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


The standpoint of aesthetic relativism was advocated in the following terms by Taine in 1865:

‘The new method I am attempting to follow, and which is beginning to find its way into all moral sciences, consists of viewing all human works and particularly works of art, as facts and phenomena of which it is essential to mark the characteristics and seek the causes – nothing more. Science, thus understands, does not condemn or condone, it only points out and explains. It does not say: “disdain Dutch art – it is vulgar; admire only Italian art.” Nor does it say: “disdain Gothic art – it is morbid; admire only Greek art.” It leaves everyone free to follow his own tastes, to prefer that which conforms to his temperament and study with closer attention that which is more agreeable to the development of his spirit. With respect to art itself it is equally sympathetic to all its forms and all schools, even to those who seem diametrically opposed; they are considered different manifestations of the human spirit.’ [33]

Plekhanov agrees with Taine that it is impossible to compare the relative merits of different periods and styles in art. But that Marx maintained the opposite point of view is evident from his references to the decline of art under capitalism, i.e. during an entire era which produced a whole series of styles.

The relativist attitude evidently entails an unresolved contradiction. However ‘objective’ the historian may claim to be in his approach to all styles of art, he almost invariably betrays his own preferences in his choice of the particular schools or works which he studies in detail; and it is remarkable how closely his selection has coincided during the last eighty years with that of the avowed aesthetes. In the 1910s and -20s both ‘discovered’ such phases as sixteenth century mannerism or primitive art, which had been neglected by their Victorian predecessors; neither has shown much concern for popular art ever since the sophisticated public for whom they wrote lost interest in its democratic implications. [34]

But while the historians claim scientific validity for their analyses of the relative standards of other periods, they rarely define the standard of their own time and class which has conditioned their choice of theme; indeed, when challenged, they generally deny that their own subjective tastes, and therefore the aesthetic conceptions of their own time, have any scientific basis at all. Thus they shelve the problem which is of main interest to the artist and his public. To the question ‘what is good art?’ they reply: ‘this is what the Victorian middle class thought good art – that appealed to the feudal lord – that to the citizen of Athens – but there is no objective reason for preferring one to the other; true, we ourselves do prefer this or that period, but that is purely a matter of our own subjective taste, or of our class interests, and we cannot justify our choice in aesthetic terms.’

The study of art is thus reduced to the aim of explaining the historical origin of the various styles, either in terms of social structure or in terms of such half-way-house conceptions as the ‘spirit of the age’. But the problem of aesthetics proper, i.e. the problem of value, is evaded.

This was inevitable as long as it was of supreme importance to establish an objective historical approach in opposition to the subjective interpretations of the idealists: and that is why profound writers like Plekhanov and Mehring mainly emphasized the historical basis of Marxist thought. But it cannot be denied that the idealist reaction, which gained strength in this as in all other spheres since the early years of the present century, was in part at least provoked by the shallow distortions which the historical approach had suffered in the hands of the sociological relativists and other vulgarisers of Marxism.

It is in the answers which are often given to the second and related question – how far is the artist bound by the standards of his class and period? – that these distortions are most glaringly revealed. Writers who adopt a relativist point of view tend to assert that the artist is insolubly bound to his class. Hence they reduce the tasks of a ‘Marxist’ art historian to a kind of crime detection which ‘exposes’ the class affiliations of all the great artists of the past. Their attitude is summarized in the fallacious proposition that the art of the past has always expressed the interests of an exploiting class, whence it is to be expected that the classics will gradually fall out of favour with the advance of Socialism. The unprecedented and ever growing demand for all the classics in the Soviet Union and the great controversy on aesthetics which took place in that country in 1935 [35] have exploded this fallacy. But it lingers on in the view which is still widely held among English artists that nothing can be done about the chaotic state of art in this country, since ‘the art of a decadent epoch must be decadent’, and that, in particular, the Socialist art of the Soviet Union can have no meaning for us at all.

Marx’s own views concerning the relation of artists, and ideologists in general, to the class they represent is perfectly unambiguous:

One must not imagine, he writes, that the theoretical representatives of the democratic lower middle class ‘are all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be separated from them as widely as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not go beyond the limits which the latter do not go beyond in life, that they are consequently driven theoretically to the same tasks and solutions to which material interest and social position practically drive the latter. This is in general the relation of the political and literary representatives of a class to the class that they represent.’ [36]

Hence it is a distortion of Marxism to assert that the content of an artist’s work is rigidly determined by his own economic and social position. The artist inherits a particular conception of the world, because it corresponds to the practical attitude of the class into which he was born; if that is also the class to which his patrons belong he will, as a rule, be perfectly satisfied with that conception and express it in his work. But under certain circumstances he may adopt a position which is opposed to the interest of his own class, and there are even times when he must do so, if he is to preserve his integrity as an artist.

