“The Marxist Theory of Art,” by Dave Laing, 1978
This book is an excellent survey introducing the reader to various Marxist’s theories of art. It includes short surveys of Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Brecht, Luckacs, Gramsci, Mao, Althusser, Baxandall, Barthes, Benjamin – and some post-modernists that attempt to use Marxism like Kristeva. Laing spends a good amount of time on Mao Tse-Tung, who is usually ignored in these compendiums. Written in 1978 it takes the recent forms of structuralism and post-modernism seriously, but then rejects them.
Basically, in 1978 there was no consensus on what a ‘Marxist theory of art’ is - just different takes on certain themes. Clearly a synthesis needs to be reached. The differences seem to mostly revolve around various apparent contradictions: ‘realism’ versus ‘modernism;’ ‘high’ culture versus ‘low’ or folk culture; art as a ‘passive’ reflection of society or as an ‘active’ dialectical part of society; art as materialistic sociology or as revolutionary praxis; art as decreed by the state or as inspired individualism; art as uplifting or as depressing; art as individualist or as communal; art as a purely economic production process or as living in some higher ‘psychic’ location; art’s economic profitability versus its ability to transcend profit. And so on.
To my mind, many of these are false contradictions. Many can be true at the same time, their contradictions taken into account in a higher unity. Lukacs, writing in the 1920 “The Theory of the Novel,” staked his theory on 19th century bourgeois fiction and ruled out anything after that. Is then ‘stream of consciousness,’ a modernist style after the 19th Century, impossible in the ‘realist’ novel? Is a theater performance only an attempt to copy real life? Is classical music the only valid musical art form, one useful in ‘lifting’ the working class up? Do we always need heroes? Is agitprop the only style of theater? Can a society have only one approved artistic painting style? Can art both reflect and still have a thrust for change? Just asking the questions answers them. Of course many of these apparent contradictions also depend on the scale of the difference.
What accounts for the different theories? Many outlooks in this book seem to be historically-based, reflecting the particular material and working-class culture of the theorist’s moment - or needs. Television, the internet or film get short shift from many of these Marxists, from Engels on. No doubt, future Marxist theories of art will adapt to the culture of the working class as it exists now, not in 1850 or 1930. In addition, the attitude towards art is different within a capitalist society than after the working-class has conquered power. In the latter, the working class, along with all other classes, will disappear, and this can change the approach to art.
It is also quite clear that the complex structure of the working classes in the central capitalist countries will produce a varied material culture not easily ‘boxed,’ while societies in the ‘global south’ have an ethnic or religiously-varied working class, and also a more oppressed one. Both will produce a different kind of culture. Yet globally there is a certain amount of blending going on too, in almost every field – painting, music, film, the novel, theater, the practical arts like clothing – reflecting the increasing unity of world cultures as capitalist globalization proceeds. It is creating the links that might allow proletarian internationalism on a cultural level to succeed as well, something that Marx’s slogan ‘workers of the world, unite’ predicted. ‘Globalization’ could lead to world socialism in spite of itself.
To take just the most famous debate, Friedrich Engels and Gyorgy Lukacs have been used to give a theoretical basis to socialist realism. Vladimir Lenin himself wanted an art of revolutionary action, though parts of socialist realism do not actually inspire that. Yet socialist realism was bureaucratically decreed the only viable form of art, film, literature, poetry in the USSR and other workers states – thus cutting the ruling party off from many cultural developments, the youth and ultimately the working class. Lukacs opposed Bertold Brecht in this situation, as the former supported socialist realism and Brecht went beyond it. Brecht did not believe in heroes or making theater entirely naturalistic, and believed in incorporating tenants of modernism instead. Brecht was a working artist – Lukacs a theorist. Lukacs was used by the bureaucrats in Moscow; Brecht, not so much. They both opposed the capitalist view of art – profitable, overwhelmingly individualist, ‘for its own sake,’ ‘style is paramount,’ as pure decoration or entertainment.
To my mind, socialist realism is certainly a valid style, but not the only one, and this has been proved in practice. The leftist writing of John Dos Passos incorporated ‘quick cuts,’ as did the film of Eisenstein – both modernist techniques. Now, however, capitalist art has taken it to such an extreme that no film image sticks, so technique is not decisive, but it can be ideological as well. Generally technique should not be decisive if the content transmits and is not buried.
Ultimately more modern theorists like Walter Benjamin looked for a synthesis of the various views. This approach mirrors that of Trotsky, who famously blocked with surrealists like Andre Breton and Frida Kahlo and muralist Diego Rivera when he declared that a workers government could not decree a certain artistic style. Neither Benjamin nor Trotsky are highlighted in this book, which is odd given their volume of writing on the subject. Due to the book’s age, a later, more conclusive survey of Marxist theories of art is needed.
See prior reviews on “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” “Women in Soviet Art,” “9.5 Thesis on Art & Revolution,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,” “The Red Atlantis of Communist Culture,” “Left in London,” and “The Art of Nothingness.” Use blog search box, upper left.
And I bought it at the excellent used section at Mayday Books!
July 11, 2016