Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Rubens — His Brush was the Sword of Counter Revolution

A new exhibition of paintings by Rubens needs to be illuminated with some history, writes John Molyneux

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a great painter. Anyone who enjoys painting or is interested in the history of art will gain pleasure, and perhaps inspiration, from the exhibition of his work, Rubens: A Master in the Making, now showing at the National Gallery in London.

Nevertheless, this exhibition is a good example of how the art establishment and its traditional approach to art acts as a barrier to the understanding and real appreciation of that art.

The exhibition focuses on the artistic influences that shaped Rubens’ style. This is the “art connoisseur” approach, which isolates art history from the rest of human history. It contains valuable information but the problem is what it leaves out.

In this show it means the absence of Rubens’ best work, which dates from later in his life, and of any attempt to locate his art in its social and political context. Where Rubens is concerned this is particularly damaging.

To understand his art it is necessary both to be aware of the basic facts of European history at the time and to have some understanding of the real social meaning of those facts.

Rubens’ life coincided with a momentous struggle waged right across Europe. In traditional history, and especially in art history, this is treated as simply a religious struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, Reformation and Counter Reformation.

In essence, however, it was a struggle between the rising middle class or bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy — a battle between capitalism and feudalism, fought out under the banner of religion. It was a struggle that in the long run was to determine the destiny of Europe and the world.

One of the front lines of this conflict was in the Netherlands where Rubens spent most of his life.

The Netherlands were initially not a nation but merely provinces of the vehemently Catholic and feudal Habsburg empire, based in Spain, and at that time the dominant military power in Europe.

The Netherlands, however, were a centre of early capitalist economic development and of Calvinism, the most militant and revolutionary wing of Protestantism.

In 1566 the Netherlands rose in revolt against Habsburg rule, and the Spanish king, Philip II, responded by sending an army to crush this revolution.

In the southern Netherlands this counter revolutionary repression was successful, and this area (later to become Belgium) remained under Spanish rule.

But in the north the revolution held out. This area was to emerge as the Dutch Republic, the world’s first capitalist state.

Rubens’ father was a lawyer in Antwerp and a strong Calvinist. In 1568, to escape repression, he fled to Westphalia in Germany, where Rubens was born.

In 1587 Rubens’ father died. In 1589 he and his mother returned to Antwerp, where Rubens converted to Catholicism. In the circumstances that meant joining the counter revolution.

This had a massive impact on Rubens’ art, for it was a time when the Catholic church was consciously mobilising art as a cultural weapon of the Counter Reformation. It meant that Rubens went to Italy as a court painter to the Duke of Mantua and studied the art of ancient Rome and of the Renaissance masters (and of the rebel, Carravaggio).

It meant that he received innumerable commissions to paint vast canvasses of dramatically swirling figures to adorn the walls of churches and palaces.

It meant that while Dutch artists such as Rembrandt and Hals died in poverty, and Carravaggio died on the run, Rubens died the richest and most famous artist in Europe — honoured by the kings of France, Spain and England.

Does the fact that Rubens was the artist of counter revolution make his art poor or of no interest?

No, he was immensely skilled and talented and expressed with great vigour the values appropriate to his cause — the power and glory of his church and religion. At the same time his work celebrated (under the cover of classical mythology) the sensuous pleasures of the flesh.

But his politics did damage and restrict his art. It made it tend to the overly grandiose and ensured that the life of the people and the insight, sympathy and solidarity, so evident in Hals and Rembrandt, were lacking.

His greatest works, such as his landscape, Het Steen, and his nude portrait of Helene Fourment in fur, came at the end of his life when he was painting for himself not his patrons. But these are not the focus of this exhibition.

Revolt that shaped a new kind of art

THE NEW film Girl With A Pearl Earring about the Dutch artist Vermeer has provoked interest in the life and society of the great Dutch painters. JOHN MOLYNEUX looks at the reasons why Dutch society produced a flowering of great art in the 17th century.

WE ARE not used to thinking of Holland, or rather the Netherlands, as a leading player on the world stage. With a population one quarter of Britain's and a land area one eighth that of France, the Dutch have tended to be seen as playing only supporting roles in the main dramas of the last two centuries.

Nevertheless there was a time, a brief period of less than a century, when the Netherlands was in the vanguard of world history-in a number of important respects the leading country in the world. This was the so called "Golden Age", roughly from 1600 to 1675. Today it is remembered mainly for its art.

This is not surprising when you think what this short span of time yielded. Three of the greatest of the "old masters"-Franz Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer (whose Girl with a Pearl Earring is the starting point for the novel and newly released film). Innumerable portraits and portrait painters, superb landscapes (this was really the beginning of landscape painting).

Whole schools of domestic interiors, of still life and "trick of the eye" works, another of sea battles and what were called "genre" paintings-depictions of low-life, the poor, tavern scenes. All of it was significantly different from any art that had gone before.

It is one of the most remarkable episodes in the entire story of art. There is probably no period in which such a high proportion of the population had their portrait painted or owned an original painting. The work of the supreme artist of the time, Rembrandt, has never been surpassed. Art historians and critics often describe the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer as "timeless". If by this is meant simply that they have retained their appeal up to the present time, then this is clearly true. But if the suggestion is that they are the product of purely individual inspiration existing outside of any historical or social context, then nothing could be further from the truth.

The exceptional vitality of Dutch art was just one aspect of the exceptional vitality of Dutch society in the 17th century. This was founded on the enormous dynamism of the Dutch economy. Dutch agriculture was the most productive in Europe. It also led the field in industrial production. The textiles industry grew fivefold between 1600 and 1664.

Dutch warships were the best in the world and their merchant fleet was equally outstanding. In 1670 Dutch tonnage exceeded that of England, France, Portugal and Spain combined. The Dutch Republic dominated herring fishing in the North Sea, cod fishing off Iceland and whaling at Spitzbergen in the Arctic.

In less than 60 years they built a seaborne empire that stretched from the Moluccas (Indonesia) in the east to New Amsterdam (New York) and Pernambuco (Brazil) in the west and from Spitzbergen to Cape Town in the south. Alongside this economic growth went a spectacular process of urbanisation. In the 16th century the north Netherlands already had 11 cities with a population of over 10,000 compared to only four in much larger Britain.

In the Golden Age these cities expanded rapidly in number and size. Amsterdam rose from 30,000 in 1570 to 200,000 in 1672. Right through history, from Egypt, Greece and Rome in the ancient world to Florence and Venice in the 15th century flowerings of art have, alas, been associated with accumulations of wealth. Dutch art was no exception to this rule.

But what accounts for this extraordinary economic development in this small country? The answer is simple and clear. Dutch society was the product of a successful revolution. This is usually missed or avoided by "mainstream" historians. The revolution began in 1565 when a year of famine provoked the Netherlanders into revolt against their rulers, the Spanish Habsburgs.

This led to 40 years of fighting on land and sea. The Dutch Republic emerged victorious as a new and independent nation. It was the first modern war of national liberation. The Dutch nation came into being in the course of the war rather than existing before it. Even more important was that in the course of this struggle a social revolution occurred. The Habsburg Empire was a bastion of feudal reaction and the Catholic Counter-Reformation which ruled over a vast range of Europe.

Hand in hand with the defeat of the Habsburg armies came the rise to power of a new social class, the Dutch burghers or bourgeoisie. The result was the establishment of the first bourgeois, or capitalist, state. This liberated the productive forces held back by feudalism and gave the Dutch economy, for a period, a decisive advantage over the rest of Europe. Once England also took the capitalist road after the English Revolution of the 1640s it soon outpaced its smaller rival.

The Dutch Revolution made the Netherlands the freest, most enlightened, most socially advanced country in Europe. First, it was a republic with a stadholder as head of state, not a monarchy or empire like almost everywhere else. Second, it practised religious tolerance, including for Catholics and Jews.

This was of crucial importance in the 17th century. It derived directly from the revolutionary need for unity in the struggle against Spain.

It led to a remarkable degree of freedom of speech, thought and scientific inquiry and to a relatively emancipated position for women. The combination of freedom and prosperity made the Dutch Republic a focus for large-scale immigration from its more repressive neighbours. People came especially from the southern Netherlands (today's Belgium) which remained under Habsburg rule, and Germany during the Thirty Years War.

The Netherlands attracted many of Europe's leading dissenters and freethinkers-the English Leveller John Lilburne and the great philosophers Descartes, Spinoza and Locke all lived or spent time there. These conditions shaped the development of Dutch art. The overthrow of feudalism and the end of Catholic dominance meant a sharp decline in commissions for vast canvasses full of swirling figures such as Rubens had painted, to adorn churches and palaces.

But it gave rise to a huge market for smaller paintings to hang on the private walls of the rising middle classes. The role of seapower in the revolt and after generated the marine painting of van de Velde the Younger and others. The still lifes of flowers, vases and food reflected the new bourgeois domesticity and its preoccupation with possessions. The role of civic guards or shooting companies in defending cities led to a specific genre of group portraits of militia of which Rembrandt's The Night Watch is the most famous. Landscape painting arose precisely in reaction to the rapid urbanisation. The depictions of tavern low-life embodied the Dutch burghers' concern for order and respectability.

The three outstanding artists-Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer-were all products of these conditions but responded to them in different ways. Hals painted, with great vigour and freshness, a wide variety of representative social types of the new order. These included The Laughing Cavalier, The Merry Drinker, The Gypsy Girl, The Regents and Regentesses of the Alms House. Hals's mood ranged from affectionate amusement to bitter critique. Rembrandt also depicted the people of his times from the top of society to the lower depths but with greater emotional depth and power.

He gave expression to the underlying contradictions of the new age-the conflicts between wealth for some and pauperisation for others, love and freedom on one side, alienation and tragedy on the other. Vermeer took the bourgeois dream of domestic tranquillity and raised it to the level of the sublime.

This was done largely through interior scenes of great simplicity-a young woman sewing or reading a letter, or sat at a virginal (early harpsichord)-bathed in delicate light. The middle classes still cherish this dream, hence the enormous popularity Vermeer retains today.

It is too mechanical to claim that great art is always linked to political and social revolution or vice versa, but in the case of Dutch art it certainly was. It was a classic example of the revolutionary liberation of the productive and cultural forces of a society hitherto fettered by a reactionary social and political order.

Review of "Rembrandt's Eyes"

Rembrandt's Eyes

Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London 1999, 750pp, ISBN 0-713-99384-7

Simon Schama

Reviewed by: John Molyneux


The title of this book reminded me that I was first introduced to Rembrandt's eyes when I was a boy. "For Rembrandt", my mother said, as we stood in front of the great portraits of Jacob Trip and Margaretha de Geer in the National Gallery, "the eyes a re the windows of the soul". If I remember rightly my school art teacher told me the same thing a few years later. But Rembrandt's art remains remarkably untainted by the clichés that have attached to it in a way that is not true of all great art. The Mona Lisa ('the eyes follow you round the room'), for example, has certainly been damaged by its over exposure and The Hay Wain barely survives its endless biscuit tin projection as the essence of Englishness. In contrast The Staalmeeste rs or the great self portraits exhibited in London last year slough off all traces of sentimentalism and banalization and confront us with extraordinary living power.

