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The Marxist Theory of Art

THE mARHIST
THEORY OF
ART
************************ ******************************************

Rager Taylar
Therefore, concepts have histories and that this
is so has rich implications for conceptual enquiries,
for with the demise of essences concepts become no
more and no less than historical phenomena, so that
their history is not incidental to what they are.

Thus, conceptual investigation must investigate
social practice. So construed, this investigation
is not just collecting together relevant verbal practices. The entire range of behaviour associated with
a society possessing a certain concept needs to be
related, not only to the way other concepts of that
society manifest themselves, but also the society’s
projects, functions and structures. This approach
is not one of recommending social explanations for
instances falling under concepts (though of course
instances require such explanations), but one which
emphasises that conceptualising itself is a social
process and must be understood accordingly. The
truth of this directs us to two perspectives on our
concepts, one internal and the other external such
that taken together they may not match up, one being
ideal and the other real. It is my contention that
contemporary Anglo-American philosophy has concentrated on what is internal to the exclusion of what
is external, and thus an understanding of a practice
has been conducted from within the practice, therefore running, prima facae, the risk of distortion.

At this point my argument is too general to be
clarifying, and, therefore, I turn to the specific
issues of this paper with the hope that they will
cast some light where there is gloom. If my optimism
is not misguided it will be seen that the social
considerations with which this paper is concerned,
unravel the problems which aesthetics, when it is
pursued from within, generates rather than solves.

I take up the theme of this paper by means of what
might appear initially to be a digression. It
concerns constructing a fantasy through the assertion
of a number of predictions which are not meant as
true. The digression quickly leads into the main
theme.

It is one of the orthodoxies of contemporary
philosophical aesthetics that ‘art’ is an open
concept. For those unfamiliar with the field one
could do no better than recommend Morris Weitz’ [1]
article ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’ in which,
following Wittgenstein, Weitz propounds the orthodoxy.

This orthodoxy is not without its critics, but for
the purposes of this paper the criticisms will be
ignored and the orthodoxy taken up as a basic
assumption. My toleration of this procedure stems
in part from my belief that what criticisms there
are, are only important in fulfilli~g obligations
towards academic circulation. More to the point,
however, is my wish to argue, if only by implication,
that open concept theory is minimally explanatory
unless the detailing of an open concept involves a
social perspective. Thus, though accepting open
concept theory, it is my contention that contemporary
anti-essentialists, where they have bothered to
look at the family resemblances within a concept,
have thought it sufficient to exhibit a number of
differences. Accordingly, open concept theory has
been used largely as a weapon for defeating
essentialists but this, in itself, does not take
us very far towards understanding our conceptual
apparatus. Open concept theory urges us to take an
organic, rather than a static, view of our concepts
and therefore should lead to social and historical
investigations. It is with such an elaboration
of the orthodoxy within contemporary aesthetics that
this paper is concerned. The conclusions reached go
far beyond anything in Weitz’s article for they
propose a theory of art which is Marxist in method,
where existent Marxist theories of art are Marxist
only in coming from Marxists.

Before proceeding with the main body of the
paper I offer a short clarification of my methodology.

For Wittgenstein, games did not have some common
characteristic in virtue of which they were games;
instead of some shared essence one finds family
resemblance. Now, if this is so, why is it so?

At one level the answer must lie in the growth of
the concept. The word ‘game’ was not given divinely
along with a set of rules specifying all its
applications, rather it exists dialectically within
human practice determining it and being determined
by it. As Wittgenstein says in Philosophical
Investigations:

In 200 years from now the society which will
then exist will have preserved our art. They will
call what they preserve the Art of the 20th century.

Their choice will have been made after entertaining
the following considerations:

What did the 20th century produce that was
distinctive of it?

[2]

And is there not also the case where we play
and – make up the rules as we go along? And
there is even one where we alter them – as we
go along.

2 What did the 20th century produce which convinces
us, which allows us to enter into it?

M. Weitz, ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’ in
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

Vol.XV, September 1956.

2

L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,
Oxford, 1953.

