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Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and the Motivation to make Political Art

‘eorg Lukuc:s, Waiter Benjamin,
and the Motivation to make
Politic:al Art
Jennifer Todd

In this paper I re-explore the relations which do and
which should hold between art and politics. I reaffirm the traditional Marxist view that there is an
overlap between socialist politics and aesthetic
activity from which both politics and art should
benefit. In particular, I argue that in some historical circumstances criteria of aesthetic evaluation
coincide with criteria of political worth so that an
aesthetic motivation exists to make political art.

Artists and socialists have too often failed to recognise this coincidence and so have failed to develop
a thriving and insightful tradition of popular art;
I think not just of Zhdanovist strictures on Soviet
art, also of the abstract expressionists’ antipathy
to politics, and of socialists’ antipathy to abstract
expressionism. There are institutional causes of
this divorce between artists and activists; these are
not the topic of the present essay. Here I concentrate on some theoretical oversimplifications which
exacerbate the difficulty of creating genuinely
popular and political art forms.

Consider two extreme views. On the one hand, it
is held that art and aesthetic concerns should be
subordinated to political imperatives, or indeed that
aesthetic value is reducible to social and political
value. Art then becomes an instrument of education,
propaganda or pacification. This was the position of
Zhdanov in the Soviet Union, at least after 1936. It
is the position implicit in Roger Taylor’s recent
book, Art~ An Enemy of the People [1]. Taylor holds
a populist political stance, and repudiates the fine
art tradition which, he argues, has not fostered
working class interests. It is the tendency encouraged by Raymond Williams’ literary theory. For
Williams rejects the concepts of ‘the aesthetic’ and
‘aesthetic value’ without replacing them with alternative criteria of quality in writing [2].

On the other hand, it is held that social and
political concerns are irrelevant to art and to
judgments of aesthetic value. This is the view of
the ‘art for art’s sake’ theorists. It is also the
position of Herbert Marcuse who argued that the subversive potential of art lies only in the ‘aesthetic
form’ which liberates Eros and celebrates human subjectivity in a way which transcends every ‘realistic’

political programme, capitalist or communist [3].

In arguing that there is a middle ground between
these extremes I return to the 1930s debates on
aesthetics and develop my own views through


exposition and criticism of the theories of WaIter
Benjamin and Georg Lukacs. First it is necessary to
clarify some conceptual issues.

I Aesthetic Values
Whatever its conceptual ancestry, and whether or not
its roots lie in repressed human desires, the concept
of aesthetic value is useful as a summary of the
marks of quality demanded in, for e~ample, novels,
poems and paintings. Here I simply list some values
which have been central in the art critical tradition
and which Marxists have emphasized. I will refer to
these values in the later argument.

Consider the cognitive value of art. Music,
poetry and films can give us insight into human life
and the structure of human emotions. Without such
depth of insight, otherwise interesting works tend
to become, we say, merely decorative.

On the other hand, consider the importance of the
exemplified and expressed properties of artworks.

These ‘formal’ properties give the pleasant or
jarring tone we experience in seeing a film or in
walking round a building. Without them, the insight
given by the artwork is indistinguishable from that
of sociology or psychology. Yet these exemplified
and expressed properties themselves partly constitute
the cognitive content of the work. Much of the human
interest of Franz Kline’s paintings, for example,
arises from the exemplified properties of the works.

The conflicting and crossing brushstrokes and gestures coexist as a ‘construction’ in a relatively
stable equilibrium. We see how the equilibrium comes
from the meeting of strong, heavy forces. The model
is taken from mechanical engineering, but in Kline’s
work it is metaphorically extended to the human
psyche and human relations; such insight into human
life grows out of the purely ‘formal’ qualities of
the work.

Turn to another type of aesthetic value, the value
of artistic progressiveness. Artistically progressive works or styles open the way for future artists
to explore fruitful new problems. Cezanne’s work is
a paradigm case of artistic progressiveness.

Finally, consider the Utopian and life-affirming
aspects of art. As Marcuse has emphasized, art can
keep alive ideals which are repressed in existing
society; it can express unrealized hopes of peace,

reconciliation and joy; the beautiful work can offer
‘the promise of happiness’ .

