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John Molyneux

The legitimacy of modern art

(September 1998)

From International Socialism 2:80, September 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The attempt to produce a socialist or Marxist response to contemporary visual art or to any particular examples of it, such as to Damien Hirst, to the Sensation exhibition or to the Turner Prize, runs immediately into the problem of the legitimacy, or rather the lack of legitimacy, of modern art. This is the fact that much, if not all, of modern art (painting, sculpture and similar visual production since around 1900) is regarded as a dubious or perhaps downright fraudulent activity by a substantial proportion of at least four groups of people: (1) the general public, i.e. the working class; (2) the tabloid press and related media journalists (newscasters, current affairs pundits, etc.); (3) a section of the ‘educated/cultural’ middle class; (4) the philistine bourgeoisie proper. The result is that the history of modern art is punctuated by numerous ‘art scandals’ in which sections of the press, the media and the public either get upset or pretend to get upset about the latest artistic ‘outrage’, be it Jackson ‘Jack the Dripper’ Pollock or Carl André’s ‘bricks’ (Equivalent VIII) or Marcus Harvey’s Myra. It is also that the media response to every new development in modern art is almost invariably conducted under the repetitive rubric of ‘Is it art?’

Art academics and art world professionals seldom address the ‘Is it art?’ question. On the one hand they have such a strong vested interest in the answer that even raising the question is seen as bad form – a concession to philistinism. On the other hand their tendency to talk only to each other within their ivory towers enables them to cheerfully disregard what most ‘ordinary’ people think of as a matter of little consequence. For Marxists, however, the consciousness of the working class is a matter of vital importance. Precisely because we regard the working class as the agent of its own emancipation, what workers think – about politics above all, but also about religion, philosophy, culture etc. – does count. We fight to raise the consciousness of the class, to expand its horizons, to develop its individual and collective personalities. If many or most workers are influenced by philistine prejudices regarding modern art or art in general this damages their personalities and, albeit indirectly, their struggle. It is therefore our duty to combat those prejudices. [1] On the other hand, Marxists’ opposition to bourgeois ideology as a whole and scepticism about passing intellectual and academic fads-genetic determinism and postmodernism, for example-ensures that we cannot simply take it for granted that what the director of the Tate Gallery tells us is good art must be so. The ‘Is it art?’ question is therefore a real question and not one whose answer can be simply assumed in advance. Moreover a historical materialist approach suggests that the fact of widespread hostility to modern art has itself to be interrogated and explained with the anticipation that such an enquiry will tell us something significant about the position of art in our society.

The peculiarity of modern art

The crisis of legitimacy I am talking about has applied at one time or another to all the arts in the 20th century – to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the novels of James Joyce, the plays of Samuel Beckett, the music of Schoenberg and so on. However, it is also clear that the crisis is most severe, i.e. the scepticism is most extreme, widespread and long lasting, in relation to visual art. The television panel discussion of the Booker Prize in 1997 criticised the shortlist and denounced the winner; it did not attack the modern novel as such. The television debate on the Turner Prize, however, even though plainly designed to promote the prize and the Tate Gallery, felt obliged to include two individuals – Janet Daley and Roger Scruton – deeply antagonistic to much of contemporary art. What explains this state of affairs?

The first factor is clearly the nature of the modernist transformation of painting and sculpture as compared with that experienced by other art forms such as music and literature. It was both more rapid and more radical. In 1907 Picasso painted Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon. In retrospect we can see that the painting had many antecedents. [2] Nevertheless it constituted a dramatic break with the 500 year old tradition of oil painting initiated by the early Renaissance at the very dawn of the bourgeois era. This break had several aspects to it: (1) the drastic foreshortening of the picture plane and thus the abandonment of the practice, pioneered by Uccello, Mantegna and others in the 15th century, of creating an illusion of three dimensional perspective and depth within the picture frame; (2) an abandonment of the even older tradition, initiated by Cimabue, Giotto and Masaccio, of three dimensional ‘plastic’ modelling of figures through light and shade, in favour of slabs of flat surface; (3) an abrupt discarding of the techniques so painstakingly acquired by artists such as Van Eyck and Holbein, Titian and Rubens, of precise naturalistic rendering of furs, silks, laces, flesh tones, metals, glass and numerous other surfaces; (4) a sharp assault, especially, but not only, through the use of African masks, on the norms of female beauty embodied in virtually every representation of the female nude from Botticelli’s Venus to Renoir.

So shocking was Les Demoiselles D’Avignon that it offended even Picasso’s avant-garde artist friends and remained face to the wall in his studio, unexhibited until 1937. [3] However, the painting opened the way to, or, in John Berger’s phrase, ‘provoked’, Cubism [4] which passed rapidly through its analytic and synthetic phases. [5] In the footsteps of Cubism came Futurism, Vorticism, Rayonism, Suprematism, Dadaism and abstract art. Within ten years of Les Desmoiselles we have both Duchamp’s Fountain [6] and Malevich’s White Square on White. Add another six or seven years and we have also Constructivism, De Stijl (including the emergence of Mondrian’s trademark style) and Surrealism. Thus in the space of little more than a decade, visual art goes through such a revolution that painters and sculptors are producing work which would simply have been unrecognisable as art in any previous period. The gap between the painting of Constable and Turner on the one hand and that of Mondrian, Pollock or Rothko on the other, or between the sculpture of Rodin and the three dimensional work of Duchamp, Beuys or Robert Smithson is much wider than the gap between the music of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky and the music of Schoenberg or Birtwistle, or the gap between Dickens and Joyce or Keats and Ginsberg. [7] The first factor explaining the extremism of this modernisation is clearly the invention of photography (and even more so of cinema, television and video) which deprived visual art of what, for centuries, had been one of its principal functions – the naturalistic representation of the appearance of persons and things. [8] Prior to the mid-19th century the only way in which the likeness of an individual or his/her clothes and possessions, or a visual image of Jesus or Mary, or the appearance of a palace or garden, or civic ceremony, could be recorded for posterity or made available to people unable to see them with their own eyes was through the art of the painter, sculptor, engraver etc. Suddenly, in historical terms, the camera placed the ability to achieve a more or less exact likeness in the hands of millions of people at minimal cost and with minimal skill. No other art form suffered a comparable mechanical usurpation of its core function and skills and consequently no other art form was compelled to reorient itself so radically.

Another factor involved was a socio-political shift in regard to the representation of the ruling class that took place in the first half of the 19th century. As John Berger showed in his Ways of Seeing, the main subject matter of European oil painting – its daily bread and butter from the 15th century onwards – has been the ruling classes and their possessions (clothes, land, horses, wives, mistresses, children, etc.). Somewhere between the Great French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848 there is a change both within the ruling class itself and within the stratum of the middle class that produces most artists. On the one hand, the rich and powerful become coy. Gradually they lose the desire to be visibly personally glorified – perhaps it makes them feel too exposed as tempting objects of expropriation. It shows in their clothes and it changes their attitude to art. [9] Rockefeller, Getty, Guggenheim and Saatchi want the reflected glory of owning great art collections but they do not seem interested in hagiographic portraits of themselves. Similarly the artists lose interest in painting the ruling classes. The result is that David’s Napoleon is probably the last important painting glorifying a ruler. [10] Goya painted the Spanish royal family, of course, but with devastating satire; Géricault painted inmates of the local mental asylum; Manet painted the prostitute ‘Olympia’, the barmaid at the Folies Bergère, and only the execution of the Emperor Maximilian, and Van Gogh painted peasants and postmen.

Art, deprived of one of its main social functions and of much of its traditional subject matter, transformed itself almost beyond recognition and in so doing lost much of the cultural credit it had accumulated over centuries. However, this is not the only factor involved in modern art’s special crisis of legitimacy. There is also the peculiar way in which the art market works that is distinct from the operation of the literary market or the music market or the cultural market generally. Despite the hopes and expectations of Walter Benjamin, the art market, and with it the art world, is dominated by the individual or institutional ownership of individual ‘unique’ works of art. This has a series of complex effects on the nature of the art world and on the production and consumption of contemporary art. Art works are surprisingly expensive to produce, requiring costly materials, studio and other storage space and exhibition space. This is true of the traditional oil painting, especially if it is large. It is even more true of sculpture and current installation work – Damien Hirst’s Shark [11] is rumoured to have cost £80,000 to construct. [12] They are even more expensive to buy. Anyone who thinks a ticket for Covent Garden is extortionate should try buying a work of art. Not a famous ‘old master’ (which rarely come on the market and fetch millions when they do); not a Matisse or a Picasso (which range from many millions for the major works to about £250,000 for some offhand piece); not a Pollock, a Rothko or a Lichtenstein (also probably over the million mark) but a painting by a contemporary British artist with something of a national reputation, say a Calum Innes or a Gary Hume, both runners up in previous Turner Prize competitions. You are still looking at around £10,000 – i.e. a price completely out of reach of all but the spectacularly rich.

