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

Realism: Lenin

Plekhanov adopted the standpoint of aesthetic relativism because, as Lunacharski pointed out, he regarded historical materialism primarily as the scientific method of interpreting the world. In reasserting the essential significance of Marxism as a guide to action, Lenin resolved the contradictions which had crept into Plekhanov’s exposition.

For the artist, too, an aesthetic standard is a guide to action, and not a neutral platform for the contemplation of the past. The standard he adopts is relative, because conditioned by the circumstances of his time and class. But is it impossible to conceive of a standard which, though relative, cannot also have objective validity?

In his Notes on Dialectics Lenin wrote:

‘The distinction between subjectivism (scepticism, sophistry, etc.) and dialectics, incidentally, is that in (objective) dialectics the difference between the relative and the absolute is itself relative. For objective dialectics there is an absolute even within the relative. For subjectivism and sophistry the relative is only relative and excludes the absolute.’ [44]

In applying this principle to the theory of knowledge Lenin reasserts that existence, including social existence, is unconditional, absolute, and he examines what relation the relative truths, discovered by science and verified by their practical application, bear to this unconditional, absolute truth.

‘From the standpoint of modern materialism, i.e. Marxism,’ Lenin writes, ‘the limits of approximation of our knowledge to the objective, absolute truth are historically conditional, but the existence of such truth is unconditional, and the fact that we are approaching nearer to it is also unconditional. The contours of the picture are historically conditional, but the fact that this picture depicts an objectively existing model is unconditional. When and under what circumstances we reached, in our knowledge of the existing nature of things, the discovery of alizarin in coal tar or the discovery of electrons in the atom is historically conditional; but that every such discovery is an advance of “absolutely objective knowledge” is unconditional. In a word, every ideology is historically conditional, but it is unconditionally true that to every scientific ideology (as distinct, for instance, from religious ideology) there corresponds an objective truth, absolute nature.’ [45]

And Lenin adds:

‘Human thought then by its nature is capable of giving, and does give, absolute truth, which is compounded of the sum-total of relative truths. Each step in the development of science adds new grains to the sum of absolute truth, but the limits of the truth of each scientific proposition are relative, now expanding, now shrinking with the growth of knowledge.’ [46]

Such is Lenin’s conception of relative and absolute truth as applied to the scientific reflection of reality. Does it similarly apply to its artistic reflection?

It is evident that art differs in certain important respects from science. Lenin points out that to every scientific discovery which is verified by practice there corresponds an objective truth, absolute nature; this is not the case with every work of art. There are many works, and, indeed, whole styles of art, with their corresponding relative value scales, which are more or less divorced from objective reality and which reflect the religious or idealist dreams of humanity, rather than its scientific search for truth. Nevertheless, the extent to which a work of art does reflect an objective truth (and in our conception of objective truth we must include its projection into the future, i.e. the possible tasks which history sets mankind) undoubtedly provides an objective, absolute standard, verifiable by experience, which can be applied to the evaluation not only of individual works of art but also of its various relative standards.

In the second place, even where it does reflect reality, art differs from science in the manner of its reflection and also in the manner in which its separate relative reflections of truth combine to form a cumulative and ever closer approximation to the absolute. Scientific knowledge consists of the sum-total of concrete, experimentally verified, discoveries which have been made up to a given time and which scientific theory seeks to correlate in a more or less consistent picture of the world. With the further advance of discovery this general picture is sooner or later invalidated and many of the facts previously ascertained may assume an entirely new meaning. In other words, as science advances its successive theories become obsolete, while their concrete kernel is absorbed in the ever expanding approximation to truth.

It is different with art. The work of art is an indivisible whole, and it survives as a whole. It is true that it may mean many different things to those who admire it at different periods. But its power to inspire resides at all times in its imaginative unity. Nor is it invalidated by the further advance of art. For long periods at a time men may be blind to its significance, but if it is a truly great work (or even a crude copy of a great work that has been lost) its beauty will sooner or later be rediscovered. The history of art is full of such moments of ‘re-birth’, such dialectical leaps in the trend of taste, when long neglected works dating from the distant past suddenly acquire a tremendous influence on aesthetic life.

This peculiar quality of art which makes each individual work significant as a unity may also be demonstrated in another way. Whereas it is a waste of effort – unfortunately all too frequent in the present chaotic state of science – for several scientists to make the same discovery, several artists working simultaneously or successively on the same theme will produce entirely different results, and mankind will be enriched by each. Hence the cumulative approximation of science to objective truth differs in kind from the cumulative reflection of reality by art. The former is an intellectual generalization, ever expanding and continually changing as the progress of discoveries ‘adds new grains to the sum of absolute truth’; the latter is an imaginative reflection of reality in its infinite diversity, built up, like reality itself, through the interplay of its individual images.

