Marxism, Materialism and Art

Marxism often defines itself as scientific socialism. That would make it an applied science with a specifically political purpose. For example, when Engels delivered Marx's funeral oration, he said that Marx was above all a revolutionary. But a basic premise of Marx's outlook was that revolution could only succeed if based on an understanding of the processes at work in society as a whole.

Indeed, the social world of people is just part of a wider material reality which is a vast web of interconnections. That is why Marxism, as the science of revolution, cannot be neatly separated off from science as a whole. One aspect of this holistic approach is that Marxism must take a scientific and practical interest in art, a phenomenon which can sometimes appear to be very separate from politics.

Idealist and Materialist Philosophies of Art

Science and art are often counterposed as completely separate human endeavours. Certainly, science is not art. But science is also not sex or love or tiddlywinks. What those phenomena and art all have in common is that they are subjects of human conscious experience. But scientific analysis can be focused on any of them without claiming to reduce them to sets of scientific laws. Any serious study of art shows that, while art can have its own dynamic, it is clearly rooted in a wider historical context and that even the most refined and abstract art has an impact of some kind on the world around it. Yet there's a persistent myth that art is a mode of self-expression that reflects only the spirit of the artist and the prior history of art itself. This myth is an aspect of bourgeois idealist philosophy, the notion that people's ideas determine history while ideas themselves are only influenced by the prior development of ideas themselves. In this view of history, a great artist might have an impact on history, but he or she does so as an act of genius that is rooted only in the artist's own spirit. This refusal to understand the basis of art in its material context explains why idealist philosophy finds it so hard to even define what art is. Without a wider context, any such definition must be to some extent arbitrary.

Dialectical materialism argues that understanding the world cannot proceed from fixed definitions of its component parts. We have to start with concepts as tools with which to examine the world. But these concepts should be regarded, at least initially, as provisional, needing to be checked and refined in the light the material evidence. Better concepts result in better questions that can be used to explore the real world. This fruitful interaction between ideas and the material world of which they are a part is particularly required if we are to understand such an elusive concept as art.

So let's start with a simple provisional definition of art and then use it to explore the material world. Our objective will not be to achieve some superior pat definition of art but rather to gain some understanding of how art has developed in a changing world. This historical method will be used to relativise conventional bourgeois notions of art. We'll also want to draw some political conclusions of course.

Beauty and Communication

Traditional dogon masqueArt as such is a modern concept. The idea that it is an endeavour that can be pursued for its own sake only developed in the bourgeois era. Yet modern people can recognise art or, perhaps more accurately, artistry (artistic skill) in many of the productions of ancient cultures. So, in a broader sense, there's clearly something cross-cultural about art, something that is universal to humans. Yet artistic production has had many purposes in history and this remains the case today. For example, one motive for art can be to inspire fear. This can plausibly be attributed to such culturally disparate artefacts as this traditional Dogon ceremonial mask from Mali and the Spanish artist Francisco Goya's painting Saturn Devouring his Son (ca. 1819-1823). 

Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo (1819-1823).jpg

These frightening works epitomise two key aspects of art in general.  Firstly, they relate to the emotions, in these particular cases in a quite obvious way.  Secondly, their impact derives from the artist's ability to appeal to the viewer's sense of beauty. A poorly executed child's scrawl of the same subject would not have the impact of the painting by Goya, an acknowledged master from whom even Spanish royalty were prepared to commission unflattering but vivid portraits such as this one of Charles IV of Spain and his Family (1800).

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes 054.jpg
"Francisco de Goya y Lucientes 054" by Francisco Goya - Museo Nacional del Prado. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Specific motivations for artistic production can vary so widely that the only intention we can really ascribe to art in general is communication. We can provisionally define art as a means of communication that relies, at least in part, on its efficacy in relating to the audience’s emotions and sense of beauty—or sensing the lack thereof. This does not of course rule out the possibility that artistic products may have additional purposes that have nothing to do with communication: architecture provides shelter, for example. Of course this definition poses two questions.  What is beauty? And why is it associated with communication? The first question needs to be considered first.

