Two Variations of Marxist Aesthetics
In responding to the Winter Topic (whether art should address social or political issues), I would like to focus on elaborations of Western Marxist aesthetics. Although Marxism is most often associated with the disciplines of economics and political science, its contributions to art theory were especially influential in the early half of 20th century—almost concurrent with the tide of modernism. Rigid interpretations of Marxist historical materialism (notably in the reactionary theories of an early Trotsky) suggest that the “formal” features of art are subservient to its content (and that all art is just a superstructural reflection of underlying class structure), but revisions to this dogma emerge in the 1920s and 1930s that begin to consider “form” with more seriousness. This next wave of Marxists delves into how formalist decisions might have a politics of their own.
Lukács, particularly his late work The Historical Novel, champions the realist writing of the 19th century novel. Lukács sees the rise of the novel as a bourgeois phenomenon, and he notes that his favorite authors (such as Scott) have mildly conservative ideologies. But despite these mitigating factors, he attests to a certain social/political power in this “form” of historical realism (one caveat: although he is interested in the novel as a genre, his defininition of “form” is still limited: “an artistically generalized reflection of regularly recurring facts of life”). According to Lukács, the historical novel is able to help a reader to locate him/herself within larger political movements and the progressive development of history. The best historical novels present history in its totality: we see the slow build-up of social movements, and these historical movements finally coming into contact with one another around the focalizing figure of the “everyman.” Because the “everyman” (and not the “world historical individual”) is at the center of Lukács's historical novel, we can observe how the grand strokes of history are felt at the granual level of the everyday and among the multitude. The key here, for Lukács, is the aesthetical arrangment of a “totality.” Realist art must aspire to represent all of the most relevant and concrete objects and to show their interrelation with clarity: only then will art have a productive, political purpose.
Martin Jay's very useful study Marxism and Totality shows that this concept of “totality” is reformulated by a series of waves of Marxist theorists. Of particular interest to me is the variant of surrealism's flirtation with Marxism; the manifesto-writer/poet/novelist André Breton realigns his group's practice with the aesthetic form of “totality.” I have previously written on his travels to Mexico in 1938, and Breton stresses here how in this phase of surrealist art the artist generates an unexpected confrontation of vastly different images; this type of shocking collision of ephemera from different times/places/categories produces an experience of the “marvelous.” Martin Jay writes that “the synthesis they hoped to achieve would include the rational and irrational, sanity and madness, waking consciousness and the dream” but that this vision of totality comes about not through “dialectical interplay” but “unmediated juxtaposition.” In 1938, Breton writes a manifesto with Trotsky “for an Independent Revolutionary Art,” wherein he argues that art does not need to (or even should not) ascribe to a particular political movement or party, but that in its independence (and its ability to present an unexpected union of opposites) free art can have a revolutionary politics. While Lukács's idea of “totality” is thoroughly imbedded in history, Breton tries to find seemingly illogical connections between various historical strata.
Nat Zingg is a comparative literature graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Some of his interests are historical avant-garde movements in Europe and Latin America, surrealism and film studies.