Rising to the heights and beyond
What is art and can it survive? Paul Demarty investigates
To talk about the future of art, we need to understand what art is, and what function it plays in capitalist society. Such matters become most clear when things are in dispute.
In 2003, Aaron Barschak - the “comedy terrorist”, who famously infiltrated Prince William’s birthday party dressed as Osama bin Laden - poured paint over the ‘young British artist’, Jake Chapman, and one of his paintings at a gallery in Oxford. Jake and his brother had just caused a stir by buying up a set of Francisco Goya’s The disasters of war and systematically defacing them, for a project called ‘The rape of creativity’. Barschak claimed that he was merely making a work of art in the same way (“it’s an improvement on Mr Chapman’s painting”1), but the law disagreed. He got 28 days for criminal damage, the judge stating that anyone could see that the Chapmans’ Goya project was art, and Barschak’s stunt was not.
Barschak is a rightwing philistine. His stunts are facile, and his stand-up routines are awful. But his attack on Chapman is a salutary reminder that the borders of art are heavily policed. And if a border is heavily policed, it is usually because it is naturally porous.
John Carey picked up on the Barschak/Chapman fracas in his book, What good are the arts?, and came out for Barschak. A work of art is anything that anyone has ever called a work of art, he says. No other definition can be rigorously defended.
This is a nice little provocation from an avowedly populist cultural critic. But he, Barschak, the judge in his case, Brian Loosley, and a great deal of writers on aesthetics have fallen into the trap of fetishising the work of art as such - and I mean this expansively, including visual arts, musical compositions, works of literature and so on. The task becomes a matter of taking something, examining it and deciding whether or not it counts as a work of art. Thus - particularly in the early period of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy - much energy is expended on defining the exact characteristics that make something beautiful.
The most famous example is Immanuel Kant’s Critique of judgment. Kant writes that beauty is a “subjective universal” judgment - that is, we judge something to be beautiful as a consequence of our individual experience, but we expect that judgment to represent something beyond our own prejudices: other people will also be able to identify the beauty in it. That universal property of beauty has to do with the artefact seeming like the complete, final result of a purposeful labour in creating it. Objects of this kind - or musical scores, etc - are able to engage both our imaginations and our reason.
Carey mocks Kant’s assertions (without really engaging with the underlying philosophical claims of Kant’s work, without which the aesthetics does indeed appear to be just the opinion of one individual). Carey’s book as a whole - well, the first half at any rate - is a polemic against the ‘religion of art’, and in particular the state subsidising ‘high art’. He claims that there is absolutely zero evidence that going to a gallery or a concert - ie, being a spectator of art - has any positive effects whatsoever. Throwing taxpayer’s money at it simply subsidises luxury consumption on the part of the bourgeoisie.
His points have some validity; but underlying his polemic is the assumption that, if it is (as he claims) not possible to distinguish art from non-art reliably in terms of an objective standard of beauty, it cannot be possible at all. In fact it is possible: but only with a historical, rather than an aesthetic, perspective.
Art and culture
Cultural production has been an element of human existence, for all intents and purposes, for the entirety of the history of our species. ‘Cultural production’ is an Althusserian phrase, but I mean it here to be taken at face value - any work of labour that produces a use value whose purpose is purely symbolic, whether that is a cave painting, a renaissance masterpiece or a graffiti tag. (There are advantages and difficulties in talking at this level of generality about culture - the main difficulty is that each form of cultural production has a history of its own, literature being different from visual art, and poetry being different from prose fiction and drama within literature. The advantage, of course, is that it highlights the longer-term shifts more easily, which are generally further removed from the actual acts of cultural labour themselves.)
Art is a subset of cultural production as a whole, and its defining feature is neither the genius of its makers nor any inherent qualities in the objects that constitute it. At the core of art is an institutional relationship of patronage; along with that relationship goes the regulation of its mass consumption.
The nature of this relationship shifts vastly over time. To look only at the last thousand years of western art, we see in the mediaeval period the domination of the Catholic church and thus sacred art forms; then the long period of feudal decline, and the corresponding rise of the bourgeoisie, during which the practices now considered forms of ‘high culture’ (painting and sculpture, theatre, classical music) appear to gain autonomy; finally the contemporary age, where high culture is maintained in large part by the state and bourgeois philanthropy as a supposed ‘public good’.