29

Their deliberations lead to the conclusions that
works of Picasso, Moore, Brittain, Eliot will not be
preserved, or if preserved (‘let’s preserve them as
curious examples of the bad taste of the 20th century’)
not preserved as art, and that 20th century art
consists of cranes, gasometers, power stations, farm
machinery, cars (not forgetting motor-bikes), bubblegum machines, petrol pumps, Stevie Wonder, Elvis, Vera

Lynn, Ivor Novello, Harold Robbins, Agatha Christie,
Leslie Charteris and here perhaps it makes sense to
say etc.

This fantasy stems from a possible misunderstanding of a stray comment made by the Pop-painter
Robert Indiana, who is reported, as having said,
When the remains of our civilization are dug
up in a thousand years it WLll be our washing
machines more than the contents of our museums
which will define our culture.

Now we might say of
made are made in an
way. We might like
in this way, but we

these predictions that the choices
artificial, if apparently ideal
to think our own choices are made
must attend to another factor.

There are certain presuppositions in our society
about which objects are art objects. It would be
agreed (this is the prevailing, though not necessarily
the majority view) that Bach, Rembrandt, Shakespeare,
Keats and Rodin all produced works of art. Given the
appropriate education, we will all know how to extend
this list, even if we have doubts about the value of
art or high culture. We will be able to select solid,
middle of the road contenders for the list, instances
which no one in his right mind would challenge; we
will also have a feel for the marginal disputable
cases, for instance Lichtenstein, Cage, Robbe-Grillet,
Godard, the Beatles.

The factor we need to attend to then is the
influence and primacy of the lists. The predictions
predict artificial choice-making because they neglect
the influence of what we might reasonably call
tradition. The generation, which it is supposed would
have to make these choices, would have lists. They
might modify them or make alterations, but it would be
unreal to suppose they could ignore them. Of course,
individuals might ignore them, but under what conditions could a society in general? As a society we
cannot decide afresh what constitutes the art of the
18th century ( we may quibble about
few specific
cases) for this is a fait accompli and so would be
the art of the 20th century to the people of the 22nd
century.

a

However, dropping these thoughts for a moment,
if we assume that these predictions turned out to be
true, this would suggest either that we have made a
mistake, or that the people to come will have done
so. Let us take the former view and ask how we
might explain our mistake.

We might try this hypothesis: The lists of
course have their own influence, which in part is to
say that people within the culture will be taught the
lists, as they are taught for example the list of the
kings of Europe. But, nevertheless, the lists are
made. However, an addition to the list is not
arrived at as one arrives at, for example, the winner
of a beauty contest. An addition to the art list is
not arrived at by a panel of judges coming together
to adjudicate. The process involved is more diffuse
and less deliberative. To explain it we require
social analysis. The kind of social analysis required
is that which we glimpse in books like Hauser’s The
Social History of Art [3] when, instead of explaining
the structure of a work of art through the social
complex in which it emerges (this is the main feature
of Hauser’s book and in general the main feature of
Marxist aesthetics), one explains how a work’s being
taken up and becoming established is the result of
social processes. Within contemporary society on p
might well see these processes as constituting a
business or industry. We might advance the proposition
that the process which makes something a work of art
– or, if you like, makes something be held as a work

3

A. Hauser, The Social History of Art, London,
1962.

of art – is an involved social process, concerning
the interaction between this industry and other
aspects of society. Thus, we might profitably
compare an addition to the art list with the way in
which a washing powder establishes itself as successful. Clearly, in the latter case, success is not
the result of a fully deliberative and rational
process on the part of consumers. If it was, a
magazine like Which would be a sellout, rather than
a necessary primer for the minority group of
efficient technocrats.

We might go on to conclude that the list we can
construct is the outcome of a certain class situation
in society. Thus within contemporary society the
art list, and growth within it, stem from social
processes within upper middle class society. For
instance, in our schools it is not working class
culture which is commended to the pupils, but high
culture. High culture emanates from the upper middle
class. Of course, there are members of this class,
who, in the language of the class, are philistines;
just as there are devotees to high culture within the
working class. But too much is made of this point.

It certainly is not enough to justify the excessive
time given to classical music on the BBC’s music
programme, that is, as an answer to the charge that
the programme caters exclusively for an unfairly
privileged minority class.

