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

Realism: Marx and Engels

Whatever its limitations, Chernyshevski’s approach with its resolute rejection of all forms of philosophical idealism and mysticism clears the ground for a conception which regards art as a means of expressing the interests and aspirations of the people.

It is important to stress that it is not a theory of formal naturalism (although it may well have been interpreted as such in the mid-nineteenth century, at any rate as far as the visual arts are concerned). Chernyshevski explicitly differentiates his conception of ‘reproduction’ from the ancient view of art as the ‘imitation’ of nature which applies the test of ‘correctness or incorrectness’ to the arts. His own demand for realism – the demand that art should reproduce and interpret what interests man in life – refers, on the contrary, exclusively to the content of art, and not to its form. All he claims regarding the form of art is, in the first place, that it should fully express what the artist means to convey and, secondly, that it should impart general significance to the artist’s image of a particular aspect of reality.

This restriction of the meaning of realism to the content of art, which leaves the artist free to express his vision of reality in whatever manner he deems best, corresponds to the evidence of history. There has always been a realist current in art, in the sense that certain artists have endeavoured to depict the actual conditions of life and not its idealisation, although for centuries at a time this trend was submerged in the neglected undercurrent of folk-art or popular satire. But whether one takes the ancient mime or fifteenth-century misericords, the paintings of Bruegel or those of Goya, Gargantua or Don Quixote, Gulliver or the Drapier’s Letters, Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders – the great tradition of realism has at all times been distinguished by a combination, or else by the alternate use, of quite distinct forms of expression. Side by side with the endeavour to depict the actual appearance of things in a frank and often drastic manner – side by side, in other words, with realism in the formal sense of the term – there has always been a simultaneous urge to express the hidden meaning of things – or else the necessity of concealing their plain meaning from the censor’s inquisitive eyes – either through a caricature-like exaggeration of reality or else through more or less fantastic symbols (e.g. the animal fable, monsters, grotesques, etc.). [20] The great realists of Chernyshevski’s own age also employed these two main forms of expression. Balzac wrote The Unknown Masterpiece as well as le Père Goriot, Shchedrin his Fables as well as the Golovlyov Family.

Nevertheless, to be useful for us today, Chernyshevski’s broad formulations need to be refined and amplified. We want to know more fully how the artist has succeeded in the past and can succeed today in giving general significance to his particular image of reality; and we also need to know precisely how the test of truth can be applied to the evaluation of different kinds of images.

Chernyshevski’s theory is particularly interesting for Marxists, because this great forerunner of Russian revolutionary socialism, who spent many years in exile in Siberia, adopted the materialist point of view of Feuerbach [21] for his attack on the Hegelian conception of art. Indeed, he claimed no more than to have applied Feuerbach’s methods of analysis to the special sphere of aesthetics. Chernyshevski’s thesis can therefore be regarded as the immediate predecessor of the Marxist theory of art, and its limitations can be discovered by turning to Marx and Engels’s critique of its philosophical basis, the materialism of Feuerbach.

In the first of his famous Theses on Feuerbach Marx wrote:

‘The chief defect of all materialism up to now (including Feuerbach’s) is, that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object or contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively.’ [22]

This statement is of great significance for evaluating Chernyshevski’s conception of ‘reproduction’. Chernyshevski follows Feuerbach in regarding reality as an isolated sphere, distinct from ‘man’, an ‘object’ which the artist reproduces for ‘man’ to contemplate. Marx, on the other hand, insists that humanity is an inseparable part of reality, and that our consciousness is but the reflexion in our minds of our own practical activity in changing reality. Art, too, is part of this practical activity of changing the world. Far from reproducing an eternally unvarying ‘Nature’ for the contemplation of ‘man’, it reflects the unceasing struggle of humanity to master the forces of Nature. Indeed, the artist is in the vanguard of that struggle, for by virtue of his sensibility he is continually discovering new aspects of reality of which his fellow men are not as yet aware. Thus ‘beauty’ is not eternally the same; its ever-changing substance must be continually discovered and rediscovered by the artist and transmitted by him to his fellow men. As Marx puts it: ‘The work of art – like any other product – produces a public conscious of its own peculiar beauty and capable of enjoying it.’ [23]

Another fundamental limitation of Feuerbach’s approach which is shared by Chernyshevski is defined in the sixth thesis of Marx:

‘Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble (aggregate) of social relations.

