What makes a great painting—or a great sculpture, song or poem—great? What makes it art at all?
Is it the technical skill it requires, the emotions it evokes or something called “beauty”? For art historian and socialist activist John Molyneux, the answer lies in the labour that produced it.
His new book, The Dialectics of Art, outlines a Marxist approach. “It explores the tension between art and capitalism as they have developed over the last five centuries,” he told Socialist Worker.
“A lot of artists have been left wing or rebels. But even when an artist is right wing or trying not to be political, all artistic production in capitalist society exists under a state of siege.”
Molyneux’s fascination with art goes back to his childhood. He recalls a teenage visit to Florence in Italy, where he encountered Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures.
“If you stand in the Sistine Chapel you can see a clear shift in mood between the ceiling—where the young Michelangelo painted the hopeful The Creation of Adam—to his later work The Last Judgement on the walls. That stayed with me.
“Most art historians explain that shift in personal terms, about ageing, but I see in it the early hopes of the Renaissance being stalled as reaction set in.”
The 15th century Renaissance “was the beginning of capitalist development, especially in the Italian cities, and the complex creative responses to it”.
New economic models, together with revolts against feudal institutions, seemed to promise a better, freer kind of society.
It inspired artists—and began to separate their work from the rest of human labour.
“The modern concept of art emerges with the Renaissance,” John explained. “Before capitalism, the word ‘art’ was used more broadly, from handicrafts to mathematics.”
Picture the building site of a magnificent cathedral such as Notre Dame in Paris. The skilled, creative work of thousands of stonemasons and other workers was as much art as that of the architect.
The Renaissance brought the idea of the “genius”—an individual artist who alone controlled their output. For the rest of us, capitalism squeezed the creativity out of work.
“The production of everyday objects before capitalism often had an artistic character that disappeared with mass production,” John explained. Wage labour gradually robbed workers of control over what they produced and how, limiting them to miserable drudgery.
By contrast, an artist’s work allows creative self-expression. Socialist art critic John Berger called art “a model for freedom”.
After counter-revolution in Italy, Holland became the next hotbed of revolution, capitalism—and artistic innovation.
Art is going to be fundamentally changed by our changed relationship with nature
The book shows how Dutch painter Rembrandt’s portraits made heroes out of businessmen, yet showed an “implicitly anti-capitalist” empathy with outsiders and the oppressed.
“Rembrandt was both a product of that society and an instinctive critic of it,” said John.
The tension between art and capitalism grew as the revolutions faded into history—and it shows.
“Kings, queens and the rich used to have portraits painted by the greatest artists of the day, such as Hans Holbein. But by the nineteenth century, someone like Vincent Van Gogh painted postmen instead.”
Too many mainstream art commentators—through sexism, snobbery or squeamishness—refuse to see what is right in front of them.
“There is so much writing on Velazquez’s famous nude the Rokeby Venus, about its colour and so forth, that just ignores the fact that it’s a naked woman laid out with her bottom in the viewer’s face,” John said. “There was a rather stupid furore around Tracey Emin’s My Bed about whether it was even art. But her bed didn’t miraculously appear in a museum—it was a reconstruction, as much an artistic work as if Van Gogh had painted a bed.
“As has often been the case, the furore was about not wanting to engage with the subject matter.
“Emin put into art an experience of young, working class women that hadn’t previously been reflected in the art world.”
A Marxist approach can bring more clarity.
“What Marxism brings to the table is that art is an expression of social relations. These are the relationships between people—parents and children, sisters and brothers, servants and employers, and many others—and between humans and nature.
“The mark of great art—from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol—is its sensitivity to and insights into those social relations and how they are changing.”
The story isn’t over. “Art is going to be fundamentally changed by our changed relationship with nature,” John anticipated. “The prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux, landscapes by Thomas Gainsborough, and Damian Hirst’s cut up animals all reflect the different relationship between humans and nature in different societies.
“With the profound ecological crisis we now face, it is impossible for that not to have an impact on the development of art.”
Marxism brings more than a theoretical insight to art. Healing the rift between art and labour, between creativity and production, will take a revolution against capitalism.
“In a socialist society, artists will become producers and producers will become artists,” said John. “As we overcome the legacy of capitalism, the way we shape our world and ourselves will become both productive and artistic at the same time.”