Art, intelligibility, and the SWP

Ben Watson Art, class and cleavage: Quantulumcunque concerning Materialist Esthetix Quartet Books, 1998, £14

Spare a thought for Ben Watson. An intelligent, thoughtful and obviously slightly loopy member of the Socialist Workers Party, determined to take to task an unimaginative revolutionary left. More than this, Watson peppers both the main text and footnotes with side swipes at his SWP comrades and their tendency to inhibit the cultural development of the working class. However, these cannot be considered incidental to the theoretical case he weaves. Despite Watson's formal intellectual loyalty to Tony Cliff and the International Socialist tradition, some of the ideas developed here are stridently oppositional in relation to the cultural ethos of the SWP.

For an example let us take a look at Watson's dissection of the 'management' of popular taste: " ... the defenders of popular taste actually harbour a ... pernicious attitude: a view of the working class as infant children, to be mollycoddled with soft toys. They are the first to argue that a video needs banning. Transcendent, statist liberalism views the working classes as less than human: to be pleasured, manipulated or punished, but not through reason or invective, since these channels are only available to those who have mastered the 'educated' patter" (p5). It must be noted that what Watson attacks is the staple diet of the SWP, who regularly toy with the idea of asking the bourgeois state to ban everything from beef to the British National Party. As Watson implies, this is disastrous for the critical development of the working class in that they are denied a reasoned choice by an alien force beyond their control.

The main reason that Art, class and cleavage is so effective is its utilisation of Theodor Adorno's Negative dialectics. To that end it tends to mirror some of that work's awe-inspiring programmatic thrust. Adorno was concerned with the manner in which dialectics (in the guise both of idealism and 'materialism') had succumbed to an abstract identity reasoning which rode roughshod over the sensuous particularities inherent in any social formation. Dialectics, in its restricted and uncritical sense, had thus come to mirror the ideologies of late capitalism, intent upon bringing everything and anything under the bewitchment of the commodity (it is not hard to see that this is a development of Marx's analysis in Capital, where abstract, quantified exchange values are shown to distort the human production and consumption of particular use values). Adorno's solution to this arbitrary equivalence was negative dialectics: "Dialectics unfolds the difference between the particular and the universal, dictated by the universal ... Reconcilement would release the non-identical, would rid it of coercion, including spiritualised coercion; it would open the road to the multiplicity of different things and strips dialectics of its power over them. Reconcilement would be the thought of the many as no longer inimical, a thought that is anathema to subjective reason" (TW Adorno Negative dialectics London 1996, p6).

It is this position that Ben Watson works so effectively into Art, class and cleavage and its praise for militant modernism: "Only a poetics of struggle, an aesthetics of Cleavage, is capable of appreciating that it is the moment where circulation doesn't work that requires our hot attention. The moment when the extraneous world shut out by the crystalline semiotics of a 'viable genre' comes rushing in as the system implodes" (original emphasis, p14). An identity-obsessed reliance on 'realism' or so-called 'intelligibility' as the criterion of a work of art (the theoretical substrate of nearly all cultural 'criticism' in the British left) can slip very easily into the received wisdom of bourgeois society. Rather the focus of the left's attack should be on the ideological underpinning of the judgement of what is 'intelligibility'. A concentration on this would surely lead to the conclusion that the job of art is to disrupt the circulation and equivalence of ideology by bringing into focus the subjective elements rigidly policed by the bourgeois ego. In other words, to accomplish a dialectical leap through the release of the non-identical (pp67-72).

Unfortunately the left takes the diametrically opposite course: "Themselves accused of day-dreaming and utopianism, Marxist politicos are prone to dismiss the role of the imagination. Like gay skins sporting the bovver boots of the enemy, some Marxists think they can stamp through the claims of poetics with the best of them" (p23). The refreshing thing about Watson is that he wants to sweep such philistine nonsense aside so that imagination, untainted by the impositions of the 'pragmatic' leftwinger, can serve the cause of the revolution.

As politicians we seek to raise up the demands that the capitalist class exclude from the life of the proletariat, whilst our mind fights a similar internalised battle with its bourgeois-induced rationality. However, when it comes to the appreciation of art, the left forgets about all this and retreats to a set of reductive theoretical hand-me-downs that neglect the achievements of the surrealists in favour of a good 'socialist' film by Ken Loach.

Watson continues the assault on abstract identity reasoning through a consideration of Voloshinov's work on language, which was an attempt to overcome the antinomies of both individual subjectivism and abstract objectivism (p250). In particular, Watson sees how 'concrete utterances' come to disrupt the abstract systems of meaning imposed on symbols by the likes of Ferdinand de Saussure: "Attention to the materiality of the sign - puns, slips of the tongue, poetics - is not a distraction from crystalline meaning, but an investigation of society" (p251). In other words a particular linguistic take on a social situation gains its 'legitimacy' from its impact on that scenario and not from some a priori place in a methodological system. In a similar vein, Watson's insistence on the superiority of, say, Kandinsky to the likes of William Morris (p270) does not lie in abstract prerogatives, but in their effectiveness in the class struggle: " ... the objective reasons for the birth of abstract art override the whims of its inventors."

