Wednesday, February 03, 2021

'The Dialectics of Art' -In Response to Ian Birchall

RS 21 published a review of my book, The Dialectics of Art, by Ian Birchall, Here is my response ( which rs21 declined to publish – a legacy of their split with the SWP in 2013). I would like to start by thanking Ian Birchall for his very fair, indeed generous, review of my book on art . I was particularly pleased that he appreciated the various studies of particular artists and their work which form the central section of the book but which are often neglected in favour of focusing on the more controversial theoretical arguments in the first two chapters. And it is nice that he thinks ‘The strength of John’s work is precisely that he brings to it ideas and experiences from outside the world of art’, though I do lack the expertise of the specialist scholar. However I would also like to respond to Ian’s disagreements, especially with a view to clarifying, for the purpose of further discussion, what exactly I am arguing. On the thorny issue of ‘what is art?’ Ian says he is ‘very dubious as to how important the question is’. But in addition to the problem of people rejecting Pollock, Hirst and so on as ‘not art’ there is also a significant historical issue involved. The concept of art as a distinct area of creative human activity has not always existed. It arose first in the Renaissance and was consolidated in the 18th century. Why? My argument is that ‘art’ in this sense developed in parallel with but also in tension with the spread of wage labour and capitalism. As human labour, the means by which the human race created itself, became more and more alienated and commodified, so art emerged as a distinct and separate sphere in which the producer/artist controlled the process of production even if they had to sell their products. This point, which I support with a good deal of argument and quotations from Marx and Morris etc, seems to have been missed by Ian. It also has substantial political implications. Also there is a misunderstanding I’d like to clear up. Ian writes, after giving some examples, that ‘resistance to alienation exists everywhere – there is nothing unique about art.’ This is true but actually it is an important part of my argument and in the book I give a number of examples of unalienated (producer controlled) labour. Art, I say, is only one form of this and that is why I propose a second element in my definition of art, namely that it involves a striving to unite form and content. Again Ian seems not to have taken this into account. On the question of making comparative aesthetic judgments I am aware that this is a contentious and sensitive issue – people often feel they are being told what they should and shouldn’t like. Nevertheless as I argue in the book I think that, at a social level, judgment, if not ranking in some strict order of merit, is inescapable. I also think most individuals make such judgments even if not in systematic or thought out way. Indeed it seems to me that Ian makes such judgments in passing, without noticing it, even in this review. Thus he writes ‘There are poems, paintings, songs etc., which may vary in quality [my emphasis – JM]’. Exactly. Also, ‘We can all learn greatly from the work of art critics who point to the strengths – and the weaknesses – of a work’. Well if I point out that work A has many strengths and only a few weaknesses but work B has grievous weaknesses but few strengths, I am actually making a comparative judgment. Indeed in one sentence on Rubens and Hockney - ‘The Rubens merely reproduces – with great skill – a scene that can be observed in ‘real life’, whereas Hockney offers an inventive and imaginative use of colour’ makes three evaluative aesthetic judgments, none of which I happen to agree with, as a basis for a comparative assessment. It also seems to me an inescapable fact that in virtually all spheres of human endeavour people differ in their levels of achievement . This is true of mathematics, science (not everyone is Newton or Einstein , running, chess, mountain climbing (some people can scale Everest, Ian and I couldn’t manage Ben Nevis), singing (we don’t all have voices to match Paul Robeson, Aretha Franklyn and Maria Callas) and revolutionary politics – I assume Ian and I agree that Lenin was a greater revolutionary Marxist than Zinoviev and that Tony Cliff (‘the most remarkable person I ever met’ – Ian Birchall) stood somewhat above some of his erstwhile comrades. So why would it not also apply to art? Indeed it is manifestly the case that Michelangelo was an above average carver of stone and that Titian was more skilled in the handling of paint than Jack Vettriano. Of course making judgments between Michelangelo and Verrocchio, Rembrandt and Hals, or Picasso and Dali is more nuanced than this but that is why I discuss, extensively, the criteria on which such judgments have been made in the past and what Marxism might add to these. Overall it seems to me if we can’t distinguish art from non-art and we can’t make judgments of quality, which are inherently comparative, we are in a very weak position to make an critical analysis of it at all. But there is one last point on which I want to insist most strongly. Ian writes: “I once read a novel by a French Stalinist in which the author gives a brief vision of a communist future. At a railway depot, when the working day ends, all the workers are loaded into coaches and taken to the opera. No alternative for those who might have preferred New Orleans Jazz or death metal. Everyone will appreciate the same universally recognised ‘great art’. I don’t think John quite believes this, but some of his arguments point dangerously in that direction.” The last sentence here is seriously misleading and unwarranted. As Ian should know, I have always stood completely against any idea of state (or party) imposition in the sphere of art and I repeat this in the book, frequently citing approvingly Trotsky defence of artistic freedom against Stalinist dictation and conformity. As far as I’m concerned Ian should be able to listen to The Monkees and gaze at David Hockney to his heart’s content, before or after the revolution.

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