Consciousness, including art, is not therefore an automatic reflex of the individual’s own position seen in isolation; it is the reflection in his mind, and consequently in his scientific or artistic work, of the sum-total of his social relations.

‘The consciousness of the masses of the workers cannot be genuine class consciousness,’ wrote Lenin, ‘unless the workers learn to observe from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events, every other social class and all the manifestations of the intellectual, ethical and political life of these classes; unless they learn to apply practically the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of life and activity of all classes, strata and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation and the consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats; because for its self-realization the working class must... have a practical understanding... of the relationship between all the various classes of modern society.’ [37]

This idea which Lenin expressed in 1902 had been applied by Marx in 1846 to the interpretation of art:

‘If he will compare Raphael with Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, he will see to what extent the works of art of the first were conditioned by the flourishing of Rome, then under the influence of Florence; how the works of Leonardo were conditioned by the social milieu of Florence, and later those of Titian by the altogether different development of Venice. Raphael, like any other artist, was conditioned by the technical advances made in art before him, by the organization of society and the division of labour in his locality, and finally, by the division of labour in all the countries with which his locality maintained relations.[38]

In other words, the sum-total of relations which conditions the artist’s work is coextensive with the practical contacts of his own society. Thus Dvorák was undoubtedly right when he asserted, in conscious opposition to the narrow, mechanistic approach of the ‘sociological’ interpreters of art, that the great artist is always abreast of the most advanced spiritual (i.e. religious, philosophical, scientific, aesthetic) tendencies of his time, whatever their country of origin. [39] It is clearly inadequate to interpret, say, the art of Bruegel purely in terms of the Flemish tradition. His work became the mirror of his people’s great struggle for political and spiritual liberty precisely because he had mastered the outstanding intellectual and aesthetic achievements of his Italian, Spanish, French, German, English contemporaries, as well as his native heritage. But we cannot agree with Dvorák and his followers in divorcing the spiritual tendencies of an age from their material roots; hence we shall not fail to give due weight also to the tremendous influence which the discovery of the new world and the consequent extension of the relations of Europe exerted on Bruegel’s interpretation of reality. Today the complex of social relations which conditions the outlook and the work of every artist embraces the entire globe; and the fact that an entirely new type of social relation has been established over one sixth of the earth’s surface cannot but have the most profound influence, either directly or indirectly, on the work of every artist in this country at the present time.

Seen in this light, the statement ‘the art of a decadent epoch must be decadent’ is a fatalistic perversion of the truth. There is no such thing in history as a period of decline which is not also at the same time a period of growth. While the old forms are declining, the conditions for the emergence of the new society are maturing. Hence the description of a given period as a ‘period of decline’ can only mean that the old, declining forces still predominate over the growing forces which will eventually replace them. As long as the declining forces predominate, their decadence will, it is true, be reflected in the dominating trend of art (and if these forces are themselves inimical to art, as they are in capitalist society, that decadence will be expressed in the ever-increasing estrangement of art from life); but the dominating trend is never the only trend in the art of a ‘period of decline’, nor is it ever the most significant trend. The most significant art in a decadent epoch will be as much in opposition to the dominant trend of decadent art, as the growing forces are to the declining, but still dominating, forces in all other spheres of life. ‘Mankind’, wrote Marx, ‘always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.’ [40] And Stalin adds: ‘New social ideas and theories arise precisely because they are necessary to society, because it is impossible to carry out the urgent tasks of development of the material life of society without their organizing, mobilizing and transforming action.’ [41] ‘Theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses’, and it grips the masses if it goes ‘to the roots of things’. [42] The artist, too, must go to the roots of things, if he spurns to reflect the decadence of a declining age: ‘To invent,’ wrote Gorky, ‘means to extract from the sum of a given reality its cardinal idea and embody it in imagery – that is how we got realism. But if to the idea extracted from the given reality we add... the desired, the possible, and thus supplement the image, we obtain that romanticism which is... highly beneficial in that it tends to provoke a revolutionary attitude to reality, an attitude that changes the world in a practical way.’ [43]