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


1. R. Fry: Vision and Design, essay ‘Retrospect’ (1920), Phoenix Library ed. 1929, p. 294. The ‘Essay in Aesthetics’ is also included in Vision and Design.

2. Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography. London, 1940, p. 183.

3. Woolf, op. cit., p. 230. The following sentence from Fry’s Reflections on British Painting, published in 1934, may be added to complete the evidence: ‘For the power to see and feel plastic form is almost a measure of an artist’s power to free himself from the interests of ordinary life and attain to an attitude of detachment in which the spiritual significance of formal relations becomes apparent.’ (p. 27.)

4. Vision and Design, pp. 20-21, 27.

5. See the amusing illustration of this point in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771) where the advocate Micklewhimmen tries to excuse his outrageous behaviour during the fire at the inn at Scarborough by pleading that his actions had been dictated by the instinct of self-preservation, which had momentarily suspended his ‘faculty of reason’.

6. Vision and Design, p. 22 (Essay in Aesthetics).

7. Vision and Design, pp. 9-10 (Art and Life).

8. Vision and Design, p. 3

9. Vision and Design, p. 15.

10. Woolf, op. cit., p. 234. The original passage was written in French: l’art véritable devient toujours de plus en plus une chose ésotérique et cachée comme un secte hérétique – ou plus encore comme la science au moyen âge.’

11. Woolf, p. 235.

12. Woolf, p. 175.

13. William Morris: The Art of the People. Nonesuch Press edition 1942, p. 527.

14. Op cit. essay The Aims of Art (1887), p. 599.

15. The development of Tennyson’s own attitude to politics has been summarized in the following terms by Mr. Harold Nicolson (Tennyson, London, 1923, p. 252): During the fifty-five years up to 1886 the poet ‘passed from an early suspicion of democracy, through a wholesome dislike of democracy, to a loathing of democracy so fierce and so violent that it upset not only his health and his temper, but even his prosody’. When Garibaldi visited the Laureate in 1864, the latter advised him ‘not to talk politics in England’; yet in 1830 Tennyson had accompanied his friend Hallam on a secret mission of support to the underground Liberal leaders in Spain!

16. That Tennyson desired ever more fervently to escape from social reality is evident from the successive alterations of his poem. Most of the passages with a distinctly reactionary flavour appeared in 1842, but some of the more lurid references, notably that to the ‘darkening droves of swine,’ were added even later. It was not until 1853, for example (i.e. after the revolutions and counter-revolutions of 1848-52), that the line ‘I care not what the sects may brawl’ replaced the far less detached ‘I live in all things great and small’.

17. National Review, October 1855, quoted by Nicolson, op. cit.

18. A rough translation of Chernyshevski’s thesis will be found in International Literature, 1935, Nos. 6-10. The passages quoted have been re-translated.

19. Classical Greek sculpture is often regarded as the idealized image of human beauty in general. But as Marx has pointed out, Greek art is inconceivable without Greek mythology. In that mythology general human qualities, such as love or courage or wisdom, come to life in the concrete, highly individualized shapes of the various Olympian deities, and it is these magnified human beings with all their individual traits that are depicted by the classical artists. To appreciate how alien the conception of a general norm is to classical art, one should study the superb freedom and variety of the individual figures in the Parthenon frieze. It is true that the inventions of the classics were canonized into binding norms in Hellenistic and Roman times, and also later at a certain stage in each ‘classical revival’. But that is precisely what distinguishes truly classical art, based on living observation, from academism which imposes a servile imitation of authority. Why, to take another example, were all the efforts of the Gothic revivalists to re-create the ‘pure thirteenth-century style’, ‘pure perpendicular’, etc., so fruitless, despite their painstaking study of the originals? Obviously because of that study, which petrified into a norm what had been a living, individual and ever varied inspiration. Even within those styles which impose a norm for certain important images – e.g. in the Egyptian statues of kings or in figures of the Buddha – the aesthetic significance of any given work depends on the life which the artist has succeeded in imparting to the abstract norm by his individual observation and intensity of feeling. Moreover, in all these styles the stereotyped uniformity of the ‘important’ image is more than offset by the exuberant variety and individuality of the ‘minor’ characters – slaves, animals, etc. – in scenes from ordinary life, in battle pictures, or even in the various adventures of the hero himself (e.g. at Borobudur, Ankor-Vat, or in countless Egyptian tomb paintings).

20. Many of these symbols betray their realistic content by their origin: they are burlesques of the religious symbols ruling at the time (e.g. the grotesque Zeus or Hercules of the ancient mime; the parody of the Nativity in the Coventry Miracle Play; the mock ceremonies, ridiculing the most sacred rites of the Church, of the medieval ‘Feasts of Fools’; the conversion of Satan into the comic devil and later Harlequin, etc.)

21. The revolutionary significance of this point of view is evident from the fact that the Tsarist censor did not allow Chernyshevski even to mention Feuerbach’s name either in the first edition or in the edition of 1888. It was not until 1906 that the original preface which mentions the names of Hegel and Feuerbach was allowed to appear.