This creates a problem for Simon Schama and for anyone aspiring to write about Rembrandt (including the author of this review), namely the likelihood that the writing will be grossly inadequate in the face of the painting. Of course this is a problem for all writing about art but it is intensified where Rembrandt is concerned because of his peculiar 'eloquence': his work speaks to us - emotionally, psychologically - with a directness unmatched even by masters such as Holbein, Durer and Titian.

The difficulty is compounded by the paucity of documentary information about Rembrandt's life combined with the abundance of pictorial material. On the one hand, no diaries, memoirs, interviews, manifestos and almost no letters. On the other, nearly eighty self-portraits - an utterly unprecedented and unmatched visual autobiography - and a large, if indeterminate, number of family portraits (his father, his mother, his brother, Saskia, Hendrickje, Titus, even baby Rumbartus).

So what is writing about Rembrandt doing? What function, exactly, is it performing and is that function necessary or justifiable? If its function is conceived in terms of 'explanation' or 'interpretation' of the meaning of the work it seems to me it is likely to fail, not because the work is mysterious or inexplicable but because it explains itself so much better than the writing can. Thus if we take Rembrandt's Bathsheba or Woman Bathing in a Stream both paintings for which the model was almost certainly his lover, Hendrickje Stoffels, and we start writing about the feelings of the artist towards Hendrickje which the paintings express we need to know that any words we choose - tenderness, love, affection, sympathy, sensuality, desire etc. - are less expressive, less precise and less powerful than the paintings themselves. If the function of the writing is conceived in terms of persuading the reader of the merits of the work, then however necessary this task may be in relation to much contemporary work or even some neglected figure from the past, it is largely pushing at an open door where Rembrandt is concerned. Again the work has already done the job better than any writing can.

Having wrestled with this problem somewhat, I am persuaded or have persuaded myself, that two kinds of art writing remain necessary and - just about - defensible. The first acts as a signpost. It is akin to the humble but vital guidebook or museum p lan and is also the main function of criticism as performed by someone like Clement Greenberg (or F R Leavis in literature). It says, "Here lies an important visual experience", and "I, who know something about these matters, recommend you go and have a look". It is useful and needed because we are all bombarded with so many images, so many sights, that we pay little or not attention to most of them or the attention we pay is very one sided - as when walking through the streets we frequently attend only to getting where we have to go and not to most of the buildings or people - and therefore it helps if someone says in a loud voice "Look, really look, at this!"

The second performs a function similar to the gallery itself or perhaps to a viewing platform from which to survey a natural or urban panorama, that is it provides a context or vantage point favourable to seeing the artwork clearly. Writing does this primarily by providing technical, biographical and socio-historical information relevant to the work's production and reception. For example, Géricault's Raft of the Medusa is a mighty painting in and of itself but it is easier to 'see' it properl y, to grasp its power, if one is provided with the information that it was painted in response to an actual shipwreck which was controversial in the way that the recent Paddington rail crash and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge we re controversial. (Contextual information which would have been available to everyone at the time and which Géricault would have taken for granted.)

Of these two kinds of art writing the first is particularly relevant to contemporary work and the second to work from the past but in both cases the writing must remain strictly and humbly subordinate to the actual visual experience of the art.(1)

The fundamental problem with Schama's book is that it is completely lacking in this necessary humility. Despite beginning by quoting Paul Valéry's injunction that "We should apologize for daring to speak about painting", Schama proceeds to ignore the warning and speaks about painting and everything else without apology and without restraint for seven hundred pages. How does he fill these seven hundred pages? Not by providing a systematic account of the history of the times or the structure of the so ciety, nor a rigorous biography, nor a location of Rembrandt's work in its artistic and cultural context. Rather Schama offers a strange hybrid of history, biography and art history yoked together into an apparently seamless though jerky and incomplete n arrative. The whole unwieldy structure is sustained by three main procedures each of which seems to me highly dubious.

The first is the piling up of adjective upon adjective, phrase upon phrase, (in)significant detail upon (in)significant detail so as to generate the illusion of seeing, in the words of the dust jacket "through Rembrandt's own eyes". Thus we are offere d this description of Amsterdam:

From a seagull's gliding attitude, the great city resembled a half moon; a rat-gnawed cheese; a cradle lying with its base to the southern meadows, the top open to the dark waters of the IJ; the tubby hull of a noorvaarder aw aiting masts and sail, sheets and shrouds, so that it might be off a about its business; a straw-filled bolster indented with the weight of heavy heads. [p.311]

Followed by:

First, the Zuider Zee itself, sucked through the inlet of the IJ, washing against the slimy double row of palings separating the inner from the outer harbour, carrying with it a load of tangled wrack and weed, worthlessly sma ll fish, and minute crustaceans generating a briny aroma of salt, rotting wood, bilge-water and the tide-rinsed remains of countless gristly little creatures housed within the shells of periwinkles and barnacles. [p.311]

Which, in turn, is followed by two pages on Amsterdam's supposed smells, three pages on its sounds, two pages on its tastes, another two on its 'straight edges' and 'flowing curves' and three more on its sights. The merits of such prose are doubtless a matter of opinion. Peter Conrad in The Observer (31.10.99) called it "ravenously gustatory" and said it left him "pining for a dose of Alka Seltzer". Jonathan Israel, in an otherwise highly critical review in the TLS (5.10.99), referred to "his facility with words" and "renowned rhetorical skills" as "Schama's great strength". Personally I find it extremely unappealing. More importantly, the whole exercise is a misguided venture, based on dreadful hubris, for it is not Schama but Rembr andt who has enabled us to see "through Rembrandt's eyes".

Schama's second procedure is to leave no digression unpursued. His two hundred page digression on Rubens, leads to a sub-digression on Rubens' parents, Jan and Maria, and Jan's bedding of Anna of Saxony, and even a sub-sub-digression on Jan's father ' Bartholomeus, the apothecary' who 'had died when Jan was still a child' [p.42]. His description of Leiden leads to a discussion of the town's textile industry and thence to the state of 'the raw wool, dense, greasy and matted [which] came to the city in hanks of sheared fleece', and that in turn to 'the plank floors of workshops (often the front parlour of the smaller houses) where the raw wool was washed, carded, combed and spun' and to how 'the doors of these little houses were left open to the street so that on breezy days the fluff hung over the streets like dandelion seeds' until at last the cloth emerges 'as lengths of serge, baize (not the green stuff of our billiard tables but a fine twill cloth), or worsted, depending on how the fibres were laid and twisted and what merchants said the clothiers in Paris, Frankfurt and Cologne were currently seeking' [p.200]. Schama continues in this vein down every nook and cranny throughout his immense book and in the process displays a truly staggering quanti ty of knowledge, but to what point? The job of the historian, as E H Carr argued in What is History? is to distinguish between 'facts' that are historically relevant and those that are not and this Schama repeatedly fails to do.

Thirdly, wherever there is a gap in the narrative or there is insufficient evidence for the dramatic effect Schama desires, he simply makes things up. He imagines what 'perhaps' was the case, what 'must have' or 'might have' taken place and inserts th e fantasy scenario into the story in such a way that the distinction between fact and fiction is repeatedly blurred. The book's first paragraph reads:

After thirty salvos the cannon were obliged to cool off. So perhaps it was then that Constantijn Huygens thought he heard nightingales fluting over the artillery! The windows in the headquarters of Frederik Hendrik, the Pri nce of Orange, commanded a remote but panoramic prospect of the stege. Had he been asked, Huygens would have been in a perfect position to draft one of those grandiose bird's-eye views of the operations of war, engraved to document the commander's genius , his worthiness to be remembered as the equal of Alexander or Scipio. Some like to describe such scenes as theatres of valour. And to an eye as literary as Huygens's, the distant view from his tower chamber might well have seemed like a great masque, b lazing with pyrotechnics and noisy with the work of contraptions; a flamboyance of banners. But he also knew that for all its appearance of a rout, such festive parades were actually conducted according to a strict program: first the pipers and drummers; then horses, fantastically comparisoned; then mountebanks and men in lion skins; the pasteboard dolphins and dragons; and finally triumphal cars à l'antique, pulled by garlanded oxen or the occasional camel. [p.3].

Already in these opening lines we have a 'perhaps', a 'had he been', a 'would have been' and a 'might well have'. The overall effect of the passage is to make it almost impossible to tell what is real history here and what is the product of Schama's a ll too vivid imagination. Nor is this just some opening rhetorical flourish. Schama continues in the same vein right to the closing paragraphs where he 'imagines' Rembrandt's daughter Cornelia in Batavia 'on that December day' looking at her sleeping ch ild 'as if he were silently, seriously conversing with himself as to how he had come to be baptized with so peculiar a name as Rembrandt' [p.702]. In between the technique is put to work creating the impression that Schama has a hot line to the mind of R embrandt nearly four centuries ago. Thus:

Rembrandt was giving his full attention to the matter of painting, and in particular to a small patch of plaster in a corner of the walk-up studio. At the point where the wall met the upright beam of the doorjamb, projecting into the room, plaster had begun to flake and lift, exposing a triangle of rosy brick... Rembrandt liked this. From the beginning he was powerfully drawn to ruin He enjoyed tracing the marks left by the bite of worldly experience He liked to toy with th e poignant discrepancies between outsides and insides In the corner of his room, Rembrandt's eye ran over the fishtail triangle of decomposing wall. [p.12-13].

Peter Ackroyd in The Times (28.10.99) finds this stuff convincing, "[Schama] is able to enter his subject with his own imagination so that we seem to be standing beside the artist as he places his brush upon the canvas". I find it false, border ing on the dishonest. For me it tends to destroy my confidence in the book as a whole and to undermine its genuine merits.

Such merits do exist. On the one hand, as I have already said, there is the prodigious amount of information that has been absorbed and processed. Even if the facts are not one hundred per cent reliable - Jonathan Israel, who has infinitely more expe rtise in the matter than I do, says there are "numerous astounding inaccuracies" and identified seven or eight of them (TLS 5.10.99) - this remains a considerable achievement. On the other hand there are a number of cogent, closely argued and inte resting readings of individual works - the exceptionally detailed analysis of The Night Watch [pp.480-500], especially the exposition of its compositional structure [p.496] is outstanding, but I also have in mind his discussions of the Danaë and th e nude etchings [pp.383-401] and of the wondrous Jewish Bride [pp.663-68]. By the time I reached these passages I was so out of sorts with Rembrandt's Eyes that it took a while to realize that a qualitative improvement had occurred. But it was as if having a definite image in front of him to work on temporarily relives him of the necessity to invent and fantasize and word spin. This does not mean I regard Schama's interpretations as definitive or even necessarily correct, for example I se e a critical element in The Night Watch he would deny, but they are serious and challenging contributions.

