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International Socialism, Spring 1961


Theo Melville

Art – Index to Life


From International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Proofread by Anoma Cartwright (April 2008).


Permanent Red
John Berger
Methuen, 1960, 16s.

John Berger has now attained a considerable eminence in art criticism and his is generally regarded as the Marxist standpoint. He gains our sympathy in the broadest sense by maintaining, as against the sycophants and fashion worshippers, a resistance to the crass banality of most abstract expressionism and he has said many good things about the suppurating corpse of West End values. The book itself begins disarmingly enough by stating that ‘its aim is to stimulate thought in a field where normally there is very little indeed.’ Much comment is stimulating, for example that on Matisse’s sculpture and there are shrewd sociological remarks throughout. However the book is also full of extremely questionable judgements which are of too bigoted a character for Marxism to have to bear.

Marx was somewhat cautious on matters of art, and Lenin a little flatfooted – albeit very much to the point on the market value of most of what passes for ‘culture’. It therefore behoves Marxists to beware of too sociological an attitude to art; rather should they be particularly open minded and realise that artistic merit and social commentary do not necessarily go together. When Mr Berger makes statements such as ‘what art can serve here and now’, I’m afraid the spectre of art as social utility is with us again and though elsewhere he denies his approval of the propaganda attitude to art, the way Poussin is congratulated for demonstrating the ‘possibility of man controlling his fate’ and El Greco for the ‘fervour of an implied desire for change’ serves to remind us once more of J.V. Stalin’s notorious remark that the artist is the ‘engineer of the soul’.

This tendency towards a utilitarian standpoint is allied to another, again fairly explicit, that belief in the timeless or absolute quality of art is tantamount to formalism, preciousness or escaping from life. Now this reviewer does indeed believe that all great art has a timeless quality; and to hold this view in no way clashes with Marxism.

Art constantly triumphs over the domain of mere history. Material decay alone denies this triumph. The art of other periods moves us precisely because humanity has never changed so utterly that we cannot apprehend a common fund of experience, even under the most diverse forms of expression.

Mr Berger’s particularized judgements are quite remarkably unjust. It is one easy way out to condemn Surrealism and mannerism as decadence or to suggest that German expressionism is a display of panic. This, interestingly enough corresponds to the disdain in which these movements are really regarded by most British critics (but then art of major calibre tends to find a capricious welcome from Anglo-Saxons). The British bourgeois of today hovers between exhibitionist illustration (Bratby) or tasteful and empty abstractionism (Nicholson and Hilton).

Another peculiarity which Mr Berger seems to share with a type of fashion criticism is the extraordinary but narrow veneration for cubism – presumably because it is ‘objective’ whereas Surrealism is ‘subjective’. In fact it would be very difficult to categorize these movements so simply, without a great deal of preliminary explanation. Even sculptors such as Zadkine or Lipchitz whom Mr Berger has praised for their cubist influences, undoubtedly bear some relationship to Surrealism. Could Guernica for that matter be explained without Surrealism? Picasso is not only a Cubist, much of his work was substantially in debt to Surrealism. It is also surely absurd to think that cubism for some reason will form the basis for a new Socialist art – a new world Socialist art would have to take account of the whole heritage of world art. To isolate Cubism in the way is an incredible act of stylistic blindness.

Klee is criticised out of his own mouth because he wrote as an explanation of his creative process ‘everything vanishes round me and good works rise from me of their own accord.’ This apparently is not good enough for our critic – there’s too much chance about it all, not enough ‘conscious direction.’ Now this is really a pretty unimaginative form of criticism. Anyone looking at Klee, can see the consciousness, one might say the cunning of the true artist – the element of waiting and then the cold, swift organization of the imaginative process. Surely, the artist frequently surprises himself. In relation to Kokoshka, Mr Berger, largely because he seems to dislike the mood of his early style, opts for later, less vigorous work. But surely, the early portraits at their best have a power, a passion and a depth, altogether lacking in the more ‘normal’ townscapes. Similarly because Leger’s art is more ‘socially’ obvious in its later stages, Berger particularly praises it, whereas the monumental works of the early 20’s would seem to this reviewer artistically infinitely superior.

It would, I think, have been a good idea for the author of these essays to have taken a new look at what happened in Soviet Russia and why art was bureaucratized. A reading of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution is never a waste of time, either. There is undoubtedly a certain militancy in this book which is valuable although the artistic values are certainly questionable. One is always on Mr Berger’s side when he defends, for example, a fine lyrical sculptor such as Zadkine against charges of academicism by supporters of the new status quo. One thing does perhaps emerge from the book – that the outlook for a visionary art in this society is a bleak one. If Art is the index of the quality of life of a society, then the society we happen to be living in is moribund and its style of life decrepit.

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