By John Molyneux
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Debating Marxism and art

John Molyneux responds to a review of his recent book

Diego Rivera’s mural ‘Man at a Crossroads’. (Photo: Flickr)

I would like to thank Dave Gilchrist for his review of my book. In particular for his generous statement that “there is a lot to recommend in this book, Particularly his reviews of different works of art”, and for his generally friendly and constructive tone. He even gives me praise I most certainly don’t deserve for “opening up a discussion about art in a time of pandemic”, since the coincidence of the pandemic and the publication of the book was entirely accidental – every word of it was written prior to Covid-19.

Many of the issues Dave raises – concerning the nature of artistic labour, the basis of aesthetic judgment, the relationship of form and content, and the role of socialists in relation to art – certainly require further exploration and debate. I am far from imagining that I have said the last word on any of them.

At the same time I think the specific way in which Dave raises these issues is not very conducive to the fruitfulness of that debate. What I mean by this is that his method is to describe my position on a point rather inaccurately, without any direct quotation from the book, and then critique the position as he has outlined it. The problem here is that he tends to present my arguments in a form that makes it easier for him to criticise them. This puts me in the position of having to object that I didn’t quite say some of what is attributed to me, which actually doesn’t advance the argument much. For example, and I will quote Dave directly here, He writes:

“The book focuses on aspects of those works considered great, or artists that have been accepted into the art and the wider establishment. Molyneux however is everywhere concerned with grading works, taking about ‘great art’, ‘second or third rate art’, ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. Here he seems to accept ideas about “the culture industry” and its predisposition towards making ‘low grade culture for the masses’… Molyneux adds that the judgement of art is to be made on the various categories used in bourgeois art. This includes criticism, beauty and unity – but, Molyneux argues, with the addition of the Marxist notion of how well it exposes the social relations of that society.”

First, this is a crude – and pejorative – summary of a careful argument I presented about the inescapability of aesthetic judgment. Second I don’t “accept ideas about ‘the culture industry’”. Whose ideas would these be – Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s? I simply think it is a fact that in bourgeois society, corporations of various sizes produce large amounts of “low grade”, indeed degraded material for the masses. This includes, for example, Love Island, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, endless violent ‘action movies’, innumerable quiz and game shows, Mills & Boon novels, The Sun, The Daily Star, The News of the World, the porn industry and much else besides. I can’t tell from his review, but does Dave dispute this?

Third, I don’t “add that the judgement of art is to be made on the various categories used in bourgeois art”. I discuss the criteria developed historically for assessing art, which are not accurately summarised as “criticism, beauty and unity”.

Then on form and content he writes,

“The second point Molyneux raises is that in his view, the definition of art is that form defines the content. Nicola Field in her review of the book in International Socialism put it like this, ‘The meaning contained in a poem lies in its choice and form of words – how they are arranged on the page.'”

Again this is not an accurate representation of my position. I am not saying that “form defines the content”, but that art involves a striving for “the unity of form and content”. It is telling that Dave quotes from Nicola Field not from me here. And then he writes,

“If this were true, then the production of the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that I saw at the National Theatre in London in English was trying to express different things  than the one I saw in the Berliner Ensemble in German. In fact emphasis and contemporary references may have been different but the points that Bertolt Brecht wanted to communicate were maintained.”

Well I didn’t see either of these productions but it doesn’t seem to occur to Dave that different productions of Brecht, or Shakespeare for that matter, may indeed “express different things” at least to some degree. In general there will be a combination of change and continuity. In any event what Dave argues here contradicts what he writes a few paragraphs later when he says,

“Radical theatre director Richard Shechner described this in his work Performance Theory. There are many layers to a performance that may start with a script, but the culmination of the process is the performance.”


“So here the art work is situated in an entire social environment which comes together to create the unique experience. The art is not finished when the playwright stops typing. Crucially, the audience is part of the art.”

So, in other words – different productions, different audiences, and a different work of work art?

Sometimes it feels that Dave’s root conviction is that my book is wrong, and that any argument will do to show this rather than worrying about the coherence of his own case. He writes:

“The relationship of form and content is one where the form is adapted to the content. The form is only the form of the content, to quote Lukacs. It is expressed well in the Bauhaus art studio slogan that ‘form follows function.’”