At this point we might propose the following
explanation of the posited mistake: Namely, the
mental set of the predominating class in this area
blinkers it from what is of true value. Though this
is not my thesis, the suggestion it contains is not
so preposterous, for, analogously, it is ar~.ued that
it is because of their background that the working
class prefer say, Family at War to wait’ing for Godot,
and thus make the mistake of thinking the former of
more value. To add weight to the explanation, we
might allege that the vocabulary or the concepts of
aesthetics constitute a mystique evolved within the
upper middle class in order to wrap up its preferences.

The class speaks of its preference being ‘art’. The
language itself confers a special status on what is
enjoyed. Such a thesis about the concepts of
aesthetics would be reinforced by the work of such
people as Kristeller and Tatarkiewicz. I won’t
say anything further about the nature of their work
here as I shall have occasion to return to it.

In explaining the assumed mistake in this way
it is tempting to go on to say, ‘this art of ours
is not art, it is merely what the upper classes
enjoy, whereas real art is petrol pumps and bubble
gum machines’. Similar moves to this can be found,
for instance, in Tolstoy [4] and Plekanhov [5].

For Tolstoy, having dismissed the art of the upper
classes as art, goes on to specify true art as that
which transmits emotion, and Plekanhov, having made
a similar dismissal, goes on to specify true art
as having firm roots in reality and claims that in
the final analysis, form must correspond with
content. However, what I want to say is that, though
we have already touched upon some of the factors
relevant to an understanding of the concept of art,
something has gone wrong at a methodological level.

In fact the mistake we have been trying to explain
does not exist, and there is no category of true art
apart from the established category.

To bring out something of my meaning I refer
next to a section in Istvan Meszaros’s book Marx
Theory of Alienation [6]. I quote:

4

L. Tolstoy, What is Art, New York, 1960.

5

G. Plekhanov, Art and Social Life, London,
1953.

6

I. Meszaros, Marx Theory of Alienation, London,
1970.

However, when we return to art the method is
not the same. Art is somehow a more basic category
like, say, language. Alicja Iwanska, a social
scientist, asserts: [9]

What matters here is to point out that art, in
so far as i t is negatively affected by the
division of labour, must be superseded. Since

(and here we are given a quotation from Marx)
‘Religion, family, state, law, morality, science,
art, etc., are only particular modes of
production’ (quotation ends) and since production
in general is under the spell of alienation,
the positive transcendence of human selfestrangement can only be realized by means of a
(and here another quotation) ‘return of man from
religion, family, state, etc., to his human,
i.e. social mode of existence’.

… there exist in all human societies four
basic orientations towards the environment:

cognitive orientation, moral orientation,
activist orientation and aesthetic orientation.

As far as art is concerned, Marx would have agreed.

Incidentally, Iwanska doubted, at one stage,
the universality of what is called ‘aesthetic
organisation’. Investigating a community of farmers
in Good Fortune, she had concluded that they had no
‘aesthetic orientation.’ whatsoever. ,It was only
some time later, when she found in he’i- field notes a
record of a monologue indulged in by one of the
farmers, that she changed her mind. He had some
welding apparatus and used to weld things together
without purpose. She found that he had said to her,
‘Look at these sparks, isn’t this like Hollywood?

And this is me who is doing it all … , sparks like
fir,eworks, like stars, like aeroplanes … I feel
like God creating the world … Isn’t this wonderful!’

In retrospect she concludes,

Meszaros goes on:

‘etc’ here clearly includes art that occurred
in previous enumerations to which this latter
one refers.

This passage does not mean that art, science etc.

ought to be abolished – although this impression
may be created by references to religion, state
and law.

It goes without saying that in Marx’s
view mankind without art and science would be
an enormously impoverished humanity if conceivable at all in concrete historical terms.

I do not hesitate today to call this nonutilitarian welding of the Good Fortune farmer
a non professional artistic activity of
creative type.

Of course Meszaros’s interpretation of Marx is
quite correct. For Marx art is not a concept of the
same type as the concept of the state. Thus, for
Marx art is a universal feature of human reality,
whereas the state is, in comparison, temporary.

