By Jeff Jackson
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ReNew Marxist Art History

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Issue 392

This volume of essays was initially conceived as a collection of contributions and articles (or “Festschrift” to give such a work its proper name) in honour of the Marxist professor, writer and historian Andrew Hemingway to mark his retirement from the Department of History of Art at University College London.

But the editors developed a second objective, that is to provide a snapshot of the current state of “an art history that can be considered Marxist”.
The book provides a lucid and important statement about where and how the discipline stands today.

That a volume – with its wide ranging spectrum of topics, from William Morris’s African Marigold fabric design to Theodore Adorno’s Critique of Culture – can achieve such a unity is located in the contributors’ insistence on a Marxist starting point.

This is what Hemingway insisted on in the preface to his 1998 book, Art in Bourgeois Society 1790-1850. He wrote, “We wish only to affirm that a theory of social and historical change is a prerequisite of any discourse that claims to engage with the historically specific circumstances involved in the generation of art objects or other cultural products.”

Here Hemingway was stating what Karl Marx had written in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “… it is always necessary to distinguish between material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, artistic or philosophic – in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

Marx’s formulation, which underpins the writings of Marxists such as Georgi Plekhanov, Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, would later be distorted and caricatured by Stalinists and academics.

They portray Marxism as a crude reductionist attempt to understand the development of art and culture solely through changes at the economic “base” of society. What this volume captures is how contemporary Marxist art historians have sought to re-establish and extend the original vibrant and sophisticated tradition.

They are acutely aware of the project they are involved in – to consciously argue for the Marxist perspective of art history and create a space in academia and challenge bourgeois ideology. They claim that this is an important field where the hegemony of the ruling class can be challenged.

Moreover, it is not overly academic in its language. And although in a number of essays it deals with the complex question of method, on the whole it deals with specific cultural subjects with valuable insights about particular artists and cultural developments by writers committed to using a historical materialist method.

Gail Day’s “Realism, Totality and the Militant Citoyen” (or “What Does Lukacs Have to Do with Contemporary Art?”) is a sophisticated restatement of Lukacs’ ideas on the complexities of “totality of an object” and at the same time shows how these ideas help us understand specific contemporary artist’s practice.

Steve Edwards’ multi-layered and cogent essay, “An ‘Ever-Recurring Controversy’, John Thompson, William James Stillman and the Bootblacks”, revisits the argument about whether photography is mere documentation or fine art.

This is coupled with a discussion of how language and choice of subject evolve and reflect bourgeois ideas and attitudes.

What also recommends this volume is that even where you disagree with some of the authors’ conclusions, their framework generally allows for thought and intellectual stimulation.

Two essays in particular stand out: Caroline Arscott’s “William Morris, Ornament and the Co-ordinates of the Body” and James A van Dyke’s “Erasure and Jewishness in Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons”.

Arscott’s excellent contribution on William Morris and his engagement with so called “primitive” art produces a thoughtful essay containing one of the best summaries of Morris’s

understanding of art. Nonetheless she assigns meanings to his African Marigolds and his political consciousness that are not sustainable.

While van Dyke’s positioning of the artist Otto Dix in Weimar Germany is highly informative, his contention that a single “dark area … pierced by a hole” on one of Dix’s preparatory drawings “constitute an act of simultaneous demarcation and obliteration” is getting close to fanciful.

The volume is a useful addition to our understanding of Marxist art history and crucially, and because of its nature, extends our understanding to the whole of class society.


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