Thus we are led back to Chernyshevski’s conception of the artistic image as a unity of the particular and the general, and it is in the light of this conception that we must examine the significance of Lenin’s theory of relative and absolute truth for the problem of aesthetic value.

Bearing in mind Lenin’s statement that ‘for dialectics the absolute is also to be found in the relative’, let us turn to his explanation of the various ways in which the unity of the particular and the general can be said to exist. Even a simple proposition, such as ‘the leaves of the tree are green’, implies that ‘the particular is the general’:

‘consequently,’ Lenin writes, ‘opposites (the particular as opposed to the general) are identical: the particular exists only in that connection which leads to the general. The general exists only in the particular and through the particular. Every particular is (in one way or another) a general. Every general is (a fragment, or an aspect, or an essence of) a particular. Every general comprises all particular objects merely approximately. Every particular is an incomplete part of the general, and so forth, and so on. Every particular is bound by thousands of threads and nuances with other kinds of particulars (objects, phenomena, processes), etc. There are found here already the elements, the germinal conception of necessity of objective connection in nature, etc. The contingent and the necessary, appearance and essence are already existent here. For in saying, “John is a man, the poodle is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc.,” we disregard a series of characteristics as contingent; we separate the essential from the apparent, and put one in opposition to the other.’ [47]

It is thus that the particular fragment of reality which is reflected in the artistic image is linked ‘by thousands of threads and nuances’ with all other particulars and becomes a symbol of the ‘necessity of objective connection in nature’. But Lenin also points out:

‘The unity (the coincidence, identity, resultant force) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, and relative. The struggle of the mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, as movement and evolution are.’ [48]

We may therefore expand and amplify Chernyshevski’s conception of a work of art as a unity of the particular and the general, the significance of which is proportional to the comprehensiveness and truthfulness with which it reflects reality, by the following propositions:

(1) A work of art is satisfying because in it the artist has fixed that fleeting, conditional and relative unity of opposites in which the particular is identical with the general. But a work of art is significant only if that relative unity of opposites at the same time contains and reflects the struggle of those same, mutually exclusive, opposites which is absolute, as movement, evolution and life are. Hence a work of art must stimulate at the same time as it satisfies. While revealing the unity of opposites, it must at the same time reveal the transient and merely relative nature of that unity, thus driving the spectator onward in the ceaseless struggle for an even greater, more profound and comprehensive unity. A work of art which lulls the creative faculties, which drugs and deflects men from the struggle of life, is unconditionally bad.

(2) In a sense it is true that every work of art reflects some aspect of reality, for illusions, dreams and mystifications are also a part of existence. But a work which reflects only such illusions and mystifications is obviously much more restricted in its significance than another work which resembles a scientific discovery in that to it there corresponds an objective truth. The former image is purely relative; the latter is a relative truth which contains a ‘grain of the absolute’. The significance of the former is transient; it ceases to inspire as soon as men cease to believe in the illusions which it reflects. The latter retains its significance as long as the objective truth which it reflects remains important for society. The significance of the former does not extend beyond the sphere of consciousness (and of false consciousness at that); the latter links consciousness ‘by thousands of threads and nuances’ with objective reality.

Hence the extent of the relationships contained in and revealed by the particular image of a work of art, the specific weight of the objective, absolute truth which is contained within its relative truth, provides an objective, unconditional and absolute standard for the evaluation of art.

(3) Marxist theory applies a dual standard to the evaluation of art; it first appreciates a given work in terms of its own relative standard which is conditioned by its period and by the social class whose outlook it reflects; but it also applies to that work the absolute test whether its relative value contains a kernel of objective truth.

How this dual standard works may be illustrated by applying it to some of the artists mentioned in the course of this essay. The poems in which Tennyson transported the Victorians from the ‘cankering cares of daily life’ and the ‘confusion of their philosophies’ ‘to some entirely new field of existence, some place of rest’, are perfect, if judged by the relative standard of Victorian middle class taste. They are far better, in terms of that standard, than most of the poems which his less distinguished contemporaries contributed to the Victorian ‘keepsakes’ and ‘annuals’. But they have ceased to have any meaning for us today, indeed they arouse our antipathy, because they are the complete expression of Victorian cant. Judged by the standard of objective truth they are unconditionally bad, because they evade the issues which were set to the poet by life.

This is not true, however, of those other poems in which Tennyson’s true emotions break through the surface of assumed complacency. Judged by their own relative standard these poems seem to us today as perfect as the former type (although a careful study of contemporary criticism may reveal that the Victorians themselves were by no means always of the same opinion). Yet these poems can still stir us today, because the haunting fear and the perplexities focussed in them are a genuine, if confused, reflection of the realities which Tennyson’s other poems ignore.

