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How capitalism created modernism

This article is over 15 years, 5 months old
In the second part of our series Sinead Kennedy looks at debates among Marxists about art
Issue 2010
Picasso self-portrait from 1972
Picasso self-portrait from 1972

During the 1930s, a series of debates and confrontations emerged among a number of key Marxist intellectuals of the period. These debates raised fundamental questions about the relationship between politics and art and the role played by culture within a capitalist society.

For much of the 19th century realism had been the dominant artistic form. Realism attempts to capture and recreate a harmonious totality of human life.

For the Marxist Georg Lukacs, realism was the supreme literary form, as it allowed the artist to create a complex totality out of a world that tears apart the social and the individual, the general and the particular. Art, by this definition would be a microcosm of the complex social totality.

In other words, in the 19th century writers like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were able to take the inner life of their characters, locate it specifically in their own time and still generalise that life into the form of a complete vision.

However from the mid-19th century onwards, capitalism, driven by the desire for ever greater accumulation of profit, experienced a repeated series of crises, culminating in two world wars and the slaughter of millions of people.

It produced a fundamentally disorientating experience of the world, creating a crisis for our understanding. The possibility of a unified vision of the world was shattered.

Realism, as an artistic form, appeared exhausted and futile, incapable of explaining the world in any meaningful way.

Writers, artists and musicians began to react against realism and develop new forms of experimental cultural expression, which were collectively referred to as modernism.

Modernist techniques, for example cubism in painting (Pablo Picasso) and stream of consciousness in literature (James Joyce), confuse and disorientate the viewer or reader, but this is precisely the point. Modernism acknowledges that the world can no longer be understood as fixed, given and unchangeable.

The world of modernism is not a totality determined from the outset but open-ended, internally contradictory, reflecting multiple possibilities at any particular moment.

A number of critics including Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht defended modernism against Georg Lukacs’ accusations of irrationality and fragmentation.

The second important debate that emerged in the 1930s considered the relationship between art and capital. Art, like any other form of production depends upon certain techniques of production, such as painting or publishing.

These techniques are part of the forces of production of art. Benjamin took Marx’s theory of the mode of production and applied it to art, arguing that the artist should not simply accept uncritically the existing forces of artistic production. They should improve upon and revolutionise those forces, creating new relations between artist and audience.

Benjamin’s theories were influenced by the new art forms that were emerging in the early decades of the 20th century – cinema, radio, photography, musical recording and mass printing.

Benjamin argued that the role of the revolutionary artist is to develop these new media techniques, thereby increasing people’s access to art.

This is not just a case of publishing a revolutionary message through the existing media, it is about revolutionising the media itself, argued Benjamin.

The truly revolutionary artist is never just concerned with the artworks alone but with the means of its production. This was the approach of the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who ardently defended modernism. Brecht dismantled traditional theatre with its illusion of reality. He transformed both the political content of art and the way it was produced, creating a new kind of theatre, “epic theatre”.

Brecht’s theatre is open-ended and internally contradictory – encouraging the audience to enter into a “complex seeing” that is alert to several conflicting possibilities at any one time.

These are just some of the key debates that took place within Marxism during the 1930s, and in many ways they are still being played out today.

They not only developed important insights into the relationship between art and politics, but also allowed for a number of important developments in 20th century Marxist theory.

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