But enough of the merits and demerits of Rembrandt's Eyes structure, prose and research, what of its general case about Rembrandt, its overall intellectual argument? In fact, for a book of this size, there is remarkable little of such argument. There is, of course, the contention that the example of Rubens was of overwhelming importance for Rembrandt's development. To say that this point is stressed is an understatement since it is asserted and built into the structure, woven into the narrati ve, for hundreds of pages, but it is not really argued for. That is to say it is not argued for in the way that a historian or art historian should argue, considering counter arguments and alternative possibilities and the views of other authorities. In the end one is left with the feeling that while Rubens must have been a significant influence (like Cézanne on Picasso or Picasso on Pollock) Schama is overstating and rather forcing his case. What is not offered, however, is any general consideration o f the relationship between Rembrandt's work and the rest of Dutch art in the 17th century (Hals, van Ruysdael, de Hooch, Vermeer etc. are conspicuous by their virtual absence). Nor is there a general argument about the relation between Rembrandt and Dutc h society. This might seem strange in view of the obsession with the infinitesimal details of the physical environment but it is as if the unending focus on the trees substitutes for an overview of the wood. Then again, there is a sense in which the ass ertion of the non-existence, in the final analysis, of a relation between Dutch society and Rembrandt's art (except as 'background' or 'context') is the book's central theoretical proposition.

This is the point Schama emphasizes in his interview in The Times (2) and in the key theoretical section of the book entitled 'New York 1998'. He is at war with 'fashionable' determinism (3) and his battle-cry is 'Rembrandt as genius'.

Now the concept of 'genius' has long played a major role in cultural history and criticism and has been much debated in the last thirty years or so. My own view is that the word itself is not a problem. If it is taken to mean simply 'someone who is e xceptionally, outstandingly good at something' then Shakespeare was a genius at writing plays, Einstein was a genius at theoretical physics, Marx was a genius at social theory, Kasparov is a genius at chess and Cézanne and Rembrandt were geniuses at paint ing. Fine! But genius is frequently taken to mean much more than this. It carries with it connotations of belonging to a higher order of humanity than ordinary mortals, of divine inspiration, of innate superiority, of asocial, supra-historical transcen dence. And with this concept of genius there most certainly is a problem. To put the matter bluntly it is both mystical and not far removed from the idea that some people are born to rule. Yet it is precisely this latter meaning that Schama chooses to adopt and apply to Rembrandt.

There was a time, not so very long ago, before the anachronism police had been sent out on monograph patrol, when "genius" and "Rembrandt" seemed to belong in the same sentence. For the unnumbered millions who respond intuit ively to his painting applying the G word to Rembrandt seems no more incongruous than awarding it to Shakespeare, Raphael, Cervantes, Milton or Bernini, all of whom predate the Romantic recoining of the word. It was the way in which Michelangelo was refe rred to both inside Italy and beyond. Not long after his death, biographies of artists made a habit of identifying those who were inexplicably exceptional as prodigies whose gifts seemed so incommensurably greater than those of their contemporarie s that they must have been marked by a touch of divinity. [p.24my emphasis - JM]

In making his case that Rembrandt is a genius in this sense Schama commits, I believe, two intellectual errors. The first is to equate the evident uniqueness of Rembrandt's art with its social inexplicability.[pp25-26]. This misses the fact th at we are all of us, in certain respects, unique and that what makes the work of a particular artist uniquely 'great' is not that it is asocial but that it gives especially intense and powerful expression to profoundly social themes. This is what happens in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, in Michelangelo's David, in Picasso's Guernica, in Eliot's Waste Land and in Rembrandt's Staalmeesters. (4) The second is to identify conformity with being a product of society and rebellion wi th being outside or above society. The theoretical error here was exposed by Marx when he wrote, "The existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class". (5) Conformists and rebels, Manchester Libe rals and Chartists, Versaillese and Communards, fascists and communists, Edmund Burke and Tom Paine, Ingres and Manet are equally products of their given society.

Underlying these confusions is Schama's failure to grasp, failure even to attempt to grasp, the contradictions in Dutch society. That would involve dealing with the structure and nature of that society as a totality, something Schama never does either in Rembrandt's Eyes or in his earlier, much superior, work The Embarrassment of Riches. In my opinion the starting point for understanding both the nature of Dutch society in the Golden Age (its amazing dynamic novelty and its cold cruelty ) and the nature of Rembrandt's art (its no less amazing humanity and originality and its profound sadness) is that the Dutch Republic was the world's first properly capitalist society and state, the result of the first successful bourgeois revolution. S ubjectively, the birth of capitalism, emerging from the interstices of feudal society, was experienced by society's most sensitive antennae, and perhaps also by the mass of its population, as both an immense liberation and a profound loss, a profound increase in alienation. This is what lies at the root of Shakespeare's tragedies and Michelangelo's sculptures, both David and the slaves. It is what permits us to understand how Rembrandt could be both enthusiast for Dutch socie ty and rebel against it, painter of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp and etcher of himself as beggar.

Schama would reject this starting point out of hand as old fashioned Marxist dogma (or would it be fashionable determinism). Indeed he has already cut himself off from the most minimal use of insights derived from a Marxist perspective when he denies at the start of The Embarrassment of Riches that the Dutch burgher was a bourgeois on the spurious grounds that 'the burgher was a citizen first and homo oeconomicus second'. (6)

It is this rejection which prevents Schama, for all his labours, from producing a coherent or convincing account of Rembrandt's art as a whole and which, combined with his overwhelming ambition to be a historian superstar, results in him filling his pa ges with lists of every fowl to be found in Amsterdam game pie and every smell he can imagine rising from the Amsterdam canals. Fortunately Rembrandt's art rises effortlessly above the cacophony.


1. There is another kind of writing about art which is quite widespread and, I think, legitimate, where art is mentioned as part of a wider historical, sociological or philosophical analysis of a period, theme or issue. But this is different in that t he aim is not to illuminate the art but to use the art to illustrate the wider argument. Thus Marx's observation that, 'Rembrandt painted the Mother of God as a Dutch peasant woman', (L Baxandall and S Morawski eds, Marx, Engels: On Literature and Art ; New York 1977 p.60) was designed to make a point about ideology and material conditions in a debate about freedom of the press.

2. "I've moved back to a more old-fashioned view of Rembrandt that, while requiring substantial amounts of history, wants to say that there are limits to what history can explain. It's a view that looks at how paint lands on the canvas and leaves mor e space for the pure powers of original invention. History doesn't really have any explanatory forms for that, I believe". The Times (28.10.99)

3. Personally, determinism strikes me as profoundly unfashionable at the moment but conservative ideologists always like to present themselves as rebels against dominant left wing orthodoxies.

4. Seeing all art, great and mediocre alike, as social, does not involve embracing as mechanical or absolute determinism. For a discussion of determinism in general and its application to art in particular, see John Molyneux, 'Is Marxism Deterministic ?' International Socialism 68, Autumn 1995.

5. K Marx and F Engels, The German Ideology, London 1985 p.65.

6. S Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, London 1987, p.7.

Preface to "Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism"

This booklet consists of a selection of articles written as a weekly column for the British left wing newspaper, Socialist Worker. The column , which lasted from 1983 – 97, was variously called ‘Teach Yourself Marxism’ and ‘What Socialists Say’; most of the material included here was written in the 1980s.

The column was written with a reader in mind who, according to the mainstream culture, does not exist, namely a thinking, critically minded working class activist. The standard view of working class militants is that they are more or less mindless thugs, motivated by greed and the politics of envy. Not a few middle class intellectuals, even those sympathetic to the working class in the abstract, still accept the the notion of militant workers as people only interested in immediate bred and butter issues and crude slogans.

My experience, which is now a long one, is the exact opposite. Worker militants are in general the most intellectually developed - and cultured – representatives of their class. This is partly because invovement in struggle raises consciousness and broadens horizons,but also because they need to be. The worker militant is engaged in a continuous battle of ideas with his or her workmates to combat the equally continuous efforts of the ruling class, via its politicians and media, to impose its view of the world - on everything from current events to human nature – on the working class.

The column was written, therefore, with the intention of assisting this notional reader ( though obviously there would be other readers too) in this day to day process of argument and persuasion. Its language had to be as staight forward and clear as possible – lack of formal education was absolutely not to be a barrier to reading it – but its content was deadly serious and sometimes had to be quite complex.

The typical method was to start from ‘common sense’, i.e. from the commonplce assumptions and attitudes (in reality shaped by bourgeois ideology) that the socialist worker would meet wth from their fellow workers and to set out the socialist view in relation to this. In the process the column also attempted to build up the the main elements of the Marxist world outlook as a whole.

That fifteen years later and on the other side of the world, the publishers of this booklet should deem it of relevanceto the workers and socialists of Korea testifies to a very important fact about the modern world, namely that the issues and debates faced by workers in aall countries, though not of course identical , are nonetheless remarkably similar.

One such issue which is truly global and is of immense, almost overriding significance, is climate change or global warming. This was not discussed in ‘Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism’ because at the time it had barely crossed my political radar. Today one must be blind not to see it. All the scientific evidence points to yhe fact that climate change threatens the world with environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. All the political evidence points to the fact that our rulers are either sleep walking to disaster or, more likely, consciously gambling with humanity,s future for the sake of profit (see the excellent article by Paul McGarr ‘On the Road to Catastrophe’, International Socialism 107). The combination of these two facts constitutes another powerful, indeed compelling, argument for revolutionary socialism: for working totake power out of the hands of their respective ruling classes and establish international planned production for human need.

This was written in July 2005 for the Korean translation of of the long article "Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism".

Picasso and African Art

In debates about racism and multiculturaliosm questions of civilization and the development of “culture” are never slow to surface.

Underpinning much racist ideology is the notion that the development of civilization was basically a European or western phenomenon. In reality, civilization – living in cities, literacy, law etc. – developed first in three main areas, none of them in Europe: the middle eastern fertile crescent (Iraq to Egypt), northwestern India and southeast China. Moreover Europe in the middle ages remained pitifully backward compared to China or the Islamic civilization in the middle east and north Africa.

But even those who accept these basic historical facts often still cling to the idea that “modern culture” and “modernism” are a uniquely European (and thus “white”) creation.

Then again in the anti-racist camp there are those who see different cultures as equal or “equally valid” but still think of them as separate and inherently linked to distinct ethnic or racial groups. Therefore they talk of preserving different cultures and maintaining their authenticity, resisting their contamination by external influences (for example by opposing mixed race adoptions).