Unlike many critics of Marx, I do not see his view
of the state as essentialist. For Marx ‘the state’

is a phrase used to refer to an assortment of
institutions within society. These institutions,
in themselves, tend to conform to certain assertions
about them, such as their being controlled by the
ruling class, their not emerging until the division
of society into classes, and their fulfilling the
function of preserving the status quo. These
assertions are not an unsystematized collection of
observations, but assertiORs explained by a compre~
hensive theory about social development. It is for
this reason that they take on a law-like significance.

These assertions then have an air of necessity about
the, though this necessity is not logical necessity.

Thus, there is no contradiction in Marx citing
instances when the state has functioned independently
of the ruling class, as for instance Popper [7]
supposes, nor does the thesis about the state fall,
as Plamenatz [8] supposes, because it is not logical
nonsense to assert that a society lacking class
divisions might require institutions like the
institutions of the state to resolve conflicts
between different interest groups. A real attack on
Marx here would involve showing that the state is in
fact independent of the ruling class for the most
part, and that there have been perfectly normal human
societies lacking classes but possessing interest’

groups which developed a state to reconcile conflict
between them. For Marx there is no abstract problem
about the nature of the state. The state is an
evolving set of institutions (i.e. an historical
set), about which we may ask for the social practices
out of which they arise and for the social practices
which they imply. To call these institutions the
state is one other social fact which requires
explanation, and in its turn it implies a collection
of notions and concepts which, again, we can only
understand in terms of the social practices which
give rise to them and the social functions they
fulfill. It is against the background of this
methodology that it makes sense to predict the withering away of the state.

Belatedly perceptive perhaps, she got there in
the end. But it might have been better to send the
novelist Patrick White.

Returning to Marx, it would be wrong to make
too much of his views on art, for he dealt with the
subject only in passing, and if he had given it his
full attention we might have something very different.

Raymond Williams makes this point nicely in his
Culture and Society [la]. He says,
Marx himself outlined, but never fully developed,
a cultural theory. His casual comments on
literature, for example, are those of a learned,
intelligent man of his period, rather than what
we know as Marxist literary criticism. On
occasion, his extraordinary social insight
extends a comment, but one never feels that he
is applying a theory. Not only is the tone of
his discussion of these matters normally undogmatic, but also he is quick to restrain,
whether in literary theory of practice, what he
evidently regarded as an over-enthusiastic,
mechanical extension of his political, economic
and historical conclusions to other kinds of
fact.

Engels, though habitually less cautious,
is very similar in tone. This is not to say,
of course, that Marx lacked confidence in the
eventual extension of such conclusions, or in
the filling-in of his outline. It is only that
his genius recognized difficulty and complexity,
and that his personal discipline was a
discipline to fact.

Now my suggestion is that to understand the
concept of art it should be treated as Marx treats
religion, state or law, and perhaps even to the point
at which we forsee its abolition. Meszaros is quite
right in saying Marx did not see things in this way,
but it is being suggested that it would be fruitful
to do so. As it stands, the view of art as some
fundamental human dimension plus the Marxist doctrine
of realism leads Marx, if not Marxist aestheticians,[ll]
9

A. Iwanska, ‘Without Art’ in British Journal of
Aesthetics, October 1971.

7
8

K. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies
Vol.2, London, 1957.

J. Plamenatz, Man and Society Vol.2, London,
1963.

31

la

R. Williams, Culture and Society, London, 1968.

11

K. Marx and F. Engels, Literature and Art,
selections, New York, 1947.

The general thesis I have in mind is summarized
in Adkins Richardson’s article [14]. He says,

into some curious rationalisations. Thus Marx, in
trying to explain the validity of our interest in
Greek drama, which he concedes presents a false
picture of the world, argues that this interest is
like our interest in a child’s first attempts to
understand its environment: though they are naive we
are entranced by their naivet~. This example can be
found in A Contribution to a Critique of political
Economy [12].

The appearance of Art as distinct from craft
or skill is a phenomenon of modern history.