If we are not careful, we can end up with circular definitions whereby beauty is that which is produced by art and art is the human endeavour that produces beauty. But it is not necessary to fall into that trap. The perception of beauty is not restricted to the products of human labour. People can see beauty in a large landscape view or in a human face. They can taste, smell, feel, see and sometimes even hear (crunchiness for example) beauty in fine food.  

The biological evolution of the capacity to experience beauty is not well understood. But we can at least make some plausible suggestions. Beauty is a type of pleasure. In common with all animals, humans evolved to find pleasurable that which they require to survive and reproduce. The classic example of this is sex, of course. Not only is the reproductive act physically pleasurable, sex is also associated with beauty in various ways. For example, it has been shown that a beautiful face is essentially a normal or average face. Any face that deviates from the norm, for example by being particularly asymmetrical, may be evidence of a sickness or abnormality of the body as a whole and hence a lack of fitness for reproduction. The survival value of seeking out large landscape views is probably that they tend to reveal potential opportunities and dangers.  

So beauty can be seen as a kind of pleasure that is only indirectly linked to survival. When we admire a green landscape, we may not necessarily intend to eat any of the things in the landscape any more than we are necessarily interested in having sex with everyone we encounter who has a beautiful face. But people can also find waterfalls and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind beautiful. What is the survival value of that? In such cases it is probably still true that we are merely finding something useful beautiful. But that something is probably pattern recognition, a very basic but crucial skill. Pattern means regularity which means predictability which means survivability. More specifically, pattern recognition is a key to solving some of the most profound problems. Problem-solving itself is likely yet another example of what people have evolved to enjoy because it does them good.

Why then does the sense of beauty or lack thereof play such an important role in human communication? The ancestors of modern humans were social animals long before they were human. Intra-species communication is crucial to social interaction and production. It is easy for humans to assume that language is the most important form of communication. Yet our ancestors were communicating with each other for millions of years before language was fully developed sometime between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. More specifically, it is easy for modern people to assume that rational discourse is the most effective form of communication. Yet even today this is not always the case, as advertising techniques show, for example. Given the appeal of art to the emotions and how effective such appeals can be for achieving objectives, it is hardly surprising that art is as old as humanity.

Because art is a way of communicating, we can see why artworks sometimes deliberately contain decidedly ugly, plain or banal elements.  Within certain cultures, art forms develop systems of meaning analogous to language.  Elements that are not conventionally beautiful can enhance artistic communication by the contrast they provide.  Artworks that contain such 'negative' elements are still recognised as art and have an impact because of their context.  Let us take an extreme example. The British artist Tracey Emin's My Bed (1997)  consists of her unmade bed and associated objects in abject disarray.  If you had walked into Emin's bedroom sometime in 1996 and seen it in that state, it would never have occurred to you that part of its contents comprised an artwork.  Whatever its other merits, part of what makes My Bed an artwork is that Emin, an established artist, isolated the bed and the other objects from their original context, her bedroom, and claimed that they did indeed comprise an artwork. In 1998 the work was exhibited at the Tate Modern, Britain's leading modern art museum, and nominated for the Turner Prize, Britain's top art award: clearly a section of the art establishment had decided that it was not only an artwork but a very good one. This view reflected the values and preoccupations of the bourgeois collectors who dominated the British art market at the time; to the wider art-appreciating public, it was and remains controversial.

Emin-My-Bed.jpg
"Emin-My-Bed". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

And indeed what is considered beautiful is to some extent subjective.  Today's frightful ugliness can be tomorrow's great art.  In 1958, Ira Gitler, a critic writing in the jazz magazine Downbeat, described the innovative saxophone solos of John Coltrane as 'sheets of sound'.  Gitler's review was not unsympathetic but showed his perplexity.  When I hear Coltrane's solos, 'sheets of sound' seems an entirely inappropriate description, suggesting as it does an undifferentiated mass.  Rather, I hear Coltrane's rapid cascade of notes as a constantly changing intricate melodic flow of staggering inventiveness.  To my ears, this is some of the most beautiful music ever.