The decisive period in this schematic outline is the middle one - it is that which gives our modern conception of the arts its overall shape. Between the centralisation of political power in the great absolutist monarchies and the rise of the bourgeois class of ingénus, the near-monopoly of the church on artistic patronage could be challenged - by the largesse of the crown, and the insurgent power of the owners of capital. In parallel, the development of significant urban communities supported both a milieu of dedicated artists and a material infrastructure of museums, theatres and so on.
The effect is that it begins to seem as if the arts are autonomous practices. In fact, they are not - it is merely that there is competition for their attention, and also greater resources available. A good case study is music at the turn of the 19th century: composers such as Haydn and Beethoven benefited both from the patronage of individuals in the central European nobility and from the emergence for the first time of ‘orchestras for hire’: that is, a pool of professional musicians. Haydn in particular was also the beneficiary of another new phenomenon - large bourgeois audiences, especially (and not surprisingly) in his London years.
We have mentioned that the consumption of art is regulated by the forms of patronage that dominate it. In the case of mediaeval church art, that regulation is straightforward. You go to church. You admire the stonework, the paintings and the choral music. You feel a little bit more in love with Jesus.
In the period of transition between feudalism and capitalism, high art becomes the site of a deflected form of class struggle. The transfer of power from aristocrat to bourgeois took many forms: rapid and glacial, peaceful and violent; the inculturation of the ascendant bourgeoisie is one of the peaceful forms, whereby the means of artistic patronage are, as it were, bequeathed by a declining class to a rising one. Old money mixes with new at the art show or the opera house. The middle class ingénus gain this way a culture amongst themselves, separate from the masses they exploit, even if it is not purely their own. For this to take place, however, an ideology of art as autonomous, as dealing with a realm beyond the merely earthly, is necessary - whether that is the movement of the Holy Spirit, the World Spirit or the human spirit. Art must objectively appear to be objective.
The evidence for this comes, first of all, from the artistic revolutions of 15th-century Italy, whose constituent city states saw the greatest advances of the bourgeoisie up to that point - bankrolled both by the church and the likes of the Medici clan. Secondly, we can cite the geographic distribution of development in the ‘high’ arts in the ‘long 19th century’, overwhelmingly concentrated in continental Europe, where the wider social transformation was most tumultuous and protracted. In America and Britain, where capitalism is least challenged by the traditional aristocracy, there is instead a revolutionary expansion of popular culture, a matter to which we shall return later. Classical music is striking in this regard: the standard repertoire contains, from this period, a decent amount of French and Italian composers, a veritable army of Germans and Austrians, and a sprinkling of Russians.
In this extraordinarily fertile era, stretching from Mozart to Schönberg, the Anglosphere, in spite of its economic dominance, barely registered at all. This mismatch coloured the consumption of art in Europe as well, leading to the proliferation of a nationalist idea of the ‘objective spirit’ of art. The most infamous example is, of course, Richard Wagner, the left-nationalist 1848er turned anti-Semite; but one can also cite the chauvinist hysteria which gripped both French and German composers at the outbreak of the Great War. Camille Saint-Saëns co-founded the Ligue Nationale pour la Défense de la Musique Française, to oppose performances of German music, and blacklisted Maurice Ravel when he declined to join. Arnold Schönberg, meanwhile, declared in 1914 of French and Russian composers: “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German god.”2
This takes us to the final part of our periodisation. Students of the arts - whichever form it happens to be - can recite our undergraduate slogans in one voice. World War I transformed art: it was the midwife of modernism in literature, painting and sculpture, and music. On our thesis, it is hardly surprising, since what remained of the feudal state regimes of Europe - from the tsar to the kaiser to the Habsburgs - was finally swept aside. The bourgeoisie was finally left in sole custodianship of ‘high’ art.
Yet this was also the era in which technological advance gave us the cinema, the recording studio and the mass-market paperback. Cultural products made their way to new mass markets. The supremacy of the bourgeoisie, now undiluted by its antecedents, faced the proletariat, which had become incomparably more threatening by conquering power in Russia.