A striking challenge to all these views of how culture develops is provided by the work and career of the greatest of all modern artists, Pablo Picasso.

At the beginning of the 20th century Picasso was already a rising star of the art world on the basis of the works of his so-called “Blue” and “Rose” periods, mainly powerful, if sentimental, depictions of the poor and the marginalized. Then in 1907 Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon depicting five prostitutes in a Spanish brothel displaying themselves to their prospective clients and staring implacably out of the canvass at the viewer. This painting opened the door to the development of cubism and the whole of modernist art. At the time it was deeply shocking not only to the establishment but also to all Picasso’s avant garde artist friends like Braque and Matisse. Among its many shocking features was the fact that two of the women’s heads were painted to resemble African masks while the other three were based on images from ancient Iberian culture.

The art critic John Berger describes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as “a raging frontal attack against life as Picasso found it” (The Success and Failure of Picasso, p72) and the African mask images are part of this. But if we look at how Picasso’s work develops we find that his use of African art also has a deeper significance.

What Picasso found in African art was the key, or one of the keys, to a new way of seeing and representing the world and a profoundly new conception of art, which broke more decisively than ever before – the break had been building for decades - with the dominant European art tradition.

Since the 15th century, that is in the era of the rise of capitalism, European painting and sculpture had focused on achieving a naturalistic representation of the physical world. In other words it tried to make more or less accurate copies of things, people and scenes, especially the possessions, land and appearance of the rich and powerful.

The African sculptures that influenced Picasso were products of pre-capitalist society where the role of art was quite different. It was not made to hang in palaces or museums but for use in daily life, particularly rituals, and its aim was not naturalistic imitation of status or property but the expression of “spiritual” (emotional-psychological) power. This is what made it such a useful source for the bohemian artists like Picasso who were rebelling against all the traditions of the bourgeois and aristocratic art academy.

If it were just the case of influencing one major modernist painting this could be dismissed as accidental, but it was not. The African influence on Picasso and Braque’s cubism as a whole and on Picasso’s later work is manifest. Paintings like the famous Three Dancers and even Guernica would have been impossible without the breakthrough achieved in Les Desmoiselles. And there were many other artists also directly influenced by African art: Brancusi, the pioneer of modernist sculpture; Matisse and Modigliani; the German expressionists, and the sculptor Giacometti ..

This was part of an even wider turn toward non-european sources of inspiration which ranged from the enthusiasm for Japanese prints of the Impressionists and Van Gogh, Gauguin’s physical migration first to Brittany and then to Tahiti, Henri Rousseau’s “primitivist” evocations of jungle scenes, Henry Moore’s inspiration by Mayan sculpture to Jackson Pollock’s influence by Native American (Navajo) sand pouring in his “drip” paintings.

Marxism and Terrorism

The forces of reaction have always tried to associate revolution, and by extension revolutionaries and Marxists, with terrorist acts of the kind that took place, in Madrid on the 11th or March. The fact is, however, that all genuine Marxists and socialists have always opposed the use of such methods.

Marxists do no reject all violence. The bourgeois politicians who make such claims – while supporting wars, nuclear weapons, armies, prisons etc – are simply hypocrites and Marxists recognise that in certain circumstances such as wars of national liberation and mass revolutionary struggle, violence may be unavoidable and necessary. But terrorism, as in the planting of bombs on government of civilian targets, or hijacking planes, or assassinations by small groups acting independently of class struggle has always been deemed unacceptable.

This is because terrorism runs counter to the most basic principles of Marxism. Marx showed that the root cause of exploitation, oppression, tyranny and war was not bad individual rulers or bad governments but the division of society into classes and the ownership and control of production by a minority class that lived off the labour of the majority. The overthrow of a ruling class and the economic system on which it rests cannot be achieved by killing or frightening even large numbers of individuals, but only by the struggle of a new class which is the bearer of a new economic system. It is class struggle, the collective action of people in their millions, which is the motor of history.

Applied to modern capitalist society this means that the only force capable of defeating and replacing the capitalist class and the capitalist system is the organised struggle of the mass of the working class. In the words of Marx, “The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.” This emphasis on the self-emancipation of the working class is crucial not only for the overthrow of capitalism but also for the achievement of the aim, the establishment of socialism. Only revolution from below by the mass of working people themselves can lead to a socialist society run by working people in the interests of working people. Revolutions from above, even by forces claiming to act on behalf of the working class, result only in the replacement of one set of exploiters and oppressors by another (however good the intentions of the revolutionaries). This had been proved time and again in history but above all by the Communist, or more accurately Stalinist, military seizures of power in Eastern Europe, china etc which simply replaced private capitalism by state capitalism.

The methods of struggle used by Marxists and socialists from the most basic issuing of leaflets, collecting of petitions, organising trade unions and parties through to mass demonstrations, election campaigns and mass strikes are all steps towards raising the consciousness, confidence and organisation of working people to act on their own behalf.

Terrorist methods contradict this whole perspective. Frequently, as in Madrid, they are aimed at completely the wrong targets, striking not at rulers or oppressors but at ordinary working people. This repeats the “mistake” or should it be crime, so often perpetrated by the right, or collective national or racial guilt i.e. holding everyone of a particular group responsible for the actions or the rulers of that group. Often this has the effect of intensifying racial, national or sectarian divisions which weaken the struggle of the working class and which it should be the project of the left to overcome.

Even where that targets are more judiciously selected e.g. individual tyrants, direct and senior agents of the oppressor state, there is still a very high risk of error resulting in unintended innocent victims, with all the same political consequences.

Another common result of terrorism is that it strengthens and legitimises the repressive apparatus of the very state it is supposed to undermine. The regime on the receiving end responds the attacks on civil liberties, arbitrary round-ups of “suspects” etc. It cannot be said that this always happens. Recent events in Spain – due to the splendid response of the Spanish people – are a wonderful exception. But it is the most likely outcome. Similarly, terrorist acts can have the perverse effect of turning a roundly despised politician or businessman into some kind of martyr or national hero, as happened with the kidnapping and killing of former Italian PM, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades in 1978.

But even in the best possible case – where the target is an undoubted and generally acknowledged tyrant and the deed is meticulously executed with no innocent casualties – the terrorist operation remains at odds with the Marxist perspective because it is an attempt to substitute the deeds of a small minority for the collective struggle of the masses and its effects is to encourage the idea of liberation from on high rather than self emancipation from below. As Leon Trotsky put it:

“If it is enough to arm oneself with a pistol in order to achieve one’s goal, why the efforts of the class struggle?…If it makes sense to terrify highly places personages with the roar of explosions, where is the need for a party? Why meetings, mass agitation and elections?

…In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their own powerlessness and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who someday will come and accomplish his mission.” [Emphasis in original]

Sometimes the advocates of terrorism have claimed that terror tactics need not be counterposed to the class struggle but can be combined with it. Trotsky rejects this “compromise formula” insisting that in practice any movement adopting terrorist methods would come to be dominated by them to the exclusion of mass action.

“By its very essence terrorist work demands such concentrated energy for ‘the great moment’, such an overestimation of the significance of individual heroism and such a ‘hermetic’ conspiracy that – if not logically – then psychologically it totally excludes agitation and organisational work among the masses…terrorism is too ‘absolute’ a form of struggle to be content with a limited and subordinate role in the party.”

Quoting Trotsky here is appropriate for two reasons. First because Trotsky wrote, at different times in his political career a series of articles on terrorism which eloquently summarise the Marxist case and these have been collected in an accessible pamphlet, Leon Trotsky ‘Against Individual Terrorism’ (Pathfinder 1980). Second, because the articles grow out of, and make repeated reference to, the experience of terrorism in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century. Conducted by the Narodniks or Populists, and particularly by the organisation Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), this was one of the great terrorists campaigns in history and perhaps the first time terrorism was intellectually formulated as a systematic political strategy. The Narodniks were intellectuals who looked to Russia’s vast and deeply oppressed peasantry and who’s aim was to overthrow tsarism by systematic attacks on the tsar and his ministers. The Russian Marxist movement under the leadership of it’s founder, George Plekhanov, emerged precisely in opposition to Populism and therefore conducted an intense debate on the question of terrorism in the course of which the Marxist position was definitively established.

One further aspect of that position which was shared by all the Russian revolutionary socialists in particularly brought out in Trotsky’s writings. This is the distinction the Russian Marxists made between their attitude to terrorism and their attitude to the terrorists. The former they rejected uncompromisingly, the latter had all their sympathy and their personal courage was always acknowledged. By all accounts the Narodnik militants were of a particularly noble cast but the point is clearly of contemporary relevance.

Ruling class politicians and their media habitually denounce terrorists as “cowards”, “evil” and “sub-human”. The Russian Marxists had no truck with such notions and never contemplated moderating their own opposition to tsarism on account of “the terrorist threat”, still less joining forces with the regime against the terrorists. Their criticism of terrorism was always in terms of its ineffective and counterproductive nature in relation to the real revolutionary struggle. And of course they were vindicated by history. It was no terrorist bomb but the mass action of the working class that eventually toppled both tsarism and the Russian bourgeoisie.

The Marxist response to terrorism formulated around the turn of the century has stood the test of time and has served as a guide to action in recent decades. These decades however, have offered a rich and varied crop or terrorist campaigns on which certain observations can be made.

In the first place it is clear that there is a substantial strand of right wing and fascist terrorism. Examples include the Orange paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the Bologna bombing in Italy, Oklahoma in the U.S, David Copeland of the Soho nail bomb, and Combat 18. But, obviously these present no theoretical problems for the left since we are opposed to everything about them. Other forms of terrorism divide broadly into two camps. On the one hand, mainly in the 1970s, there were various offshoots from the far left and the student revolt – the Weathermen in the U.S, the Angry Brigade in Britain, the Bader-Meinhof group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and so on. Typically these groups represented a frustrated, impatient reaction to the faltering of the mass movements from which they sprung. With the partial exception of the Red Brigades, they had no mass base and little capacity to inflict serious damage on the ruling class. Their main effect was to disorganise and disorient the left. It is clear that the job of revolutionary socialists is to do everything possible to discourage the development of such moods, but by argument and by ensuring the positive momentum of the mass struggle.

On the other hand, and much more important, have been various kinds of nationalist terrorist formations attempting to represent oppressed nationalities – the IRA, ETA, the different Palestinian organisations etc. These organisations usually do have a significant, if largely passive, social base, though it’s size can vary from being a small minority to a substantial majority of their respecting communities and, crucially, they usually have a base in a section of the national bourgeoisie. Essentially they are political formations who would like to be able to wage conventional war (or at least guerrilla war) but who are prevented from doing so by the overwhelming superiority of the oppressor’s military forces. Their class basis and their political outlook prevent them from looking to the working class as an alternative. Consequently they resort to terrorism.