One consequence of this is that both the art market and the art world are dominated by an extraordinarily small number of rich and powerful individuals – a few immensely wealthy collectors and patrons, of whom Charles Saatchi is currently the most important in Britain, and the managers of a few key institutions, such as the Tate Gallery in London or the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York. The other significant players are those big corporations who decide to invest in art such as the Japanese company that paid over £27 million for a Van Gogh Sunflowers [13] and state institutions and local authorities who have significant commissions in their gift. For Marxists it is a truism that under capitalism the bourgeoisie dominates culture but in visual art the elitism is much more pronounced than in other art forms. In neither literature nor music could one individual buy themselves influence comparable to that wielded by Saatchi today or by Peggy Guggenheim in the 1950s, and Alfred Barr Jr at MOMA in the 1930s and 1940s. In other art forms, with the exception of the special case of architecture [14], the logic of the market links financial reward with some degree of mass popularity such as numbers of books or records sold, numbers of seats sold for performances etc., while both rewards and popularity are distinct from critical acclaim. In painting and sculpture mass popularity is almost irrelevant; both financial and critical success depend on appealing to the tiny elite of art world makers and shakers.

Thus while there is a general working class and petty bourgeois antagonism to so called high culture, it is more intense in the sphere of visual art. This is particularly the case because the artistic value of paintings and sculptures is always posed by the media and the art world in terms of their monetary value. No one asks how much Hamlet or The Waste Land or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are ‘worth’; the question is absurd. Yet it is precisely this question that always comes to the fore with works of visual art and it cannot fail to arouse public resentment. In a world where hunger and poverty, homelessness and unemployment are rife, it is both inevitable and right that ‘ordinary’ people object to spending millions or hundreds of thousands on works of art that serve no obvious practical function. When the money spent is public money and the art it is spent on seems incomprehensible (because of the modernisation process discussed earlier) the objections are likely to be fierce. The question of money pollutes the art world and undermines its public legitimacy.

Another factor in modern art’s crisis of legitimacy, which is both a consequence and cause of public alienation from art, is the virtual absence of what might be called popular art culture. When we speak of high culture and popular culture in relation to literature, it is clear that on the one hand there is the literary canon, old and new, from Chaucer to Beckett as it were, and on the other hand, there are popular writers from Agatha Christie to Jeffery Archer. There are also innumerable figures who sit somewhere in the spectrum between high and low – Kipling and Tolkien, Le Carré and Walsh. Also between the highbrow literary novelist and poet and pulp fiction there lie several sub-genres – science fiction, the spy novel, the whodunit etc., each with a passionate popular following and each capable of producing work of some literary merit. In music the vibrancy of the popular is even more pronounced. Between Mahler and the Spice Girls stands everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to jazz and flamenco. [15] In art there is no equivalent. There are illustrators, cartoonists, Sunday painters and painters of animals and Jade ladies for sale in Woolworths but no one, including the people who buy this stuff, takes any great interest in it as art, or holds it in high esteem. High modern art therefore stands in a kind of splendid isolation with no buffer between it and public scepticism.

This analysis, hopefully both historical and material, shows that the legitimacy crisis of modern art is neither an accident nor a conspiracy but a historically conditioned phenomenon produced by the combination of the loss of its long standing practical functions and its economically positioned elitism and isolation. [16] It is an analysis which is a necessary preliminary to answering the ‘Is it art?’ question but is not in itself an answer to it, and it is to this question that we must now turn.

But is it art?

How one answers or tries to answer this question/objection depends on what one takes it to mean. It can be interpreted in a number of different ways. First it can be a claim that some/much/all modern art is a deliberate confidence trick. Second it can be taken absolutely literally as a claim that some/much/all ‘modern art’ is misnamed because it lacks the characteristics necessary for it to qualify as art. Third it can be a claim that whether or not it technically qualifies as art it is more or less worthless because it lacks skill. Fourth it can be that the problem with modern art is that it is difficult, too difficult for ‘ordinary’ people to understand. Let us explore each of these interpretations of the question.

It has to be acknowledged straight away that fraud, deception, confidence trickery, in the strict legal senses of these terms not only exist in the world of visual art but are much more common here than in any other art form. There are certainly hundreds, probably thousands, of fake Picassos, Matisses, Monets, Mirós etc., swimming around in the art market and adorning the walls of the rich, and not a few hanging in major collections. There are two obvious reasons for this. The first is the nature of the art market that I have discussed already   its focus on the ownership of individual unique objects. The second is the still dominant cult of the individual artistic genius, which makes the monetary, and to an extent the critical, ‘value’ of an artwork the product of the ‘genius’ and not its merits as a painting or sculpture. [17]

Nevertheless, the idea that modern art as a whole or even predominantly is a confidence trick clearly doesn’t stand up. After all, who is supposed to be tricking whom? If it is meant to be the artists tricking the public then the exercise is a conspicuous failure: most of the public have remained resolutely unfooled and most of the artists fail to make any money. If the artists are tricking the rich patrons then not only does this suggest remarkable naivety on the part of the Rockefellers, Gettys and Saatchis but also raises the question of how they manage to do so well out of being conned. Anyone ‘conned’ into buying Pollock or Rothko, Lichtenstein or Warhol, must have cursed all the way to the bank.

But if modern art is not a conscious and deliberate deception this does not mean it cannot be a collective delusion. Perhaps, just as millions of people believe in gods which don’t exist, and millions believed that Russia was socialist when it wasn’t, other millions or thousands have fallen for the illusion that strange, meaningless objects are works of art. However, the problem with saying that certain objects are not art is that it implies a clear definition or conception of what art is. If an explorer or a naturalist comes across a new creature they can usually establish if it is a mammal because there is a generally agreed and quite precise definition of what constitutes a mammal, reptile, bird etc. [18] Does such a definition exist for ‘art’?

Certainly not in the minds of most journalists and members of the public who protest that Damien Hirst’s shark or Carl André’s bricks or whatever are not art. Rather what exist in their minds tend to be assumptions or prejudices which have not been subject to critical examination and in fact will not stand up to such examination. For example, there is a quite common assumption that art should involve naturalistic representation or ‘imitation’ of objects in the real world. However, apply this criterion rigorously and look what gets excluded and included. ‘Out’ would be not only a lot of Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Pollock, Miró, Moore and Brancusi, but also African art, Muslim art, Australian Aboriginal art and even Giotto. ‘In’ would be not only Constable, Turner, Holbein, Van Eyck and Velázquez but also the Sunday paintings of Winston Churchill and Prince Charles and, ironically, the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, the screen prints of Warhol and Hirst’s pickled animals. Moreover there is the problem of music, one of the three fundamental art forms and undoubtedly the most popular, which is hardly at all about the representation or imitation of ‘reality’. If it is acceptable for a composer or musician to use an arrangement of notes to express and communicate emotions, why should not an artist like Kandinsky or Rothko use an arrangement of colours and forms for the same purpose?

There are many other such assumptions that are more or less widely held: that art should be ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ – ‘as pretty as a picture’ [19]; that paintings should be made of oils or watercolours and sculpture of stone or bronze, not other materials; that paintings should employ single point perspective. On investigation most of these assumptions turn out simply to be superficial generalisations drawn from the established practice of European art from about 1400 to 1900.