Just as the exemplified formal structures of a
work cannot be ignored in evaluating its cognitive
content, so they partially constitute its artistic
progressiveness and its Utopian content.

The values I have listed above may not be the only
aesthetic values or the analytically basic aesthetic
values. I claim only that they are aesthetic values
and that they have been accepted by artists and
critics from many traditions. American abstract
expressionists, Irish traditional singers, and the
English political poets of the 1930s would have
accepted these values, their relevance being confined neither to the twentieth century nor to
capitalist society.

situation in which art becomes popular and integrated
into all other aspects of social life in this manner
but the question remains open how art can and should
articulate political ideals.

(b) Artworks may be directly and narrowly political
by fostering the policies of specific political
parties. Some Soviet artists purposely made pictures
propagandizing against grain-hoarding or for the
collectivization of agriculture; Soviet cultural
policy after 1936 was in favour of such partypolitical art [6]. Yet to argue that all art should
be political in this way is totally to subordinate
aesthetic value to political worth; aesthetic interests are not granted even relative autonomy with
respect to immediate political aims. There is thus
no aesthetic motivation to make such political art.

11 Ways for Art to be Political
What is political art? It is not simply art that
happens to be politically effective. For almost any
artwork can be used for almost any political purpose.

just as almost any painting can be used to cover a
damp patch on the wall. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus
and James Joyce’s Ulysses would be equally politically effective as weapons with which to hit fascists
on,the head. Any piece of music might trigger the
memory of one politician while lulling another to
sleep, with grave political consequences. Such
examples, of course, show nothing specific about art
or politics because in these cases the political
import and effectiveness of the work does not derive
from its symbolic functioning. The interesting cases
are those in which the political import and effectiveness of the work derives from its use according to
the appropriate symbolic rules.

In art, as in other forms of symbolism, reference
to objects, events or properties is rule-governed
and context-dependent. Terry Eagleton correctly
insists that the rules and conventions which constitute the meaning of the artwork are not given once and
for all when the work is made; they are themselves
produred through the labour of interpreting and reinterpreting the artwork [4]. Yet these rules and
conventions are not produced through purely arbitrary interpretations; our interpretations are and
should be guided by the physical structure of the
work and its relationship to other works.

The question of how the rules of artistic reference are constituted is a difficult one, to be discussed in somewhat more detail below. Here I point
out that two extremes are to be avoided: a consumerorientated, Humpty-Dumpty relativism, where ‘the work
means what we want it to mean’; and an essentialist
approach where the full meaning of the work is given
prior to any interpretation. When both these
extremes are avoided, rational argument about interpretation becomes possible and we can say that some
uses and interpretations of artworks are appropriate,
others inappropriate.

Consider, some ways in which artworks may be
political in virtue of their symbolic functioning.

(a) An artwork may participate in forming political
and cultural ideas; it may become a common point of
reference for a social group when it articulates
their ideals [5]. Eisenstein’s revolutionary films,
for example, informed, reinforced and legitimated
the beliefs and ideals of a generation of Soviet
workers. Political art of this type requires an
underlying social movement whose ideals it articulates and partly defines; without a growing socialist
movement, art which proffers socialist ideals will
not become a common reference point. Thus it would
be idealism to assume that artists could create such
political art, in any circumstances, by their own
efforts. We may hope to work towards a social



(c) Artworks may directly refer to social and
political issues without being narrowly partypolitical. Goya’s ‘Disasters of War'” are a condemnation of French Imperialism, Heartfield’s photomontages are clearly anti-Nazi without being specifically pro-Communist Party. It is not immediately
clear why there should be an aesthetic motivation to
make works with such a social content, and I will
return to this issue in the following section.

(d) Artworks may be political in that they change the
political relations of domination in the art world.

Brecht’s epic theatre promoted closer interaction
between author, actors and audience. Many Irish
traditional musicians are presently turning away from
publicity and record companies and playing for groups
of appreciative listeners. In such cases the
political economy of the art world is challenged,
the existing authority structures are changed and
new social relations of production formed.

The relations of domination in the art world are
not confined to political economy or to the context
of artistic production. There is also dominance in
aesthetic matters, where powerful persons combine
to define what counts as a new style, as aesthetic
quality or as creative direction of work. It can
become a political act to challenge the ideological
hegemony of these figures.