Thus Tennyson’s poems fall into two main categories. Both reflect the relative standard of the Victorian middle class, both are perfect in terms of that standard. But the significance of the first group is purely relative, conditional and transient – so transient, in fact, that it has already vanished (except, of course, for the historian) ; while the significance of the second group survives, because their relative value contained a substratum of objective reality, a grain of the absolute.

The relative standard of appreciation exemplified by Tennyson’s poems was only one of several standards existing at the time. What Tennyson himself thought of one of these other standards may be seen from the following lines which Mr. Harold Nicolson has rescued from the oblivion of the Collected Works:

‘Authors – essayist, atheist, novelist, realist, rhymester, play your part,
Paint the mortal shame of nature with the living lines of Art.
Rip your brothers’ vices open, strip your own foul passions bare;
Down with Reticence, down with Reverence – forward – naked – let them stare.
Feed the budding rose of boyhood with the drainage of your sewer;
Send the drain into the fountain, lest the stream should issue pure.
Set the maiden fancies wallowing in the troughs of Zolaism, -
Forward, forward, ay and backward, downward too into the abysm.’

Tennyson’s aesthetic standards differed from those of Zola, as they did from those of Balzac or Shchedrin, because the theoretical positions taken up by these writers reflected the practical attitudes to life of much more progressive classes and strata of nineteenth century society. Hence their relative value scales are incompatible, and a consistent relativist should confess himself unable to compare the merits of their respective works. Nevertheless, we have no hesitation in assigning a far higher aesthetic value to the Comédie Humaine or to the Golovlyov Family or even to Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, than to Tennyson’s best poems, because the works of Balzac and Shchedrin and Zola are far more profound reflections of objective truth than Tennyson’s fragmentary and uncomprehending concessions to it.

Turning to another period and medium we shall arrive at the same conclusion if we compare Tennyson with Hogarth. Hogarth, too, is more significant, his work is better art, if judged by the absolute standard of objective truth, than that of Tennyson or, say, of Millais, to take a contemporary painter whose outlook resembled that of the Laureate. But it is interesting to note that Hogarth was also the pet aversion of Roger Fry. From his idealist standard of ‘pure form’ – that relative standard of bourgeois decadence which he proclaimed as absolute – Fry was unable to appreciate the relative standard embodied in Hogarth’s work, that is to say the fidelity and power with which Hogarth’s images reflect the outlook of the great mass of the English people during the Walpole era. Still less was Fry able to recognize the objective truth contained in that relative standard. But what incensed Fry most of all was that ‘Hogarth, with his superficial common sense, his fundamental Philistinism’ (!) turned ‘his back upon the cultured world and made an appeal, through his engravings, to a less sophisticated public’, although he realized that ‘the only art that would attract them must tell a story with rather crude insistence’. Hence it was Fry’s view that Hogarth’s ‘influence on British art has been bad upon the whole. It has tended to sanction a disparagement of painting as a pure art – has tended to make artists think that they must justify themselves by conveying valuable, or important, or moral ideas’. In the light of these views it is not surprising that Fry was blind also to the specific quality of Hogarth’s formal designs. He censures Hogarth’s ‘uncertain grasp of plastic form’, his lack of composition, his insensitive drawing, etc., without in the least suspecting that Hogarth’s often highly complex and most carefully thought-out designs might obey special laws of their own. Thus Fry must fall back on ‘the silvery tonality’ of Hogarth’s sketches or the ‘fat, buttery quality of his pigment’, when compelled to pay a grudging tribute to the outstanding figure in British art. [49]

At this stage it is necessary to point out that the test of relative and absolute truth must never be applied exclusively to the content of a given work of art. It follows from the essential quality of the artistic image as a unity of content and form, that the truth embodied in its content can only have aesthetic significance if it is expressed in a form which strikes the imagination, instead of appealing merely to the intellect. A work of art which carries its message straight into the feelings and emotions of men by virtue of its vivid, concrete imagery, has greater value than one which lacks this vital power, even though the intellectual content of the former work may be less profound, less comprehensive and more encumbered with illusions.

What this means in concrete terms is shown by that masterly example of a Marxist appreciation which Lenin provided in his six articles on Tolstoi. The point at issue is defined in the sharpest possible way in the opening sentences of the first of these articles, Tolstoi, Mirror of the Russian Revolution:

‘To link the name of this great artist with the revolution which he manifestly did not understand, from which he manifestly kept aloof, may at first sight appear strange and far-fetched. Can that be called a mirror which, admittedly, gives an incorrect reflection of things?’

