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Marxism, art and utopia: Critical theory and political aesthetics

 

 

By Cat Moir

 

“After one has enjoyed the first taste of Marxist criticism, one will never again be able to stand ideological hogwash.” – Ernst Bloch, Spirit of Utopia, 1918

 

January 30, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Red Wedge with the author's permission — The relationship between art and society has always been a central question for artists, thinkers and activists on the Left. In the twentieth century, it was commonplace to believe that art has the power to change the world. It was this conviction that motivated Georg Lukács to defend the literary realism of writers like Thomas Mann over the stylistic innovations of a James Joyce. For Lukács (1977: 33), literature was “a particular form by means of which objective reality is reflected,” and as such it was “of crucial importance for it to grasp that reality as it truly is.” By displaying social reality in all its contradictory complexity, Lukács believed, art could serve the interests of class struggle and social emancipation.

 

With the hindsight of history, Lukács’ comments seem rather naïve. In the Soviet Union, realism functioned not to highlight oppression and injustice, but to enforce it. Only “socialist realist” works had the censors’ seal of approval; stylistic experimentation was perceived as a direct challenge to ideological orthodoxy. If art today often escapes that kind of direct political control, it is nonetheless subject to the ruthless censorship of the market. Does not mass culture serve only to inculcate the values required to reproduce capital? Are not museums little more than theme parks celebrating the history of colonial violence? Is so-called “high art” anything other than an elitist pursuit for the wealthy and well educated? In short, given capital’s near-total colonization of the lifeworld, one might well ask what space and power for critique art really has today.

 

When considering the critical potential of art today, one can do worse than to revisit the theories of the Institute for Social Research (a.k.a. the Frankfurt School) and related figures. Writing in a twentieth century in which art became a major political battleground, their ideas still offer enormous resources for Marxist approaches to culture. While thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer emphasized the corruption of culture under conditions of technologized capitalism, others like Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin were more hopeful about the utopian potential of art in the age of its “technological reproducibility” (cf. Benjamin, 2008). What was ultimately at stake for all these thinkers was the question of culture’s ambivalent relationship to social freedom, which is why engaging with their ideas remains essential for anyone interested in the cultural contradictions of capital today. This article offers an historical introduction to the ideas of Bloch, Adorno and Horkheimer, Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer concerning the relationship between culture, technology, and politics.

 

Irreconcilable political and theoretical differences with leading members of the Frankfurt School like Horkheimer and Adorno meant that Bloch was never officially involved with the Frankfurt School. Yet he nevertheless made a bold and original contribution to critical theories of culture in the twentieth century. No other thinker went so far in insisting on the ability of art and literature to reveal the utopian potentials inherent in society, even as it simultaneously expresses oppressive ideologies.

 

Written in the aftermath of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia (2000 [1918]) developed a theory of culture as the concretization of desires that exist within the material world itself – at least insofar as they exist within us as material beings. Like Freud, Bloch believed that human culture is the result of a process through which our unconscious desires are diverted and captured (cf. Freud, 1961 [1930]). However, Bloch resisted the privileged place memory and repression enjoy in Freudian theory. He argued that another “edge” of our unconscious becomes visible in art, which he called the not-yet-conscious in opposition to the “no-longer-conscious” of psychoanalysis.

 

The not-yet-conscious is “the hope that lives in us as the ‘quietest’, ‘deepest’ longing, that accompanies us as the ‘waking dream’ of some uniquely right fulfilment” (2000: 191). Since human consciousness and its products are part of the material world, Bloch claimed that the not-yet-conscious desires of human beings correspond to not-yet-realised utopian contents of the world process itself.

 

The “Not-Yet-Conscious in man,” as Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope (1986 [1954]: 13) “belongs completely to the Not-Yet-Become, Not-Yet-Brought-Out, Manifested-Out in the world. Not-Yet-Conscious interacts and reciprocates with Not-Yet-Become, more specifically with what is approaching in history and in the world.” As such it is primarily through the creation and interpretation of art and culture that, according to Bloch, human beings can become conscious of that which Marx once said the world has long dreamed of possessing, even if something more than art is needed to realize that dream.