However, probably the most commonly aired objection to modern art is that it lacks ‘skill’ – that ‘my four year old child could do that’, as it is often put. This charge needs quite careful discussion because modern art is so variable in this respect. On the one hand, there are many modern artists where the claim that they lack skill can be made only on the basis of ignorance. Picasso is an obvious example. A child prodigy, he was exceptionally skilled in traditional representational painting in his teens. By his early twenties (the ‘Blue Period’, 1901–1904) he had already produced naturalistic work that would earn him a significant place in art history. His Analytical Cubist works such as Seated Nude of 1910 in the Tate Gallery or Man with a Guitar of 1911 in the Paris Musée Picasso are paintings of profound technical skill and Picasso retained an astounding technical facility throughout his life. Then there is the case of Jackson Pollock. Pollock also began as a figurative and Social Realist artist in the 1930s arriving at his characteristic Abstract Expressionist or action painting only in 1947–1948. In these works Pollock gave up easel painting with brushes in favour of dripping and flicking paint from a stick onto huge canvases laid out on the floor. At first glance these paintings could be dismissed as a chaotic mess, a product of random spraying of the paint, lacking all control or skill – but only at first glance. Closer inspection of individual works, comparison of one work with another, and viewing of the famous film of Pollock at work all confirm that the artist had achieved a very high level of control of the drip technique and that each painting has a very definite and specific overall effect. Pollock’s skill is not the same as Dürer’s in rendering the fur of a hare or Titian’s in painting red hair but it is still skill in the handling of paint.

On the other hand there are modern artists who clearly involve skill in their work but it is not skill in handling paint or carving stone, modelling clay or casting bronze. Take for example, Rachel Whiteread, winner of the Turner Prize in 1993, who makes casts (usually in plaster) of the insides of domestic objects ranging from hot water bottles and baths to rooms and a whole house. To make a cast of the inside of a room or a house strikes me as a really difficult thing to do. I certainly would have no idea how to begin doing it and I imagine that innumerable technical problems would crop up on the way. Can you control the outcome? How do you get the cast out? How do you move it? How do you store it? And so on. But, of course, the skills involved are not those conventionally associated with art. The same applies to an artist using video such as the Palestinian exile Mona Hatoum. To make Corps étranger, Hatoum used an endoscope to film the passages inside her body and then projected the resulting video onto the floor within a cylindrical structure which the viewer has to enter to see the work. Once again all sorts of technical skills are involved but not traditional art skills.

Finally there are a very small number of cases where the element of technical or craft skill deployed is so small as to be effectively non-existent. The most extreme examples are the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp – Bottle Rack (1914), Bicycle Wheel (1913) and the aforementioned Fountain (1917) [20] – and the brick sculptures of Carl André – Lever (1966) which consists of 137 firebricks laid side by side across the floor in a single row at right angles to the wall and Equivalent I–VIII (1966) which consists of eight permutations of a basic unit of 120 sand-lime bricks laid on the floor of a single gallery. [21] To many people the absence of craft skills in these works is proof that they cannot be art. But in fact, André’s bricks and Duchamp’s ready-mades retain one crucial skill that they share with Hatoum and Whiteread, Pollock and Picasso, and, indeed, with Michelangelo: the intellectual skill to conceive of the work. This intellectual skill may have several different elements: the understanding or perhaps intuition (and, indeed, courage) to see that a pile of bricks or whatever could be moving or beautiful; the aesthetic skill to arrange the bricks etc. in a form that would be moving or beautiful [22]; the intellectual understanding of art, art history, society etc. to conceive how a particular intervention such as exhibiting a urinal or line of bricks could make a meaningful point or raise significant questions. [23] This argument does not establish that these works are ‘good’ or ‘important’ art but it does answer the claim that they are not art of any sort because they are ‘only’ a bottle rack or bricks.

So far I have been considering and rejecting the arguments and assumptions underpinning the ‘Is it art?’ approach of the media etc. But is it not possible to find within the realms of the art world and art theory or else to construct a positive definition of art that can enable us, in principle at least, to decide these questions?

The definition of art

There are many in the art world who would either deny the possibility of producing a definition of art or, even more damningly, proclaim that it was not an interesting question. Significantly Peter and Linda Murray’s Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin 1973) contains definitions of everything from Action Painting to Vorticism but no entry for ‘art’ as such, while Charles Harrison and Paul Wood’s monumental Art in Theory (1900–1990), which contains over 300 extracts of writing on art from Cézanne to Serra, includes only one text which addresses the task of defining art. This denial is disingenuous. In practice art world people whether they are artists, dealers, curators or critics make distinctions all the time between art works and non-art works. [24] Consequently the failure to establish a definition of art means that the criteria on which these distinctions are made remain unarticulated and unexamined.

In so far as any definition does have currency in the art world it is that ‘art is whatever artists do’ or more precisely ‘art is what artists do and call art’ (since no one claims that every action by an artist is art). This is also, as far as I can see, the ‘real’ position of most of those who purport to reject the question. It is a definition which has arisen out of the experience of modern art with its constant innovations and transformations and particularly in response to the practice of Duchamp and his successors. In appearance this definition is radical and open, able to cope with and accept all new developments. In reality, however, it is a deeply conservative and elitist position – indeed it embodies the elitism of the art world already referred to. If art is what artists do, what makes someone an artist? The obvious answer that an artist is someone who makes art is ruled out because it renders the first definition circular. This leaves only two possible replies: that some special individuals are born artists (which is akin to the doctrine that the ruling classes are born to rule), or that artists are those people whom the art world, i.e. its dominant institutions, recognises as artists. This definition therefore is a case of self validation by a self-perpetuating elite. [25]

If this definition must be rejected it nevertheless has the merit of not attempting a definition in terms of common qualities inhering in the art works. Such an attempt will fail because of the enormous heterogeneity of such objects, because artists have and will set about transgressing any imposed limits, and because art has a generic meaning covering a wide variety of forms of creative practice (music, poetry, drama, etc.) which do not produce commensurable ‘objects’ but nonetheless have a clear social affinity. The element of truth in the ‘art is what artists do’ definition is that it points in the direction of the nature of artistic labour. This can be followed up in a Marxist way using the approach developed by Marx for the analysis of capital and commodities.

Marx insisted that while capital could take the form of machinery or money neither machinery nor money were capital as such. They only became capital within certain social relations of production:

A negro is a negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It becomes capital only in certain relations. [26]

Equally the products of human labour are not in themselves commodities. They become commodities only in the context of the social relation that is the market. The analysis of the commodity requires, therefore, the analysis of that social relation and, in particular, of the nature of the human labour that produces the commodity and underlies the market relation:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself ...

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour: because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products of their labour ...

This fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them. [27]

If we apply this approach to art we can say that paint or other marks on a flat surface, arrangements of words on paper, sequences of sounds in the air etc., only became art in certain social relations. The question ‘What is art?’ then becomes, what is the peculiar social character of the labour that produces what we call art? The answer to this question is that ‘art’ is the product of non-alienated labour.

This is clearly a contentious and contested claim and I cannot enter a full defence of it here. [28] I will restrict myself to a few comments of clarification and justification. By non-alienated labour I do not mean labour that exists ‘outside’ of capitalism (which is increasingly non-existent), or labour that does not produce commodities (the massive commodification of art under capitalism is obvious), or even labour that people enjoy (some people ‘enjoy’ some alienated labour and some non-alienated labour is not enjoyable). [29] Still less do I mean that ‘artists’ are not alienated or that their work does not reflect and express alienation – alienation affects everyone in capitalist society. What I mean is labour that remains under the control and direction of the producer.

According to Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts the essence of alienated labour lies in the relationship of the worker to his/her work, to the productive activity itself:

Thus, when we ask what is the important relationship of labour, we are concerned with the relationship of the worker to production.

So far we have considered the alienation of the worker only from one aspect: namely, his relationship with the products of his labour. However, alienation appears not merely in the result but also in the process of production within productive activity itself. How could the worker stand in an alien relationship to the product of his activity if he did not alienate himself in the act of production itself? ...

What constitutes the alienation of labour? First, that the work is external to the worker, that it is not part of his nature; and that, consequently, he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless. His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of work for the worker is shown by the fact that it is not his own work but work for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person. [30]

Artistic labour differs from this in that, even when the work is to fulfil a commission or to produce a commodity to be sold, the productive activity itself remains the possession of the artist and in that work he/she belongs to herself, not to another person. In contrast to alienated labour, artistic labour is a development and expression, not a denial and distortion of the producer’s physical and mental energies. It requires money to sustain it but it is not simply a means of earning money.

