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Ian H. Birchall

Marxism and Art

(April 1970)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.43, April-May 1970, pp.40-41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Georg Lukács: The man, his work and his ideas
Edited by G.H.R. Parkinson
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £3.15

Socialism and American Art
D.D. Egbert
Princeton University Press, $2.45

The Sound of Our Time
Dave Laing
Sheed & Ward, £1.75

Can there be a Marxist theory of art? If so, what theoretical problems will it have to overcome?

In the first place, it will have to transcend the dichotomy of fact and value. Marxist science is neither objective description, nor moralistic exhortation to action. Marxist theories of literature in the past have fallen into two categories: Zhdanovite recipes laying down the rules for creation, and sociological interpretations of established works. The latter may be less offensive to the sensitive intellect, but they are no less one-sided. Secondly, such a theory will have to determine its own object. Will it be an aesthetic – concerned to define the beautiful – or a semiology – a science of all the forms of symbolic communication (television, rock music etc.) which have a greater role in our culture than in any previous one? A whole tradition of Marxist criticism has been concerned to demonstrate the legitimacy of its method by testing it on accepted great works. The need to comprehend a much wider range of symbolic communication may explain why even such arid and static classifications as those of Barthes are enjoying a vogue in some sections of the left.

The theory will then have to examine the dynamics of all the components of the artistic process: the experience and commitment of the individual artist; the particular form and mode of expression of the work; the world-view of the social group embodied in the work; and the audience.

These criteria may be used as a basis for examining three recent books that contribute to the discussion in this field. Georg Lukács: the man, his work and his ideas is a set of essays covering the whole range of Lukács’ work. G.H.R. Parkinson’s ‘biographical introduction, and Istvan Meszaros’ study of Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic provide a good basis for an overall view of Lukács’ work, and an evaluation of the continuities and discontinuities between the early and later work. Other essays deal with Lukács’ debt to Dilthey, and the concept of totality in his work. These will provide a contribution to an appreciation of Lukács’ major philosophical work. History and Class Consciousness, due to appear in English shortly.

The other four essays deal specifically with Lukács’ literary and aesthetic theories, and in particular with the massive and as yet untranslated Aesthetics (1963). These essays throw more clearly into relief the ambiguities of Lukács’ work. Only A.G. Lehmann deals with Lukács primarily as a Marxist, and sees his weaknesses as being inherent in the Marxist method. For the others, the emphasis is on Lukács’ contribution to aesthetics as a discipline, rather than on the location of aesthetics within a Marxist totality.

Thus G.H.R. Parkinson concludes with the embrace of eclecticism:

‘His aesthetics provides us with a certain way of looking at what are generally regarded as works of art, and the evaluative sense. It would be wrong to regard this as the only way, but equally wrong to say that it is not a way, and an important one.’

Stanley Mitchell starts off in similar vein:

‘Lukács takes his stand with the central humanist traditions of Marxism which look back to Greece and the Renaissance.’

Indeed. But it also looks forward to quite different things. Mitchell concludes by finding a contradiction in Lukács between the ‘revolutionary’ and ‘the Heidelberg don’. The fact that Lukács’ aesthetics can be detached from his Marxism derives precisely from his own concessions to the Stalinist mystification of a progressive bourgeoisie.

Lukács’ strength is his theory of form, and his grasp of broad general historical tendencies. His weaknesses spring from that strength. Parkinson shows the ambiguities in his use of the term ‘reflections’, which impede his appreciation both of the revolutionary artist, concerned to change reality as well as interpret it, and of the less ‘realistic’ types of art. David Craig shows, through a reading of Walter Scott that is sensitive to Scottish history, that the Scott of The Historical Novel is more an ideal type of the genre than an account of what actually appears on the pages of the Waverley Novels.

D.D. Egbert’s Socialism and American Art poses an interesting problem. The only pity is that the author is quite incapable of dealing with it, for want of any theoretical framework at all. His aim is a comparison of the artistic production influenced by religious utopian communities, secular Utopianism and Marxism. Some interesting ideas emerge. One common theme is a rejection of the bourgeois emphasis on the outstanding individual. The revivalist Shakers, for instance, required that no one should sign his name to any artefact, and invented a new simplified musical notation to enable all members to participate equally in communal singing.

Another common theme is the breakdown of the separation of art and life. Egbert, however, cannot even distinguish between a world view that sees art as an integral part of the total human existence, and functionalism or utilitarianism.

The book collapses, therefore, into a collection of anecdotes, including many which expose the opportunism of the CPUSA – for example, its changes of line on Negro art according to its particular line on the Negro question.

The anecdotes do testify, however, to a substantial revolutionary tradition in American art, refuting Egbert’s own claim that ‘as everyone knows, there are fundamental differences between Marxism and the American tradition’. Perhaps the best of the anecdotes deals with the painter Rockwell Kent, who received a Treasury Department grant for a mural depicting delivery of airmail to Puerto Rico. The picture contained an inscription in a strange language. Eventually this was discovered to be Eskimo, and contained a call to revolt to the Puerto Rican people.

Dave Laing’s The Sound of Our Time is more modest in scope, but offers a serious yet unpretentious treatment of modern pop music. Laing is highly conscious of the need for a comprehensive theoretical framework. This may account for the rather hectic eclecticism that marks parts of the book. Laing invokes Lukács and Adorno, Sartre and Barthes, even McLuhan and Althusser, without showing whether or not their methods are compatible. And it seems hardly necessary to quote Barthes, and such concepts as metalanguage and isologic systems, merely to point out that songs consist of both words and music.

Nonetheless, Laing succeeds in locating pop music in the society of our time. He begins with a consideration of the dual nature of pop music; its popular origins and its status as commodity. He shows how the song in pre-industrial society was an experience, orally transmitted, but has now become an object to be acquired (record or sheet-music). The existence of the charts seems to establish a relationship in which the consumer exercises power; yet as Laing points out, such action is limited to the sum of the consumers’ individual choices – the consumers cannot act as a collective; if they could, they would doubtless get record prices reduced.

He then goes on to show the influence of the commodity status on the actual quality of the music – the constant pressure to repetition and standardisation. But at the same time, the whole book can be seen as a polemic against Adorno’s essay On Popular Music, which sees only this side of the process. Laing insists on the possibility of energy, imagination and truth to experience despite the pressures of the market. The argument is backed up by detailed studies of Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Dylan and others.

The sensitivity to the particular work is wholesome. But it has its compensating defects. The ‘refusal of sentimentality’ is seen largely as a result of individual effort. The Beatles’ ability to survive and stay innovating is attributed to ‘craftsmanlike integrity’. There is a tendency to see the music as having its own history, rather than being part of a historical process. Why did the great rock and roll breakthrough come in the mid-fifties? What was the particular stage of British society that made the Beatles possible? Yet even if Laing does not answer all the questions, he does achieve a balance between text and theory, which offers a model for the kind of detailed study needed in a wide range of fields.

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Last updated: 28.2.2008