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Whose Art and For Whom: examining art as social production and practice (Part 1)

This is a paper I presented at the A-Space Gallery Symposium a year and a half ago.  It was inspired by my partner's frustrations over the left's inability to properly engage with art, and the status quo world of art's suspicion and dismissal of "political art."  It also inspired a comic that I posted earlier, which probably explains the essay's overall thesis better than the essay itself... 

The examination of art and its connection with politics requires in engagement with, to use the words of Mao Zedong, “a two-line  struggle.”  On the one hand there are those who insist that art does not necessarily (and perhaps should not) have any connection with politics––a rehash of the nineteenth century “Art for Art’s sake” slogan coined by Gautier––while, on the other hand, there are those who respond that the only worthwile art must adequately and didactically demonstrate progressive politics.  And between these two interpretations of art, there is much confusion.  Often the artist, especially if she is politically engaged, finds herself in a tenuous position: her contacts in the art world want her work to demonstrate aesthetic sophistication (and might even suspect anything that smacks of politicism), whereas her friends in the activist world want her art to sloganeer and preach the proper political message.  Although I believe that art and politics are, indeed, intensely connected, I hope to demonstrate in this essay that not only is the “Art for Art’s sake” claim erroneous, but the sloganeering position is wrong as well in that it fails to address art’s actual and material connection with the political.

At the conclusion of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin points out that while Fascist art aestheticizes politics,  “Communism responds by politicizing art.” (Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 242)   This essay by Benjamin is, perhaps, one of his most popular essays in academia although, like most of his work, it is usually taught in an apolitical and postmodern sense; the fact that Benjamin was a  revolutionary communist is often neglected.   It is not my intention, though, to discuss Benjamin, or his essay, in terms of his political convictions.  Rather I intend to use the statement alluded to above in order to discuss the relationship between art and politics in a historical materialist, and thus marxist, manner drawing primarily on Mao and Raymond Williams.  My opinion is that the only worthwhile analysis of art (as with pretty much everything else in society) is one that is historical materialist, rather than idealist; it is only through such an analysis that we can properly understand the relationship between art and politics.

I - art as human production

In order to understand the connection between art and politics, it is useful to begin with a loose definition of art.  This is important because, philosophically speaking, if one does not define what something is, one cannot discuss this something with any real depth.  Definitions of science, for example, provide the foundations for any scientific endeavour.  If I defined the field of science as something that included alchemy, astrology, and magic in general than I would have a very different notion of science––and thus produce a very different scientific theory––than someone who believes that parascience is the antithesis of science.  And, vice versa, in order for me to prove that parascience is superstitious nonsense, I would have to provide a working definition of science that excludes magic.  In fact, historically speaking, good scientists began by breaking with metaphysics and defining the scientific enterprise as something that sought natural, rather than mystical, interpretations of the world.

My definition of art, though, will be very general.  I am not attempting to create a grand unifying theory of art––such an attempt would be vulgar and dogmatic.  Rather, as aforementioned, I’m merely putting forward a very loose definition.  And this definition is: art is nothing more than a human production.  Art is the creative product of real human beings, who exist in the world with other humans.

Humans, as a species, have historically defined themselves by appropriating from nature in order to produce human society.  The social practice of art is no more or less profound than the social practice of agriculture.  Both are human productions, both have been developed by humans throughout history, both are creative interactions with nature  although they differ from one another.  But just as humans produce through agriculture, they also “are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc., that is, real, active [humans].” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, p. 42)   Thus we can assert that “[w]orks of literature and art, as ideological forms [meaning connected to the ideas/conceptions], are products of the reflection in the human brain of the life of a given society.” (Mao, The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, p. 265)

Furthermore, like every act of human production, art is socio-historical: it accumulates tradition and meaning through time; it develops different practices and importances from different social contexts.  Humans, after all, “make their own history… under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” (Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p. 15)  Art, then, is merely a human production that is part of this history-making process.