‘Feuerbach, who does not enter more deeply into the criticism of this real essence, is therefore forced to abstract from the process of history... and to postulate an abstract – isolated – human individual.’ [24]

There are passages in Chernyshevski’s essay which show that he was not unaware of the inadequacy of the abstraction ‘man’ – thus he points out that the peasant’s conception of life and hence of beauty differs from that of the aristocrat and that there are similar differences between the standards of taste prevailing at different historical periods – but it was left to Marx and Engels to point out the full significance of such differences. ‘Man’ in the abstract is a fiction. ‘The essence of man’ can have no meaning other than the social relations of men in their struggle with Nature. Consciousness is the reflexion in the minds of men of these social relations.

‘Language’, wrote Marx, ‘is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness, as it exists for other men, and for that reason is really beginning to exist for me personally as well; for language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men... Consciousness is therefore from the beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.’ [25]

‘Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.’ Consequently, to understand consciousness, or any particular manifestation of consciousness, such as a work of art, one must start from the ‘real living individuals themselves, as they are in actual life’ and consider ‘consciousness solely as their consciousness’. [26]

‘Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking’. [27]

Nevertheless, there is a modicum of truth in Roger Fry’s claim ‘that the usual assumption of a direct and decisive connection between art and life is by no means correct’ (even if we take ‘life’ in the broad meaning of the term and not in Fry’s sense of the self-consciousness of the elect). But Fry’s conception of what constitutes a ‘direct and decisive connection’ is purely mechanical. In the ‘violently-foreshortened view of history and art’ which forms the first part of his Fabian lecture he shows that there have been many periods in history when there was ‘progress’ in life while art stagnated or even declined, and vice versa. This is, of course, perfectly true; but it never seems to have occurred to Fry that an inverse relationship may also be due to a ‘direct and decisive connection’. Indeed, as early as 1846 Marx and Engels had proved that a contradiction between consciousness (including art) and life was not only possible but under certain circumstances even inevitable. In the German Ideology they point out that this contradiction is inherent in the division of labour with its resulting stratification of society into classes which arose at a certain stage in the development of the material forces of production:

‘Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears. From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it is really conceiving something without conceiving something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of “pure” theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. But even if this theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc., come into contradiction with the existing relations, this can only occur as a result of the fact that existing social relations have come into contradiction with existing forces of production...’ [28]

and further:

‘The forces of production, the state of society, and consciousness, can and must come into contradiction with one another, because the division of labour implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity -enjoyment and labour, production and consumption – devolve on different individuals, and that the only possibility of their not corning into contradiction lies in the negation in its turn of the division of labour.’ [29]

In the second part of the same work the authors show more explicitly how the division of labour and its final negation affect the arts:

‘The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in certain individuals, and its consequent suppression in the broad masses of the people, is an effect of the division of labour. Even if in certain social relations everyone could become an excellent painter, that would not prevent everyone from being also an original painter... With a communist organization of society, the artist is not confined by the local and national seclusion which ensues solely from the division of labour, nor is the individual confined to one specific art, so that he becomes exclusively a painter, a sculptor, etc.; these very names express sufficiently the narrowness of his professional development, and his dependence on the division of labour. In a communist society there are no painters, but at most men who, among other things, also paint.’ [30]

Marx and Engels believed that of all forms of society that of fully developed industrial capitalism, in which the division between material and mental labour reaches the extreme point, was most hostile to art. The consequent decline of art, so palpable in the nineteenth century, manifested itself on the one hand in the disappearance of craftsmanship and of beauty in the sense of fitness for its purpose from all the practical arts, and on the other hand in the ever increasing specialization of the fine arts and in their ever greater remoteness from life. Yet at the same time this decline was accompanied by spectacular advances in the technique of production, including the technique of artistic production. This contradiction was expressed in the remarkable speech which Marx delivered on the occasion of the anniversary of the Chartist ‘People’s Paper’ in April 1856:

