Sinead Kennedy’s introduction to the Marxist approach to art (Socialist Worker 15 July) was very good. She is right about the need to combine politics/ideology and aesthetics without simply reducing art to ideology.
Trotsky said that ‘Art must be judged first by the laws of art’, but he didn’t say what those ‘laws’ are, and the enormous differences in the art of different societies and times mean they cannot be a fixed set of rules.
So is there a Marxist aesthetic, ie a distinctive Marxist theory of what makes a work of art artistically good ? I think there is and that its starting point lies in Marx’s key proposition that art is part of the superstructure of society which arises on and is conditioned by the economic base, the forces and relations of production.
These core relations of production shape and condition a multitude of other social relations - political, personal, sexual and so on. They range from how a courtier looks at a king and vice versa, to how people have sex and the relations between parents and children; from how the individual relates to society to how people relate to nature; from the life of the village to the life of the metropolis.
These relations form the stuff of our lived experience and the raw material of art. Good or great art is art which achieves a precise ( the precision extends to the individual word, brushstroke or note), moving and critical representation of, and response to, such relations, especially when they are new or changing.
This can be done from a variety of political standpoints and in many different forms but it is the common core which links Shakespeare and Beckett, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Tracey Emin, Mozart, Coltrane and The Clash.
This was a letter to Socialist Worker.