Raymond Williams, in Culture and Society, shows
that this use of the term comes into common
English during the last decades of the 18th
century in company with the use of ‘culture’ to
designate a norm opposed to that of the despised
masses. Only as capital and industry make
possible the total democratization of life is
there any serious demand from the highly literate for prescriptions of eliteness to distinguish
their values from those of common folk. It can
be argued to considerable effect that the very
notion of absolute standards of decorum in life
was already a response to the incursions of a
‘patent nobili ty’ (drawn from the [,real thy middle
class) upon the ancient provileges of the
nobility of gentle birth.

In trying to construct a Marxist theory of art
(in the methodological sense indicated previously),
we might start by attending to the distinction
between the category of art and what might appear
to be another category with which it could be
confused. This second category is indicated in
saying it includes music, dancing, poetry, sculpture,
painting, drama, ballet, opera, novels, architecture,
and at this point it makes sense to say etc. Thus
if you were asked to extend the list you would be
unlikely to say ‘petrol’ or ‘shears’. Now this
category is not the category of art, though it
includes it. Thus, for instance, the category
includes contemporary low culture which is excluded
from the catetory of art. At this point we might
question whether the claims that art is universal
are invalidly deduced from the belief that this more
general category is universal, i.e. as though to
claim the latter was to claim the former. However,
even in the latter case universality is far from
clear, for though it might be legitimate to identify
dancing, musi~ and poetry in most societies, this
is not the same thing as identifying the more
general category. To identify the more general
category, we should need to be satisfied that the
society being investigated did in fact divide its
world up in this way. But more important than any
of this is the fact that, as we make a distinction
between art and the general category, it is this
distinction which needs to be explained if the category of art is to be understood. Thus, if art is a
sub-class of the more general category, why is this?

It seems quite obvious, from the ways in which we
use these notions, that the distinction must have
something to do with evaluation, prescription,
commendation, etc, despite Richard Wollheim’s disclaimer at the end of his recent and influential
Art and its Objects [13] where he says,

This last point that Adkins Richardson makes is
very much drawn from Hauser.

In discussing Leonardo’s conceptualisations of
his world Adkins Richardson goes on,
For him the suggestion that a panel painting
by a routinely competent artisan might not be
art would have been meaningless. Such transcendent, exclusive concepts of value did not
exist for the Quattrocento … Art was invented
by a later industrial age.

The suggestion to be derived from this is that
the notion of exclusive value was initially an
invention of the aristocracy, as a way of distinguishing the superiority of its form of life from
the assault on it by the revolutionary bourgeoisie.

This constitutes the origins’of art. The victorious
bourgeoisie subsequently ta~es over the concept, in
part, as the result of its aspiration to be the.

ruling class and in part, as a response to the class
conflict that, as the ruling class, it generates.

It is part of this thesis that the category of art,
which we possess, is no older than Capitalism
itself.

It will be observed that in this essay next to
nothing has been said about the subject that
dominates much contemporary aesthetics: that
of evaluation of art, and its logical character.

This omission is deliberate.

The truth of this thesis is supported by certain
accounts of the history of aesthetics, and here I
have in mind the work of Tatarkiewicz and Kristeller.

It is Kristeller’s argument [15], for instance, that
it is only in the 17th and 18th centuries that the
modern system of the arts emerges. In the ancient
world art meant grammer, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, medicine and
architecture; or rather this would be a typical list
of the liberal arts, whereas a rather sketchy notion
of the ‘imitative arts’, though including poetry,
sculpture and music, would also include sophistry,
the use of mirrors and magic tricks. It is
Tatarkiewicz’s suggestion [16] that for the ancient
world any rule bound activity was art. Kristeller
maintains that the absence of the modern concept of
art is also noticeable throughout the Middle Ages.

He says,

To say of a novel that it is a work of art, is,
within a standard setting, to evaluate it favourably
compared with other novels from which this
categorisation is withheld. Thus the sub-class art,
within the more general category, ostensively
indicated as music, dancing, poetry, sculpture,
painting, drama etc., is set up as the range of
notably superior instances within the category.

