Marxism and Modern Art: An approach to social realism by F. D. Klingender 1943

The Palace of Art

Formalism both in the practice of art and in aesthetic theory was not the revolutionary turning point which Fry claimed it to be. The sterile character of the ‘modern movement’, its significance as the last refinement of a dying era in the history of art, is incontestible when that movement is considered in its relation to the wider tradition of British painting.

With the appearance of Hogarth in the early eighteenth century British painting lost its provincial backwardness and assumed a leading role in Europe. Hogarth’s art is essentially ‘moral’, i.e. it is constantly and intimately concerned with contemporary social life. This social interest survived in the marvellous school of English caricature based on Hogarth which reflected the interests and aspirations of our people from the time of the South Sea Bubble to the rise of Chartism. To appreciate how essentially popular this tradition was one should compare, say, one of Hogarth’s own engravings or a caricature of the Napoleonic period with the club and drawing-room witticisms which fill even the earliest volumes of Punch. Popular pictorial art disappeared in the 1830s with the rise to power of the Victorian middle class of industrialists and business men whose narrow class outlook Punch reflected. But as soon as this vital substratum of popular, socially conscious art had disappeared, British art as a whole relapsed into provincial eclecticism. Whereas Turner, Constable and the Norwich School had anticipated the impressionists (just as Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson anticipated Daumier and his contemporaries), their successors followed in the wake of foreign fashion. First the Pre-Raphaelites imitated the German Nazareens in attempting to escape from the vulgar commercialism of their time into a romantic, mystically sensuous mediaevalism. Later, when the French impressionists and post-impressionists became increasingly preoccupied with the technique of art, to the neglect of its content, it was their work which was imitated; until finally, in the 1920s and 30s both leaders and imitators completed their escape from reality into the arid desert of pure form and the various other brands of neo-mysticism.

Thus the development of British art has verified William Morris’ warning of 1879, when he foretold the emergence of ‘an art cultivated professedly by a few, and for a few, who would consider it necessary – a duty, if they could admit duties – to despise the common herd, to hold themselves aloof from all that the world has been struggling for from the first, to guard carefully every approach to their palace of art. It would be a pity to waste many words on the prospect of such a school of art as this, which does in a way, theoretically at least, exist at present, and has for its watchword a piece of slang that does not mean the harmless thing it seems to mean – art for art’s sake. Its fore-doomed end must be, that art at last will seem too delicate a thing even for the hands of the initiated to touch; and the initiated must at last sit still and do nothing – to the grief of no one’. [13] Eight years later Morris repeated his warning:

‘I repeat, that every scrap of genuine art will fall by the same hands (i.e. the hands of those actuated by the greed for Commercial Profit) if the matter only goes on long enough, although a sham art may be left in its place, which may very well be carried on by dilettanti fine gentlemen and ladies without any help from below; and, to speak plainly, I fear that this gibbering ghost of the real thing would satisfy a great many of those who now think themselves lovers of art; though it is not difficult to see a long vista of its degradation till it shall become at last a mere laughingstock; that is to say, if the thing were to go on: I mean, if art were to be for ever the amusement of those whom we now call ladies and gentlemen.’ [14]

The dilemma implied in the retreat of art from life affected all the more sensitive artists and writers of the later nineteenth century in one way or another. Moreover, it had already been expounded with striking force at a time when the development from which it arose had scarcely begun.

To appreciate the significance of the ‘modern’ movement one should compare Fry’s aesthetic writings with Tennyson’s poem, The Palace of Art.

The first version of this poem was written in 1831-2, at the height of the great struggle for Parliamentary reform, when Tennyson, who had just left Cambridge, was still profoundly influenced by the ideas of the Apostles, that same exclusive undergraduate society to which Roger Fry belonged half a century later. The second version of The Palace of Art which appeared in the volume of poems Tennyson published after ten years of silence in 1842, was largely recast. Apart from a few important later additions it represents its present form. It was in the decade between 1832 and 1842 that the social struggle assumed its specifically modern form, created by the industrial revolution, of the class war between labour and capital. From the horrors of the early factories Chartism appeared as the first independent political movement of the workers, and the Chartist struggle, already nation-wide during the crisis years of 1838-39, culminated in the second great National Petition presented to Parliament in May 1842.

It was from this conflict that Tennyson – and three generations of British artists after him – sought to escape. [15] Sitting in her ‘lordly pleasure house’ on a ‘huge crag-platform’ towering above mankind, the artist’s soul exclaims:

‘O God-like isolation which art mine,
I can but count thee perfect gain,
What time I watch the darkening droves of swine
That range on yonder plain.