The very young Marx expressed this idea in the context of defending the freedom of the press in 1842:

A writer must of course earn a living to exist and be able to write, but he must in no sense exist and write so as to earn a living. When Beranger sings: ‘I only live to make my songs. If you rob me of my place, Monsignor, I will make songs in order to live.’ There is an ironic avowal in this threat: the poet falls from his domain as soon as his poetry becomes but a means. In no sense does the writer regard his works as a means. They are ends in themselves. [31]

The much older Marx makes the same point in the context of discussing productive labour in Theories of Surplus Value:

Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that silkworms produce silk. It was an activity of his nature. Later he sold the product for £5. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who fabricates books (for example, Compendia of Economics) under the direction of his publisher is a productive labourer; for his product is from the outset subsumed under capital and comes into being only for the purpose of increasing that capital. [32]

Trotsky is, I believe, expressing the same underlying idea, though in less precise, less scientific language, when he writes that ‘spiritual creativeness demands freedom’ [33] and, ‘Art is basically a function of the nerves and demands complete sincerity’ [34], and, ‘Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them’ [35] – propositions on which he bases his insistence that the revolutionary party should not aspire to command art either before or after the conquest of power.

There are two obvious objections to the argument made so far. The first is that many works of art are in fact made with large amounts of alienated, wage labour, for example films. The second is that many works of non-alienated labour are not art, for example Lenin’s State and Revolution or do-it-yourself work around the house.

My answer to the first objection is that most works of art involve a combination of alienated and non-alienated labour: think of the quarry workers who cut Michelangelo’s marble, the session musicians at a recording, the paper makers, typesetters and printers necessary for the poet’s slim volume and so on. However, it is the non-alienated labour that gives the work its artistic character. The poetry book is not possible without the labour of the printer but it is the labour of poet that makes the slim volume ‘art’, while the telephone directory is not art. The same applies to films, concerts, plays, operas, architecture etc. and all those collective art forms that make extensive use of alienated labour from extras and ushers, to ticket collectors and building workers. In each case what makes them art is the non-alienated labour contributed by directors, composers, soloists, designers, architects etc. [36]

The second objection is clearly valid in its own terms. I would meet it by acknowledging that only a particular kind of non-alienated labour produces art, namely labour in which there is a unity of form and content or, to be more precise, where the form is the content. Lenin’s writing of The State and Revolution was undoubtedly unalienated labour but it was labour in which the content – the exposition and development of the Marxist theory of the state – far outweighed in significance the form – the specific words employed to convey the meaning. State and Revolution in English or in French is essentially the same work as in the Russian original, provided the translation is competent nothing fundamental is lost. It is quite otherwise with the poetry of Mayakovsky. A translation of a poem is not at all the same as the original because in poetry the exact words count: the meaning of a poem consists not merely of the sum total of the dictionary definitions of the words used but also of all those words’ connotations, their sounds and their rhythm. When Mr Smith builds for himself a garden wall it is again unalienated labour but the exact form of the wall is secondary to its practical function – making an effective division between Mr Smith’s garden and Mr Jones’s, or whatever. But when Carl André forms 960 bricks into Equivalent I–VIII there is no practical function but the shape, colour and precise positioning of every brick is what makes it the work it is. [37]

This analysis of art as unalienated labour that unites form and content solves a number of problems. First, it resolves the paradox that on the one hand art is evidently a historically universal activity more or less coextensive with the history of the human species; while on the other hand, ‘art’ as a separate activity and especially ‘artist’ as a recognised social role emerge and become distinct only from the Renaissance onwards. Of course, human beings have always engaged in non-alienated labour, making music, painting pictures, carving wood etc., but it is only with the rise of capitalism and the concomitant intensification of alienated labour that art and therefore the artist become sharply differentiated from and counterposed to ordinary social labour.

Second, it enables us to understand Marx’s statement that ‘capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry’. [38] Clearly there is a serious problem in trying to argue that the bourgeoisie as a class is hostile to art. From the Medicis to the Saatchis, from Mrs and Mrs Andrews to Nelson Rockefeller, sections of the bourgeoisie have patronised art and basked in its reflected glory. Moreover capitalist states and governments have generally shown a fairly keen awareness of the significance of art for their overall ideological hegemony. Nor can it plausibly be claimed that the bourgeois epoch has been artistically impoverished compared to the feudal epoch nor other epochs in history. But Marx speaks neither of the bourgeoisie nor the bourgeois epoch but of capitalist production. Capitalist production is production on the basis of alienated labour. In so far as artistic production becomes incorporated within capitalist production, in so far as capital assumes complete control over the process of production of art, that production ceases to be artistic and ceases to produce art. When Orson Welles made Citizen Kane he made a work of art; when he made a sherry commercial, he did not. [39] It is this objective antagonism between unalienated and alienated labour that lies at the root of the subjective antagonism of artists towards capital and capitalism, which is a recurring trope in the bourgeois epoch and not just a romantic or bohemian myth.

This definition also makes it possible to resolve in summary and fairly sweeping fashion the whole repetitive ‘Is it art?’ debate. The answer is yes. Whether it is Malevich’s White Square on White, Pollock’s One 1950, Whiteread’s House or Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided, it is all art because it all meets the criteria of unalienated labour striving for unity of form and content. This does not, however, make it good or great art, which is a different question.

Is modern art difficult?

Before turning directly to the relative merits of modern and contemporary art I want to discuss a claim often made about modern art which has important implications for its legitimacy; namely, that it is ‘difficult’. Interestingly this claim is made both by critics and defenders of modern art. On the one hand it is said that understanding modern art requires specialist knowledge and study and this makes it elitist and inaccessible to the masses. Art, it is argued, ought to communicate with ‘ordinary’ or ‘working class’ people. On the other hand it is argued that the best modern art is indeed difficult but it is precisely its difficulty that makes it good. It is not the fault of modern art that it is difficult or that the masses are insufficiently educated to understand it: it has to be difficult in order to deal with complex challenging issues and to advance art. There are also right wing and left wing variants of both these arguments. There is a right wing populism exemplified by the tabloids which denounces the ‘intellectualism’ of modern art as part of its general attack on the ‘liberal’ intelligentsia. There is a left populism, often espoused by the Communist Parties in the 1930s, which demands art – usually naturalist art – accessible to the workers. There is a right wing elitism that views the masses as more or less congenitally incapable of scaling the sublime heights of great art and a left elitism which attributes the indifference of the masses towards art to their cultural impoverishment by class society and capitalism. [40]

In so far as these as the categories exhaust the options, I would place myself in the ‘left elitist’ camp with Luxemburg and Trotsky but I want to challenge the assumption that modern art is in some special way difficult. The question is quite complicated because works of art can be ‘difficult’ in different ways. Difficulty can be culturally relative. To someone who reads only English a novel in French is impossibly ‘difficult’ even if it is written by Barbara Cartland. This kind of difficulty is one of the factors making Chaucer or Shakespeare ‘difficult’ for modern readers. Similar to this is what we might call the ‘difficulty of the new’. T.S. Eliot observes that ‘difficulty may be due just to novelty: we know the ridicule accorded in turn to Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats, Tennyson and Browning’ [41] and certainly contemporary critics found Manet difficult [42], not to speak of the Impressionists who now seem so easy and natural. Then there is genuine intellectual difficulty in the sense that Hegel’s Logic and parts of Marx’s Capital are difficult or theoretical physics is difficult or the difficulty of Eliot’s The Waste Land with its quotations in half a dozen languages and its references to Ovid, Ecclesiastes, The Golden Bough, Dante, the Upanishads and so on. Finally there is the distinction which has to be made in this context between ‘understanding’ and ‘appreciation’ which though they may often be linked are not always so and are by no means identical. [43]

With these considerations in mind we can consider the relative ‘difficulty’ and ‘accessibility’ of traditional and modern art. In reality much traditional art requires very considerable, and sometimes quite esoteric, knowledge to be understood. Thus most medieval art and much from the early modern period assumes a knowledge of the Bible (or of classical mythology) which is not held by most people today. For example one cannot understand Rembrandt’s Bathsheba – even in the literal sense of knowing what is being depicted – unless one knows the relevant Bible story. It also makes a significant difference to know that the model for Bathsheba was Heindricke Stoeffels, the woman Rembrandt loved and lived with for the last 20 years of his life, but that knowledge is only available from study. Moreover much art of this period uses a complex iconography, in which particular objects have very specific meanings, knowledge of which has long since passed out of the common culture and is now very much the preserve of specialist scholars. An example of a famous painting whose meaning can only be fully grasped on the basis of a knowledge of its iconography is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors with its disguised ‘memento mori’ or reminder of death.