 

Spirit of Utopia was heavily influenced by the aesthetics of German Expressionism, which valorized craft and ornament over minimalism and mass production. In the first part of the book, Bloch reflects at length on an “old pitcher” (2000: 7), a handmade drinking vessel with a human face, in which art’s capacity to stage the human “self-encounter” becomes supremely visible. Grasping the pitcher as the product of a single individual’s unalienated labor, Bloch lamented the mass manufacture of fancy imitations. He preferred the “clumsy, brown implement” to the “deliberately sculpted and elaborately fluted” imitations, for the former “preserve the old things,” telling a story of Germanic peasant heritage (7-8). They speak, according to Bloch, “from a time when they say the long-eared hare could still be seen dancing with the fiery man on the Hessian fields before nightfall” (8). Thus although Bloch was politically opposed to the conservative nationalism of the völkisch movement that flourished in early twentieth-century Germany, he nevertheless believed in the emancipatory power of folk culture and handicraft to confront us with our innermost dreams and desires.

 

Bloch wrote Spirit of Utopia on the cusp of the Weimar era in Germany, in which the explosion of technologized culture went hand in hand with the continued and increasingly politically problematic valorization of völkisch traditions and images. Siegfried Kracauer, another figure on the margins of the Frankfurt School, was among the first to identify the ambivalence of technologized culture in the form of what he called the “mass ornament” (1995 [1927]). Anticipating the later critique of Adorno and Horkheimer, Kracauer argued that the proliferation of modern technology did not necessarily favour the advance of reason, but was also implicated in producing and reproducing the kinds of mythologies commonly associated with pre-industrial societies. Kracauer saw the homogenized dance moves of the Tiller Girls as a reflection of the automation of production processes, and claimed that modern culture provided an abstract template through which any and all forms of ideology could be projected, including dangerous nationalisms.

 

The political manipulation of the image in National Socialist propaganda would prove Kracauer right. Both Bloch and Walter Benjamin were among the contemporaries who identified the Nazis’ uncanny ability to fuse the values and symbols of a traditional, pre-capitalist way of life with those of a modern, technologized industrial society as a defining factor in their appeal. In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin developed the idea of the “aestheticization of politics” to describe how the fascists rejected argument and persuasion as political tools, and instead used art to exploit the irrational forces of hate, suspicion and jealousy within society.

 

He argued that critical artists and thinkers should counter this tendency with the “politicization of aesthetics”; in other words, by making art that seeks to expose and oppose reactionary tendencies. By way of example, one might think of how, after 1945, the Italian spatialist painter Lucio Fontana began stabbing and slashing canvases in order to comment on the erasure of the boundary between physical and virtual space in the age of art’s technological reproducibility. Fontana’s monochrome canvasses, neatly gashed or hacked at with blunt instruments, scream at the viewer: “this is not real, it’s only a canvas, look, there’s a wall behind it, don’t be tricked, beware the image!”

 

Although Benjamin believed in art as a vehicle for an emancipatory politics, he nevertheless recognized the dark side of “cultural heritage.” As the battle over the British Museum’s Indigenous Australian art show in 2015 made clear once again, what is often displayed in museums and galleries as the cultural heritage of global society is in fact what Benjamin in “On the Concept of History” (2006 [1940]: 406) called the “spoils” of a triumphal procession in which the “victors” of history “tread over those who are sprawled underfoot.” Benjamin’s (392) insight that “There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” was most brutally and starkly demonstrated in the Nazi death camps, where officers played, or ordered prisoners to play, Beethoven and Wagner for their own edification while human beings were being gassed and burned on an industrial scale.

 

It was the Nazis’ instrumentalization of the technologies of mass production in the service of the most aberrant politics that prompted Horkheimer to claim in the 1930s that whoever doesn’t want to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. In the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” published in 1944 in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno argued that popular culture in modern capitalist societies could no longer be a force for good. The interests at stake in the mode of mass production were so overwhelming, they argued, that the popular culture churned out by large concerns in Hollywood and elsewhere could not but be saturated with the ideology of big money. Contemporary mass culture, they argued, “is infecting everything with sameness” (94). Recalling Kracauer’s analysis of the abstract homogenization of aesthetics in The Mass Ornament, Horkheimer and Adorno argued that films, radio and magazines today “form a system” which is “unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together. Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites,” they argued, “proclaim the same inflexible rhythm.”