‘There is one great fact characteristic of this our nineteenth century; a fact which no party dares deny. On the one hand there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange, weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art are bought by the loss of character. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our inventions and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force. This antagonism between modern industry and science, on the one hand, and modern misery and dissolution, on the other; this antagonism between the productive forces and the social relations of our epoch is a fact, palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted. Some may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts in order to get rid of modern conflicts. Or they may imagine that so signal a progress in industry wants to be completed by as signal a regress in politics. For our part, we do not mistake the shape of the shrewd spirit that continues to mark all these contradictions. We know that to work well the new-fangled forces of society, they only want to be mastered by new-fangled men – and such are the working men...’ [31]

It is evident from these quotations that Marx’s explanation of the temporary estrangement of art from life had nothing in common with Hegel’s view of the irredeemable decline of art; for Marx pointed out that the very factors which lead to a temporary decline of art at the same time create the conditions for its resurrection once men have freed themselves from their enslavement ‘to other men or to their own infamy’.

But Marx’s resolution of the abstraction ‘man’ into the concrete, historically conditioned and ever changing relations of men in society, and his method of explaining all forms of consciousness in terms of those relations, also laid the foundations for a scientific history of art which attempts more than a mere description of its ever changing forms. Just as Marx was able to explain the characteristic trend of nineteenth century art – the trend which culminated in the formalism of today – in terms of the contradictions of nineteenth century life, so historical materialism can accomplish what Fry’s mechanical conception of ‘progress’ could never do: namely to disclose the social roots of the entire, complex, history of styles.

It is a measure of Chernyshevski’s profound insight that, in spite of the limitations of his approach, he recognized, why the peasant’s conception of beauty differs from that of the courtier. The peasant cannot live without work, Chernyshevski writes, therefore ‘the country beauty cannot have small hands and feet... and folksongs do not mention such features... The description of beauty in folksongs will not contain a single attribute of beauty which would not be a sign of flourishing health and balanced strength of body, the consequences always of a life of plenty with constant, hard, though not excessive work.’ But precisely those features which are a sign of fitness for work in the peasant – the ruddy complexion, the sturdy figure, the strong hands – are considered ‘vulgar’ by the sophisticated man of leisure who despises work. Instead of these he admires the languid pallor, the fragile form, the delicate extremities of the town-bred lady of fashion whose ancestors have lived for generations ‘without putting their hands to work’. The ideals of beauty of the peasant and the nobleman are thus determined by their respective positions in the process of production and by their resulting conceptions of a ‘good life’. What is true of their ideals of personal beauty is equally true of their artistic tastes. The aesthetic standards of the different classes differ, because their conditions of life differ; and the artist who wishes to please his public must conform to one or other of these standards. The same applies to different periods in history; differences in the conditions of life are reflected by corresponding differences in the standards of art.

This has important implications for the critical evaluation of art. While the courtier despises peasant art as crude and vulgar (unless, of course, he is a modern enthusiast for the ‘naïve’), the peasant on his part is no less contemptuous of sophisticated art. If a member of one class applies his own standard of appreciation to a work produced in another class or period, he does no more than express his own subjective, class- and time-conditioned, preferences. He cannot do justice to the particular work, unless he also attempts to appreciate it in terms of its own standards.

But if it is true that all art must be judged in terms of its own relative, class- and time-conditioned standard of appreciation, does it necessarily follow that there is no absolute, objectively binding standard of value which can in turn be applied to these various relative standards?

Furthermore, if all art reflects the standards of a given class and period, does it follow that the artist is inevitably and rigidly bound to the standards of one particular class and period? Is Plekhanov right when he states: ‘Apple trees must give forth apples, pear trees, pears... The art of a decadent epoch “must” be decadent; this is inevitable; and it would be futile to become indignant about it.’ ? [32]

It will be appreciated that the answers to these questions are of fundamental importance for all artists at the present time, but especially for those who are striving to express the interests and aspirations of the people.