Further, the relations of domination in the art
world themselves help reproduce the class structure
of the wider society; ability to ‘cope’ in the art
world is at once a product of an upper middle class
education and a partial entry ticket to a privileged
social position. Thus challenging the political
structures of the art world may itself have wider
political effects; a flowering of radical artistic
genres gives impetus, spirit and direction to radical

It remains an open question, to which I will
return below, whether there is an aesthetic motivation to change the politics of the art world.


(e) All art has indirect social content and political
import in that all art informs our perceptions, emotions, thoughts or general outlook and thereby
affects our actions. The artist is a social being
whose ideas, ideals, preferences and reactions are
formed and coloured by his/her social relationships.

The style chosen by an artist is not simply an
acceptance or rejection of a previous form of art;
the choice expresses the artist’s social experience
which makes a certain form of, for example, minimalist
painting seem the only honest and direct mode of
communication open to him/her. In giving a particular expression of their experience of social forces,
artists show to us the given social reality and indirectly suggest the attitude which should be taken
towards that reality. Yet the artistic meanings
which affect our outlook “and attitudes are themselves
constituted in artistic activity which only exists in
a given form because of the given social economic and
political institutions. Thus existing social norms
partially constitute artistic meaning while art
itself participates in changing social norms.

I think that this analysis is accurate; however,
to say that all art is therefore political is to
extend the term ‘political’ quite far from its usual
meaning. While all artworks implicitly express
attitudes towards existing reality, some – like
Clifford Still’s paintings or William Carlos Williams’

poems – at most educate our perceptions towards a
more honest understanding of ourselves or a more
sensitive appreciation of personal relationships.

Such works may make us more sensitive, honest and
open human beings, qualities to be encouraged in
social life, but they are compatible with many
directions of political action.

One might, like Marcuse, extend the argument
further by suggesting that all art tends to increase
our awareness and appreciation of human subjectivity.

Even if this were true, we would again be stretching
the term ‘political’ in claiming that all art was
therefore political.

Not all art is political in senses (a), (b), (c)
or (d), nor is it clear that all art should be
political in those ways. We can think of works abstract painting, symbolist poetry, even C~zanne’s
paintings and Stendhal’s novels – which seem to meet
the criteria of aesthetic value discussed above but
which do not seem to be political in any of these
senses. Thus the aesthetic motivations to make
political art remain unclear.

Equally it is unclear that art which is political
in these senses is effective in bringing about socialism. Many documentary artists in the USA in the
1930s felt that their work was neither politically
effective nor of high aesthetic quality; they turned
to abstract expressionism in the 1940s, despairing
of changing the world through their art, hoping to
change themselves. The actual political effectiveness of Brecht’s innovations also remains questionable; did they win many, or any, converts to socialism? Marxists who are concerned only with making a
revolution might well argue that artists would be
more effective selling party newspapers than making
poems and pictures.

The most straightforward interconnection between
art and politics was discussed in category (e).

This, however, raises a new set of problems with
respect to the artist’s intentions and aims. If all
art has social content and political import, why
should the artist bother to consider social life at
all? Even if the artist is concerned with social
life, what is he/she to do about it? For the artist’s intentions are not always realized and the
public meaning of the artwork may not correspond to
the artist’s own political commitments; think of
Balzac and Zola. But if political commitment is so

divorced from political effect, the socialist
theorist and the working artist have problems on
their hands.

The crucial problem is that there is often a
discrepancy between artists’ intentions and their
results, a discrepancy which is not simply the result
of artists’ lack of skill. I shall argue that it is
precisely this problem which, in some historical
circumstances, provides the aesthetic motivation to
make art which is political in senses (c) and (d).

III Two Views of the Political Action of Art:

Lukacs and Benjamin
Recall Georg Luk&cs’ analysis of the relations
between the aesthetic quality, the social content
and the political import of the artwork [7]. Luk~cs
holds that the best art – Shakespeare, Balzac,
Tolstoy – most fully reflects the nature of the
artist’s society. Art is political in its mediation
of reality; contemporary art should increase our
consciousness of the real nature of our present
social situation and possibilities.