 

Yet if in 1927 Kracauer was still able to celebrate the tastes and amusements of the masses, Adorno and Horkheimer saw little to no revolutionary potential in contemporary popular culture. The fact that their concept of the culture industry continues to prove useful today ironically goes some way towards undermining their pessimistic perspective. By helping to unmask the ideological forces at work in everything from Disney films to hip-hop, the concept of the culture industry proves if nothing else that popular culture is both the expression of oppressive social relations and the means by which those relations can be exposed and countered (cf. Zipes, 1997; Cashmore, 1997).

 

Bloch was more optimistic than Adorno and Horkheimer about the utopian potential in everyday culture. When it came to the relation between art and society, he broadly agreed with Marx’s basic insight in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, that it is “not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx, 2010: 263).

 

Thus insofar as art is a product of social labour, which has always been divided according to interests, Bloch saw in it, too, the manifestation of ideology. Yet he resisted the reductionist reading of culture, prevalent among Soviet Marxists, according to which art and other “superstructural” elements simply reflect a specific form of social relations or mode of production. Instead, Bloch understood the “being that conditions consciousness, and the consciousness that processes being […] ultimately only out of that and in that from which and towards which it tends” (Bloch, 1986: 18). In other words, both social reality itself and the cultural products of that reality always contain more than simply oppression, violence, exploitation and their expression. The “blossoms of art, science, philosophy,” Bloch writes in The Principle of Hope “always denote something more than the false consciousness which each society, bound to its own position, had of itself and used for its own embellishment” (155). Bloch called this “more” culture’s “utopian surplus,” and he saw it as at bottom always the same: an expression of the still unfulfilled desire for utopia, and the anticipatory consciousness of its possibility.

 

Bloch was far from seeing “high art” as the exclusive province of the utopian trace. Anticipating the work of thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre (1991), he also took everyday life seriously as a space worthy of consideration and critique, though unlike Lefebvre, Bloch resisted the idea that the everyday has been entirely colonized by capitalism. Instead, by analysing everyday practices and objects, he sought to decode the utopian desire that can still be seen to reside there despite the dynamics of commodification.

 

The daydream was Bloch’s point of departure for his analysis of the utopian everyday (Bloch, 1986, 77-113). Here again, he conceives of his insight into the character of the daydream as a complement to Freud’s theory of the night dream. Whereas Freud focused on the libido as the primary drive behind the nocturnal dream, Bloch saw the daydream as driven by hunger and the arising expectant emotions, including hope. Contrary to Freud, for whom the “night-dream is basically nothing other than a daydream which has become serviceable through the nocturnal freedom of the impulses, and distorted by the form of mental activity,” according to Bloch, daydreams “always come from a feeling of something lacking and they want to stop it, they are all dreams of a better life” (87). To be sure, Bloch’s distinction between day and night dreams was heuristic rather than scientific: he sought to highlight the aspects of the unconscious overlooked in Freud’s theory of dreams as expressing repressed, mostly taboo, desires.

 

In The Principle of Hope, Bloch finds the daydream assume “symbolic form” in everything from fashion to fairy tales (333). If for Marx human beings “begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence,” so Bloch continually emphasised the significance of the creative dimension of human labor (Marx, 2010a: 31). “Clothes which can be chosen distinguish men from animals,” he writes, and jewellery is even older than these clothes, it sets them off even today by standing out” (341). Even the fetishized commodity was not without its utopian promise for Bloch, for it “always still needs a label which praises it,” and advertising not only makes products “shine in the shop window” (343), it also “transforms man into the most sacred thing next to private property, into the consumer” (344).

 

Despite his irony, Bloch’s insight reminds that even commercial products can hold out, and occasionally partly keep, a utopian promise. One might think of the way in which the mass availability of household appliances in 1950s America did in fact contribute to emancipating women from the domestic sphere, even if the tropes used to market them now appear hopelessly retrograde.

 

Meanwhile, Adorno’s critique of mass culture did not extend to the whole aesthetic realm. In his late work Aesthetic Theory (2013 [1970]), he argued that the truth content of an artwork resides in the extent to which it lays bare the unredeemed, antagonistic, damaged character of social reality. As such, Adorno claimed that art’s critical potential is greatest in works that are not explicitly political. However, it is not always clear that these dynamics must be mutually exclusive.