This is how high art became first and foremost a matter for the state - it was to be a weapon in an often bizarre war of position against Soviet influence on the western working class. The teaching of English literature to working class children had first been suggested by Matthew Arnold in the 1860s, as a way of mollifying working class agitation by inculcating a national spirit through Shakespeare and the like. His plans only really bore fruit from the 1920s, however. Infamously, the CIA later began channelling funds to the artistic avant-garde, using abstract expressionism as an advertisement for American freedom, as against the tyranny of the Stalinist bloc and its conservative antipathy towards ‘formalism’.
It is here that we meet the most influential Marxist writers on culture in the 20th century - the Frankfurt School. There are two central statements of this school that interest us here. Firstly, Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, which largely focused on photography and the cinema, examines the demystifying effect of modern artistic technology on art as a whole. He concludes that this effect is revolutionary, though he seems to have in mind the ‘all that is solid melts into air’ sense of that word, rather than revolutionary politics. The audience for art is being transformed by the mass, collective experience of culture, rather than the selective and refined experience of traditional high culture. The ‘aura’ of works of art - the sense we have of their art-ness while observing them - is being destroyed.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their Dialectic of enlightenment, identify many of the same motive forces, but arrive at a dramatically more pessimistic vision. The transformations in aesthetic technique had instead resulted in a “culture industry”, whose mass-produced artefacts represented the colonisation of those hours when one is not at work. “Free” time becomes “leisure”, no less dominated by capital than the daily grind. This instrumentalisation of culture is part of a broader historical shift, from classical capitalism to the ‘administered society’ and the total, hierarchical organisation of social life.
In Adorno’s estimation, there remains only one possible job for art, which is to somehow represent its own impossibility and bad faith; thus he is best known as an advocate of ‘difficult’ modernism, and indeed a musical practitioner of it. “The aesthetic condemnation of the ugly is dependent on the inclination, verified by social psychology, to equate, justly, the ugly with the expression of suffering and, by projecting it, to despise it,” he wrote later in Aesthetic theory. “Hitler’s empire put this theorem to the test, as it put the whole of bourgeois ideology to the test: the more torture went on in the basement, the more insistently they made sure the roof rested on columns.”3
This view has been frequently caricatured as ‘elitist’ (again, John Carey, who misses the point completely). The argument is a little more subtle: in place of both high art and low culture (that is, the spontaneous culture of the popular masses, the aesthetic record embodied in folk songs and the like), you have a kind of bad fusion of the two. The complex techniques of ‘high culture’ are used to produce works in a mechanical fashion, which are then foisted upon the masses. They do not in any real sense emanate from those masses, who are merely passive in the whole affair. (It is for this reason that Adorno and Horkheimer chose the term ‘culture industry’ rather than ‘mass culture’.)
It is worth stressing this point, since a great deal of dismal work has been produced by contemporary academics in cultural studies, dedicated to identifying the ‘transgressive’ and ‘subversive’ features of soap operas, Madonna singles, etc, which supposedly compare favourably to the buttoned-up ‘dead white men’ of the official artistic canon. We are back at the fallacy of beauty as an inherent property - digging around in Eastenders for signs of life, without actually looking at the institutions that govern taste in class-divided society. Adorno’s pessimism is infinitely preferable to this desperate modishness.
Still, there are serious problems here. We suppose we should start with jazz, which Adorno notoriously hated with a vengeance. When Adorno writes about jazz, to be sure, he has in mind its early adaptation as popular dance music, and then Glenn Miller and the sanitised big band sound of the 1930s, rather than Coltrane or Mingus. Yet around the time of Adorno’s death, there came the ‘new thing’: the explosion of the jazz avant-garde. ‘Explosion’ is the right word, since it went in all directions at once - towards low culture in the old sense (the incorporation of motifs from spirituals), towards high culture (the adoption of compositional and organisational methods from the classical avant-garde), and towards the unknown (free improvisation). It was also, in the main, politically militant and associated with the radical wing of the civil rights movement.