So it seems to me that we are not going to make
much progress in understanding the distinction,
unless we lay stress on evaluation. But now, how
are we going to account for this? What seems obvious
is that no aesthetic theory by itself, nor, I
believe, in conjunction with others, will justify
this distinction. The history’of aesthetics would
not be so barren if things were otherwise. However,
if we turn our attention from internal attempts to
justify the distinction, and take on a social
perspective, I think we begin to arrive at an
explanation. And this is an explanation which
rather undermines attempts at justification. The
details which this social perspective reveals are
documented, to some extent, in many of the books and
articles to which I have been referring.

12
13

The very concept of ‘art’ retained the same
comprehensive meaning it had possessed in

K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of
Political Economy, London, 1859
R. Wollheim, Art and its Objects, New York, 1968.

32

14

J. Adkins Richardson, ‘Illustration and Art’ in
British Journal of Aesthetics, October 1971.

15

P. O. Kristeller, ‘The Modern System of the Arts:

A Study in the History of Aesthetics’, Journal
of the History of Ideas, Vol.XII (October 1951)
and Vol.XIII (January 1952).

16

W. Tatarkiewicz, ‘The Classification of the
Arts in Antiquity’ in Journal of the History of
Ideas, April 1963.

development of science and the rise of Capitalism.

Throughout the process of change within this form
of life, we find that Kristel1er’s notion of the
modern system of the arts remains constant – though
there are additions (e.g. film in the 20th century)
– and yet this constant feature fails to close the
concept, for, as we have already noted, art is a
sub-class of a more general category and the more
general category is really Kristel1er’s notion.

That art is a sub-class in this sense depends on
the intrusion of value. This concept of value
cannot be understood abstractly but must be interpreted socially. We find that it is an invention
of the ruling class brought on by a situation of
class conflict; there is need to create exclusive
values. Thus art does not simply mean the best
within Kristeller’s modern system of the arts, that
is within the more general category, for it can be
plausibly maintained that within this category the
contemporary working class mark off certain areas
as being of more value, yet clearly they refuse to
refer to their preferences as art. Thus the notion
of value tied into the category of art requires
social explication, for the only move which avoids
such an analysis would depend upon being able to
exhibit the criteria for this notion of value (i.e.

in a theoretical sense), but the tangled history of
aesthetics cancels any hope of this.

antiquity, and the same connotation that it
was teachable. And the term artista coined in
the Middle Ages indicated either the craftsman
or the student of the liberal arts. Neither
for Dante nor for Aquinas has the term Art the
meaning we associate with it, and it has been
emphasised or admitted that for Aquinas shoemaking and cooking, juggling, grammar and
arithmetic are no less and in no other sense
artes than painting and sculpture, poetry and
music, which latter are never grouped together,
not even as imitative arts.

For Kristeller the same sort of thing holds for
the Renaissance. Though Leonardo gives us something
looking like the modern system of the arts, this is
only so with important reservations. Thus the work
in question, Leonardo’s Paragone, was not composed
by Leonardo in its present form, but put together
from his scattered notes by one of his pupils and
again rearranged by most of the modern editors. And
in any case, architecture is omitted, the separation
between music and poetry is not consistently maintained and the comparison seems to be extended to
the mathematical disciplines with which painting, as
a science, is closely linked. Moreover, Kristeller
tells us, people like Castiglione see no real
distinction between poetry, music and painting on
the one hand and fencing, horse-riding, classical
learning, the collecting of coins and medals and of
natural curiosities on the other.

Thus art is a very specific form of life,
identifiable only within a specific social setting,
and contains within it works of art which are
identifiable as such simply because social processes
within the form of life have fixed on to them the
label ‘art’. That this is the sole ground of
identification is shown (a) by the fact that social
acceptance within the appropriate social area
guarantees that something is art, and (b) by the
fact that the reasons for and the explanations of
acceptance have been so diverse that acceptance
cannot be anything other than arbitrary. Therefore,
acceptance has been and is sufficient. In a
simplified form I am saying that art is nothing over
and above what the high bourgeoisie calls art and
that for this class these accreditations are labels
of value affixed without rationale, although this is
not to say that we cannot explain the general strategy behind the practice. It is a feature of this
analysis that we cannot go on to say ‘our art is
an art of the upper classes only and that real art
is x, y, z’, which is the move made by To1stoy and
Plekanhov, and the reason for this is that the
concept of art cannot be understood as an abstraction, because it is quite without significance
divorced from an evolving set of social institutions.

