Chris Harman


Comment on Molyneux on art

(Winter 1999)

From International Socialism 2:85, Winter 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialist Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

John Molyneux has ferociously defended his definition of art as ‘unalienated labour’ (International Socialism 84) in his reply to the mild comments made by Chris Nineham (International Socialism 82). But Chris cannot be the only one to question John’s definition.

I find it unsatisfactory for one simple reason. It does not provide us with any criterion for distinguishing good art from bad art. Say someone enjoys playing the piano (or even singing in the shower) and does so out of tune. What they are engaged in certainly is not the direct production of commodities, and it is certainly not alienated labour according to the brief definition given by John from Marx’s 1844 writings. We might even want to call it ‘art’ – but we would usually go on to insist it is bad art. The same applies to thousands of novels and poems (published as well as unpublished), and even to some paintings which make it into exhibitions and fetch high prices.

John himself implies a distinction between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ when he makes (probably justified) derogatory comments about one of the most famed artists of the 20th century, Salvador Dali, and criticises some of the contributions to the Sensation exhibition (especially the Chapmans’). But his own definition of art provides no basis for trying to distinguish the good from the bad. Providing it is done in an unalienated way, pushpen is, it seems, as good as Pushkin.

At one point John seems to recognise the need for a more refined definition. He moves away from saying that art is simply unalienated labour to asserting that in art ‘the form is the content’. But in itself this characterisation, close to the old one of ‘art for the sake of art’, does not take us any further forward. It does not provide any criteria for judging the form other than by pure subjective preference – ie ‘it is good because I like it.’ Yet John himself relies, in practice, on such criteria. His review of the ‘Sensation’ exhibition said some things about the works of Damien Hirst which were interesting, whether you fully agree with them or not. They were not, however, restricted to a mere discussion of form. They, quite rightly, included references to what he thought the form was trying to express.

In fact, the whole issue of alienated and unalienated labour is a diversion. There have been societies in which all labour was unalienated and in which visual representation, music, storytelling and poetry were part of everyday life. Such, for instance, seems to have been the case with the Mbuti ‘pygmies’ of the Congo rainforests, as described in Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. In a society without classes, labour, even unpleasant labour, rises straight out of people’s immediate needs and does not take on a life of its own, over and against them. This, however, ceases to be the case once classes have arisen. Property relations, state structures and ideological institutions which once arose out of the needs of production now weigh down on people as an external force – in the process inhibiting further advances of production. It is at this point that ‘art’ begins to emerge as a form of activity compartmentalised off from the rest of life. It is part of the overall process of the development of alienation.

John reduces the question of alienated labour simply to the question of commodity production. When you produce for the market, according to John, you are involved in alienated labour; when you produce for yourself you are not. He measures Chris’s comments about alienation and art up against this definition, using a single quotation from Marx as his benchmark, rather in the manner of a multiple-answer test paper, and finds Chris amiss. Using the same benchmark, he finds as unalienated do-it-yourself activity (which I will remember the next time I have to cut the lawn or paint the bathroom), and even the toil which the serf family is compelled to undertake to feed itself after providing forced labour in the fields of the feudal lord. According to John’s argument, housework cannot be alienated labour either.

This is pure logic-chopping. Marx’s notion of alienation is not contained in one or two sentences, but rather describes the whole process by which humans are dominated by their past production. The process reaches its highest form under capitalism, but occurs in all class societies. That is why Marx could accept (while deepening) Feurbach’s understanding of religion as a form of human alienation.

Capitalist society in its totality is organised around the production and circulation of the alienated labour of human beings. This dominates their whole life activity. They are engaged in an alienated activity when they labour to reproduce their own labour power so that someone else can exploit it (ie when workers are involved in housework or do-it-yourself, or when peasants labour on their own plots). They are also alienated when, in trying to do other things for enjoyment or self expression, they are continually forced to worry about coping with the realities of class society. Marx and Engels certainly did not restrict the notion of alienation simply in the narrow economistic way attempted by John. Take, for instance, Marx’s comment on money in the 1844 manuscripts: ‘The power to confuse and invert all human and natural qualities, to bring about the fraternisation of incompatible, the divine power of money resides in its essence as the alienated and exteriorised species – life of men. It is the alienated power of humanity.’