For Luk&cs, as for Aristotle, art is the ‘imitation’ of an action. Since human action is integrated
by the intentions or values guiding the action, so
art must express an analogous integration and sense
of human values. Since action involves interaction
with others, and is most serious when the tensions
and contradictions of the wider society are crystallized in the action, so such serious and typical
activity is the proper subject matter for art. Anna
Karenina, for example, lives out the social contradictions faced by every bourgeois woman; she is
heroic only in honestly facing her situation and in
refusing compromises. Such art, for Luk&cs, can only
show human strength and human potentialities by
situating the action in its social context.

In the above sketch of Luk&cs’ view, the notions
of ‘imitation’ and ‘action’ remain far from clear.

To be adequate to the full range of art forms,
‘imitation’ cannot simply mean the copying of the
appearance of the action, and the meaning of the
term ‘action’ must be broadened to include such
actions as emotional transformations and perceptual
activity, and the actions of social groups. Yet
Luk~cs’ basic point is, I think, both plain and
plausible. He argues that artists can only show us
the depth of human passions, virtues and vices if
they show these qualities emerging in social interaction in response to institutional oppositions and
conventional wisdom. The portrayal of such properties, he suggests, can only be trite if they are
shown in abstraction from this social context. If,
as Marx noted [8], our emotions and even perceptions
are formed and defined by their objects, then the
very description of human life involves its situation
in a social world. Thus Luk~cs has argued that if
artists are to make works of high cognitive value one of the marks of aesthetic value discussed above
– they must realistically portray their own social
world. It follows that there is an aesthetic motivation seriously to examine and portray one’s own
social milieu. One can accept this argument without
accepting Luk&cs’ other view, that stream of consciousness literary techniques cannot be realistic;
since portrayal of society may take place through
allusions, rather than by direct description or
representation, it remains an open question which
artistic styles are realistic at a given time.

Luk&cs holds that art is class-conditioned. It is
not the artist’s goodwill or commitment which allows

him/her to achieve realistic art. Rather his/her
social situation either encourages or precludes such
a total view of social life. For example, after the
bourgeois triumph of 1848 Western European novelists
like Flaubert and Zola, alienated from the bourgeoisie, had no class roots from which to create realistic art. The determinism of this view creates
problems in Luk~cs’ analysis of contemporary art.

Lukacs’ criticism of ‘modernist’ writers is
notorious. I think, however, that his analysis of
contemporary literature shows methodological problems
much more serious than insensitivity to Joyce’s
humour. In The Meaning of Contemporary Realism
Lukacs correlates contemporary literary styles with
two world-views – the existentialist and the
Aristotelian. He attempts to show the class bases
of these world views, and argues that the existentialist world view and the art which stems from it
lead to politically regressive practice. The
Aristotelian world view, on the other hand, is at the
basis of realist and humanist art; it is politically
progressive in as much as it leads to anti-Nazi and
anti-Cold War positions. Lukacs recommends that
writers adopt the Aristotelian style. He implies
that it requires only an act of will, the correct
moral stance, to adopt this style.

Such voluntarism sits uneasily with Lukacs’

determinist analysis. This unhappy mixture derives,
I think, from Lukacs’ method of analysing the
artist’s activity. He focuses almost solely on the
artist’s consciousness and the world-view informing
his/her work. Because ideology is the only mediating link between socio-economic life and the meaning
of the artwork in Lukacs’ practical criticism
(although in explicit statements he of course acknowledges other factors), Lukacs can make no practical
recommendations to artists other than to change
their thoughts and thus their practice. ‘Practicalcritical’ or ‘revolutionary’ activity on the part of
the artist can barely be conceived on Lukacs’ view
because the process of artistic production is treated
as inessential to the meaning and value of the

For WaIter Benjamin, on the contrary, art is a
form of material production [9]. Progress in art,
as in other forms of production, requires the full
use of the existing forces of artistic production.

This is only possible through a transformation of the
existing social relations of production. Benjamin
uses the notion of ‘technique’ to argue that progress in the social and political functions of art
leads to and involves progress in aesthetic quality.