How are we to think about this from a Frankfurt School standpoint? The truth is that we cannot. Adorno’s perspective is based on a misunderstanding of his historical period: that the period basically from the rise of Hitler amounted to a decisive epochal shift from capitalism proper to the ‘administered society’, extinguishing more or less completely any possibility of revolutionary political agency, and with it the possibility of a genuinely new artistic avant-garde. (This is a common deficiency in Hegelian Marxism - drastic theoretical overreach.) On the contrary - the culture industry is already there in the fully-developed popular literature of the Anglophone countries in the 19th century. Its great product is Charles Dickens. This is just what capitalist culture is like. The existence of a culture industry in no way implies either political passivity or the supercession of creative invention.
We also have, however, the problem of what exactly the ‘high arts’ represent in this situation. For we cannot straightforwardly say that they operate by the same laws as the ‘culture industry’. The latter is overwhelmingly privatised; it obeys at least some of the laws of the market. Pop record labels, movie studios, video game companies - all are straightforwardly subject to the long-term tendencies of capital to become concentrated. (There are exceptions, such as the BBC and other state-run popular broadcasters.)
High culture, however, obeys different laws. As noted earlier, the system of patronage obtaining today is led by the state. An orchestra will be propped up by arts funding; it will play in buildings created with public money; tickets will likewise often be subsidised. The market does not directly determine what will be put on; that is a secondary consideration, after the matter of deciding what music constitutes a ‘public good’, what should be the proper balance of classics from the symphonic repertoire and ‘difficult’ new works, and so on. All these matters are entirely extraneous to the law of value.
The same is true of the most important art museums, which have legal obligations in terms of widening access to the visual arts. It is true of ‘serious’ theatre, as opposed to Broadway/West End musicals.
So far as painting, sculpture and company go, there is something called the ‘art market’, to be sure - but in this case we doubt whether it is much more than a device for money laundering. Dodgy money is cleaned up by being exchanged for Damien Hirst spot paintings. The latter fetch such a tidy price primarily because he is a popular draw for big art galleries. There are a handful of mega-collectors who have significant power over the success of contemporary artists. This is not typically how prices are determined under capitalism. It is as if New York stock prices were simply decreed by Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn; big-time investors and funds have power as a collective to make and break companies, but no clique of individuals has power over the markets of the kind that Charles Saatchi has over British art.
The difference is all the more striking when we consider the regimes of consumption imposed on ‘high culture’ in the age of its total statification.
It is common for Shakespeare’s plays to start with a bang. Think of Romeo and Juliet - the Montagues and Capulets march out onto the stage. They start arguing with each other. Then they start brawling. (Or Othello - within moments, Iago is hurling crude, racist innuendo at Brabantio’s window.) There’s a simple reason for that - theatre audiences in Shakespeare’s day were not possessed by the idea that there was anything terrifically important about a Shakespeare play. This was grimy mass culture. It was necessary to grab people’s attention, in order to get them to shut up, so the play could start.
An even more wonderful anecdote has to do with Richard Wagner. In 1861, Wagner managed to get his early opera Tannhäuser staged in Paris, which was a major centre of opera at that time. He badly needed the money, as he very often did; but in order to fit into the French style he needed to rearrange things. At the Paris opera, it was traditional for there to be a ballet section. The ballet was conventionally supposed to come in the second act, but Wagner decided to put it in the first, since there are a lot of frolicking nymphs and suchlike involved.
One social circle to frequent the opera was the Jockey Club, composed of rakish sons of the super-rich aristocrats. Their habit was to have a long, booze-drenched dinner, turn up for the second act, and then leave, so they could try to cop off with the ballerinas. When they discovered that they had missed the ballet, they disrupted the performance so aggressively that it had to be cut short. They did so for three nights straight, and eventually the whole run was cancelled.
This sort of thing simply no longer happens. Every so often, there is a little disruption here and there. Zionists like to make a habit of picketing John Adams’ opera, The death of Klinghoffer. A particularly controversial performance at Beyreuth will draw catcalls - after the final curtain. Aaron Barschak may turn up in drag with a pot of paint - that’s about it. The theatre, the art gallery, the concert hall - in all, spectators stare in deathly silence. The etiquette of high art is regimented to a level beyond parody - and in stark contrast to the lively crowds suffered by Shakespeare, Wagner and the like. (There is, believe it or not, a Wikipedia page for ‘Classical music riots’, which runs out of examples in 1973.)