The slogan “form follows function” was coined in 1896 by the architect Louis Sullivan. It mainly applied to architecture, and then to the design of objects with a utilitarian function. Even in that context, the phrase is of doubtful validity. Office blocks, museums, teapots and lamps with very similar functions can be designed with different forms. But how does it apply to a painting by Van Gogh or Rothko, or a poem by Keats or Blake, or a piece of music by Charlie Parker? Unless of course what Dave means is that function is the same as content or meaning. What follows is that the form of Van Gogh’s Starry Night – including the vast spiral stars and the thick strokes of paint – or the specific notes of the Parker solo are essential to conveying the meaning of the work. But that is exactly what I am arguing in the first place and what he is claiming to critique.

If, however, what Dave is trying to say is that in art “the points” being communicated are what is essential and the form is either not very important or follows automatically, then he is simply wrong. Otherwise Lenin would have been a better poet than Pushkin. In truth I’m not convinced that Dave has thought through what he means by either form or content.

There are some other issues where I think Dave’s arguments are rather confused but this doesn’t get us very far. So I want to address what seem to be the two main substantive points in his review – art and alienated labour, and the question of an “interventionist” approach to art.

On the question of alienation, Dave argues two main points. Firstly, with the aid of a quote from Chris Harman, that in capitalist society alienation is so pervasive that there really is no “space” for non-alienated labour so this can’t be the basis for art. Secondly, that my argument collapses when you look at art that is a product of collective labour such as the performance of a play. As it happens these are old arguments that were put twenty years ago and I have answered them – in detail, including discussing the question of theatrical performance – in my book. Rather than repeat my answers here I will, for reasons of space, refer the reader to The Dialectics of Art pp. 32-39. The only thing I would add now is that if unalienated labour is rejected as a defining feature of art, what is it that does distinguish art from non-artistic labour and products? At the end of his review Dave offers, by way of answer, a couple of quotes from Voronsky,

“In the words of Aleksandr Voronsky – the Russian art theorist purged by Stalin – art is ‘the cognition of life.’  It is therefore a form of thinking about the world in which the symbols and signs of culture are wielded in the expression of feelings, emotion and thoughts…As Voronsky put it, ‘Science cognises life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation.’”

Certainly art is “the cognition of life” but that is not a definition because lots of other things are too, like train timetables, road signs and dictionaries. Art is not just “a form of thinking”, it is also material labour and not all art “wields the signs and symbols of culture”, such as musical composition. And the idea that science uses concepts while art does not is inaccurate because art also uses concepts. So this doesn’t work as a rigorous definition even if they are part of suggestive observations.

Finally on the question of an interventionist view of art, Dave attributes a contemplative position to me. He makes this on the basis a half remembered verbal remark, taken out of context, about it being a good idea to actually look at it. He says socialists should “intervene in art by participating, becoming artists and encourage the participation of workers in art events.” Of course we should – though I’d prefer to speak of engaging with rather “intervening in”. This is why I have  done quite a lot of that, including organising four Left in Vision shows at Marxism Festival, working with artists such as May Ayres, Dave Garner, Roxanne Chappell, Yasser Alwan and others, as well as working with many art students over the years. Dave may also not have noticed that in the book I call for an active alliance between the Left and art – see pp.40-42.

But I think perhaps he means more than this, judging by his critical comment about Trotsky and the reference to the early Communist Parties. This is not developed so it is hard to tell exactly what he is suggesting – some version of “proletcult” perhaps? But the view of art as arising out of struggle is over stated and mechanical. It is not that art doesn’t arise from struggle, but it doesn’t only come that way. Thus it is not true of Leonardo, the late Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Bach, Constable, Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Degas, Matisse, Francis Bacon, Jane Austen, TS Eliot, most of Yeats, Kafka, Pollock, Sylvia Plath and vast amounts of other work. And if he thinks socialists can “intervene in art” in the way we do in strikes and campaigns with concrete demands and organised proposals for the way forward then we really do disagree.

However I hope he doesn’t mean that, even if some of his formulations seem to point that way. The whole purpose of my book is to encourage workers and socialists to engage with art. And that this should be as part of the wider struggle for human freedom and a communist society in which, because alienated labour is overcome, so too is the division between art and non-art, and the mass of people become collective creative producers of their world.

John Molyneux is author of The Dialectics of Art, available from Bookmarks the Socialist Bookshop. If you would like to contribute to this debate email us at [email protected]

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