Stone Age Art

Once people became labouring animals rather than just consuming animals, they deliberately produced things that were beautiful as well as useful in other ways. The archaeological evidence of cave paintings and carved beads in graves shows that art is as old as production itself. As today, many stone age artefacts are both beautiful and functional. The symmetry of a stone spear point not only makes the object beautiful, it also makes it more effective as a weapon. The desire to make beautiful objects may have helped the inventors of spear points arrive at efficient designs more intuitively. But cave paintings, necklaces and bone flutes have no intrinsic value apart from their beauty, at least from the point of view of modern people viewing them in books and museums. That's why people usually classify those objects and not spear points as stone age art. But are we to believe that these objects were produced simply to satisfy an abstract desire to create beauty? We have no direct evidence of prehistoric motivation, but that seems very unlikely, on several counts.

A picture can tell a story and a song call send a message. So we look not just for beauty but also for meaning in stone age art. After all, some of these objects took a great deal of effort to produce. A large collection of carved stone beads found in the grave of one child has been calculated to have taken thousands of hours to make.

In order to attract mates, some birds spend a lot of energy growing seemingly useless body parts like the peacock's tail or even making useless objects like a bower bird's collection of blue treasures. In evolutionary theory, this is sexual selection. But there is little of such behaviour in mammals. Historical peoples with stone age technology have been studied by anthropologists. Attracting mates is only one of many motives for artistic production amongst such peoples. So it is unlikely that art evolved through sexual selection.

Rather, art in primitive societies is always linked to ritual practices intended to ensure the wellbeing of the practitioners and their communities in various ways. Parallels with prehistoric art strongly suggest similar motivation in those days. For example, it has been suggested that cave art was done as a magical practice in an attempt to make the artists better able to hunt the animals they painted. But many of the animals painted were predators, not prey. So a better explanation can likely be found in the famous totem poles of the native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. The aim here is for people to gain the characteristics of the animals portrayed: the strength of the bear, the ferocity of the lion, the eyesight of the eagle. The totems also aid social integration by providing symbols for the shared identity of tribes and so forth. In fact no primitive art is produced for its own sake. Primitive peoples don't even have a word for art. What we call artistic production is inextricably linked in with the culture as a whole, how people organise together and do things to survive and reproduce. Clearly, the conventional bourgeois notion of art as something separate from the rest of reality, to be understood only on its own terms, makes no sense at all in these societies.

Art In Precapitalist Class Societies

In precapitalist class societies, art had some of the same purposes and some new ones. What differentiated the political economies of all these class societies from the economies of hunter gatherers and of early agriculturalists and pastoralists was the existence of sufficient economic surplus to support a leisured class of consumers supported by exploited and oppressed classes of producers. The leisured classes had time to produce art themselves and the power to get other people to produce it for them. This enabled the production of art on a much greater scale and with much more magnificence and sophistication than had previously been possible.

Take the feudal Europe of the middle ages, for example. Nearly all professional painters and musicians worked for kings, lords and especially the church. Religious art in particular was not made for the self-expression of the artists, few of whose names are even known, but rather to educate the illiterate masses in religious doctrine and to bind believers to the church as part of ritual. Here we see continuity with the ritual practices of more primitive societies. But art also aided the role of the church as chief propagandist for the landowning class in a world where monarchy and lordship were sanctified.  

The production of art for the conspicuous consumption of the feudal nobility and the royal courts starts to come close to the enjoyment of art "for its own sake" that is the ideal of the bourgeois world. But there was more to it. Kings gave valuable objects to lords and knights to help ensure their loyalty. This was important because power tended to fragment in a society where lords big and small could command the personal loyalty of the knights and lower lords who held land from them in return for military service. And we have evidence that the sheer artistic magnificence of the court of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne in the early ninth century, for example, was deliberately designed to impress and overawe. No one who visited his court would have experienced anything like it, except for those few diplomats and merchants who had visited the even more magnificent court of the Byzantine Emperor at the far end of Europe.