‘In filthy sloughs they roll a prurient skin,
They gaze and wallow, breed and sleep;
And oft some brainless devil enters in,
And drives them to the deep...

‘I take possession of man’s mind and deed.
I care not what the sects may brawl.
I sit as God holding no form of creed,
But contemplating all.’

Like Fry’s aesthetic contemplation in 1909, that of Tennyson in 1842 is freed from all moral responsibility:

‘And let the world have peace or wars,
‘Tis one to me...’
Full oft the riddle of the painful earth
Flashed through her as she sat alone,
Yet none the less she held her solemn mirth,
And intellectual throne.’

But the ‘riddle of the painful earth’ only occupied a minor place in the soul’s contemplation. Indeed, the struggles of men merely formed the pattern which was inlaid in the mosaic floor of her palace, and ‘over these she trod’, gazing at the walls which were painted with

every legend fair
Which the supreme Caucasian mind (!)
Carved out of Nature for itself...

What is most remarkable in the eight stanzas in which Tennyson recounts these legends is his love of abstruse allusions. The walls of the Palace of Art depict not only ‘the maid-mother by a crucifix’, Europa and Ganymede, but also ‘the wood-nymph and the Ausonian King’, and ‘Uther’s deeply wounded son watched by weeping queens’. These are not yet, it is true, the interests which were of ‘infinite importance’ to the Fry generation. But regarded from the point of view of their relevance to contemporary social life they are, clearly, the Victorian equivalents and antecedents of, say, the Oedipus Complex or of the Sex Life of the Trobriand Islanders. Moreover, to appreciate Tennyson’s allusions the contemporary reader was as much dependent upon the Encyclopaedia Britannica as are the readers of Aldous Huxley or Eliot today.

But Tennyson did not stop, where Fry stopped in the 1920s, at the stage where the artist, content with his ‘God-like isolation’ holds his ‘solemn mirth and intellectual throne’. He anticipated the inevitable result of that isolation, the haunting fear and the escape into mysticism which have played so prominent a role in the art of the 1930s. What better description could there be of the imagery of the surrealists than the stanzas in which Tennyson paints the soul’s sudden relapse into despair after she had rejoiced for three years in her solitude:

Deep dread and loathing for her solitude
Fell on her, from which mood was born
Scorn of herself; again from out that mood
Laughter at her self-scorn.

‘What! is not this my palace of strength,’ she said,
‘My spacious mansion built for me,
Whereof the strong foundation-stones were laid
Since my first memory?’

‘But in dark corners of her palace stood
Uncertain shapes; and unawares
On white-eyed phantasms weeping tears of blood,
And horrible nightmares,

‘And hollow shades enclosing hearts of flame,
And, with dim fretted foreheads all,
On corpses three-months-old at noon she came,
That stood against the wall...

‘And death and life she hated equally,
And nothing saw for her despair,
But dreadful time, dreadful eternity,
No comfort anywhere;

‘Remaining utterly confused with fears,
And ever worse with growing time,
And ever unrelieved by dismal tears,
And all alone in crime:

Shut up as in a crumbling tomb, girt round
With Blackness as a solid wall,
Far off she seem’d to hear the dully sound
Of human footsteps fall...

Tennyson’s resolution of the soul’s dilemma, his answer to her howl of anguish:

‘What is it that will take away my sin,
And save me lest I die?’

is contained in the two concluding stanzas of the poem:

So when four years were wholly finishéd,
She threw her royal robes away
’Make me a cottage in the vale’, she said,
‘Where I may mourn and pray.
’Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built:
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt.’

An extraordinary anti-climax that offers as little hope to the artist, as do the sophisms of the formalists and of the other brands of modern mystics! All the issues are blurred and confounded. What is the artist’s ‘guilt’, the sin he has committed for which the penalty is death? Clearly, his self-imposed isolation from his kind. Yet how does he propose to purge himself of that guilt? Not, it will be noted, by returning to his kind, to the teeming cities filled with the noise and clamour of productive labour and with its struggle for a better life. But, first, by a renunciation of art – the soul throws her royal robes away in order to ‘mourn and pray’ in the country cottage which, presumably, the common herd will be indulgent enough to make for her, or which the village labourer, driven by enclosures into the factory, has vacated. Immediately afterwards, however, the soul is struck with doubts. She suspects that she may tire of her penance and long to return to her so lightly and beautifully built palace towers. And then comes the significant admission that to enjoy their splendours she must return ‘with others’. But who are those ‘others’? – are they Fry’s ‘few elect’ who can appreciate the refinements of ‘pure’ art, or are they the people at large? We can only guess.