Lenin then proceeds to show that, however faulty his interpretation of the revolution, Tolstoi was a great artist because he did reflect ‘at least some essential aspects’ of his epoch. But that is only part of the answer. Even more significant, in the present context, than this profound axiom, is the passage in a later article, L. N. Tolstoi and the Modern Labour Movement, in which Lenin defines the specific manner in which content and form are fused in Tolstoi’s work:

‘Tolstoi’s criticism is not new,’ Lenin writes. ‘He has said nothing new, nothing which had not been said long ago both in European and Russian literature by those who were on the side of the toilers. But the peculiarity of Tolstoi’s criticism and its historical significance consists in that he expressed with a power, of which only genius is capable, the crisis in the views of the widest masses of the people of Russia in the period mentioned, and of village, peasant Russia in particular. Tolstoi’s criticism of modern customs differs from the criticism of these customs by the representatives of the modern labour movement in just the fact that Tolstoi adopted the point of view of the patriarchal, naive peasant; that Tolstoi transfers the latter’s psychology into his criticism, his doctrine. The reason Tolstoi’s criticism is charged with such feeling, passion, conviction, freshness, sincerity, fearlessness in the attempt “to get at the roots,” find the real reason for the state of the masses, is that his criticism really expresses the crisis in the views of millions of peasants who had only been emancipated from serfdom to find that this new freedom means only new horrors of ruin, starvation, a homeless life among city “sharps,” etc. Tolstoi reflects their mood so accurately that he brings into his doctrine their own naivete, their estrangement from politics, their mysticism, their desire to escape from the world, “non-resistance to evil,” impotent anathemas of capitalism and the “power of money.” The protest of millions of peasants and their despair – that is what is fused into Tolstoi’s doctrine.’ [50]

Commenting on this passage in his article ‘Lenin and Literature’, Lunacharski adds:

‘Two ideas must be distinguished in this quotation: Tolstoi reflects the frame of mind of those whom he expresses “so faithfully” that it mars his own teaching from the ideological point of view, because his protest is interwoven with despair, as distinct from the labour movement, also full of protest but to which despair is alien. Such “faithfulness,” is, of course, regrettable from the point of view of social content, from the point of view of revolutionary effectiveness, purity of influence. But this “faithfulness” lends Tolstoi “power of feeling, passion, conviction, freshness, sincerity, relentlessness,” and all this is, according to Lenin, Tolstoi’s main merit – because “Tolstoi’s criticism is not new” – in other words, had Tolstoi given his criticism without this power of passion he would have added nothing to culture. In view, however, of the power of passion his “criticism,” though “not new,” proved to be “a step forward in the art of all mankind.”’ [51]

There remains, finally, the problem which Plekhanov raised when he wrote, in commenting on Taine’s definition of aesthetic relativism: ‘aesthetics – science – does not give us any theoretical basis, supporting ourselves on which we could say that Greek art merits admiration and Gothic art condemnation, or the reverse.’ [52]

To deal with this problem it is necessary to distinguish the aesthetic principles represented by the relative standards of the various styles from the works of art actually produced more or less in accordance with those principles. The distinction between the principle of a given style and the works actually produced in it is analogous to that between a philosophical or scientific system and the concrete discoveries made within the framework of that system. A principle or system which tends to deflect the artist or thinker from reality is unconditionally inferior to one which directs his energies towards objective truth. But one need only think of Hegel to realize that some of the greatest advances in human understanding have been made within the framework of a reactionary system of thought – or rather in spite of it. In other words, style in art, like system in philosophy or hypothesis in science, is historically conditioned, transitory and relative, but if we use the term in the wider sense of a period style (e.g. Greek, Gothic, etc.), there is not a single style in the history of art which has not produced some concrete advances towards the absolute. It is the task of scientific criticism to discover these concrete achievements of permanent significance within their relative and transitory shell.

If the history of art is examined from this point of view, it will be found that there is a continuous tradition of realism which started with the dawn of art (e.g. in the palaeolithic cave paintings) and which will survive to its end, for it reflects the productive intercourse between man and nature which is the basis of life. At that important phase in the development of society, when mental labour was divided from material labour, there emerged another, secondary tradition of spiritualistic, religious or idealistic art. This, too, is continuous until it will vanish with the final negation of the division of labour – i.e. in a Communist world. [53] During this entire period of development, i.e. as long as society is divided into classes, the history of art is the history of the ceaseless struggle and mutual inter-penetration of these two traditions. At successive, though widely overlapping phases corresponding to specific stages in the development of society, both these traditions, and also the results of their interplay, assume the historical forms which we call the ‘Classical’, ‘Gothic’, ‘Baroque’, etc., styles. A Marxist history of art should describe, first, the struggle which is absolute between these two opposite and mutually exclusive trends, and secondly, their fleeting, conditional and relative union, as manifested in the different styles and in each work of art, and it should explain both these aspects of art in terms of the social processes which they reflect. Marxist criticism consists in discovering the specific weight within each style, each artist and each single work of those elements which reflect objective truth in powerful and convincing imagery. But it should always be remembered that, unlike science which reduces reality to a blue-print or formula, the images of art reveal reality in its infinite diversity and many-sided richness. And it is in its infinite diversity and many-sided richness that art, too, must be appreciated.