In contrast there are many works of modern art that can be appreciated with little or no knowledge or study. As I write I am looking at a reproduction of a painting by Miró called Blue III. It is a very simple painting. It consists of a field of blue which covers the whole canvas. Towards the bottom right corner there is a smallish flat black ovoid. Running from near the bottom left corner to near the top right corner is a meandering thin black line, like a piece of string or thread of cotton. At the top of the black line is a small red oval blob. That’s it. Now it so happens I know next to nothing about this painting. It was painted in 1961 but other than that I don’t know its history. I have not read any theoretical analyses or ‘interpretations’ of it and cannot offer any interpretation of my own apart from the fairly obvious observations that the blue is suggestive of the sky and the line and red blob of a kite. If the painting has a deeper ‘intellectual’ meaning, I don’t know what it is. And yet looking at this painting gives me great pleasure. It evokes feelings of delight, of playfulness and of the joy of life. I could analyse, at least to some extent, how and why the painting evokes these feelings but the analysis would be secondary. I do not have to do, or be able to do, the analysis to experience the feelings. To avoid misunderstanding I should stress that I am not claiming that my response to Blue III is ‘pure’ or ‘innocent’ or not socially conditioned or uninfluenced by knowing that Miró is ‘famous’ or by my general knowledge of art history or anything like that, but only that the Miró is not intrinsically more ‘difficult’ than a Rembrandt or Holbein. Perhaps the most important ‘knowledge’ I need to enjoy and be moved by the Miró is the knowledge that a non-representational painting can be a valid work of art and can evoke such a response.

Another example is provided by Picasso’s Guernica. Clearly an understanding of this painting is facilitated and enhanced by the information that it was a response to and protest against the bombing of the historic Basque city in 1937 by the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War and that this was the first instance of aerial bombing of civilians and so on. [44] Nevertheless, it is a fact which I have established through ‘experiments’ with students that the painting ‘speaks’ and conveys at least some of its ‘meaning’ (outrage at the horror and suffering of war) to people who have no knowledge of its specific history. Certainly it conveys its meaning to the non-specialist as effectively as or more effectively than many an acknowledged ‘old master’ – provided, of course, that the non-specialist concerned is not possessed of the fixed conviction that the ‘meaning’ of painting consists primarily or solely in naturalistic imitation. [45]

One way in which works of modern art are sometimes said to be ‘difficult’ is that they are contributions to or interventions in the ongoing ‘story of art’ and therefore cannot be understood unless one knows the story so far, that is unless one is familiar with the history of art. There is an important element of truth in this in at least two ways: (1) every new modern art movement, every significant new work, exists in dialectical tension with the work that preceded it (Surrealism grows out of the failure of Dadaism, Cubism develops in opposition to Fauvism etc.); (2) specific works frequently ‘quote’ or ‘reference’ other specific works from the past (for example, Mark Wallinger’s horse paintings in the Sensation exhibition reference the horse paintings of George Stubbs in the 18th century). Doubtless it helps to have the knowledge of art history to pick up on these relationships. But this is in no way a characteristic peculiar to either modern or visual art. The history of painting in the Renaissance can be told through successive representations of the Madonna and Child by Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael etc. Manet’s Olympia references Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Seurat’s The Bathers both develops and challenges Impressionism while echoing the frescos of Piero della Francesca. The poetry of Keats wrestles with the legacy of Milton and Shakespeare and his most famous sonnet is inspired by a 17th century translation of Homer. [46] Even that most popular of cultural forms, post-war pop and rock music, operates and develops in the same way, as does Marxist theory.

But is this trait more prevalent in modern art than in traditional art or other art forms and is it more than just part of what modern art works are doing? If the answer to this is yes, it would make modern art not so much difficult as shallow, superficial and sterile. [47] It would reduce modern art to a series of illustrations of essays in a hermetically sealed art history ‘discourse’ with nothing significant to say about or to its times. A work of art no matter how much it develops out of or against a tradition must stand in its own right and work visually on its own account if it is to be taken seriously.

I believe the better examples of modern art do precisely this and the evidence I would cite is the relative popularity of modern art. Obviously modern art is not popular in the sense that football or EastEnders are popular, but it is popular in the sense of appealing to a substantial constituency of people, a constituency much wider than the art world elite, pretentious bourgeois, or people with expert knowledge. In February of this year I went to a lecture by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (famous for ‘wrapping’ the Reichstag and the Pont Neuf) at South Downs College just outside Havant. Tickets at £10 a time were sold out well in advance and something like 700 people attended. That is a significant audience. Walk into any bookshop and you will see large numbers of art books including modern art books, many in cheap editions (like the Taschen editions which include Ernst, Grosz, Duchamp, Klee, Miró, Mondrian and Rivera). This is true not only of Dillons, Foyle’s and the like, but of The Works which specialises in cheap remaindered books in Portsmouth’s central shopping precinct.

Then there is the evidence of gallery and exhibition attendance. Over the last five years (1993–1997) attendance at the Tate Gallery has averaged 1,944,177 per year with a peak of 2,226,399 in 1994. Over a similar period (1992–1996) the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, averaged 534,422 per year and the Tate Gallery, St Ives, averaged 164,046. [48] Interest in modern art is confirmed by attendance at particular exhibitions: over 300,000 at Sensation and 157,754 at Braque:The Late Works – both at the Royal Academy in 1997, compared with only 98,756 at the more traditional Summer Exhibition; at the Tate Gallery 408, 688 for Cézanne in 1996, 296,648 for Picasso in 1994, and 114,275 for Mondrian in 1997, but only 169,412 for Constable in 1991; and at the Hayward Gallery 111,525 for Howard Hodgkin and Beyond Reason: Art & Psychosis in 1996–97, and 101,092 for Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life.

All in all this amounts to a very considerable audience for modern art, larger, I believe, than the audience for modern poetry [49] or serious modern theatre or contemporary classical music. But what kinds of people make up this audience? According to the Tate Gallery’s visitor research they are in terms of age and gender broadly representative of the nation with a slight bias towards women and people under 35. There is also an entirely predictable strong bias towards the middle class – 88 percent of visitors are ABC1s and only 11 percent C2DEs when these categories constitute 49 percent and 51 percent respectively of the population. However, by Marxist class criteria C2DEs represent only the manual working class, while a significant proportion of Bs and C1s are white collar workers rather than middle class and in any case these figures suggest at least 100,000 manual workers visiting the Tate Gallery each year-a statistic which certainly gives food for thought.

Finally there is the vague, impressionistic evidence provided by the use of modern art images and styles in mainstream culture-in adverts, music videos, graphics, textiles and everyday design. Persil ran an advertising campaign featuring ‘Mrs Picasso’s Washing’. Stella Artois had a joke ad, ‘Is it art ... or is it Artois?’ A little while ago there were Mondrian cigarette lighters all over the place and L’Oreal aerosols and sprays were all themed la Mondrian. The sleeve of Sergeant Pepper – perhaps the most popular album of all time – was designed by modern artist Peter Blake. In some ways this is the most important evidence of all – despite its lack of precision – for it shows modern art doing its work affecting, influencing, developing the visual culture, the aesthetics, of the society as a whole. It shows modern art operating on how people see things often without them even knowing it and it confirms in practice what I have argued at various points in this essay: namely that the obstacle to the popular appreciation of modern art is often neither the art itself nor the inherent incapacity of the public but the elitist social ambience and construction of the art world combined with dogmatic but outdated conceptions of what art should look like.

Is art in decline?

I raise this question because even if it is accepted that ‘modern art’ and indeed current art is genuine art which needs to be taken seriously there is still a quite widespread view that it constitutes a decline from some previous high point or higher plateau. What is more, this is not just a conservative view held by the likes of Roger Scruton or Peter Fuller, it is a position common, perhaps even dominant, among Marxist or Marxist influenced writing on art.

From the outset we should be clear about the considerable care required in formulating this question so that it can be answered meaningfully and the enormous difficulty involved in offering any kind of serious response to it based on empirical judgement. What time scale are we operating on and what are we comparing with what? Are we comparing the art of the 1990s with the art of the 1980s, the 1970s or some previous decade? Or are we comparing the art of the second half of the 20th century with the art of the first half of the century? Or the 20th century with the 19th century or with some other previous century or with all other previous centuries? Are we talking about the art of one country, of Europe, of the so called ‘West’ or of the world?