In The Holy Family Marx and Engels even apply the notion of alienation to the ruling class: ‘The possessing class and the proletarian class express the same human alienation. But the former is satisfied with its situation, feels itself well established in it, recognises this alienation as its own power, and thus has the appearance of human existence.’ If the exploited class and the exploiting class are both alienated, it is difficult to see how artists can magically avoid the condition – especially when they have to sell the products of their artistic labours in order to live. We live in a world of alienation, from which there is no simple escape back to the unalienated forms of aesthetic expression to be found under primitive communism.

John twice uses the same quote from Marx about Milton in order to try and back up his case (in both his original article and in his reply to Chris): ‘Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that silkworms produce silk. It was an activity of his nature.’

According to John, this passage describes Paradise Lost as the product of unalienated labour, and therefore, he concludes, art can be defined as unalienated labour. There is, of course, an elementary logical mistake in the argument (a false syllogism of the form, ‘Swans are a product of the act of mating, and therefore birds can be defined as things produced by the act of mating’). But more importantly, John has not given any thought to whether Marx’s comment could possibly be true if taken literally. Did Milton really write Paradise Lost through a simple, natural process akin to that of the worm exuding silk threads? I’m not a great expert on either Milton or Paradise Lost, but I understand the poem was a product of Milton’s anguish in the forlorn years after the defeat of the English Revolution in 1660. He had set out, he wrote, ‘to justify the ways of God to Man’. In other words, he was grappling, through using a poetic form, with the realm of alienation. Of course, he was not producing poems on a production line for a paymaster. But he was still labouring within a whole world of alienation. The success or failure of his project could not be measured in terms of a definition of art as ‘unalienated’ labour, nor in terms of the ‘form being the content’. The form had to give expression to the content in a special way, but certainly could not be identified with it.

In fact, all artists suffer from a profound version of alienation. Art, like language, cannot exist for the individual alone. The individual painter, musician, filmmaker or whatnot is attempting to communicate something to other people. But the means by which artists can communicate are not in their own hands in a class society. They belong to those who own the other means of production, the members of the ruling class. Even when artists do not have to sell their labour power in order to live, they have to sell its products in order to be able to communicate. In a capitalist society their very ability to function depends upon their ability to get access to the market, just as in pre-capitalist societies it depended on their finding patrons. The entrepreneur or patron stands between the artist and the audience. Alienation is an inescapable feature of the artistic condition. The only question is the degree to which the artist makes the compromises necessary to be happy in his or her alienation.

The connection between alienation and art is very different in kind to that claimed by John. But even when properly grasped, the connection alone does not explain why some art is good, or even ‘great’, and much lousy. After all, there have been good artists who have seemed happy with bourgeois society and many bad artists who have hated it. We judge whether they are good or bad not on the basis of their personal feelings of alienation, but on the basis of something else entirely.

Amazingly, John does not even consider what this can be, except in his reference to the form being the content. Yet only at its simplest level is excellence in art about pure form (beautiful shapes, words or sounds, or entertaining stories). To restrict ourselves to that level would be a nursery rhyme, doggerel or muzak approach to art. Any art above this minimal level involves an attempt at communication. It is an attempt by one person to convey feelings, emotions or a view of the world to others. That is why much very good art hurts as well as pleases, produces feelings of anguish as well as those of joy, and can be unpleasant as well as pleasant (in the way John himself claims is true of Damien Hirst’s sharks). It is precisely this reaching out beyond the simply aesthetic or pleasurable that makes Beethoven’s symphonies, Verdi’s arias or Billy Holliday’s songs superior examples of art.

Art in this sense is representational. By this I don’t mean it has to be a picture of reality. But it has to convey something about reality to other people. It does so by techniques very different to that of the simple box camera or recording machine (although in the right hands these too can produce art). It does not attempt to be a carbon copy of reality. Nevertheless, it has real references. What are these?