Artistic technique includes the use of the existing
technical apparatus – cameras, publishing facilities
– and the transformation of existing modes of, for
example, writing, painting or filming. Benjamin
claims that artists, by their very profession, have
an artistic motivation to use their technical apparatus to the full and thus to develop artistically
progressive new styles and genres. The use of new
techniques is, for Benjamin, intrinsically linked to
the development of new styles. We might mention the
following facts in favour of Benjamin’s view, although they do not constitute any ‘proof’. New
styles emerge spontaneously when artistic tools are
used in a new manner. When new tools are used with
traditional artistic content – when photography
emulates painting – the results are usually of low
quality. When new tools are not used, artists tend
to get into a rut. Thus there seems to be an
aesthetic motivation to expand the existing forces
of artistic production.

Such expansion, according to Benjamin, constitutes
progress in the politics of art (our category (d)
above) for the use of new tools increasingly transforms the social relationships of artist and audience.

New technical developments demystify art, remove it

from the confines of the privileged classes, and
open it to communal use.

Benjamin recommends that artists reflect on their
artistic needs. They will see, he claims the need
to develop the forces of artistic production and
thus to produce work which is at once artistically
and politically progressive.

As Benjamin’s arguments stand, counterexamples
abound. The development of the artistic productive
forces is surely not a necessary condition of making
high-quality art; consider almost all modern American
poetry from Wallace Stevens to Robert Lowell, including AlIen Ginsberg, although not Bob Dylan. It is
not a necessary condition of making political art of
types (a), (b), (c) or (e); consider the political
poetry of Lorca, Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle, and
social documentary photographs. Benja~in suggests
that the development of the forces of artistic production will lead to art which is politically
progressive in sense (d); can Nazi films be explained
away? Even when use of new artistic tools is politically progressive, it does not always lead to work
of high aesthetic quality; consider hastily organized
agit-prop or puppet theatre.

It is easy today to see that Benjamin’s analysis
of the progressive political effects of film was
overgeneralized. Perhaps more important is the fact
that his discussion of artistic quality gets submerged in his discussion of technical innovations.

Benjamin emphasised the ways in which” art reproduces
the social relations of production. He did not
analyse the ways in which it mediates reality. The
symbolic functioning and meaning of artworks is not
discussed. Thus even if the 1’se of new artistic
tools is always artistically progressive, Benjamin
cannot argue that it leads to any other form of
aesthetic value since both the cognitive and utopian
values of art depend ort the work!s symbolic functioning. Because of his de-emphasis on artistic meaning,
Benjamin cannot even give a full account of the value
of artistic progressiveness. Progressive art, on
his view, ‘inducers] other producers to produce, and
. .. put[s] an improved apparatus at their disposal’

[10]. In what ways is the apparatus improved? We
might expect Benjamin to claim that it is improved
in its ability to let artists deal more adequately
and entertainingly with contemporary social problems;
to argue for these claims, however, would require
analysis of the new modes of artistic reference
possible with the new apparatus. All Benj’amin can
claim is that the new apparatus provides more new
techniques for artists to use. This quantitative
notion of artistic progressiveness is unable to
distinguish fruitful new techniques from technical
gadgets of merely passing interest.

Benjamin’s analysis of artistic production is inadequate without an analysis of artistic reference
and aesthetic value. While Benjamin distrusted discussions of aesthetic value, thinking that they
relied on an elitist, consumer-orientated attitude
towards art, he failed to provide an alternative
account of artistic quality and thus failed to show
convincingly the artistic motivation for politically
progressive art. His concentration on the process
of artistic production must be synthesized with
Lukacs emphasis on the role of art in mediating


IV Artistically Progressive Use of Socially
Conditioned Norms: a synthesis of themes in
Lukacs and Benjamin
A concentration on technique is not incompatible with
a concentration on the interpretation and evaluation
of artworks. There is not simply a causal relationship between technique and final product; the very
techniques may themselves embody norms which are
expressed in the finished work. The choice of a
particular mode of making pictures or songs indicates
how they should properly be interpreted; as Benjamin
has pointed out, mass mechanical reproduction of a
work tends to remove its ‘aura’ so that we would be
wrong to expect the same sort of expression from, for
example, a record as from a unique performance [11].