There are pitfalls every step of the way. It is obviously unreasonable to compare the art of this year or this decade with the art of a whole century or period in the past. Yet psychologically it is very easy to fall into this and what is more to select as the point of comparison a particularly outstanding period. No, Damien Hirst and the ‘Young Brit Art’ of today don’t match up to Michelangelo or the Quattrocento but how do they compare to, say, Italian painting of the 1890s or British sculpture of the 1790s? [50] The matter is complicated by the fact that different art forms do not develop evenly within particular countries and visual art does not develop evenly across different countries even within Europe. Thus Elizabethan/Jacobean England is an exceptionally rich period in terms of literature (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Donne, Webster, Spenser etc.) but produces nothing remotely comparable in painting and sculpture. Seventeenth century Holland gives us Rembrandt, Hals, Ruysdael, Vermeer, Hobbema and others in painting but neither literature nor sculpture of world historical importance. In the second half of the 19th century everything really vital and important in visual art seems to be concentrated in France (Courbet, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Redon etc.) but this is not true of other art forms – think of Russian literature. Then there is the question of art outside North America and Europe. Who really knows what is happening now or has been happening in the last decade or so in the visual art of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia and who would feel confident to make aesthetic judgements about it all? And if it were possible to pronounce with assurance that the art of the 1980s and 1990s was on a downward curve worldwide from the 1960s and 1970s (or some similar proposition), could one be sure that the trend would continue into the next millennium or is it just about to bottom out? There is also an important cultural/psychological factor which is likely to affect all our judgments. The acknowledged great artists of the past, the Giottos and Raphaels, the Titians and Velázquezes, have been accumulating cultural credit for centuries. For centuries they have been bywords for genius featuring in anecdotes by Vasari, the metaphors of Marx, the aphorisms of Picasso [51] and so on. It is very difficult to rank a contemporary artist still alive, perhaps still young, their work uncompleted, alongside the established giants of the past.

But if it is virtually impossible to produce a sustainable empirical judgement on this question, can it nevertheless be answered theoretically? Is it possible on general theoretical grounds, i.e. on the basis of a theory of overall historical development, to assert that art is, or is likely to be, or must be undergoing a process of decline? This is a question which seems to sit up and beg for a ready made Marxist answer: art reflects society (in the final analysis); capitalism is a society in crisis and decay (in the final analysis); bourgeois art is therefore decadent and in decline (in the final analysis). To this apparent syllogism it is possible though not mandatory to append the claim that modernism is the expression or epitome of bourgeois decadence.

This, in its crudest, most dogmatic and sectarian form was the position of Stalinism in its Zhdanovite phase and, in infinitely more cultured and sophisticated form, of Lukács who was operating, albeit critically, within the Stalinist camp. However, many Marxists have been drawn by the argument. Here is Plekhanov, writing before modernism really to into its stride:

I said and (I would like to think) demonstrated in my lecture that contemporary art was in decline ... by the word ‘decline’ I mean, comme de raison, the whole process, and not any particular episodes. This process is not yet complete, just as the social process of the collapse of the bourgeois order is not yet complete. It would be strange to think therefore, that present day bourgeois ideologists are utterly incapable of producing any kind of outstanding work at all. It stands to reason that, even at this stage, such works are possible. But the chances of their appearance are being drastically reduced. What is more, even outstanding works bear the imprint of the period of decadence. [52]

This is Francis Klingender, of the Artists’ International Association and author of Art and the Industrial Revolution, in 1935:

The development of modern art from impressionism to abstract form.. embodies the ever more frantic flight from content, i.e. from social reality, from all reality whatever, of the retrogressive capitalist class ... Far from achieving the emancipation of art the destruction of content necessarily leads to the destruction also of form-a climax epically symbolized in the white square painted on a white canvas of square shape by the supremacist Malevich. In its final decay the capitalist class destroys its art as it destroys its science. [53]

And here is Trotsky writing in 1938:

... a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. It fears superstitiously every new word, for it is no longer a matter of corrections and reforms for capitalism but of life and death.. The artistic schools of the last few decades – Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism – follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society ...

To find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all cultures, beginning at its economic base and ending on the highest spheres of ideology. Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably – as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture founded on slavery – unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. [54]

Without doubt, there is a powerful argument here, which cannot fail to strike a chord with any socialist sensitive to the symptoms of decay to be seen at every turn in the life of 20th century capitalism. Nevertheless, when the argument or rather the arguments are examined, flaws and problems immediately arise.

Lukacs famously counterposed the totalising realism of Balzac and Tolstoy to the angst ridden fragmentation of Kafka, Joyce and Beckett. But even if one accepts Lukács’s literary judgements (which I do not) this schema simply will not transfer to painting and sculpture. Far from 1848 appearing as the end of a great epoch of ‘progressive’ bourgeois realist painting it rather marks the start of a rich seam that produces Courbet, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, Lautrec, Cassatt, Morisot, Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Redon, Cézanne, Rousseau, Picasso and Matisse. Any notion of decline is even less applicable to sculpture. Rodin in the late 19th century was probably the most important European sculptor since Michelangelo, and the first half of the 20th century, with Brancusi, Moore, Kollwitz, Epstein, Picasso, Calder, Hepworth, Gabo, Giacometti and others, must count as a sculptural golden age compared with the virtual desert of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Nor will Klingender’s notion of the development from Impressionism to abstraction as a ‘frantic flight from content, i.e. from social reality’ stand up. Seurat’s Bathers is a key step on the road to abstraction but it is not at all a move away from content or social reality (just the opposite in fact). In slightly different ways the same could be said of Van Gogh and Cézanne and, especially, of Cubism. [55] Trotsky’s 1938 argument is different in that it doesn’t share Lukács’s or Klingender’s condemnation of modernism, but the categorical nature of his pronouncements (’Art cannot save itself ... it will rot away inevitably’) is clearly a product of his general catastrophist outlook at this time. If the crisis of capitalism had developed as Trotsky expected [56] then art most certainly would have rotted away because all culture and civilisation would have collapsed, but it did not.

As well as these ad hoc objections there is a theoretical problem. The equation of decaying capitalism and bourgeoisie in decline with decadent declining art assumes a more mechanical relationship between base and this element of the superstructure than is warranted. In an earlier article in this journal I argued that art is an aspect of the superstructure least strictly determined by the economic base [57], and Marx states:

It is well known that certain periods of highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and the skeleton structure of its organisation. [58]

Moreover when we examine the actual relation between the bourgeoisie and modern art we find that although the bourgeoisie certainly controls the art market and the art world it does not itself produce the art. The overwhelming majority of modern artists are not bourgeois but petty bourgeois. [59] What is more, they are petty bourgeois in revolt against the normal, alienated conditions of bourgeois and petty bourgeois life. As Trotsky says, ‘Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion’. [60] As rebellious petty bourgeois artists are inevitably influenced by oppositional ideologies and impulses from both right and left, with the influence of the left by and large outweighing that of the right. Nor is it the case that the bourgeois patrons of art in the 20th century have bought and promoted only art which embodied the ideological positions of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, as Trotsky notes [61], the bourgeoisie has taken pride in buying up and ‘incorporating’ art which challenges dominant bourgeois positions at certain points in time -f or example, Guernica or even art which is sincerely anti-capitalist in its intentions and message, such as the work of Léger.

For all these reasons we must conclude that the historical decline of capitalism (provided it does not reach the acute phase of ‘the mutual destruction of the contending classes’ or the outright destruction of civilisation through world or nuclear war) does not necessarily lead to the decline of art. Perhaps Bertolt Brecht should have the last word on this particular point [62]:


In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

There is, however, another and very different Marxist argument for contemporary art being in decline: that of Perry Anderson in Modernity and Revolution, his critical review of Marshall Barman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air. Anderson pays fulsome tribute to the literary and artistic achievements of modernism in the early decades of the century and identifies the decline of art with the exhaustion of the European modernist impulse. Underlying this contention is a very precise conjunctural explanation of the advent of modernism:

In my view, ‘modernism’ can best be understood as a cultural field triangulated by three decisive coordinates. The first ... was the codification of a highly formalised academicism in the visual and other arts, which itself was institutionalised within official regimes of states and society still massively pervaded, often dominated, by aristocratic or landowning classes ... The second coordinate is ... the still incipient, hence essentially novel, emergence within these societies of the key technologies or inventions of the second industrial revolution: telephone, radio, automobile, aircraft and so on ... The third coordinate ... I would argue, was the imaginative proximity of social revolution. [63]