This is the methodological mistake referred to
earlier. Thus, art is an open concept, but to say
this is insufficient, because we need explanations
as to the contingent structure of this open concept.

We need to explain the origins of the concept, which
is clearly a task for social analysis. We need to
investigate its social significance, that is, not
the social significance of particular works of art
but the social significance of the category as a
whole. If to say of a concept that it is open is
an invitation to regard it organically, then we will
have done no more than scratch the surface if we fail
to uncover the social practices upon which its growth
depends.

From Kristeller’s own somewhat limited perspective the ground is paved for the modern system of the
arts, that is for our concept of art, by the
emancipation of the natural sciences. A development
which, of course, needs to be linked to a more
general process of social change, though Kristeller
does not do so. Kristeller says,
A point by point examination of the claims of
the ancients and moderns in the various fields
led to the insight that in certain fields,
where everything depends on mathematical calculation and the accumulation of knowledge,
the progress of the moderns over the ancients
can be clearly demonstrated, whereas in certain
other fields, which depend upon individual
talent and on the taste of the critic, the
relative merits of the ancient and moderns
cannot be so clearly established but may be
subject to controversy.

Thus the ground is prepared for the
for a clear distinction between the
sci~nces, a distinction absent from
medieval or Renaissance discussions
subjects even though the same words

first time
arts and the
ancient,
of such
were used.

In this paper a full documentation of this
thesis is impossible. It is clear that a great deal
of work is required. Much of it, to my knowledge,
remains unwritten’, although in this connection, one
should mention Reitlinger’s very detailed Economics
of Taste [17] as a very important source book. So,
instead, let me summarize where the articles to which
I have been referring lead.

The question ‘What is art?’ begins with the
concept we possess. In other words, the question
asks, ‘What is this which we have?’; for unless we
are trying to explain what we have, the question
makes very little sense. We find that what we have
is of recent origins. To borrow a phrase from
Wittgenstein we find that a distinctive form of life
emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries and that,
through a process of evolutionary and revolutionary
change, grew into the category of art as we now
possess it. Ultimately, the emergence of this form
of life can be shown to be dependent upon the
17

G. Reit1inger, The Economics of Taste, London
1961.

In conclusion, I shall try to be a little less
abstract and bring out the nature of my argument by
explaining some of its consequences and some of the
problems it gives rise to.

33

To begin with, consider the question of primitive art. It is a direct consequence of the thesis
for which I have been arguing that the primitive
world lacks the concept of art. Thus, to take up a
notion from Wollheim, the primitive craftsman had no
means by which he could have made the objects (which
we regard as primitive art) under the concept of
art. To make something under the concept of art

implies a whole set of social institutions to which
one’s activities are related, and these are and were
conspicuously absent within the primitive world.

Primitive art is art simply on the grounds that the
high bourgeoisie has assimilated such works into the
category it has created. In fact, as we know, this
assimilation is very recent and it has involved the
removal of such objects from museums to be rehoused
in art galleries. The point at which the high
bourgeoisie takes up the objects is the point at which
they enter the category of art. Another significant
case of this is the gradual incursion of Pop music
into the category of art. At the point at which the
high bourgeois press creates space for Pop, comes
the haggling as to its aesthetic status. Fifties
Pop doesn’t enter the upper middle class world and so
there are no pedantic debates as to whether the
performers are the new musical avant-garde, whereas
sixties Pop does and so the debate begins. The point
being made about primitive art here clearly undermines
certain Romantic conceptions of the artist. According to these conceptions there is a natural, primitive,
artistic impulse such than an individual living in
total isolation from the institutions of art can
nevertheless agonise himself into the production of
works of art. In opposition to this it is being said
that without knowledge of the appropriate social form
of life one could not intend one’s activity as art
(this is the thesis to which Richard Wollheim is
committed) and that for one’s products to enter the
category of art depends entirely on what use the high
bourgeoisie make of them (Wollheim’s thesis fails to
go this far).

