Comments on Louis Proyect's articles on art and revolution

May I respectfully disagree with you on a few points? (especially respectfully, as I was a lurker on the old list.marxism and drop into the Marxist school from time to time, so I know you, though you don't know me).

[This is in reference to Louis Proyect's comment that "The decline of culture is tied up with the decline of capitalist civilization. Attempts to reform art are doomed to futility, just as attempts to make the media more accountable are doomed. There are structural impediments that are insurmountable."]

Certainly, Trotsky and his contemporaries, intellectual men of letters all, were concerned to preserve an object of their love from their own revolutionary project. Bourgeois Literature would be endangered by any all out attack on Bourgeois Culture and Bourgeois Society, or so the feeling went. The effort continues among left intellectuals -- academics and art-producers -- but has taken a new tack since the 1960s. Instead of arguing for the inherent truth-giving and spirit-raising qualities of bourgeois monuments -- "a worker will learn something about himself from Hamlet because Hamlet speaks the truth about the human condition" -- left intellectuals who love literature and art have developed a critical discourse which is designed to expose to the ideology of these works and their collaboration in bourgeois hegemony, which operation is itself a pleasure and a tool of enlightenment, thus guaranteeing that consuming these works will continue to be a respectable activity for left intellectuals (and will be preserved, as we preserve classical tragedy, in the -- hoped for, doubted -- aftermath of the fall capitalism.) "What can be learned from Hamlet is human history and how ideology produces it. Consumption along the lines of this program is a pleasure."

One of the myths, I believe, which has been debunked as a result of these critical operations -- which produce an immense amount of literature themselves -- is the purely "bourgeois" character of "bourgeois art" and the "western" character of "western civilization." As Edward Said has pointed out in his Culture and Imperialism, whose argument is echoed in Toni Morrison's monograph Playing In The Dark, these achievements, these monuments of art and literature of which "bourgeois culture" and "western culture" are so proud -- Proust Is What Makes Us Fit To Rule -- are actually not the product of, nor to they exclusively belong to, the bourgeoisie or the west. Like a railroad, they are the product not of one individual but of the creators of the material conditions which allowed them to be written, including the culture -- which has for a long time been a global culture -- from which they arise.

Like coffee, tea, tobacco and sugar, Jane Austen arises from Empire and belongs to the labor of Empire. Now, Jane Austen may have nothing whatever to say to people, in the way Trotsky felt Pushkin did, except lies, but Jane Austen is a monument of Empire as surely as the useless and yet cherished Pyramids. Consuming such product is a pleasure, and it belongs to everyone (even if one just wants to use pride and Prejudice for toilet paper).

Mass culture is certainly moribund in any traditional sense. Nevertheless, it is the product of social labor and belongs to the laborers. Ally MacBeal is a document recording, produced by, and contributing to opression, but hardly more so than a roman temple of Vesta. "High Culture" on the other hand is not so moribund as it appears when seen in the light of our unbreakable, though critically viewed, allegience to the Great Works Of Our Past. But whether one wishes to apply those standards which Trotsky held uncritically -- the works he loved addressed him very accurately -- or take up other stances for the consumption of "high culture", the relevant question, in the political arena, is "to whom does this belong?" There is no question that the multi-media works in the Whitney Biennale belong to their producers -- not just the artists -- and have something to say to us about the conditions -- social and economic -- in which they were produced.

Literature and music seem to me very much alive

M. Klein


The thing that has struck me about Louis' posting and your cogent [M. Klein] response was this:

My background is in art education and I have heard a great deal of the proposition that there is some inherent benefit to the average person (common man, whatever) in appreciation of the fine arts. While I don't dismiss such contentions I have some reservations. I have come to think of this, however, as the Junior League theory of the arts simply because that organization happened to become an issue in my dissertation defense. Such organizations readily took up the cause of the arts on just such a premise of the value of arts for the masses.

For related reasons I have been searching for a coherent Marxist theory of art for some time. I must say that, generally speaking, the great writers in the Marxist tradition have not developed a significant body of work. One might imagine my amusement, therefore, to read Louis' quoting of Trotsky essentially outlining the Junior League theory of art.

The reason for this lack of substance in Marxist writing on art is not surprising for two reasons. 1) Marx and others had, as we say, other things on their plates. They were preoccupied with their own interests which were largely political and economic. 2) These guys were (as we all are) products of their own time.

This second point is very important and often overlooked. Marx's rare remarks on art seem rather quaint and perfectly in line with the mainstream of (one hesitates to say bourgeois, but there it is) thinking about art in the middle to late nineteenth century. This is not an argument for the impersonal flow of the dynamics of history, but a simple acknowledgement of the obvious fact that people are a part of the culture in which they exist.

Lamentably a lot of Marxist aesthetics has taken on the form of scriptural exegesis, trying to derive the subject from scattered remarks in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others. Even Lukacs falls into this.

At any rate, it is going to be hard to get the image of Trotsky as a speaker at a Junior League tea out of my warped little mind. "Oh, Mr. Trotsky, do have another cucumber sandwich!"

"Don't put no constrictions on the people. Leave 'em da hell alone. Jimmy Durante

James N. Stewart


I would like to add that Trotsky's rejoinders on art were, in the course of subsequent history, superseded in the making of a Marxist appreciation of Art by Benjamin's influential essay "About the work of art in the epoch of its mechanical reproduction" (what's the exact English title?)- unfortunately, I think. Benjamin, as is known, takes a stance(according to the high bourgeois attitude that pervades much of the Frankfurt School corpus of writing) for the work of art as bearer of an aura, a kind on ineffable quality attached to it by means of the artist's individual genius, and so alienates the work of art from the historical process. The work of art ceases to be a living organism that is transformed across time by its interaction with the social milieu and turns into a splendid object locked in insulation in a museum, thereby being prevented from undergoing transformation at the hands of the public.

That, for me, is the great problem that prevents art in bourgeois society from becoming material by way of winning the mind of the masses. If Renaissance peasants took obvious pride in hearing mass at churches projected by Michelangelo, that comes I think from the fact that Michelangelo's works could be touched, moved, interfered upon, added, etc., and so acquire ever new meanings according to each historical time. The coming of bourgeois society, by creating the modern museum as an abode of congealed artistic capital, has put an end to that, therefore creating the divide between homely kitsch and frozen, don't-touch-that great art objects (a divide that Clem Greenberg took for granted). Remember that Trotsky said that Rivera's works had their value enhanced by being battered and drawn upon- even by reactionaries. But that are only tentative jottings I would like to settle down before sending a post on the catastrophic meltdown of the Real in the last two days.

Carlos Rebello