This fact obtains despite the conscious incorporation of popular and populist material into ‘high’ art in the last 50 years or so: the phenomenon that has come to be known as postmodernism. The work of the Young British Artists - Hirst, the Chapmans and so on - is provocative, but hardly hyper-intellectual. Indeed, it is almost desperate to appear stupid. It has been quite normal for composers to play with popular musical forms in one way or another for over a century, but more common in this more recent period. There is, conversely, a tendency for images and snatches of high culture to be appropriated by forms of popular culture. Yet, despite these nods in the direction of the demotic, and eyelash fluttering in the opposite direction, ‘high’ art is still treated with conspicuous respect and unease by its general audience. Is this really a good sign?
This is, in brief overview, the cultural landscape in 2016, divided into three parts. Firstly: a vast popular culture industry, in trouble thanks to the move from mechanical to digital reproduction, but still making hay. Its level of rationalisation and risk-aversion is such that even Adorno would balk in horror - as one example, Marvel Comics film adaptations operate on the basis of a Stalin-style five-year plan (missing the Gosplan target for irony, the tagline for the last Fantastic Four film was “Change is coming”). Secondly: a heavily-statified high-culture apparatus, based partly on the ideology of art as a public good, and partly on national chauvinism. Thirdly: as with 60s-70s jazz, a cottage industry of ‘small producers’ - independent bands and musicians, independent film studios, bohemian cliques of visual artists. Some of their members will be ‘promoted’ to the big time, whether that is in industrial or high culture; but the mere fact that capitalism and its culture is not monolithic means that this stratum will survive its individual members.
This is the raw material we have for the future. But there are two futures at issue here - their future and ours. So far as capitalist society is concerned, I fear we are in for more of the same, only more so.
Both industrial and high culture will become more risk-averse, more conservative, as the decades draw on. On the industrial side, it is plain, for example, that the film studio franchises are too big to fail. If the next two Marvel movies and any of the new Star wars trilogy should all tank, it would probably be enough to cause another great recession. They will not be allowed to fail; so nothing in the direction of experimentation can be expected of any of them. There will just be ... more. More incomprehensible, extended fight scenes, more over-investment in what Alan Moore called “the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics”4. Similar processes will prevail in popular music, although the latter’s disturbing cult of young flesh means the names will change far more rapidly than the sounds.
So far as ‘high’ culture goes, despite high-concept showpieces like Punchdrunk’s ‘immersive theatre’ work The drowned man, times are tight. We are in the age of austerity, and beyond that an age where many a state bureaucrat is asking John Carey’s question: what good are the arts? The days when it was a concern for capitalism that it should seem somehow more cultured than the Soviet bloc are definitively gone. In fact, they were over before the USSR collapsed; I have no evidence that the CIA worked out finally that throwing money at avant-garde art critics was unimportant, since alienated Soviet citizens were more interested in Levis and the Beatles; but they may just as well have done. They did not put a symphony orchestra on top of the Berlin Wall, but David Hasselhoff. Thus bourgeois philanthropy and corporate sponsorship shall loom larger in the system of patronage. We can scarcely imagine that this will have no effect on the quality of output.
As for the indie, bohemian set - they will keep on keeping on; yet the truth is that it is not only the long-term unemployed who suffer from attacks on benefits and the welfare state. One of the (admittedly less malign) effects is to reduce the space formerly available for people to practice their craft instead of ‘getting a real job’. Those who wish to live at the edges of society will find those edges rougher. The result is that these outsiders will be more easily dwarfed by industrial and state-sponsored culture even than they are now; and the composition of such strata of society will become even more skewed towards the scions of the middle class, who can supplement the starvation stipend of jobseekers allowance with loans from the Bank of Mum and Dad.
