 49th Canto are magnificent poetry. In both cases, they are not talking about their politics, they are on a more fundamental level of the affective apprehension of reality. And when this is true, we must say, just as we do with Balzac, that their politics are irrelevant to their art. (This is not to pass judgment on the public act of awarding the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound.)

To return now to McKeon’s opposition. A Marxist theory does not recognize “art in itself,” if by that is meant the independence of art from society and from meaning, “pure art,” the mysticism of art. Yet neither does it say that art is simply something else. It is a dualistic theory, granting a certain autonomy to the development of art, especially in terms of form, but relating it, however uniquely, to society, both as an influence and as an audience to which art has meaning. In McKeon’s terms, such an approach will emphasize the social, grant it a particular relevance, but it does not consider this as an exclusive mode of apprehension, i.e. it can legitimately concern itself with the formal, the psychological, and so on.

However, it must be made clear that McKeon is speaking from a position of critical pluralism. His distinction between art as something else and art in itself is not that of the New Critical disjunction between cognitive and affective, it is not a theory of pure art. Where such theories are proposed – Ransom, for instance – we can only answer as Christopher Caudwell did in Illusion and Reality:

“If anyone wishes to remain entirely in the province of aesthetics, then he should remain either a creator or an appreciator of art works. Only in this limited field is aesthetics ‘pure.’ As soon as one passes to the criticism of art, it is plain that we pass outside art ...”

Finally, the experiential nature of the aesthetic judgment must be underlined. Critical systems are either a preparation for, or a description of, the fact of the art work, but the actual judgment is existential. That the judgment may also be seen as socially (or psychologically) conditioned is true, but as an experience it escapes systemization. For a Marxist, the theoretical appreciation of this lies in Marx’s insight on Greek art: the “eternal charm” of art, its (in a limited sense) a-historical character,

I would conclude this section with a brilliant summary of the duality which confronts the social critic which Lionel Trilling made in The Liberal Imagination:

“What is proposed is not a treatment of art as a document, as a curiously unstatistical abstract, whereby all the power of the aesthetic organization of the material is disregarded in order to reach the paraphrasable content. Rather, it is to present the content in all of its achievement, its form, values, attitudes, emotions, necessarily paraphrased, yet deriving their particular kind of affective meaning from precisely their form.”

WHY SHOULD ONE BE a Marxist critic at all? If Marxism is not an exclusive method of aesthetic understanding, if it must be supplemented even by reference to the New Critics, isn’t it, then, just one approach among many which one chooses out of personal taste?

In one sense, the answer is yes, a Marxist criticism is simply one approach among many, it cannot be exhaustive of the work of art and it must make use of other critical methods. But in another sense, there is a particular relevance to a Marxist critical theory today which makes it, not merely a method among other methods, but rather the ground of a fundamental synthesis. This does not follow from any abstract speculation; it is a deduction from the fact of the crisis of modern art. For the actual relation of the social and aesthetic is, today, just as complicated as it has always been, yet it has an immediacy and importance that is new. The particular relevance of Marxism in this situation is that it gives a larger unity which deepens our comprehension of all the other critical approaches.

First, turn to contemporary aesthetic reality. Here are three generalizations about it, each on a different level of analysis (form, content, society). In them, we should see how one factor, the social, is the basis of the other two.

In a brilliant article, Spatial Form in Modern Art, Joseph Frank sketched the broad lines of development for current artistic form. Basing himself on Lessing, he begins with a distinction between spatial form, the natural form of the plastic arts in which there is an instantaneous juxtaposition of elements as in painting, and the consecutive form usually associated with narrative literature. Frank sees all of modern art – literary as well as plastic – moving toward spatial form. In Madame Bovary, for instance, there is the famous scene at the County Fair. In it, three levels continually inter relate: the voices of the crowd, the speeches on the platform, and the meeting of the lovers, Emma and Rudolphe. As a result, the scene does not unfold a sequence, its time is not the straight line of a narrative with beginning, middle and end. It is more a painting of a moment, a circle in which the various voices turn around a single instant, each completing the other. This is a case of spatial form in literature. Similar techniques can be found in Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, and so on.

Frank concludes his description of this tendency:

“The objective historical imagination, on which modern man has prided himself, and which he has cultivated so carefully since the Renaissance, is transformed in these writers into the mythical imagination for which historical time does not exist – the imagination that sees the actions and events of a particular time merely as the bodying forth of eternal prototypes.”

The most extreme instance of this would be, of course, Finnegans Wake, a book which begins on the last page and ends on the first and which can be begun in the middle.