We must, however, broaden the notion of technique,
as Benjamin did, to include the styles and conventions chosen by the artist and the social relationships between artists, employers and audience.

Clearly styles and conventions – a painter’s choice
of flat or flowing brush-strokes, for example partially constitute the symbolic content of the work.

Rather less obviously, the social relations within
which the artist works themselves express norms which
are often echoed in the final product; when we find
out the rules promulgated by newspaper editors and
followed by photographers we often rightly change
our interpretation of a photograph [12]. I am
suggesting, then, that we must show how the norms
involved in the production process are themselves
expressed in the artworks produced. A social hermeneutics of artworks is necessary, in which we interpret the artist’s formal choices in light of the
norms he/she encountered in the production process.

Thus we at once see the symbolic content of the
work, and how that content was conditioned at all
levels of the production process.

A concentration on art’s role in reproducing
social relations is not incompatible with a concentration on its role in mediating reality. The way in
which artworks reproduce social relations is by their
effect on their audience. Benjamin and Brecht were
therefore concerned with the context of consumption
of the artwork – the audience’s mode of attention to
the work and the work’s subsequent effect on the
audience. At the absurd extreme,concern with the
audience’s reaction in abstraction from the meaning
of the work would involve the discussion of idiosyncratic trains of thought or worries of individual
members of the audience. Lukacs’ emphasis on the
meaning of the artwork, which provides the norm of
the audience’s response, is a salutary response to
this extreme.



On the other hand, as Harx points out, consumption
consummates and completes production [13]. Artistic
reference is not determined by natural or logical
laws but is socially constituted; the reasons why a
particular picture represents a funeral rather than a
party are rooted in the social institutions, pictorial
conventions and perceptual habits of the community.

While artistic reference is not relative to the
actual interpretation of any and every audience – art
does not mean just what we want it to mean – the
audience’s socially and historically conditioned

modes of perception and attention participate in
constituting the rules of artistic reference – if no
one had ever seen bathers in Cezanne’s series of
pictures he would not say that they represented
bathers, whatever the title. Here Benjamin’s discussion is a useful safeguard against Lukacs’

tendency to consider the meaning of an artwork in
abstraction from the audience’s response to it.

Thus a synthesis of the main themes of Luk~cs’

and Benjamin’s analyses is in principle possible.

Here I offer only some notes on the implications of
such a synthesis for the debate on art and politics.

Consider the various levels of artistic production
There is first the artist’s use of his/her tools.

This conditions the meaning of the product and is
ctirectly under the artist’s control. Artists can
choose to use a large camera with a long exposure
which allows a detailed, sharp and rich photograph
which cannot be achieved with small, short-exposure

At a second level, there are the artist’s social
relations with his/her employer and audience. These
relations condition the meaning of the artist’s work.

In the most obvious case, the work may simply not be
accepted by publishers or dealers until the artist
learns what is expected of him/her. In less obvious
cases the artist comes to accept the norms involved
in his/her social relations and produces work
expressing these norms while rationalizing this
process by theories about the nature of art. For
example, the artistic values of originality and newness are invoked, and distorted, to justify the
proliferation of new styles which keeps the New York
art market healthy.

Yet, as Benjamin saw, both these levels of production can be transformed by the artist. He/she can
develop the technical forces of production. And he/
she can avoid the distorting conditioning effects of
the social relations by changing the relations with
employers and audience – artists can work through
dealers or through poster campaigns, in street
theatre or in concert halls.

At a higher level of generality, artistic production is conditioned by conventions which the artist
may not recognise. The existing language (and I
include ‘languages’ of painting, film and music)
defines the artist’s tasks in ways which seem
natural. While individual artists may introduce
major revisions – as Cezanne did – they must rebuild
their linguistic boat while they are sailing in it.

Yet the conventions they accept often express a
particular way of seeing the world and thus have
indirect political import.

Further, as Georg Lukacs perhaps overemphasised,
artistic production is conditioned by forces and
institutions outside the individual artist’s control.

The socio-economic structure of the wider society to
a large extent defines the norms and problems which
the artist meets throughout his/her life. Phenomena
like depressions and wars thrust themselves upon the
artist’s attention. More subtle and pervasive are
the structures of experience formed in, for example,
anonymous, fast moving, violent American cities.