Despite all the talk about Islamic fundamentalism Al Queda (like Hezbollah and Hamas) are basically spin-offs from Arab nationalism who have adopted Islamism in response to the past failures of secular nationalism and Stalinism. Their real aim, despite the rhetoric on both sides, is not to destroy the western way of life or overthrow capitalism but to drive out or limit imperialism in their part of the world.

Sometimes, and the Palestinian Intifada is the best example of this, terrorist tactics do more or less merge with the mass resistances of the people and this certainly affects or should affect the language and tone of our critique. We on the left should not, I suggest, “condemn” Palestinian suicide bombers or attacks by the Iraqi resistance. Nevertheless the general force of the Marxist critique continues to apply. Therefore, Marxists within the context of uncompromising opposition to our “own” imperialist bourgeoisies must continue to make the case that ultimately the defeat of imperialism and the overthrow of capitalism are tasks that are bound together and that the only force that can complete these tasks is the international working class.

Preface to ‘What is the Real Marxost Tradition?’

What is the Real Marxist Tradition? was initially written in 1983, for a specific occasion – the 100th aniversary of Marx’s death – and with a specic purpose: to disentangle what I believe to be genuine Marxism from the numerous regimes and parties round the world which laid claim to the name and ideology of Marxism while totally distorting and/or it’s content.

It’s central argument was that the fundamental distinguishing characteristic or authentic Marxism was no faithful adherance to Marx’s texts as a whole, nor to particular selected doctrines but it’s role as the theoretical articulation of the interests, struggle and liberation of a particular class, the modern proletariat or working class.

Similarly the common characteristic of the various “false” or pseudo-marxisms discussed was their abandonment of the project of working class self-emancipation and their transformation of Marxist doctrine into an ideology of another social force or class.

22 years later two obvious questions arise. First, to what extent have the ideas presented here stood the test of events? Second, to what extent do they remain relevant and useful to today’s socialists and revolutionaries in the very different world situation we now confront? A full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of a short preface but the immidiately striking fact is that the historically most important perversion of Marxism, namely, Stalinism, has all but departed the scene. A few Stalinist regimes remain, notably that in North Korea, but the ability of Stalinism to act as a pole of attraction and misleadership to millions of workers, socialists and would-be revolutionaries worldwide, has gone.

Indeed the whole process of the so-called “collapse of Communism” was a substantial confirmation of one of the key theoretical premises of this book, namely that the “Communist” regimes were neither socialist nor worker’s states, but State Capitalist (a premise taken from what I believe to be the most important Marxist theoretical text of the whole Cold War period, Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia.) Had Russia or Poland or Rumania been worker’s states of some kind the working class of these countries would have defended them in some way. Just the opposite was the case. Had they been socialist in any sense their relatively smooth adoption of “western” capitalism, with the bulk of the ruling apparatus and the industrial management simply stepping sideways, would have been impossible.

Most spectacular of all, of course, is the almost seamless transformation of China, without even formal “political revolution” or regime change from apparent Maoist communist fervour into the massive engine of capitalist growth that it has become in the last two decades. Again only the theory of state capitalism provides a basis for the theoretical understanding and analysis of the Chinese phenomenon.

Social Democracy, Stalinism’s predecessor in the anti-revolutionary transformation of Marxism and it’s principal rival for the political allegiance of the international working class (especially in the industrialised west) is still with us, of course. Nevertheless it too has changed dramatically. In this process my country or rather Tony Blair and the British Labour Party – New Labour – as he aptly calls it has led the way. Assuming leadership of the Labour Party after it’s fourth successive electoral defeat in 1992, Blair set about it’s wholesale “modernisation” i.e. transformation in a neo-liberal direction. In this he was remarkably successful at least at the upper echelons, while the rank and file have been silenced and marginalized. The result has been a Labour government since 1997 purged of every vestige of socialist principle of conscience which has turned Britian into George Bush’s most unquestioning ally, helped initiate three major imperialist wars, attacked civil liberties across the board, persued privatisation relentlessly including in health care and education, turned it’s back on the trade unions (except for taking their money) and, like neo-liberal giverbnments everywhere, presised over a huge grown in social inequality.

And where Blair has led others, from Schroeder in Germany to Lula in Brazil have been keep to follow. The social democracy not just of Bernstein and Kautsky, with it’s explicit Marxist roots, but also of Harold Wilson and Willy Brandt has become a thing of the past. This does not mean that reformism in general is dead. Reformism has deep roots in the structure of capitalist society and the consciousness of the working class – like the hydra of greek myth, cut off one of it’s heads and another will grow. So long as the majority of workers lack the confidence to take power into their own hands, they will look for reformist solutions to their problems. However it does mean that internationally the social democratic parties have seriously declined as a force that can command the loyalty of working people and that a political space has opened up to their left.

Third world nationalism, the third tendency discussed in this book, is also still around and will remain so until imperialism is defeated. But it too has changed. Precisely because of the demise of Stalinism and the failure of Communism/State Capitalism as a model of economic development, third world nationalism today is far less likely to don Marxist clothes. Even Hugo Chavez of Venesuala, the current principal third worldist hero, speaks only of a “Bolivarian”, not a Marxist revolution.

Not surprisingly our rulers and their ideologists have greeted these developments triumphantly, claiming they represent the death of Socialism. In their euphoria and arrogance some of these bourgois ideologues anticipated a new world order free of serious conflict ot challenge. They seem to believe that every act of resistance in the world stemmed ultimately from Moscow and that without Moscow resistance would disappear. And, it has to be said, that some on the left, particularly those with faith or illusions in one or another varient of Stalinism, at least partially accepted these arguments and either changed sides or slumped into depression.

Clearly if this inperpretation has proved correct, the perspective of What is the Real Marxist Tradition? would now be irrlevant. But equally clearly, this interpretation has proved false. On the contrary the last decade has seen resistance spring up and grow on a truly worldwide basis, because, of course, resistance is not rooted in any ideology, “evil” or otherwise, “Communist” or “Islamic”, but stems from the real experience of exploitation, oppression and injustice.

The global situation today contrasts not only with the expectation of the Pentagon intellectuals but also with the conditions when What is the Real Marxist Tradition? first appeared. Broadly speaking the 1980s, the Regan-Thatcher years, were a period of defeat for the working class and isolation for revolutionary socialists in which the emphasis has to be put on the small scale defence and propagation of our ideas. The 1990s were years of partial recovery. But the new century has seen a widespread radicalisation and resurgence of resistance.

This resistance has taken many forms: The international anticapitalist movement with it’s great demonstrations and conferences – Seattle, Geonoa, Porto Allegre, Florence, Mumbai etc; the international antiwar movement, with it’s extraordinary global demonstration against the Iraq war on February 15th 2003; the French worker’s strikes of 1995 and the “No” vote to the European Union’s neo-liberal constitution in 2005; the mass struggles of the Latin American working class, peaking in near-revolutions in Argentina and Bolivia; the emergence of new electoral challenges to the left of social democracy in Europe (RESPECT in Britain, the Portugese Left Block, Die Wahl in Germany etc).

This wave of struggles has drawn a whole new generation into the movement and it is to be hopped that this book can play a small part in helping to attract the most serious among them to the authentic Marxism of working class and human liberation.

Two further points need to be made. The proponants of globalisation see it as an all-conquering force but, as Marx explained long ago, Capitalism creates it’s own gravedigger, and the latest phase of capitalist development is no exception. It has brought into being, on a hitherto unprecidented scale, a new international working class with immese potential power, concentrated above all in the great cities of what used to be called the third world: Sao Paulo, Cairo, Shanghai and, of course, Seoul.

Finally, the socialist transformation of society by the working class has never been so urgent. In the Communist Manifesto Marx wrote that the class struggle could result “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” For Marx this was a brilliant theoretical speculation; he could not then have forseen the concrete forms of this “common ruin”. The 20th century showed us one possible form, nuclear war; The 21st century shows us another in the shape of climate change and global warming. In 1983 this was a faint blip on the horizon. Today it is a pressing reality and it threatens humanity as a whole but especially the world’s poor with almost unimaginable catastrophe. The solutions to global warming are both known and practical – the replacement of fossil fuels with sources of renewable energy such as wind, solar and tidal power and the use of planned public transport to end dependancy on the private car – but the world’s rulers, it’s giant corporations and imperialist governments, driven by vested interest and the logic of capitalist competition, refuse to implement them. In this end I suspect that it will fall to the international working class on whom, as this book shows, Marx based his entire philosophy on politics to save humanity from disaster by taking power into it’s own hands. Our struggle is to make sure this happens in time.

This was written in July 2005 for the Koran translation of the long article "What is the Real Marxist Tradition".

Expression of an age

The US artist Jackson Pollock has long been controversial. John Molyneux explains why this is so in his review of a new exhibition of his work.

Every reader of Socialist Review with an interest in art should try and visit the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London (11 March to 6 June). Here is a unique chance to see the work of one of the century's most influential and controversial artists. Pollock, for reasons of scale, texture and colour, demands to be seen in the original and most of the time there are only one or two works on view in Britain. In this show there is work from throughout Pollock's career and about a dozen of the great drip paintings on which his reputation and notoriety primarily rest.

None of us judges or even 'sees' without preconceptions, and in the case of Pollock there are at least five 'interpretations' in sufficient circulation to condition our initial responses. The first and predominant interpretation seized on the drip and flick method of applying paint to suggest Pollock's work was just a random mess, an absurd tangle of lines and splodges. 'This is not art--it's a joke in bad taste', as a Reynolds News headline put it in 1959. Doubtless this is a view that still plays well in the columns of the Sun but it is comprehensively refuted by any serious scrutiny of the paintings. A few minutes spent looking in turn at Summertime, Lavender Mist and Blue Poles demonstrates that Pollock achieved strikingly different aesthetic effects in different works and that this was a highly controlled process.

The second, more favourable, interpretation was a kind of inversion of the first. It too focused on the drip method, which it called 'action painting', and celebrated as a wild romantic outpouring of self expression. In this view much was made of Pollock's birth in Cody, Wyoming, and he was depicted as a sort of all-American lonesome cowboy hero. The most sophisticated presentation of this line was by the critic Harold Rosenberg, who spoke of the transformation of painting into an existential drama in which 'what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event', and who wrote, 'The big moment came when it was decided to paint "just to paint". The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value--political, aesthetic, moral.'