A similar – though even broader – comment was made by Ortega y Gasset in his article, Point of View in the Arts. For him, what Frank calls “spatial form” in modern art is the culmination of a process which has been going on tn Western society ever since the Renaissance. The object (the theme), he argues, has been continuously dissolving into the subject, the thing seen has become the one who sees. Contemporary non-representationalism is a final moment in this development, the end product of a “progressive dis-realization of the world ...”

Finally, this is the description which Ralph Fox makes of this phenomenon in The Novel and the People:

“Man is no longer the individual will in conflict with other wills and personalities, for today all conflict must be overshadowed by the immense social conflicts shattering and transforming modern life, and so conflict also disappears from the novel, being replaced by subjective struggle, sexual intrigues or abstract discussion.”

This is the basic, underlying reality of at least one of the main traditions of modern art, indeed of the dominant tradition. In form, the spatial juxtaposition of painting; in content, a transition away from the object and toward the subject; in relation to society, the function of an overwhelming crisis. From Flaubert on (he wanted to write a novel without a subject), this tendency has been pervasive. To understand it – to understand modern art in its depth – it is necessary to see its relationship to the tumultuous history of a century. The movement which can be described by such a study is every bit as massive as the one which Panofsky found in the quatrocento.

In the Voices of Silence, Malraux describes how this entire process has made us see the past differently. Precisely because we live in a world in transition, he believes, we are all the more sensitive to the past, for the prejudices of a stable and ordered existence are not ours. An excellent case in point is the emergence of the critical term, “mannerism,” to designate a period of pessimism and introspection following upon the affirmation of the High Renaissance. Shakespeare’s dark plays, The Last Judgment, El Greco, all of these are put in a new perspective because of the present. In a sense, we see these works for the first time several centuries after they were created.

But this is all part of what we could call an aesthetic crisis. One of its chief symptoms is a change in the very way in which we define art itself. From Bohemia through Mallarme’s salon to Bloomsbury and the English poetic surrealism of the Forties, the practice of art has changed the theory of art. The artist is no longer the imitator, art is no longer mimesis. This does not mean only that representationalism has been rejected in some areas – mimetic theory need not be representational. It means that art has, in theory, wrenched itself out of the world. The artist is a god, art is a creation ex nihilo, a gratuitous event which is too often stripped of its essential human relevance. This phenomenon must be understood, and the first thing one must do if one is going to understand is to place it in its social context.

It would be impossible to develop this social relationship in such a short space. All that can be done is to give a general indication of the kind of factors which are involved. Let me suggest only a few of them, taking most of my material from Erich Auerbach’s brilliant study, Mimesis. He begins by noting a separation of artist and society which occurred in the nineteenth century.

“It can be safely said that, with few exceptions, the significant artists of the later nineteenth century encountered hostility, lack of comprehension or indifference on the part of the public ... This phenomenon was never so general and so extreme in the past.”

The case of this was the taste of the new bourgeois society, that middle class philistinism whose denunciation takes up so much space in the French novel from Balzac on. The result was two arts (“watertight compartments,” Malraux calls them), one for the bourgeois, one for the artist. Here is the beginning of modern art, an aristocratic art without an aristocracy.

In the twentieth century, another factor came into play. The opposition of the artist and bourgeois society was complicated by a period of gigantic social upheaval. Auerbach writes:

“The widening of man’s horizon, the increase of his experiences, knowledge, ideas, and possible forms of existence, which began in the sixteenth century, continued through the nineteenth at an even faster tempo – with such an acceleration since the beginning of the twentieth century that synthetic and objective attempts at interpretation are produced and demolished every instant.”


“At the time of the first World War and after – in a Europe unsure of itself, overflowing with unsettled ideologies and ways of life, and pregnant with disaster – certain writers distinguished by instinct and insight find a method which dissolves reality into multiple and multi-valent reflections of consciousness.”

Let these few brief quotations from Auerbach stand as an indication of an underlying reality. They are sufficient, I think, to provide the basis for arguing the particular relevance of a Marxist critical approach today. The very intensity of our social and cultural crisis has resulted in such a proliferation of form and disintegration of content that a prior act of the historical understanding is necessary if one is to appreciate either form or content and their achieved unity. Otherwise, modern art as a whole, and the individual works within it, will simply appear as gratuitous and fragmentary, and so will our new vision of the past.

The relation of art to society is complex, dialectic, special. To determine it, one must confront the actual work of art in all of its concreteness, its individuality, and in the web of a larger existence too. Genius, say of a Picasso, has its own autonomy, it is not merely the expression of social cataclysm – but it is also such an expression. This is particularly true today, thus the particular relevance of a Marxist critical theory, for, as never before, all things, and art among them, are now caught in history.

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