Clearly in this explanation of the concept of
art the dominance of the high bourgeoisie is very
important. However, this idea of dominance should
not be misunderstood, for it certainly does not
imply that the practices of this class in this area
are rational, or that there is within the class a
conscious conspiracy that things should be thus, or
even that the class controls (autonomously) the
process which it makes. The form of life primarily
embraces this class, but this class is very much a
victim of this form of life with respect to the
irrationality of its practices and the traditions
it imposes. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly
than the way in which an expansion of consciousness
within the creative agents in art has enabled them
to twist the ruling class tail quite severely.

Clearly enough the class of artists has been much
less homogeneous or cohesive than the class of spectators. Within the history of art the artist has
been very much the performing monkey and his class
origins have not been universally influential. Thus,
for instance, in the spectators’ attitude to Van
Gogh we come close to perversion, and a perversion
not so far removed from the toleration of the
cigarette burns on the monkey’s paw in the interests
of the act. The need to be overwhelmed by what will
be referred to as Van Gogh’s great genius, or his
great vision, allows the spectator to justify the
hideous life without which, it is held, the vision
would have been impossible. However, many contemporary artists would view it as retrogressive to
attempt to emulate a life of such solitary masochism.

The artist has achieved some detachment from the
concept of art and what passes for his artistic
activity, as is commonly allowed, is a matter of
commenting on the concept of art. However, just
because the artist is labelled artist (i.e. it is
deemed works of art may possibly·come from him),
his activity is not, or rather cannot be, wholly
reflective or theoretical; for what he may offer
as a comment will inevitably be regarded as one of
the objects of art, or be assessed as such. This is
not the fate of a treatise on aesthetics. The
contemporary artist is very much aware of the elitist
character of art and the more cynical artists have
traded on this fact to make the category as overtly
absurd as possible. It has been concluded that
there is no rationale behind what instances are
instances of art, and that the instances of art are
instances of art as the result of the arbitrary fiats

within the high bourgeoisie. The fiats are not
arbitrary in the sense that there are no explanations
of them, but they are arbitrary in the sense that
there is no rationale behind them. However, it is
realized that, though the decisions have to be made
by a certain elite, this is not to say that, in
making the decisions, the elite is not a victim of
various influences. The biggest influence on the
elite is the way in which it is trying to fit into
the form of life. Similarly, the upper classes have
the public schools as their exclusive province, but
this is not to say that each generation does not
have its own problems of trying to match up to the
required form of life. It is a preconception that
works of art are likely to emerge from those who
have received training in the visual arts, it is also
a preconception that what emerges as a~t from the
present generation of art students may differ in a
revolutionary way from the present accredited
instances of art. What now if the artist group
makes an arbitrary choice (randomising operations
etc), amongst the instances of non-art (i.e. things
not acc~edited as instances of art by the appropriate
class) and presents them as art (i.e. offers them
in an appropriate setting). Well, what happens is a
small part of the present history of art. Exhibitions contain Squeezy bottles, artists in their beds
drinking beer, piles of human shit etc, and the
bourgeoisie buy the catalogue and duly make the rounds.

The more these activities occur the more they
become part of the relevant form of life and thus
the more they are assimilated within the category of
art. The social practices of the bourgeoisie make
the categor);!’, but this is not to say that the
bourgeoisie has full autonomy regarding these
practices.

As a final point let me add a word of caution.

The part played by the bourgeoisie in all of this is
a contingent rather than a necessary role, which is
to say that the bourgeoisie is not a defining attribute of art. As things stand art is what the high
bourgeoisie calls art, and there is no more to this
than a nominalist analysis, but this thesis, as i t
has been developed, implies that art is an open
concept and that the only adequate understanding of
this open concept is understanding it as an organic
form of social life. Thus, there is no way in which
we can logically preclude developments within this
form of life which might oust the bourgeoisie from
a position of prominence. Following a proletarian
revolution the proletariat might well take over the
conceptualising habits of the previous ruling class
and so art as a form of life could continue. Significantly, revolutionary activity proceeding from a
very different social setting would make the identification of that post-revolutionary society as
possessing the concept of art imponderable. Perhaps
this is the case in Mao’s China.

[~VAI~.NOCK “T~b OBJ EtT

34

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