The third account, associated with Clement Greenberg, who was the most influential art critic of the 1950s and 1960s, was in sharp opposition to the second. It proclaimed Abstract Expressionism and Pollock in particular as the epitome of aesthetic value. It supported Pollock's work on formalistic grounds as simply the best painting of its day and the culmination of an art tradition going back via Cubism and Cézanne to Monet, in which painting became ever 'purer' and more concentrated in what was 'essential' to it, the making of marks on a flat surface. It was this view which established Pollock's position in the modern art canon and became hegemonic in the art world until the late 1960s.

The 1960s radicalisation, however, gave rise to a fourth interpretation--a left critique--which located Pollock in his political context and attributed his success not to his formal merits but to his ideological usefulness to US imperialism. It was revealed that posthumous exhibitions of Pollock had been covertly sponsored by the CIA, and the argument was made that the US ruling class threw its weight behind this kind of art out of a nationalistic craving for an US avant garde to supplant Paris and a symbol of freedom to counterpose to Soviet insistence on Social Realism. Thus Pollock was promoted as, in the words of Eva Cockcroft, a 'weapon of the Cold War'.

Finally, there is a feminist revaluation of Pollock which looks askance at the machismo of the 'hero in the studio' and tends to see the whole drip and flick performance as the acting out of the phallocentric male fantasy on the symbolically supine canvas.

These political critiques were a salutary corrective to the romantic and nationalist myth making of the US bourgeoisie and the formalism of Greenberg that underwrote it. They disclosed the forces of ideology and material interest that lay behind the supposedly 'disinterested' judgements of the art world. That the Museum of Modern Art, the US's principal tastemaker in this area, was owned and controlled by the Rockefeller family, and that no Chinese wall separated their policy in art from their policy in Latin America and South East Asia, are facts to be reckoned with. Moreover they are precisely the kind of facts that the art establishment--the Tate as well as MOMA--is anxious to marginalise. In his lengthy presentation at the exhibition's press view, Jeremy Lewinson, the Tate's Director of Collections, made no mention of this left critique (though the feminist case was fully acknowledged), and in his book Interpreting Pollock it is dismissed in one line as some kind of paranoid conspiracy theory.

However, the limitation of this critique is that while it may help to explain Pollock's rapid rise to art superstardom, it tells us little of substance about the meaning and merit of his paintings. For if it is a fact that Pollock was used for Cold War purposes, it is no less a fact that he did not paint with that intention.

So what of the paintings themselves? This exhibition confirms that it is the drip paintings of 1947 to 1950 that are the real achievement. Some of the earlier works are surprisingly good, better than reproductions had led one to expect, especially in their colour. But The She-Wolf is the only really outstanding painting of this period, and in general the work does not get 'beyond' Picasso, with whose influence he was struggling.

The drip paintings are qualitatively different. This is where Pollock makes the breakthrough to a new way of painting and a distinct aesthetic vision. Even here there are failures, pictures like Galaxy and Reflection of the Big Dipper which don't work. But there are masterpieces like Full Fathom Five, Number 32, 1950 and Lavender Mist which are among the great paintings of the century. It is a criticism of this show that not enough of these great paintings (eg Autumn Rhythm) are on view compared with the show when it was in New York and relative to the lesser earlier work.

What makes these paintings 'great'? The major paintings possess two qualities which relate to both form and content. First, they create order out of chaos. Without obvious patterning they achieve a total symphonic composition and this speaks of the struggle against alienation, fragmentation and disintegration. Second these compositions 'signify' at many levels--they convey by suggestion a multiplicity of 'meanings', meanings that are social, historical and political in character.

Let us take Lavender Mist as an example. On first seeing a reproduction of this, my eight year old granddaughter said instantly, 'It's like EastEnders!' She is right. It is suggestive of an aerial photograph of a city, but it is a city that has somehow been blasted. Here we must remember that this painting was done from above. It is also suggestive of astronomical photographs of nebulae and galaxies (in Comet, Galaxy and other works this is explicit, and Pollock is known to have been an avid stargazer) while at the same time close up details of this and other paintings resemble microscopic photos of molecular structures.

Add to these visual associations that these works were painted in the aftermath of Hiroshima and at the onset of the Cold War, and note Pollock's own statement that 'modern art to me is nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age that we're living in ... the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.' Also recall again that this technique was to drip, flick and throw the paint onto the canvas from above. Put all this together and I think the connection between the work and the historical advent of the threat of nuclear annihilation is clear.

Of course the relation is not direct--neither Lavender Mist nor in fact any of Jackson's other works is a painting of a nuclear explosion, nor is it anti-war agitprop. Pollock was attempting to paint out of his subconscious, but there is surely reason to believe that the prospect of nuclear holocaust would have been on his mind at this time. Nor is this any more than a partial account of the factors at work--other associations are with the improvisation of bebop and free form jazz and with the young male rebels (Brando, Dean, Kerouac) of the time. Nevertheless, it is impossible to understand Pollock's art, without historically locating him in this way.

This raises the question as to how such art was readily appropriated by the US ruling class. Clearly there were elements in the work that lent themselves to this--the passionate individualism, the absence of overt politics--but there are elements in Blake's Jerusalem which allow that battle cry of freedom to be sung at the Last Night of the Proms. And we are forced to note how often it has been the fate of great radical art from Milton to Van Gogh to be taken up by our rulers. The solution is not to renounce the art but to expropriate our rulers.

This article was published in the April 1999 issue of Socialist Review.

Is there a Marxist aesthetic?

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.

The Emin Phenomenon or the Phenomenal Emin

Tracy Emin is a new phenomenon and consequently, like many new phenomena in the past, is met with widespread incomprehension, misunderstanding and vilification. When I read much of the press coverage she receives, including from some ‘respectable’ critics, I am reminded of the reaction, documented so tellingly by T.J.Clarke, to Manet’s Olympia when it first appeared in the Salon in 1865. Then the critics, faced with a painting that contested the prevailing conceptions of art, women, sex and class, were not even able to recognise or articulate the nature of the challenge offered, and therefore responded with misplaced sarcasm and invective. Something very similar occurs with Emin who as it happens – and I do not think this is coincidence –deals with just the same issues today. At the same time, there is very little serious or academic discussion of Emin’s work, Which is rather remarkable given the vast recent academic discourses on all things ‘artistic’ and ‘cultural’. This article is an attempt to redress the balance and to argue, on the basis of her work, that Emin is a serious and important artist.

First, however, I want to discuss the nature of Emin’s fame which is one of the things about her which is new. Tracy Emin is currently the most famous contemporary artist in Britain and a woman. I don’t think this has ever happened before. Obviously there have been famous women artists in the past – Barbara Hepworth, Frida Kahlo and so on – but they have not been the leading artists of the day. Hepworth was overshadowed by Moore and Bacon, Kahlo by Rivera, not to mention Picasso. Again this is not by chance. When the YBAs – Young British Artists – broke into the mainstream with the Sensations show in 1997, 18 out of the 42 artists exhibited were women – still a minority but a far larger minority than would have been the case in an impressionist, surrealist, abstract expressionist or pop art show, or any previous art movement that I can think of. Moreover, of that minority, not only Emin but also Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, Jenmy Saville, Fiona Rae, Gillian Wearing, and Sam Taylor-Wood have emerged as major figures in the art world. Clearly this reflects underlying changes in the social position of women. Equally clearly, however, there is an element of barely concealed misogynistic backlash in some of the responses to Emin.

Also new and different is the precise nature of Emin’s fame: she is a ‘celebrity’. In a sense many artists have been celebrities before – Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens and especially Picasso were all celebrities of a kind (far bigger celebrities than Emin) but in their case it meant being lionised, almost worshipped, in ‘cultural’ circles. Emin is a celebrity in today’s ‘celebrity culture’, which is a mass media popular culture; It means she appears on ‘Have I Got News For You?’,’ Desert Island Discs ‘and ‘Richard and Judy’. This is a world in which there is absolutely no guarantee of deference or even respect. On the contrary this kind of celebrity, although it pays very well, actually opens Emin up to exposure and derision. The contrast is well illustrated by an anecdote about Francis Bacon. After one of his rather hazardous sexual escapades in the sixties, Bacon found himself under arrest (this was before the legalisation of homosexuality). The consequence was not being plastered all over the tabloids but a phone call from Lord (Arnold) Goodman, No.10’s legal fixer, to the metropolitan police commissioner explaining that it would not be a good idea for ‘Britain’s greatest living painter’ to appear in humiliating circumstances at Bow Street Magistrates Court. He was swiftly released. Obviously Emin enjoys no such protection.

But why, out of all the young British artists available, has Emin in particular been selected by the media for celebrity status? One reason, of course, is that she is sexually candid and the media is obsessed with all things sexual. Another reason, however, is that the media has picked up the fact that with a layer of people Emin is genuinely popular i.e. she has a fan base, and therefore her presence on a quiz or chat show is likely to boost its audience.

The very use of the term ‘fan base’, while appropriate, immediately distinguishes Emin’s fame from the fame of Henry Moore or Jackson Pollock or even Damien Hirst, but it is not intended pejoratively. It indicates that Emin’s art has reached people not normally touched by ‘fine art’ and that they have responded intensely. Who are these people and what is the nature of their response? Evidence on this can only be anecdotal and impressionistic. My evidence, for what it’s worth, is based on observing the public at the 1999 Turner Prize Show at the Tate Britain and talking to people, mainly, but not only, students at the school of Art, Design and Media where I teach, quite extensively for the last five or so years. The Turner Prize Show was significant because there were four artists represented, but something like 70-80% of the public were concentrated in Emin’s space; many of them were young women, students on school or college trips, and they were pouring intently over Emin’s work, examining it avidly and in detail. It was quite different from the way either tourists or art aficionados relate to old masters in the National Gallery. In fact I don’t think I have seen any group of gallery visitors so engaged with works of art. Subsequent conversations have broadly confirmed this picture. Emin’s fans are predominantly, though certainly not exclusively, younger women,part of the recently found audience for contemporary art but not art world insiders, and they hold their position on the basis of Emin’s work, not because of media hype, which has largely been hostile.

There is nothing mysterious or accidental here. Such people relate to Emin because Emin’s work relates, like that of no other artist I can think of, to their experience.

As virtually every other commentator on Emin begins by observing, most of her work is autobiographical. Its main subject matter is her traumas and triumphs, sufferings and joys of growing up in Margate, maturing in London and elsewhere, and so becoming the person she is today. As a result, Emin’s work is often criticised for being ‘self-centered’, ‘narcissistic’. In my opinion this criticism completely misses the point, the point so eagerly seized on by her ‘fans’, namely that the experiences re-presented in Emin’s art are not just personal experiences, but are common to a wide layer of young women growing up in this time, in this society. Normally these experiences remain private, confided perhaps to ‘best friends’ but otherwise hidden from public view and therefore in a sense shameful. By making these experiences into art (which is different from just exposing or ‘confessing’ them ). Emin actually engages in a process of ‘democratic sharing’ with her audience. It is particularly democratic because the work is not didactic and does not preach. It does not seek to impose or determine a specific response. It simply says “This is what happened to me; this is how I felt about it.” And perhaps “This is how I dealt with it.” If it strikes a chord, as it evidently often does, then so be it.