It is at this precise point that a substantive critique of Ben Watson should begin. His text seeks to break the chains of the militant encumbered by a lack of imagination and a concurrent abhorrence of both 'difficult' theory and modern art. Mere instrumentality in thought signifies the liquidation of negative dialectics. Therefore let us admit a certain suspicion toward some of the concepts contained in Art, class and cleavage.

Watson proposes a rediscovery of the "subjective side of the Marxist tradition", which is all to the good (p50). But then the author presages these remarks with a long quote from Walter Benjamin's 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction', in which Benjamin remarks that: "We should abolish a whole number of outmoded concepts - Creativity and Genius, Eternal Value and Mystery - concepts whose uncontrolled (and at the moment also uncontrollable) usage leads to the kind of massaging of the facts we're familiar with from the fascists" (p49).

Watson appears keen to boast about the "discarding" of "all myths of Genius and Eternal Value", but remains strangely silent on Benjamin's proposal to dispense with "Creativity" and "Mystery" because of supposed fascist contamination. The point is that Benjamin's remarks are misguided from the point of view of dialectics: the use of creativity (imagination) and mystery (making strange) are integral parts of the disruption of bourgeois rationality, a view that Watson appears to concur with in some passages of this work. He extends his approval of Benjamin's text by uncritically proclaiming that it "explains that what is needed is not a doctrine on the art of the proletariat once it has seized power, or on the art of a classless society, but an analysis of artistic developments already taking place in capitalism" (ibid). Or, in other words, Benjamin is looking to orientate himself more pragmatically in a previously existing and commodified world as against a 'utopian' leap towards the release of the sensuous non-identical from the ideological forms of capitalism. It is not really a matter of counterposing developments in capitalist society with post-revolutionary forms, but the task of jumping from one to the other. The fact that Watson applauds Benjamin in this particular way can only but build an inherently instrumentalist strain into political practice (conceived here in its widest possible sense). Through this loophole comes rushing all the leftist common sense of 'realism', 'intelligibility', etc. This is a thoroughly depressing ending, considering that he recognises that "Fabian and neo-Stalinist moralising continues to replace the critical intelligence of Marxism in SWP reviews of books and films" (p255n).

The defeat of the philistines in the revolutionary movement relies not on dispensing with terms such as 'creativity' and 'genius', but in posing art's relative autonomy, its partiality towards the real. The orientation needs to be largely on artistic form and a consideration of how its relationship to society crystallises out of that form's organisation (pop-art's critique of commodification through the intensely unified nature of the canvass/construction and its contextualisation in the art gallery being a classic example). Putting the emphasis primarily on the interconnectedness of art and politics in a fear of formalistic 'system building' is a daft enterprise, primarily because it allows space for an aesthetic neo-Stalinism to continue breeding (p49).

Which moves us on to perhaps the most contentious theme of Watson's narrative: an idealist attempt to 'fuse' mind and matter: "The temptation to separate mind from matter is not an eternal feature of thought, but the result of a very obvious division in society: class division, which separates off decisions about the purpose of labour from its enactment" (p109). This Olympian statement is not an isolated moment of Watson's attack in that he sees the "location of mind in the social participant [as] the core of dialectical thought", taking a sideswipe at the attempts of 'western' Marxism (ie, Georg Lukács) to "propose 'objective' methodologies that can take their place next to the natural sciences", which according to Watson can only "snuff the dialectical, revolutionary spark" (p112).

Watson's prejudices here are a lesson in the dangers of treating modern art's fixation of irrationality as a fixed object rather than as a dynamic which completes revolutionary action in place of becoming a substitute for it. The suggestion that mind is separated from matter only temporally is an illusion. 'Reality' can be worked on and deflected by the mind, but never dreamed away.

Watson writes: "Marx solved the antinomy of subject and objectivity by rooting his materialism in 'sensuous human activity, practice'. Science is knowledge of the objective world held in the brains of subjects: to assert that the subjective moment is forever an irrelevance and a distortion is therefore to travesty an actuality" (p53). We can certainly be sceptical about whether Marx overcame this antinomy by merely collapsing the opposites (subject/object) into one another. Watson tends to confine the workings of 'science' to the mind. However, Marxist science must also have an inkling of the objective world beyond it. Watson then sets up a confusing paper tiger. Just because we are able to point to the limitations of the subject's world, the way in which it does in fact partialise, abstract and distort the workings of 'reality', does not mean that we dismiss the subjective thought as some kind of trespass on 'objectivity'.

If one agrees with Watson's dogmatic equivalence, then the specific moment of art is called into question in that the mind can supposedly grasp 'reality' in all its infinite variety. This is a very short methodological step from expecting art to mirror life in a crude, comprehensive sense and only but another step from asking SWP-type questions like 'Is Irvine Welsh anti-working class?'

There is evidence to show that Watson does understand this specific function of art, albeit in his own peculiar way: "So-called 'abstract' art sheds the representational function in order to achieve an intuited necessity in the arrangement of materials" (p270). Abstract art is 'abstract' because it engages in abstraction which cannot simply be squared off as the equivalent of 'reality'. But Watson is right to point to what is an arrangement of partial materials as a key to understanding artistic interventions.

Watson is however precluded from fleshing out this contradiction by the idealist method that scores his theoretical base - behind which lurks the traces of the author's formalistic adherence to the SWP.

Phil Watson