It was the combination of these three factors which provided modernism with its artistic charge but, Anderson argues, the Second World War brought this period to a definitive close. The old aristocracies were decisively displaced and bourgeois democracy established. Fascism arrived in force and ‘the image or hope of revolution faded away in the West’:

The onset of the Cold War, and the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe cancelled any realistic prospect of a socialist overthrow of advanced capitalism, for a whole historical period. The ambiguity of aristocracy, the absurdity of academicism, the gaiety of the first cars or movies, the palpability of a socialist alternative, were all now gone ... The post-war avant-gardes were to be essentially defined against this quite new backdrop. It is not necessary to judge them from a Lukácsian tribunal to note the obvious: little of the literature, painting, music or architecture of this period can stand comparison with that of the antecedent epoch. [64]

Anderson’s analysis, as always, is erudite and elegant but (leaving aside the question of its historical accuracy regarding the genesis of modernism) as a perspective on the current and impending state of art it is open to major objections. One of the most important of these, the question of the ‘Third World’, Anderson is aware of but dismisses far too easily. He acknowledges that ‘in the Third World generally, a kind of shadow configuration of what once prevailed in the First World does exist today’, nods briefly in the direction of ‘socialist revolution ... already realised in Cuba or Nicaragua, Angola or Vietnam’ [65], cursorily mentions the ‘genuine masterpieces’ of Marquez, Rushdie and Turkish film maker Yilmiz Güney, and then peremptorily dismisses the whole scenario in two sentences:

Works such as these, however, are not timeless expressions of an ever-expanding process of modernisation, but emerge in quite delimited constellations, in societies still at definite historical crossroads. The Third World furnishes no fountain of eternal youth to modernism. [66]

This is all highly unsatisfactory. The term ‘shadow configuration’ is dubious to put it mildly; the ‘socialist revolutions’ are non-existent (and serve only to confuse matters here); no art works are ‘timeless expressions’ and all ‘emerge in quite delimited constellations’, and the art of the so called ‘Third World’ cannot be seen as either succeeding or failing in prolonging European modernism-we are talking about the large majority of the world’s population and nations here. Above all one wants to say, ‘What about ...?’ What about the films of Satyajit Ray or of Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese film makers? What about the new cinema of Africa and Latin America? What about the sculptors of Zimbabwe? What about the poetry of Pablo Neruda? What about Césaire and Senghor and the poets of néritude? The ‘what abouts’ continue to the limits of the reader’s tolerance and the writer’s knowledge.

The second major objection to Anderson’s perspective points to an omission, a piece of historical amnesia, that is, on the face of it, astonishing. Anderson claims that ‘hope of revolution faded away ... for a whole historical period’ and forgets ... the 1960s (or more precisely the great upturn in struggle internationally that began in the 1960s and lasted till 1974). It is, of course, open to argument whether revolution was actually possible in May 1968 or in Chile in 1972–1973 or in Portugal in 1974 but not whether the ‘image or hope’ of revolution was ‘in the air’, or whether it had inspirational cultural effects. The ‘what abouts’ start again – Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Joseph Beuys (and, as it happens, our old friend, Carl André of the bricks). For some reason Anderson remembers only Jean-Luc Godard.

Of course the explanation for this biographically amazing forgetfulness is Anderson’s profound political miserabilism and pessimism which make him write off even the hope of workers’ revolution both backwards and forwards, for the recallable past and the foreseeable future. This pessimism (and a certain high intellectual elitism) also makes him virtually deaf and blind to all those impulses and forces arising from below (’the signs in the street’ as Berman calls them), which range from black power, women’s liberation and flying pickets to punk, grunge and New Age travelling, and are crucial to both contemporary revolutionary politics and contemporary and future cultural creativity.

There is, therefore, no compelling reason to accept Anderson’s ‘closed horizon’ and grim outlook for the arts. Perhaps he is right that in Europe ‘little of the literature, painting, music or architecture of this period can stand comparison with that of the antecedent epoch’ but even that limited judgement is not as ‘obvious’ as Anderson claims (there’s Beckett, Camus, Pinter, Grass, Prevert, Solzhenitzyn, Bacon, Kiefer, Tippett, Fried, Lessing, Fo, Greene and god knows who else to take into account) and it certainly doesn’t apply to film (Bergman, Rossellini, Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini, Truffaut, Resnais, Godard, Wajda, Fassbinder, Tarkovsky, Losey, Loach etc.) or, by definition, to television and video. Nor does it work at all for the United States where the post-war artistic achievement puts the pre-war arts in the shade in at least two areas: poetry (Ginsberg, Ferhinghetti and the Beats, Lowell, Frost, Plath, Rich) and above all the visual arts (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Stella, Still, Newman, Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Basquiat, Smith, Smithson, Serra, Kelly, Bourgeois, Judd, André etc.) and perhaps in three areas if we include modern jazz from Parker to Marsalis. If Anderson’s theoretical foundation is flawed and his empirical judgement about the immediate past is, at the very least, open to question then we have no need at all to accept his foreclosure of prospects and possibilities in the immediate and not so immediate future even if capitalism is not overthrown in the next period.

To reject the argument, whether posed in Lukácsian, general Marxist or Andersonian terms, that art is in overall or inevitable decline is not to assert the opposite, that it is irresistibly in the ascendant. It is simply to suggest that at the present time there are too many variables, too many uncertainties to arrive at any definitive judgement. The perspective is open for both the arts as a whole and for the particular case of visual art. However, the corollary of this open perspective is that the record of human creativity being what it is we can reasonably expect to encounter late 20th and early 21st century masterpieces just as there are masterpieces from every century and half century since Giotto and the beginning of the Renaissance.


This article has been an attempt to tackle a series of questions that arise prior to the consideration of particular works of modern art, the most pressing of which was its legitimacy as ‘art’ at all. In the course of the discussion I have argued: (1) that the legitimacy crisis of modern art is not an accident or a conspiracy (despite the efforts of the media) or the fault of artists but is a historically and economically conditioned phenomenon; (2) that the arguments against modernist art’s status as genuine art will not withstand critical examination and that by the best available Marxist definition of art the works of Picasso, Duchamp, André, Hirst et al. are certainly art; (3) that it is a mistake to see modern art as especially obscure, inaccessible or unpopular; (4) that there are no good grounds for seeing modern art as in inexorable decline or incapable of producing great work today, tomorrow and the next day. Where then does this leave us standing, as it were, in front of the visual art of today?

It leaves us valuing art but hating the capitalist structure of the art world, its elitism, snobbery and commercialism. It leaves us defending art for its rebelliousness, its creativity and its human values while recognising that art as a privileged sphere of these qualities is the other side of the coin of a society which denies the vast majority creativity and humanity in their daily work and lives. It leaves us fighting to change that society and the art world it produces so that the art of the present and past can be appropriated by and accessible to all and so that in the future the art of the future will become the productive work of the future and the productive work will become the art. It leaves us facing the art of today not without preconceptions but without prejudice, responding to it with all the human faculties we can mobilise and understanding that at its best it retains the capacity to enrich and sustain us as human beings fighting for a better world.


1. This is only a restatement in relation to modern art of the classical Marxist position on the working class and traditional bourgeois art and culture as a whole. Thus Trotsky speaks of recommending Shakespeare and Pushkin to the workers. See L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art (New York 1977), pp. 67–69.

2. Cézanne and Gauguin were obviously direct influences and behind them we can trace Manet, Ingres, Goya and Velázquez. But this in no way diminishes Picasso’s startling originality.

3. The shock of Les Demoiselles was not only caused by the formal innovations listed here but also by its ‘content’, its brutal depiction of the prostitute/client relationship (with all its implications for general sexual and social relations between men and women), and in this respect the painting remains genuinely shocking to this day.

4. See J. Berger, Success and Failure of Picasso (Harmondsworth 1965), p. 75.

5. Analytic Cubism, which lasted only three or four years (1910–1912), developed quickly to the point where traces of the depicted object(s) almost (but not quite) disappeared. Synthetic Cubism imported ‘real’ materials – oil cloth, newsprint etc. – into the painting thus violating another tradition maintained since the Renaissance of the unity of materials in a work.

6. A ‘ready made’ upside down urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’.

7. There are isolated exceptions – Kurt Schwitters’ ‘sound poems’, John Cage’s 4'33" of silence – but they have remained marginal to their respective art forms and do not change the general picture.

8. Though never, of course, its only function. Considerable caution must be exercised in the attribution of naturalistic representation to a tradition that ranges from Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Goya’s nightmarish Disparates.