Such structures of experience cannot be escaped.

Even if the artist tries to ignore them, they are so
pervasive that they reappear in disguised form in the
artworks produced. For example, if the artist tries
to produce sacred pictures in a society where the
ritual and religious context of life has vanished as in the United States – or where it is permeated
with secular issues – as in the six counties of
Northern Ireland – the artist must fail, for the
secular norms of the age will be expressed in the
picture and this will prevent the achievement of a
religious art like that of the middle ages. For
another example, take the abstract expressionists.

They tried to ignore social reality and explore what

Franz Kline called the ‘tragic and timeless’ themes
embedded in their psyches. Yet, their work is
intensely social and, at its best, expresses the
fragmentation of experience in contemporary America
and gives a timely critique of the society.

Thus, while artists have some freedom to change
the process of production and the content expressed
in their work, socially conditioned norms still
appear in their work, even against their intentions.

These may, as Lukacs argued, prevent the achievement
of their artistic goals.

Even at this level, artistic creativity remains a
possibility. If certain social norms and themes are
going to be expressed in the artworks anyway, the
only choice for the artist who wants to change or
reject these norms is to make them the content of
his/her work and use them to suggest the possibility
of new norms and new forms of social organisation.

So, in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, the hero
Azdak exemplifies all the evils of the present
society – arbitrariness, one law for the rich, another for the poor, legalism – but in Brecht’s play
Azdak uses these vices to remedy existing social
evils and under his guidance the people prosper and
are happy. Similarly in some abstract expressionist
works the theme of fragmentation of community and of
experience is taken to the extreme so that the promise of happiness and order is seen to emerge. In
one of Aaron Siskind’s abstract expressionist photographs the cracked, splintered paint-man on the wall
almost splits apart; he also almost flies. Such use
of socially conditioned norms to suggest new possibilities is common to successful, socially critical
artworks. Siskind only suggests the promise of
happiness by showing the chaos of a fragmented
society. Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’ at once takes
to an extreme our everyday lack of concern about injustice, and makes us all too aware of the institutionalized injustice all around us. Franz Kline’s
work shows the conflicting forces which threaten
total destruction, yet he builds a complex equilibrium out of this conflict.

Such art is not necessarily political in senses
Ca), Cb), Cc) or Cd). It is politically progressive
in so far as it uses socially conditioned norms to
suggest new possibilities in art, thus making us
more aware of the institutions which presently embody
these norms and of the fact that these institutions
are not eternal. We see that in social life, as in
art, a new order can be made out of existing materials and the works suggest what this new order might
be like. They are not simply Utopian, not pure projections of the desire for happiness, for the hope
only emerges through portrayal of the existing social
norms. In the situation sketched above, it is only
through such ‘realistic’ focusing on contemporary
social norms that artists can transcend these norms
and achieve their artistic ~oals. Here, as Lukacs
would argue, the artist has an aesthetic motivation
to concentrate on present social life. Indeed this
motivation towards social consciousness and involvement may lead artists towards art which directly
refers to social and political issues – political
art of type Cc).

In the above discussion I accept some of Lukacs’

criteria of realism – that art should refer to
central features of contemporary social life and
project radical hopes for the future. I differ from
Lukacs in accepting a pluralism of forms of politically progressive art – abstract painting, music, as
well as more traditional novels may be politically

Further the need for such art must be seen in the
context of the whole process of artistic production,
for the structure of the productive process may prevent the achievement of such art. Benjamin argued
that there was an artistic motivation to transform

the social relations of artistic production. Whether
or not such a motivation exists depends on two
aspects of the structure of the social relations:

Ci) whether insightful politically progressive art
can be made within them;
Cii) whether the lack of a suitable audience reaction
within these production relations gradually
destroys the artist’s ability to make such insightful art. In this case, the artistic production relations would cause the degeneration
of artistic styles and the move from good art to
bad art. r14 ]
In such circumstances an aesthetic motivation would
exist to transform the existing social relations of
artistic production – to make political art of
type Cd).