The alternative to defining art in terms of social production is to engage in mystification that makes humans “and their relations appear upside-down as in a camera obscura.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, p. 42)   If art is not a human production then it is something that stands outside of us as humans and supervenes over the practice of art.  According to this conception, “Art” is like a Platonic form that exists in a realm separate from us, unchangeable and external to human history.  The earliest version of this definition of art would be defining it in terms of divine inspiration.  Aside from being a purely idealist conception of art––where ideas make humans rather than humans make ideas––this definition ultimately devalues the practice of art.  Although such a mystifying definition attempts to make art seem more important than other human productions, the logical conclusion of its premises is to view humans as mere vessels for divine inspiration.  We do not creatively produce works of art; Art creatively produces us.

Moreover, such a definition of art renders art theory and criticism impossible.  Divine inspiration, after all, cannot be gauged by others; the artist can always flee criticism by claiming that his or her art is beyond human criticism––and that includes aesthetic and political criticism.  Although few today would equate art with antiquated notions of divine inspiration, the notion of art existing outside of human criticism persists, especially in postmodern art theory.  Art as divine inspiration has been sublimated by numerous artists and critics, revealing itself in the claims that “art should just be and not be criticized”, or Gautier’s infamous maxim “Art for Art’s sake.”

To claim “Art for Art’s sake”, however, is to also claim that there is some object (or entity) called Art that is external to human practice because it possesses a “sake”.  As Mao points out, “[t]here is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” (Mao, Selected Works, p. 271)   If we agree that art is a human practice, and not a divine practice, then it cannot be divorced from the human practitioner’s social context and stance.  To insist that art should just “be”, and not “be criticized”, is to insist that it exists beyond the human world––that it is beyond human comprehension.  

II - the danger of dogmatic criticism

The opposite of idealist art criticism is the type of criticism that, while perhaps claiming that art is a human production, dogmatically pushes for political didacticism in art work.  This view of art (usually a vulgar activist conception of art) holds that if one cannot glean a coherent  message from a work of art––a message that will convey a political lecture to the masses––then such art is worthless and politically suspect.

In Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams examines the often problematic relationship between artists and revolutionaries:
Both Lenin and Trostsky saw writers, with other artists, as necessarily free to work in their own ways… But each made reservations; Lenin on the cultural policy of the Revolution, which could not “let chaos develop in any direction it may”, Trotsky making [artistic] self-determination subject to “the categorical standard of being for or against the Revolution”.  It was from the reservations, and not from the assertions, that one version of [artistic] ‘commitment’ became practical and powerful, extending from the level of general cultural policy to specification of the form and content of ‘committed’ or ‘socialist’… [art]. (Williams, Marxism & Literature, p. 202)
Thus we are presented with a definition of art that ultimately claims that if a work cannot be understood as politically progressive––if it doesn’t adequately demonstrate revolution––then it is “bad” (“bad” meaning bourgeois, fascist, etc.) art.  Crude activist art (with which many of us are probably familiar) follows from this position.  If a work of art does not adequately and didactically demonstrate good politics, then the crude activist critic will claim that this art is worthless due to its apparent lack of politics.

Perhaps it is because of this vulgar and dogmatic position that numerous artists and critics hide behind claims like “Art for Art’s sake” or “art should just be.”  The fear of losing artistic freedom or being censored by self-appointed, political-aesthetic experts is very real indeed.  The Soviet Empire under Stalin and post-Stalin, for example, were filled with so-called art experts who censored a lot of what they could not conceptually process.  If the “Art for Art’s sake” position is idealist, then the art must adequately and didactically demonstrate its politics position is deterministic and positivist.

To seek bastion in an idealist notion of art, however, is not the solution to positivist dogmatism; it merely substitutes one erroneous position for another.  What needs to be understood, in terms of art as a social practice, is the dialectical connection between aesthetics and politics.  Art, as aforementioned, cannot be external to politics since it is a social production.  At the same time, though, it is a social production that––like all types of social production––possesses its own history of meanings, much in the same way biology possesses its own history of meanings.

[will be continued at a later posting...]