Emin’s first work to make a public impact, her tent, or Everyone I Ever Slept With, 1963-95, shown in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1997, is a good example of this. The smallish tent sits on the gallery floor . On the inside Emin has sewn the names of her bedmates of the previous thirty years. To see or experience the work the viewer has to crawl into the tent. Thus Emin has created a ‘private’ space, a den with private information about her life which the public is invited to share. The fact, which she has made a point of calling attention to, that the names included not just lovers but also others she had shared “the intimacy of sleep” with (such as her twin brothers and aborted foetuses) is important. It does not negate the sexual interpretation of the title, which in our culture is the obvious first reading, but it modifies it, ensuring that the sexual is not separated from the emotional. What we are offered to share is not gossip or titillation but feelings, including painful feelings.

Emin’s most famous work, My Bed, is actually a complex piece which has appeared in different forms in different places, for example with and without a noose hanging over the bed, and which I cannot explore fully here, but essentially it works on the same principle. According to the sexist stereotype, women are the homemakers and responsible for clearing up. A messed up house shames a woman, makes her a ‘slut’, much more than it does a man. The bedroom and above all the bed itself represents a place of privacy, intimacy and sex, pain and illness. The stained sheets are a visible trace of all this and thus taboo. ‘You don’t wash your dirty linen in public.’ My Bed takes all this as its starting point and confronts it, knowing that for some of us all the time and many of us some of the time it is a lie. It is a spectacular coming out. And out there thousands, perhaps millions of people say, openly or privately, “Yes! I’ve been there, I know what that’s about!” That is the mechanism and that is why My Bed is one of those few works of contemporary art that captures people’s imagination and stays in the public memory.

In this context it is well worth dealing with the prevalent notion that Emin is lacking in technical artistic skills. For example much of the media coverage of My Bed seemed based on the assumption that she had simply transplanted her actual bed or bedroom into the Tate. This, as a moment’s thought would have made clear, was nonsense. My Bed, which had already appeared in Tokyo, was a consciously constructed work, as much a made work of art as Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom. In so far as it was a sufficiently convincing representation of a disordered bedroom to persuade journalists that it was the real thing this is testimony to Emin’s skill, and actually it was visually very powerful.

In fact Emin is a skilled practitioner in a range of media, but it is her drawing as manifested in her many monoprints that I particularly want to focus on. In my opinion Emin’s drawing is superb. This, of course, is a value judgement which is difficult to justify or even convey in words. I would make two points: first, that Emin is able, with great economy, to achieve very accurate and telling representations. Foe example, we know from a number of photographs what Emin’s legs look like; they have a peculiar athletic rangy quality. Her drawings capture this quality exactly. Compare the photograph I’ve Got It All with the monoprints I See It Thoe and Walking Drunk In High Shoes. Second, that her line combines strength and vulnerability, confidence and pain in exactly the right proportions for her subject matter, and matching visual form to intellectual/emotional content is precisely the key skill of the visual artist.

To bring out further the significance of Emin’s art I shall examine in turn three of its themes – class, sex and art – which are more or less omnipresent and which taken together make for its distinctiveness and power.

Perhaps the most immediately striking and unusual thing about both Emin’s persona and her work is the way in which she positions herself as a working class artist. The whole question of class and art is so highly charged that I must straight away take care to explain precisely what I mean, and I don’t mean, by this statement.

Clearly Emin is not currently working class in any shape or form. She is probably a millionaire, certainly rich, and she functions , as all successful visual artists do, as boss of her own small business. Nor am I referring to her class background which was complex. Up to thje age of seven her mother had a largeish hotel in Margate but then, when she broke up with Emin’s father, bankruptcy and poverty ensued and Emin’s youth, whether or not strictly proletarian, was plebeian. As we know this had a major influence on her art, but that is still not what I mean here. Nor is she an artist who sees or presents herself as associated with or representative of, the working class movement (like John Heartfield or Diego Rivera, to give classic examples). What she does do, however, is present herself as culturally working class. This is evident in the whole way in which she conducts herself: in her accent, of course, but more importantly in what she says and how she says it. She makes no attempt to engage in ‘intellectual art speak’ but sticks to unaffected everyday language. (Unlike, for example, Jake Chapman of the Chapman Brothers, who is highly accomplished at theoretical discourse.) This was an element of her drunken walk out from the Channel 4 art discussion programme with David Sylvester, Waldemar Januscek et al – “I’d rather be with my mum and my friends” – and plays a part in her willingness to participate in popular cultural shows. This is highly unusual in the art world, the ethos of which is very upper class. There has always, of course, been a smattering of working class artists rising through the art schools but normally they adopt the dominant cultural style.

The most obvious parallel to Emin in this is Damien Hirst, especially the young Hirst, but there is a difference: in Hirst the working class attitude does not carry over into the work itself, with Emin it does. The language used in her many appliquéd quilts/blankets, her films and her monoprint drawings is the language of the street, including the swear words, the grammatical errors and the misspellings. The question of the spelling mistakes is interesting here. Emin denies either that she has dyslexia or that they are deliberate; she insists that she simply makes mistakes but doesn’t care . But I am convinced that Emin is being a little disingenuous here. First, the spelling mistakes and letters wrong-way-round reference the work of Jean Michel Basquiat, originally a New York graffiti artist, and (as they do in Basquiat) carry connotations of writing on street and toilet walls. Secondly, they occur in the appliquéd (sewn) works where mistakes seem unlikely, especially in the blanket called Pysco Slut where ‘Pysco’ is much wittier and more to the point than ‘Psycho’. But, above all, the experiences her art deals with are, by and large, the experiences of working class girls.

This is the case with the short film Why I Never Became A Dancer, in my opinion one of her most important and powerful works. The film tells of Emin’s aspiration to be a dancer and her participation in a dance competition in Margate, the prize for which meant going to London. Just as she felt things are going well she finds herself surrounded by a circle of local lads (many of whom she has had sex with). At first she thinks they are clapping her, and then she realises that in fact they are chanting in unison ‘Slag, Slag, Slag’, and she runs from the ballroom in dismay. The film ends with her dancing, alone and just for herself, and saying to the camera, “Shane, Eddie, Tony, Doug, Richard…this one’s for you.” It also applies to her recent film Top Spot on teenage suicide, about which Amy Lane, in Socialist Review wrote “There is nothing contained in Top Spot that does not reflect the reality of Britain’s working class estates…[It] is a painfully accurate portrayal of modern adolescent experience. ”

Just as there is an element of misogyny in the media and critical hostility to Emin so also there is an element of class prejudice. In particular I think middle class critics often miss the point of her work because the kind of experiences she deals with are not their experiences and not part of the world they inhabit. The recognition factor which is key for Emin’s ‘fans’ and for what I have called the process of ‘democratic sharing’ is missing.

Emin’s consciousness of , and concern for, this relationship with her audience was evident in her fury at Top Spot being given only an 18-plus certificate by the censors, and her consequent withdrawal of the film that would thus be prevented from reaching the very people it was intended for.

The discussion of class obviously raises the question of Emin’s politics. It is often said of her that she is not political. If this were true I would not find it a problem for, as Leon Trotsky always insisted, art cannot simply be judged on its politics. As it happens it is not true. I have already noted that Emin does not see herself or function as an artistic representative of a working class political movement – given that her formative years were the eighties this is not surprising – but she does have a political consciousness and outlook, and this is clear from many of her public statements and appearances. Broadly speaking she is on the left. She did work for Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign. She is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-war. My colleague Milly Thompson, formerly of BANK, who knows the London art scene, says that in that world Emin is known as ‘a committed socialist’. Moreover some of her recent work from 2004, exhibited in New Zealand, does deal explicitly with questions of war and peace.

Of course against this can be set the fact that Emin has now made a lot of money, doubtless has a very comfortable lifestyle, wears Vivian Westwood clothes, mixes from time to time with various unsavoury rich bastards like Charles Saachi and is evidently very pleased with this state of affairs. All of which provides good grounds for complaint from young, angry, impoverished artists.

I set this down for the record, but I do not believe that either her leftish views or her affluent lifestyle constitute major grounds for the evaluation of her art.

That sex should be a major theme in Emin’s work is hardly surprising. Sex has been a central theme in European art from the Renaissance to Picasso and beyond (not to speak of Ancient Greece and Rome, Japan and so on). But it should be said at the outset, there is no element of eroticism or titillation here, unlike in Botticelli, Titian, Bronzino, Buncher, Ingres, Renoir, Rodin, Klimt etc etc. Nor is it sexual fantasy or dreams, as we might find in surrealism. Nor is it the sex of the brothel featured so heavily in late 19th and early 20th century French art. It is real, everyday sex – as experienced by her, of course, but also by millions of other people. This, in itself, is remarkable. It seems strange to say it but I do not think there is a precedent for it in the whole of European visual art .

The history of art develops dialectically with each new generation or movement or individual artist usually defining themselves in opposition to the immediately preceding dominant trend. Part of this process is the discovery of new material, both physically and in terms of subject matter, to make art out of material which was often previously thought of as ‘unartistic’ (or vulgar, prosaic, mundane, ugly etc). This is one of the reasons why new art so often meets with the reaction that it is ‘not art’. Thus, following the call of Baudelaire, mid 18th century French art painted ‘The heroism of modern life’ as opposed to the heroes of classical mythology; thus the Post-impressionists restored form where the Impressionists has neglected it, and the Futurists and Constructivists aestheticised the machine and technology previously anathema to classicists and romantics alike. Thus Pop Art turned to the imagery of mass popular culture dismissed as kitsch by Clement Greenberg and the Abstract Expressionists. Picasso spoke once of the difficulty of finding new subject matter and cited Van Gogh’s A Pair Of Boots as an outstanding example. But find a new subject is what Tracy Emin has done.

A key feature of Emin’s treatment of sex is her disclosure, in Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-95, Why I Never Became A Dancer and her written piece Masculinity , of an early teenage phase of promiscuity in Margate. In the voiceover on Dancer she describes it as follows:

And then there was sex. It was something you could just do, and it was for free. Sex was something simple. You could got to a pub, you’d walk home, have fish and chips, then sex…on a beach, down an alley, a green, a park, even a hotel. It didn’t matter that I was young, thirteen or fourteen. It didn’t matter that they were men…19, 20, 25, 26. It never crossed my mind to ask them what the attraction was. I knew…sex was what it was…by the time I was fifteen I had stopped shagging.