There is no general answer to the question whether
artists should concentrate primarily on transforming
the artistic production relations or on showing
central features of the social world, whether they
should make a new theatre or new plays. The aesthetic
considerations will vary with the social circumstances
mentioned above, just as the political considerations
on the probable benefits of either choice will vary
with the strength of the working class movement and
the state of the capitalist economy.

Artists may have an aesthetic motivation to produce two sorts of political art. They may be motivated to make works which do not directly challenge
existing social relations yet which use socially
conditioned norms to suggest new social possibilities.

On the other hand, they may be motivated to make works
which transform the existing production relations and
help remove art from its traditional function as an
entertainment and legitimation for the upper classes.

Either sort of political art can exist alone. The
abstract expressionists, some of whom made political
art of the first type, worked for a small audience
and if anything increased the sense that. art is for
an elite. Daguerre, the inventor of photography,
provoked a radical change in the artistic production
relations, yet the content of his own work is rather
conventional. The best and most politically effective art – I think of Brecht, Chaplin, Eisenstein,
much jazz music – combines both aspects.

In the contemporary debate on politics and art one
side champions Daguerre, the other the abstract expressionists. I have tried to show that this is a
false dilemma. It is not a matter of choosing to
concentrate on the process of artistic production
alone, or on aesthetic meaning and value alone; on
audience reaction or on formal qualities of the work;
on actual political effectiveness or on eternal meaning; on working class culture or on high art. Rather
an integrated analysis is necessary where the relationship between the processes of artistic production
and consumption, on the one hand, and the changing
modes of artistic reference, on the other, are
investigated. At the same time an integrated praxis
is needed, where community artists look beyond the
good feelings generated by their new endeavours and
more conventional artists look beyond the confines of
the artworld. Only by such an integration, theoretically and practically, can we achieve a synthesis of
‘serious art’ and ‘popular culture’ which politicizes
and popularizes art without destroying its particular
role of representing reality, exercising our perceptions, and opening for us new imaginative possibilities.



Roger L. Tcly1or, Art, An Enemy of the People, Brighton,
Harvester, 1978.

Raymond l’Iilliams, Marxisl’l and Literature, Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 1977. Tony Bennett in his
FormalisM and Marxism, London, ~1ethuen, 1979, is even more
explicit in his rejection of normative judgements on the
part of literary critics.

Herbcrt ~larcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, Boston, Beacon
Press, 1978




Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology, London, Verso,
1978, chapter 5.

This aspect of political art is emphasized by Gordon
Graham, ‘Art and Politics’, British Journal of Aesthetics,
vol.18, No.3, Summer 1978.

Stephen Morawski, ‘The Vicissitudes of Socialist Realism’,
Inquiries into the Fundamentals of Aesthetics, Cambridge,
MIT Press, 1974, chapter 7.

Georg Luk:1cs, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, London,
l.ferlin, 1963, is a straightforward although sometimes crude
and confused exposition of his views. The following books
by Luk:1cs give a clearer sense of his subtlety and insight
in literary criticism: The Historical Novel, London,
Merlin, 1962; Essays on Thomas Mann, London, Merlin, 1964;
Goethe and His Age, London, Merlin, 1968; Studies in
European Realism, London, Merlin, 1972; Writer and Critic,
London, Merlin, 1978. See also the discussions by and
about Luk:1cs in E. Bloch, Aesthetics and Politics,
London, New Left Books, 1977.

K. Mar;x, ‘The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society’,


Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (ed. D.J.

Struik), London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1970.

See especially WaIter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’,
Reflections (ed. Peter Demetz), New York, Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1978. See also his essays in Illuminations
(ed. Hannah Arendt), New York, Harcourt Brace and World,

Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, p.233.

See especially Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations.

For a detailed discussion of this example and its implications, see my ‘Roots of Reference’, Journal of Aesthetics
and Art Criticism, Vol.XXXIX, No.l, Fall 1980.

Karl Marx, ‘Introduction to the Grundrisse’, Grundrisse
(tr. M. Nicolaus), New York, Vintage, 1973, pp.90-94.

Peter Fuller traces such a degeneration in his ‘Fine Art
after Modernism’, New Left Review 119, Jan/Feb 1980. See
al so his ‘American Painting since the Last War’, Art
Monthly, No.27, June 1979, and No.28, July-August 1979.

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