Alongside the vast production of art by or for the ruling classes in feudal Europe, there was the folk art produced by the peasantry for their own use. This generally had the same magical and practical purposes as in the primitive economies. As it was the art of the oppressed, it could also begin to express elements of protest, usually expressed in terms of religion, the dominant ideology of the day. In the worlds of the priest John Ball, one of the leaders of the English peasants' revolt of 1381, "when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?"

In the later middle ages there was enough economic surplus to allow traveling musicians and actors, known as mummers, to scrape together a living by busking for peasants and town dwellers. People still had so little to give to mummers that they could not linger long in any one town or village. They were often little more than beggars.

Art In The Bourgeois World

Only in the bourgeois world has the idea become the norm that the primary purposes of art are the self-expression of the artist and the entertainment of the public. The material basis for this is the sale of the works and performances of artists and musicians on the open market, which has become the main way that art is funded. The musician Joseph Haydn epitomises in one life the transition between feudal and bourgeois production of art. Most of his early career was spent as a servant in the court of the Esterhazy princes of Hungary, albeit a very well-paid and highly respected servant, for he was the Esterhazys' court composer and director of music. But the latter part of Haydn's career was spent as a self-employed musician, conducting public performances of his own and other composers' works in many of the great cities of Europe. Of course, as the most popular musician of his day, he made much more money self-employed than he ever did working for the Esterhazys. He was the antecedent of the rock stars of today.

In bourgeois society we also see for the first time the characteristic division of art into "fine art" and entertainment, though of course there are some similarities with the division of medieval art into court art and folk art. With entertainment, the artist compromises his self-expression to pander to the tastes of the masses so that he or she can make a living. At the same time, with the control by big business of most of the mass media that entertainers depend on, entertainment has often played a reactionary role in dumbing down the masses' view of the world and encouraging escapism as an alternative to class struggle.

Fine art, also known to some as "pure art", includes painting, sculpture and classical music. The aim of the fine artist is to remain true to the ideal of self-expression. But even the most committed fine artists have to live. For most of the bourgeois era, fine artists were either leisured members of the capitalist class or depended for their livelihoods on the patronage of capitalists or of the bourgeois state. So, although the ideal of fine art was self-expression, in practice it tended to reflect the tastes and material interests of the bourgeois class.

It should be stressed, however, that, in line with the bourgeois cult of the individual, neither bourgeois fine art nor the mass art of the entertainers have been monolithic propaganda machines the way medieval church art had been. Some of the greatest artists, in particular, have transcended the narrow interests of the capitalist class to create works that were profoundly critical of the dog-eat-dog world of the bourgeois market.

Perspectives for Art

Today, the two-way split between fine art and entertainment has been increasingly undermined. Despite the onset of the economic crisis, more and more working people have the time and resources to make their own art and are increasingly able to reach an audience without being beholden to either the media moguls of the entertainment world or the bourgeois patrons of fine art. The material basis for this artistic change is, as usual, the development of the forces of production. For some people at least, working hours are shorter and work less physically demanding than a century ago, even though that change has been slow and inconsistent. This leaves them more time and energy to make art. The cheapening of technology has meant that music and video recording gear of a quality available a few decades ago only to rock stars and film studios is now accessible even to workers of fairly modest means. And the internet provides art with an almost free platform on a global scale.

The consequence of this new ability for workers to express themselves through art is potentially revolutionary. This can most readily be seen in the realm of music, the art form that has so far benefitted most thoroughly from these changes. It has also become commonplace for both the lyrics and tonality of music to express dissatisfaction with the world we live in. With the lull in the class struggle from the 1980s onwards and the absence of a mass socialist pole of attraction, this artistic and musical critique has often had a very pessimistic and negative flavour. The boost to the class struggle worldwide sparked by the economic crisis from 2008 will transform this pessimistic tendency into a more explicitly revolutionary art on an even higher level than the music and other art that was inspired by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Revolutionary art arises from material conditions and class struggle and will in turn reinforce that class struggle. In the most practical way, it will once again be demonstrated that art plays an integral part in social change and is not merely a beautiful decoration.