About our future, one must necessarily be vague - the whole point, after all, is to allow future generations to work it out for themselves. Nonetheless, communists are guided by a vision of the human potential retarded and suppressed by the irrationality and barbarism of capitalist society. In the most famous passage of TheGerman ideology Marx and Engels write:
In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.5
That sounds like an awfully long day, but the point is that the specialisation of economic functions in society must be broken down. In retrospect, we note that this specialisation was quite in its infancy in 1845, and has been all the more aggressively pursued as capitalism has matured, and become decadent. Everyone must be filed away into a little box; except, that is, the growing surplus population, who are not needed at all.
This is quite plainly of direct relevance to art and more broadly cultural pursuits. Capitalism, in its contest with the last vestiges of feudalism and now with the working class, has forced its pseudo-rationality onto art and culture. It separates cultural producers from the broad masses; and then it divides them into pop stars and mezzo-sopranos, painters and advertising creatives; it carves up the pop stars into arbitrary radio formats; etc. Wagner’s dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk - the total work of art - has, with a predictable dialectical reversal, become one more hyperspecialism on the menu, at least for those bourgeois well off enough to spend a week in the Festspielhaus in the company of Siegfried and Brunnhilde.
Trotsky, in Literature and revolution, likewise writes of the contradictory position of the poet in the post-revolutionary era.
It consists in the separation created by bourgeois society of intellectual work, including art, from physical work ... One of the ultimate aims of the revolution is to overcome completely the separation of these two kinds of activity. In this sense, as in all other senses, the problem of creating a new art proceeds entirely along the lines of the fundamental problem of constructing a socialist culture.6
Trotsky is, of course, primarily concerned with the difficulties facing the young Soviet regime - as he writes, in 1924, already in serious difficulty. He feels all too keenly the primitiveness of the cultural base in Russia, the need for massive expansion of literacy, and so on; but also that it is partly a matter of time. Socialism lays the foundations for a revolution in culture partly by overcoming the division between those who think and those who do, and partly by abolishing unemployment, thus reducing the burden of labour on all, and opening up the possibility of free cultural development for everyone.
Back for a moment to capitalism - those of us with an interest in modern technology and its effects on culture cannot ignore the controversy raging over the market price of music, films and other reproducible goods in the age of the internet. It is common enough to hear people opposed to piracy, and even streaming services like Spotify or Netflix, argue that if the price of these commodities is not kept high there will be no incentive for people to make music, films, etc. This is an extraordinary argument, simply because people already do make such things without compensation - in spite of everything. How many death metal bands make money from their craft, never mind enough to quit the day job? The simple response is - if you want there to be music in an age where it is technologically implausible to sell it for more than a truly trivial unit cost, then bring in a 15-hour working week. It barely needs to be said that such a world cannot be a capitalist one, and indeed must be socialist.
The final pages of Trotsky’s book are truly heady stuff. It is essentially science fiction. Socialism will move mountains, he says, and he means it literally. He is talking about what later science-fiction writers would call ‘terraforming’ - literally picking up a mountain, and dropping it somewhere else. We will “build people’s palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic”. This panegyric to the socialist future is tainted somewhat by the technocratic outlook Trotsky flirted with in the middle 1920s; but the fundamental point is sound - the culture of a developed socialist society will arise in response to unimaginable changes to material life, to disputes of a kind vastly different (and hopefully more fruitful) than those of class society. We can no more anticipate its forms and contents than we can imagine being dead - since that, in effect, is what we are trying to imagine: a life after the death of the society which has produced us.
We can say that this will, in substance, mean the end of art as such. The separation of the artist from the general population will be overcome. The monopolies of patronage will consequently fall. With those, the illusion of art’s autonomy from material life will be destroyed, and the cult of genius - the individual ‘great artist’, summoning the divine into his canvas by some kind of Nietzschean act of will; the tyrannical one-man management of the ‘great conductor’ over the orchestra. In the place of art, there will be a great flourishing of liberated culture. Trotsky concludes:
Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonised, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.7
We could not put it better than that.
1. The Guardian November 25 2003.
2. Alex Ross The rest is noise New York 2007, p60.
3. TW Adorno Aesthetic theory Minnesota 1997, p49.