Volosinov writes in his essay Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art (translated as an appendix to his Freudianism, A Critical Sketch):

Formalist aesthetics ... defines artistic forms as the form of the material. If this point of view is to be carried out consistently, content must necessarily be ignored ... So understood form loses its active, evaluative character and becomes a mere stimulus of passive feelings of pleasure in the perceiver ...

But, he continues:

The importance of form has to do not with the material, but with the content ... Through the agency of artistic form the creator takes up an active position with respect to content. The form in and of itself need not necessarily be pleasurable; what it must be is a convincing evaluation of the content.

Voronsky, in his essay Art as the Cognition of Life (translated in 1998 in the book of the same title), writes:

Art is not the free play of fantasy, feelings or moods; art is not the expression merely of the subjective sentences and experiences of the poet; art is not assigned the goal primarily of awakening in the reader ‘good feelings’. Like science, art cognises life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But science analyses, art synthesises; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual nature. Science cognises life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation ... The genuine poet, the genuine artist, is one who sees ideas ... Like science, art gives objective truths; genuine art demands precision because it deals with the object, it is empirical.

None of this means that art is a simply reproduction of reality. ‘Life’ embraces the whole gamut of human experiences, emotions and feelings in relation to the natural and social worlds. Deepening human knowledge of these things involves deepening human sensibilities to them, in a way that is not simply reducible to the abstract understanding provided by science (and the historical science of Marxism).

The different arts use different methods. They employ, so to speak, different languages. A work of art can only be understood through the particular language of its field. You cannot judge a Beethoven symphony in the same way you judge a Stendhal novel (even if they contain some similar themes). But that does not mean that the language, the form, stands alone, independent of its content, or that somehow it is the content. Art is not simply unalienated labour, ‘art for the sake of art’ (ars gratia artis, as MGM used to insist in Latin on its logo). Or, at least, what most of us think of as good art is the product of attempts by artists to come to terms with life around them. In the modern world, that means grappling with alienated life within capitalist society (together with the new forms of life trying to break out of it). That is why there is unresolved tension in any such art, whether painting, film, the novel, poetry or music.

The difference between a great piece of classical music or jazz and a trite pop song is not that one provides an explicit political stance and one does not. It is that one extends our own sensitivity to the range of human feelings, whether of torment, exhilaration or simply contendedness, in a world torn apart by contradiction. By contrast, the other anaesthetises our sensibilities. To that extent, one is true to the world around us, the other false. One helps us challenge that world, even if the artist who produces it is personally conservative. The other helps us, rather as a heavy swig of alcohol might, to tolerate that world, even if the artist is personally very left wing.

In writing about the Sensation exhibition John Molyneux gave implicit recognition to some this. He employed criteria other than ‘unalienated labour’ or ‘the form in the content’ to provide critical insights. That is why I for one found his piece illuminating (although, unfortunately, it came out too late for me to get the chance to go to the exhibition and judge the different works of art myself). But in his article defending modern art and in his attack on Chris Nineham he rules out precisely such criteria.

A last couple of points. I think John has been diverted up the barren ‘unalienated labour’ path because of his original starting point – his belief that there is some great argument about the validity of something called ‘modern art’. I have not come across this as a serious argument outside the tabloid press for about 30 years at least. The arguments I come across are about certain, present-day artists, which is a different matter entirely. For some reason, he seems to think that anyone who differs with his judgements on other artists is joining a backward looking rejection of most of the art that appeared in the 20th century. Hence a definition which seems to endorse virtually anything as art.

There are real arguments to be taken up about the way different forms of art have developed as capitalism has engulfed the world. Trotsky, Lukács, Brecht, Volosinov and Voronsky have all approached such arguments from different angles, so as to evaluate different artists, trends and schools. John’s piece on the Sensation exhibition was a useful endeavour to go in the same direction. Unfortunately, such efforts are not helped by his formulation of a mistaken definition of what art is.

Last updated on 4.3.2012