Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review of 'Marxism and the History of Art'


Andrew Hemingway (ed), Marxism and the History of Art, Pluto Press, London 2006.

As a discipline art history has long been characterized by snobbery and elitism. For the ruling class it has been seen as a soft (harmless?) option for its less able sons and daughters. In this it has mirrored the elitism of the art world generally, which an ‘anti- philistine’ section of the bourgeoisie has made it its business to hegemonise, partly through big money (Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Saatchi etc) and partly through a small detachment of genuine ‘experts’ or ‘ connoisseurs’ ( Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Brian Sewell, even Anthony Blunt in his way).

Despite this the twentieth century saw a number of highly sophisticated Marxist scholars make a major contribution to the development of the subject. Inevitably they tended to be marginalized and neglected, frequently having to work in very difficult circumstances , both East and West. The radicalization of academia in the sixties and seventies brought the emergence and reemergence of some of them to a temporary prominence, but the swing to the right in the eighties and after, with the collapse of communism and the turn to postmodernism , has sidelined them once again.

With this book, and a series of other initiatives, Andrew Hemingway ( working in concert with other contemporary Marxist art historians) is seeking to ensure that this rich legacy is not thrown on the scrap heap but survives to contribute to the debates of today an tomorrow.

The book is a collection of essays, all written by people at least very sympathetic to Marxism, on such figures as Lifshits, Antal, Klingender, Raphael, Lukacs, Hauser, Schapiro, Lefebvre, Benjamin, Adorno and others. Most of the essays present their subject by means of a combination of biographical material with an overview of their main ideas. Some, such as John Roberts’ discussion of ‘the ideal spectator’ and Hemingway’s account of ‘New Left Art History’ are more thematic in approach.

The central issue covered, from a variety of angles, is the debate, which ran through Marxist art history as through the wider society, over modernism – modernism versus classicism, versus bourgeois or social realism, and versus socialist realism. On balance the book comes down – just about, I think – on the side of modernism. Particularly interesting in this context are Stanley Mitchell’s contributions on the ‘Marxist conservative’ Mikhail Lifshits and the humanist, somewhat mystical, Max Raphael.

Slightly out of kilter with the rest of the collection, but very welcome (to me), is Caroline Arscott’s chapter on William Morris which discusses his engagement with so-called ‘primitive’ art. Morris is not usually considered in such company, but I consider that his ideas on art, especially his notion of ‘pleasure in labour’ as the fount of art, are one of the most valuable elements in his multi-faceted work and deserve more attention.

One of the stated aims of this book is to ‘plug a gap’ by providing, in a single volume, an overview of the Marxist art history tradition for students who wish to study it and lecturers who wish to teach it. Overall it succeeds in its aim and will undoubtedly prove useful to its intended readers. Nevertheless I have some reservations.

First, the general reader should be warned that the focus is heavily methodological ( though the language is not too obscure) and one learns relatively little about art as such. Second , there are some surprising omissions – for example, no account of John Berger, and T.J. Clark discussed only in passing – perhaps the result of the exaggerated academic prestige in some quarters of the continental Europeans. Third, there is a tendency to an attitude of ‘beleaguered pessimism’ which is reflective of the milieu of the contributors more than the state of the movement and resistance in the wider world.

Finally I was left with the conclusion that artists influenced by Marxism and socialism – there have been many – have generally been considerably ahead of the Marxist art historians. But perhaps that is as it should be.

John Molyneux
September 2006

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