 

Art can hardly be more explicitly political than in the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk band jailed for their lyrics criticizing the repressive government of Vladimir Putin. Yet as the prison letters of band member Nadya Tolokonnikova reveal, Pussy Riot’s explicit politics does not mean that their aesthetic is naïve or simplistic. “There are architects of Apollonian equilibrium in this world,” writes Tolokonnikova (2014), “and there are (punk) singers of flux and transformation. One is not better than the other… We count ourselves among those rebels who court storms, who hold that the only truth lies in perpetual seeking.”

 

For Bloch (1998: 110) too, the political value of art lay in this perpetual seeking. Like Adorno, he believed that the “great cultural works of today display the collapse of structure, the inability to achieve closure and finality.” Contrary to Adorno, though, Bloch maintained that such greatness could be found also in more popular works, particularly in those that exploit the unfulfilled utopian promises contained in cultural history. Anticipating the sensibility of postmodern art, in a 1974 essay “The Art of Speaking Schiller,” Bloch claimed that a “decisively dialectical avant-garde” must rediscover “[o]bjects that were formerly poeticized through ideology,” and give them “a fresh significance, through montage” (ibid.). In this way, Bloch argued, the utopian content of “decaying older works” can become visible “not within the domicile of the dominant ideology’s canonical works, but through the windows of such works, constituting, as it were, the surplus value of the false consciousness that such works represent” (ibid.).

 

With Fredric Jameson’s critique of postmodern pastiche in mind, one might argue that Bloch overestimated the critical potential of techniques such as montage. Rather than reactivating the radical emancipatory spirit of modernist aesthetics, as Bloch might have predicted, Jameson argues that postmodern works merely integrate superficial stylistic references to modernism and other movements into a critically ineffectual “simulacrum,” which amounts to nothing more than the “cannabilization of all styles of the past, the random stylistic play of allusion” (Jameson, 1991: 17).

 

No matter how optimistic or otherwise one is today about the radical potential of art, what we can learn from the sensitivity of critical theorists to the political dimensions of culture is the importance of what the poet Friedrich Schiller once called the “aesthetic education” of humankind [1967 [1975]). To be sure, Schiller’s concept was one that celebrated bourgeois culture even as its author aspired to develop the critical faculties of all human beings. But its spirit is nevertheless inheritable by a Marxist tradition that views cultural analysis as a valuable method of political critique.

 

In this spirit, Ernst Bloch’s assessment of Schiller’s project can be seen simultaneously as a statement of his own political aesthetics. “Doubtless it is utopian to wish to overcome humanity’s social fragmentation, and to restore its wholeness, by no other means than aesthetic consciousness,” he claims. “Yet, nevertheless there is utopia, even if it is somewhat high-flown, in this idealism, and not just resignation, not just ethereal unworldliness” (Bloch, 1998: 89).

 

Cat Moir is an academic and writer living in Sydney, Australia. In life as in work she is committed to socialism, feminism, and the pursuit of utopia.

 

References

 

Adorno, Theodor (2013 [1970]) Aesthetic Theory. London/New Delhi/NewYork/Sydney: Bloomsbury.

 

Benjamin, Walter (2008 [1936]) “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” in Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard UP.

 

– (2006 [1940])“On the Concept of History” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard UP. 389-400.

 

Bloch, Ernst (1986 [1954, 1955, 1959]) The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

– (1998) Literary Essays. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

 

– (2000 [1918]) Spirit of Utopia. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

 

Cashmore, Ellis (1997) The Black Culture Industry. London/New York: Routledge.

 

Freud, Sigmund (1961 [1930]) “Civilisation and its Discontents” in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud – The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works, Vol. XXI. London: Hogarth Press. 79–80.

 

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno (2002 [1944]) “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP. 94-136.

 

Jameson, Fredric (1991) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

 

Kracauer, Siegfried (1995 [1927]) “The Mass Ornament” in Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard UP.

 

Lefebvre, Henri (1991) The Social Production of Space. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

 

Lukács, Georg (1977 [1938]) “Realism in the Balance,” in Frederic Jameson (ed.) Aesthetics and Politics. London/New York: Verso. 28-59.

 

Marx, Karl (2010) The German Ideology in Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

 

Schiller, Friedrich (1967 [1795]) On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, edited and translated by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

 

Zipes, Jack (1997) Happily Ever After. Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry. New York/London: Routledge.

 

Žižek, Slavoj and Nadezdha Tolokonnikova (2014) Comradely Greetings. The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj. London/New York: Verso.

 

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