What Makes it Art?

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John Molyneux spoke to Noel Halifax about his new book The Dialectics of Art, published by Haymarket Books.

Socialist Review: How is the book structured?
John Molyneux: It’s a bit like a sandwich. The filling is analyses I’ve made over the years of various artists and exhibitions: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso, Pollock, Emin, etc. The bread on either side is new theoretical chapters in which I discuss the tricky questions of what art is and how we judge it, plus how art develops, the dialectics of modernism and where it might be going now. The artists I write about are generally, if not exclusively, people whose work I really like and in whom I’ve taken a sustained interest, such as Rembrandt and Emin. On the vexed issue of defining art, the underlying question I’m trying to address is why is it that in the capitalist epoch ‘art’ has developed as a separate sphere of human activity from non-art?
What distinguishes artistic work, say the poetry of Shakespeare or the painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat, from the non-artistic labour of serving at a checkout in Tesco or writing The State and Revolution? My argument is that what distinguishes art is the nature of the labour that produces it. That, unlike the bulk of labour under capitalism, art remains under the control of the producer and that, unlike scientific or theoretical work, it strives for a unity of form and content.
With regard to judging the merits of art, I look at how art actually gets assessed in this society and the criteria on which such assessments are made: mimesis, skill, beauty, realism, expression, originality, etc. I then ask what a Marxist approach can add to this, which essentially is an understanding of how art expresses and responds to social relations, especially changing social relations. I argue for a historical materialist analysis of how art develops over the centuries, and of the specific dynamics of modernist art, concluding with a look at current trends including ‘the social turn’ of recent years.
SR: The book seems to be built on the writings of Trotsky and Berger.
JM: Certainly I was influenced by both of them. I always agreed with Trotsky in his opposition to the mechanical judgment of art by political criteria and his defence of artistic freedom against Stalinism. But Trotsky, whose main focus was on literature, actually wrote relatively little about visual art. I greatly admire John Berger’s path-breaking Ways of Seeing and many of his other works, but I quite often disagree with his judgments of specific artists such as Pollock and Bacon.
The main influence and the theoretical foundation of the book came directly from Marx and Engels, especially from Marx’s theory of alienation and from historical materialism, including Engels’s important contributions to it. I always see art as a product of the society from which it emerges, above all its forces and relations of production and the multitude of social relations which rest on that foundation, such as relations between monarchs and their subjects, parents and children, men and women, humans and nature, and so on, including also the ideologies of the time.
At the same time, I see art not as a mechanical reflection of its social context but as a creative response to it. Time and again we see a dialectical tension between art and the dominant social forces and ideas in society. Much of the book is concerned with exploring that tension. But it also reflects my intellectual, emotional and aesthetic responses to particular artists and their work. For me that is conditioned by my Marxism but not mechanically determined by it. You can’t look it up in Marx or Trotsky that Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride is a wonderful painting or that Tracey Emin’s Psyco Slut is excellent.
SR: In judging art can you say that someone is good without saying good at what? I remember at school being taught music and getting a question wrong in a test. The question was: who was the greatest composer? I said Mozart but the ‘correct’ answer was Beethoven. A more radical friend answered with King Tubby, and was chucked out of class.
JM: That’s a good story and very funny, but it also raises important questions. Trying to give Mozart and Beethoven a precise ranking is silly, but I do think we can reasonably identify both of them as giant figures in the history of music, much as we can identify Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and so on as giant figures in the history of socialism. The same can be said of Rembrandt, Cezanne and Picasso in the history of painting. The citing of King Tubby raises the much-debated issue of ‘high’ culture and popular culture. The first thing to say is that clearly the cultural division is a reflection of the class division in society. However, I do think that, on average, high culture is higher in quality than most popular culture. T
his is mainly because the average level of popular culture is brought down by the fact it contains so much really degraded trash produced by capital for the masses. I’m not talking about EastEnders or Coronation Street here but the likes of Love Island and beyond, professional wrestling and UFC, misogynistic gaming videos and inane game shows, etc. However, I believe that popular culture at its best absolutely matches the level of high culture. This is particularly true in music, which is the art form closest to the people. Billie Holiday is every bit as emotionally powerful and nuanced as any opera singer, and the lyrics of Bob Dylan make him one of modern America’s greatest poets.
SR: Do you think there are new ways that artists are becoming artists, outside of the official route of the art college, the rave scene, street art, etc?
JM: Yes, and we should remember that ‘the official route of the art college’ was only typical of one short phase in the history of art. There is an intersection here with the issue of the definition of art. The position often put within the art world is that art is what artists say it is. It raises the question of what makes someone an artist, and the answer can then be: someone who has been through art college. I reject that, and I believe everyone has the potential to make art.
The more people emerge as practising artists by diverse routes the better. But the process is not simple or clear-cut. So, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Banksy all emerged from street art, but they have all been absorbed by the dominant art world and now their work sells for millions. The relative rise of women artists, of black artists or indeed of Chinese artists reflects much wider changes in society internationally. But it remains the case that the art world is controlled by a bourgeois elite and dominated by rich collectors. It is a complex ever shifting picture, with both change and continuity.
SR: Towards the end of the book you look at current developments in art and try to tease out the direction in which it might be going.
JM: It is always more difficult to assess the present than the past where the main lines of development have had the time to become clear. In the 21st century, with the massive expansion and internationalisation of the art world, it has become close to impossible to present a comprehensive overview. Perhaps you could if you were a full-time globetrotter going relentlessly from show to show round the world, but in my situation that is not an option.
I’m conscious of the fact that everything I write is affected by the Eurocentric bias of my knowledge of both art history and current developments. I know I’m not on top of everything being done in Latin America, Africa, Asia, etc, never mind what may emerge there in the years to come. As to predicting the future of art in any concrete form, I don’t think that is ever really possible except for an artist who says ‘I’m going to make the following’.
So all I could do and all I’ve attempted to do is identify certain patterns in past development and, on that basis, offer a few modest speculations about where things might go now. I think that in the final analysis the development of modernism is a reflection of the class struggle, of the pull on art exercised by the two basic classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This has given rise to opposed tendencies in both subject matter and materials/ form: a democratic tendency, conditioned by the rise of the working class, and a countertendency, a pull in the opposite direction by the bourgeois art establishment.
The ‘social turn’, or socially engaged art, of recent times is an example of this on one side, as is the high-production-values art of the likes of Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst on the other. One thing I do argue, and I’m fairly confident about this, is that the ecological crisis is bound have a profound effect on art. The art of the past from the caves of Chauvet and Lascaux to Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox, Constable’s landscapes and Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided has always reflected changes in the relations between human beings and nature.
The present metabolic rift with nature is so allencompassing and deadly that art and artists are bound to respond to it. I do not mean just art that protests against climate change, though there is already that and there will be more, but that the Anthropocene will have deeper effects in ways we cannot concretely foresee. One thing I argue throughout the book is that art constitutes a part, not the most important part perhaps but a part nonetheless of the struggle to be human and to achieve human liberation. Today it is clear that both human survival and human emancipation require the healing of the metabolic rift with nature created by capitalism.
Art has a role to play in that. Finally, I believe that the Marxist method, historical materialism, precisely because of its double focus on social context and creative response, is uniquely fertile when it comes to grasping and analysing the power of major art. My hope is The Dialectics of Art, in a small way, helps to illustrate that.
The Dialectics of Art, John Molyneux, Haymarket