I suspect that even if it is not a majority experience, such a phase among working class girls is quite common, driven by a complex mixture of low self esteem, the search for love, affection, intimacy, pleasure, excitement, desire to grow up, ambivalent yearnings for a baby a so on. Usually the experience remains hidden; hidden at the time for obvious reasons, from parents, or school and the authorities – though shared perhaps with a best friend; hidden or at least not talked about later when adult respectability has been achieved. It therefore remains largely unrecorded and unrepresented. Films and novels have occasionally visited the territory, but not, until now, the elevateded world of fine art.

Emin’s treatment of this experience appears simple – a plain rendering of the facts – but it is in fact quite complex and nuanced. In Dancer she defends herself against the charge of being a ‘slag’ and records her conviction at the time that she was “better than all those boys.” But in Masculinity she writes that she “developed the ridiculous habit of sleeping with men much older than me.” In her interview with Melvyn Bragg for The South Bank Show,she says she must accept some responsibility because she “egged the men on, followed them, flirted” but also that in their twenties these men should have known better than to sleep with a 14 year old. However, in the same interview, she also claims for her promiscuous phase that it was very “educational”.

This ‘ambivalence’ towards her sexual experiences runs throughout her work.

Jennifer Doyle in her essay ‘The Effect of Intimacy’ calls this “Tracey Emin’s bad-sex aesthetics” I think this term is wrong. Emin records many bad sexual experiences in her art but she does not ‘aestheticize’ them. They are not presented as anything other than bad experiences with all their negative emotional effects. She deals with childhood abuse, humiliation, abandonment, rape, and abortion in the way these things actually happen to women (never as her own or other’s fantasy material) and with the severe emotional trauma and pain they caused. There is no romanticisation of abjection (though perhaps the appliquéd ‘Love Poem’ is a partial exception to this .)

However, this central theme is held in tension with two others. The first is that her experiences , though often bad, have not proved insuperable. Yes, they were deeply painful but they were not, including the rape, ‘unspeakable’ or the worst thing imaginable. She does not, I think, revel in her suffering, only in her ability to have overcome it. Why I Never Became A Dancer ends with a seagull soaring up and away from the shores of Margate. The second is the retention, despite the traumas of the past, of an open affirmative attitude to sex and sexuality i.e. to good sex

You don’t fuck me over
You gently lift me out of bed
Lay me on the floor
And make love to me

Holding each of these three elements, each of them a humane and progressive response, in tension with each other but without allowing any of them to be compromised, is a very considerable artistic and emotional achievement.

Emin does not present herself as a feminist artist and is not generally thought of as one. The previous generation of feminist artists and critics tended to view Emin and other so-called ‘bad girls’ with distain as frivolous betrayers of the feminist/art/theory cause. But, in fact, in dealing with sex Emin deals also with sexism. Why I Never Became A Dancer confronts the – very crude – sexism rampant among certain kinds of teenage boys and young men. My Bed challenges the sexist attitude that makes a disordered bedroom much more shameful for a woman than a man. Indeed there is a sense in which the totality of her art practice and persona challenge the double standards about sex. The question of class interacts with the question of sexism here. Emin is not seen as a ‘feminist’ artist because feminism and, especially, feminism in the art world has been a largely middle class phenomenon, focusing mainly on the issues that concern middle class and professional women; how women are represented in the media, how gender affects promotion chances etc. The issues Emin deals with – how teenage girls get ‘slagged off’ and ‘broken into’ – are not recognised as feminist because they come from a different world. But the fact is that Emin tackles feminism at the sharp end. Although, as we shall see, she has also produced work about sexism in the art world.)

“I need art like I need God”, is the title and content of one of Emin’s pieces in neon lighting, and ‘art’, in particular Emin’s relationship to art,is a central theme in her work. In interviews she strongly defends her own artistic integrity and the general integrity of contemporary art and consistently proclaims her faith in ‘art’. When some of her work, along with much other contemporary art, was destroyed in a warehouse fire her first public response was measured, putting the event in perspective of the real disasters that occur in the world, but she was hurt and angered by the mockery of sections of the press and public. This should not be surprising for it is through art that Emin dealt with many of her personal problems and completely transformed her life. She celebrates this - she thought of calling her last solo show at White Cube ‘Upgrade’.

One of the ways ‘art’ features in Emin’s work is through her references to other artists. Of course many artists do this – Picasso reworks themes from Velasquez and Delacroiz, Manet’s Olympia echoes the pose of Titian’s Venus D’Urbino, Warhol takes his image of Christ from Da Vinci’s Last Supper and so on – but Emin’s range of reference is broad and impressive (which gives the lie to another of the myths and misconceptions about her, prevalent in the media, that she is some kind of ‘primitive’ or ‘naif’). Most obviously she is indebted to her hero Edvard Munch, and to Egon Schiele; the use of language in both the monoprints and the blankets nods to Basquiat; the neon lighting pieces are influenced by Don Flavin and Bruce Naumann; My Bed recalls Rauschenberg’s Bed and, more subtly, the bed of Manet’s Olympia; The Helter Skelter construction references the Tatlin tower; the blanketr work in general builds on the use of sewing and textiles by feminist artists of the 70s and 80s.

Of course if quoting other artists was the main point of these works it would make them banal, but with Emin’s pieces this is not the case. Her principal tribute to Munch is Homage to Edvard Munch and All my Dead Children and is accompanied by her verbal scream (for her aborted children) which is truly disturbing and terrible. Her drawings may owe something to Schiele but are in no way imitations or similar in content. In the case of the blanket work Emin has transformed the genre, freeing it of its craft and genteel associations, and making it into vibrant dramatic new form in its own right.

One of Emin’s most important works, while remaining partly autobiographical , is also a powerful comment on the role own women in art. This was a performance piece originally entitled Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, enacted in the Gallery Andreas Brändström in Stockholm in 1996. Emin spent three weeks living naked in an enclosed studio space, visible to the public during gallery opening hours, through fish-eye lenses in the walls. At first she is just there being observed, then gradually she starts to paint. The performance was recorded, and we can see it in a photo series called The Life Model Goes Mad.

The piece has many meanings but among them is the fact that traditionally, say one hundred years ago at the birth of modernism with Picasso and Matisse in Paris, or even fifty or thirty years ago, the principle role of women in art was as models (and the line between model, lover, and prostitute was often blurred). As the Guerilla Girls put it in their famous poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met Museum?, ‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are female, but 88% of the nudes are female.’ If Emin had been around in 1900 or 1950 the combination of her class and gender would almost certainly have made her a model and not an artist. Indeed Emin actually was a life model for a while at the start of her career. Recently things have begun to change and Emin is part of that change. The Life Model Goes Mad (the ‘goes mad’ is a reference to her earlier blanket piece – and self adopted slogan – Mad Tracey From Margate) enacts the process; the object becomes subject, the passive becomes active, the life model turns into an artist. As usual in Emin the piece is both autobiographical and socially representative at the same time.

“Remember the golden rule…Those who have the gold make the rules.”

As we know from Marx, in class divided societies the ruling class invariably dominates the culture (though seldom completely). However the domination in the field of visual art, especially painting and sculpture has been more complete, more extreme that in other art forms. This is because whereas the poet or novelist needs only pen and paper, the visual art must be embodied in materials (which are very expensive), stored, and exhibited, either in museums and galleries or in public places (which of course are never controlled by the public). And because in the capitalist epoch the art market has focused on the buying and selling of ‘unique’ and ‘original’ works, in contrast to music and literature which centre on either the large scale selling of mechanical reproductions – books, records, CDs etc – or live performances to collective audiences. As a result, from Tutankhamun to Lorenzo de Medici and Henry VIII to Rockefeller and Saatchi, visual art has been dominated by the very rich and very powerful. This in turn has meant that the exclusion and marginalisation of working class people, women and black people has been even more marked in visual art than in other art forms. There is no female painter whose standing in the canon compares with Jane Austin or George Elliot. There is, to my knowledge, not a single painting by a black artist in the National Gallery, and until very recently, there were none in the Tate either. In this context the existence and work of Tracey Emin is both an example of limited change that has occurred and a challenge to the present and the future .

Marx also tells us that art, like religion, philosophy and politics, is part of the superstructure of society which arises from and is conditioned by the economic base. I would add that the economic base i.e the forces and relations of productions give rise to and shape a developing ensemble of social relations which range from how people dress with all its connotations, to family and sexual relations, to how people look at a king or a beggar and how a king or a beggar looks at the people, to how we experience the sea, the countryside and the city. What major art does is express and comment upon these changing social relations in a visually powerful way. Giotto and Michelangelo, Holbein and Breughal, Hals and Rembrandt, Hogarth, Constable and Joseph Wright of Derby, David and Goya, Courbet and Manet, Picasso, Leger, Malevich, Rodchenko, Ernst, Bacon, and Warhol all do this in their different ways. And so does Emin.

The changing social relations that Emin addresses are those shaping the relative positions in society of women and men, especially young working class women and men. The changes in this sphere in the course of my lifetime i.e the last half century or so, have been spectacular: the huge rise in the number of women (especially married women) in paid labour; the Equal Pay Act; the Sex Discrimination Act; the pill; legalised abortion, freer divorce and lip service to equality all over the place. In other ways they remain strictly limited: no fundamental change in the division of labour in the home, no equal pay in reality, women still hugely underrepresented in top jobs, sexist images all over the media. Of course the change is not evenly spread across society. In my judgement the least has been at the very top amongst those who own the wealth, run industry and finance, and control the state. There bourgeois male power remains firmly entrenched. The biggest change has been among the professional middle classes – academics, intellectuals, media people etc. where the success of girls in education and higher education has had it’s effect and equal opportunities policies abound. Many working class women have also benefited from the changes, from the shift in general attitudes and the increased educational and job opportunities. But for the majority, especially in the manual as opposed to white collar working class, where money for child care is scarce or non-existent, and the struggle for survival dominates, the change has been minimal. Some working class men, in the main the politically more progressive, have changed their attitudes, but many have not and the old sexism remains rampant. The problems are particularly acute among teenagers and young men anxious to establish their virility, and this is what working class girls and young women have to cope with.

These are the contradictions which Emin has lived and which her art expresses and responds to with clarity and passion. Politically there is an obvious problem in that while Emin’s work, for all its dealing with trauma, ultimately carries a message of hope, it is hope for an individual not a collective or social solution, and this can only be possible for a small minority. Unfortunately we don’t get our art to political order and given the historical period of Emin’s artistic formation, the eighties and early nineties, it is hardly surprising that collective working class emancipation through political action was not high on her agenda. What matters more than the correct politics is whether the problems addressed are real, whether the art has integrity and whether it is visually imaginative and powerful. Emin’s work succeeds on all the counts with the extra factor that it really speaks to people, and people beyond the normal range of ‘art lovers’, in a way that is achieved by no other contemporary artist.

A cut version of this article appeared in the Journal of International Socialism