9. Anyone familiar with the Marxist tradition on cultural theory will detect the echo of Lukács here, but it will be evident I am not arguing a Lukácsian position here.

10. Society portraiture continues of course, as does a certain amount of art as state propaganda, but its quality and significance as art diminish dramatically. There is no artistically important painting of Napoleon III, Gladstone, Disraeli, Bismarck, Hitler or Stalin. (There was one portrait of Churchill – by Graham Sutherland – that could claim some serious artistic merit but this was destroyed by the Churchill family.)

11. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of the Living, to give it its full title.

12. Moreover this is a work which is too large for storage in any ordinary house and which involves considerable maintenance costs.

13. Which, in a delicious irony, it turns out is probably a fake.

14. Modern architecture, of course, has its own problem of legitimacy and public hostility.

15. See F. Garcia Lorca, Theory and Function of the Duende, in Obras Completas 3 (Barcelona 1997).

16. I must stress that this analysis has only addressed the question of why the crisis of legitimacy in modern visual art is especially acute. It has not addressed the wider problem of the general split between high culture and popular culture and working class philistinism which requires a much larger analysis of relations between class, exploitation, alienation and culture in capitalist society.

17. The most famous art faker of the century was van Meegeren who forged Vermeers.

18. Of course a Marxist and dialectician understands that all definitions are static concepts imposed on living, changing reality and that in the final analysis all definitions fray at the edges – there are always exceptions, transitional and marginal cases (like the coelacanth in biology). This does not change the fact that definitions are useful and necessary for human knowledge. ‘Knowledge in general begins with distinguishing between things’, L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, op. cit., p. 64.

19. Think also of John Keats’s lines: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty/That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’

20. It is only these ready-mades which show an absence of craft skill. In Duchamp’s other work, for example his Cubist/Futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1911) and his ‘sculpture’ The Large Glass or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), there is a very high level of technical skill.

21. It was the last of this integrated series. Equivalent VIII which, extracted from the total installation, became the infamous Bricks in the Tate.

22. I should say here that, personally, I do find André’s brick sculptures ‘beautiful’. For an art historian who shares this view see P. Wood, On Different Silences, Museum of Modern Art Papers, vol. 2 (Oxford 1996). However, I am not arguing that art has to be beautiful to be art, nor does the reader have to have my particular response to this work to accept my general arguments here.

23. Marcel Duchamp was an outstanding chess player who represented France in the Chess Olympics. In some ways his Fountain can be likened to a daring chess move in which he had calculated in advance the various possible responses of the art institutions, critics, journalists, public, etc.

24. A friend of mine visiting the Objects of Desire exhibition at the Hayward Gallery touched Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel to see if it would spin and was immediately remonstrated with by the attendant. This despite the fact that the original Bicycle Wheel ready made (like the original Bottle Rack and Fountain) has been lost and what was being shown was a replica – a kind of authentic fake.

25. It is also reminiscent of Althusser’s position that the proof of theory lay not in practice but within theory itself.

26. K. Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (Moscow 1978), p. 28. Also, ‘Capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation belonging to a definite historical formation of society’, Capital, vol. 3 (Moscow 1966), p. 814.

27. K. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Moscow 1970), pp. 76–77.

28. For a much fuller discussion of this idea from a position similar – though not identical to mine – see A. Sanchez Vázquez, Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (London 1979), especially Part II: The Fate of Art Under Capitalism.

29. ‘Art is man’s expression of his joy in labour,’ writes William Morris in Art, Labour and Socialism, cited M. Solomon (ed.), Marxism and Art (Brighton 1979), p. 85. Morris was broadly heading in the same direction as me, but without the advantage of having read Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.

30. K. Marx, Early Writings (London 1963), pp. 124–125.

31. K. Marx, Debating the Freedom of the Press, in L. Baxandall and S. Morowski (eds.), Marx and Engels on Literature and Art (New York 1974).

32. Cited in M. Solomon (ed.), op. cit., p. 75.

33. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, op. cit., p. 96.

34. Ibid., p. 106.

35. Ibid., p. 114.

36. This argument raises the question of the so called ‘interpretive’ as opposed to ‘creative’ artist – the actor, musician, dancer, etc. These are transitional cases and normal usage of the term art in relation to such roles reflects this. Like all transitional cases they range from one end of the spectrum to the other – from the minimally artistic ‘extra’ or dancer in the chorus, to the highly artistic leading actor, prima ballerina, virtuoso violin soloist.

37. Once again there are transitional and intermediate cases: the work of theory like Marx’s Capital or Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution that has significant ‘artistic’ elements in its composition; the lovingly tended garden or carefully prepared meal that is a ‘work of art’.

38. K. Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (Moscow 1963), Part I, p. 285.

39. By the same token the works in the Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood are art but the advertisements produced by Saatchi & Saatchi are not.

40. Ortegay Gasset, T.S. Eliot and Ayn Rand represent versions of this right wing elitism. Adorno is the extreme example of left elitism. Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, travelled from left elitism in Avant Garde and Kitsch in 1939 (called ‘Eliotic Trotskyism’ by T.J. Clarke) to right elitism in the 1950s and in his 1961 article Modernist Painting; Luxemburg and Trotsky could also be seen as in the left elitist category because of their insistence on the impossibility of an independent working class culture under capitalism, but this is really an abuse of the term elitist.

41. T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London 1964), p. 150.

42. See T.J. Clark, Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865, Screen, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1980).

43. I leave aside here the fact that what it means to understand a work of art (especially visual art) is neither simple nor self evident.

44. It is worth noting that this useful information is not in any way the specialist knowledge of the art expert but was front page news at the time Guernica was painted. Moreover Guernica is very unusual in Picasso’s vast oeuvre in needing this kind of factual explanation.

45. At the time the opinion was aired that the Republican cause would have been better served by a more ‘accessible’ Socialist Realist work but I can think of no Socialist Realist painting on any subject whatsoever that has had anything approaching the impact of Guernica.

46. The poem is called On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.

47. See John Berger’s critique of Picasso’s paintings that are based on paintings by other artists in Success and Failure of Picasso, op. cit., pp. 94–98, 183–186.

48. These and all other figures for attendance at the Tate were supplied by Joanna Stevenson of the Tate Gallery Information Office. Figures for the Hayward were supplied by Kate Harman from the Hayward Gallery and figures for the Royal Academy came from the press.

49. Attendance at the Sensation exhibition ran at approximately 20,000 a week; at Objects of Desire at approximately 8,000 a week. In the week ending 14 February 1998, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary stood at number one in the paperback bestsellers list with a weekly sale of 22,371 and Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid, the highest ranking poetry, stood at number 12 with a weekly sale of 6,680.

50. I have to confess I don’t know any Italian painting of the 1890s or British sculpture of the 1790s. Undoubtedly there are people who know lots about both but they are as likely to be antique dealers as art critics or historians.

51. Thus we have the tale of Giotto drawing a perfect circle freehand, we have Raphaelesque Madonnas, we have Titian hair, we have Marx proclaiming that ‘anyone in whom there is a potential Raphael should be able to develop without hindrance’ [Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Moscow 1976), p. 177] and we have Picasso saying, ‘When I was a child I could draw like Raphael. I have spent the rest of my life trying to draw like a child.’

52. G. Plekhanov, Art and Social Life (1912), in P. Davison, R. Meyersohn and E. Shils (eds.), Literary Taste, Culture and Mass Communication, vol. 3 (Cambridge 1978), p. 63.

53. F. Klingender, Content and Form in Art, in C. Harrison and P. Wood, Art in Theory 1900–1990 (London 1992), pp. 422–423.

54. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, op. cit., pp. 105–106.

55. See John Berger’s analysis of Cubism in Success and Failure of Picasso, op. cit., pp. 48–70.

56. See L. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, in The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution (New York 1977).

57. J. Molyneux, Is Marxism Deterministic?, International Socialism 68, p. 55.

58. K. Marx, Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, cited in M. Solomon (ed.), op. cit., p. 63.

59. I mean petty bourgeois in the strict Marxist sense of their objective role in the productive process of society and their relationship to the means of production. With very few exceptions artists are small producers who own their own means of production and sell not their labour power but the products of their labour.

60. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, op. cit., p. 104.

61. See ibid., pp. 104–105.

62. B. Brecht, Poems 1913–1956 (London 1979), p. 320.

63. P. Anderson, Modernity and Revolution, New Left Review 144.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

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