22. Prof. Pascal’s translation of the Theses on Feuerbach appended to his edition of The German Ideology, London, 1938, p. 197.

23. Manuscript Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute edition (in German), 1934, p. 226; English edition, Kerr, 1904, p. 280.

24. Op. cit., pp. 198-9.

25. German Ideology, p. 19.

26. German Ideology, p. 15.

27. German Ideology, p. 14. To forestall misinterpretation it is useful to remember Engels’ statement: ‘Political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is grounded upon economic development. But all of them react, conjointly and separately, one upon another, and upon the economic foundation.’ Letter to Starkenburg, 25 January 1894. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 517.

28. German Ideology, p. 20.

29. German Ideology, p. 21.

30. This section of the German Ideology is omitted from Pascal’s English edition; the passage quoted will be found in M. Lifshitz: The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx. English translation, Critics Group Series, No. 7, 1938.

31. This speech is quoted in full in Karl Marx, Selected Works, Vol. II, pp. 427-9.

32. G. V. Plekhanov: Art and Society. Critics Group Series, No. 3, p. 93. Plekhanov is, of course, perfectly aware of the fact, and indeed he expressly goes on to state that ‘in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour’ certain bourgeois artists join the revolutionary camp. But, as we shall presently see, he never resolved the contradiction between these two sets of ideas. It is not my intention to belittle the profound importance of Plekhanov’s contributions to the history of art and to Marxist thought in general. If the negative elements in his theory are emphasized in the present essay, this is solely due to the fact that they come to the surface precisely in his treatment of the problems which concern us here.

33. H. Taine: Philosophie de l’Art, Paris, 1865, English translation of same date, quoted by A. Lunacharski in his essay, ‘Basic Problems of Art’, International Literature, 1935, No. XII, p. 50.

34. The last comprehensive studies in this field (not, of course, the last special studies of certain aspects of popular art) in English are those of Thomas Wright, published in the 1840s and ‘60s. Wright’s contemporary, Michelet, was also greatly interested in popular art; Champfleury’s history of caricature was begun in 1865; the later works by Eduard Fuchs, a friend of Mehring and a staunch socialist, have been consistently ignored by art historians and aesthetes alike.

35. Cf. Literature and Marxism, A Controversy. Critics Group Series, No. 9, New York, 1938.

36. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Selected Works, Vol. II, p. 347.

37. What is to be Done? Selected Works, Vol. II, pp. 88-9.

38. German Ideology, quoted in Lifshitz, op. cit., p. 92 (my emphasis).

39. Cf. Max Dvorák: Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte, Munich, 1924, esp. the paper on Bruegel, pp. 217 et seq.

40. Critique of Political Economy, Preface, English edition, 1904, p. 13.

41. Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Little Stalin Library, p. 17.

42. Marx: Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie. Marx-Engels Gesammtausgabe, Vol. I, p. 614.

43. Maxim Gorky: ‘Soviet Literature’, in Problems of Soviet Literature, Reports to the First Soviet Writers’ Congress, London, 1934, p. 44.

44. Selected Works, Vol. XI, p. 82.

45. Materialism and Empiriocriticism. Collected Works, Vol. XIII, 1938 ed., pp. 128-9.

46. Materialism and Empiriocriticism, p. 127.

47. Notes on Dialectics.

48. Notes on Dialectics.

49. Roger Fry: Reflections on British Painting, London, 1934, pp. 34 et seq.

50. Five of these articles are available in English in No. 6 of Dialectics, published by the New York Critics Group. All six are given in French in Sur La Littérature et L’Art, Vol. II, Lénine et Staline, edited by Jean Fréville, Paris, 1937. I have taken the present quotation from Lunacharski’s article, Lenin and Literature in Internat. Literature, 1935, I. 77-8.

51. Op cit., p. 77-8.

52. Plekhanov: Historical Materialism and the Arts, quoted by Lunacharski, op. cit.

53. This is, of course, a schematic simplification of extremely complex historical processes. In particular, it is essential to be on one’s guard against any mechanical correlation between materialism and the productive classes on the one hand and idealism and the exploiters on the other. In ancient Greece, for instance, as G. Thomson has shown, the spontaneous materialism of primitive Society was preserved and consolidated by the Ionian philosophers who represented the outlook of a merchant aristocracy, while Orphic mysticism, with its promise of a better life after death, appears to have originated among the dispossessed peasants and slaves who were worked to death in the gold and silver mines of Thrace (Aeschylus and Athens, London 1940). The outlook of the exploited classes always contained elements of mysticism, as long as the conditions for their emancipation did not as yet exist. On the importance of folk art cf. Maxim Gorki, op. cit.; on the survival of popular realism throughout classical antiquity and the middle ages cf. Allardyce Nicoll: Masks, Mimes and Miracles, London, 1931.

54. Clara Zetkin’s conversation with Lenin on art is recorded in her book On Lenin, published in Moscow in 1925. It is reproduced, in French translation, in Fréville op. cit.

55. William Morris: The Art of the People (1879), Nonesuch Press edition, 1942, p. 537.