“The communist revolution is not afraid of art. It realizes that the role of the artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various social forms which are hostile to him. This fact alone, in so far as he is conscious of it, makes the artist the natural ally of revolution.” — Leon Trotsky and André Breton
“The ideological base of the conflict betwen the Fourth and Third Internationals is the profound disagreement not only on the tasks of the party but in general on the entire material and spiritual life of mankind.” — Leon Trotsky
Grant Mandarino argues that art is a mundane activity. It may surprise him that I do not disagree. But art is not only a mundane activity. Art is both mundane and spiritual, just as sex is both mundane and, often, somewhat more than that. It is crude empiricism to see cultural artifacts and phenomena solely through one aspect of their being. To borrow from Theodor Adorno these are “two halves of a whole that do not add up.”
What is at stake in this discussion is an understanding of art as more than mere communication — that art, like science, is a particular human activity that has its own “logic and rules” (to borrow from Leon Trotsky). This aspect of art is bound up in the existential subjectivity and autonomy of the individual human being, a subjective individuality that is constantly assaulted by the capitalist system.
Mandarino’s main disagreements are not about Dada per se. They are about my assertion that art tends towards autonomy and that art has a social-spiritual function. For this he accuses me of using “woolly terminology.” I suspect this is due to how little attention Mandarino pays to the actual artistic practice of Dada, particularly in Zurich; a contradictory practice replete with invocations of spirituality, anti-spirituality, nihilism, aesthetic independence, modernism, anti-modernism, and anti-aesthetics.
The Heritage of Autonomy and the Spiritual in Art
The modern idea that art is autonomous goes back to Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; providing the ideological basis of the idea of “art for art’s sake.” While many Marxists have rightly taken aim at the bourgeois conception of “art for art’s sake” they have just as often defended artistic autonomy (usually understanding it as partial and contingent within capitalism) and tried to understand it. This has been true of Leon Trotsky, André Breton, Theodor Adorno and others. They may be wrong — but such ideas are in no way outliers to the Marxist tradition.
Likewise, my position on the “social-spiritual function” of art is based in the writing of Marxists like Ernst Fischer, Leon Trotsky, Walter Benjamin, John Berger and Michael Löwy. Mandarino can disagree with the notion that art has a dual social-spiritual function, but this idea is rooted in the work of past Marxists and in the work of serious anthropologists and art historians.
I have outlined my position on these questions in some detail. I have done so my articles on Ernst Fischer, Gothic Marxism, as well as my contributions to the debate on Marxism and Romanticism posted on Red Wedge in 2012 and2013. It is unfortunate that Mandarino chose to characterize such positions as anathema to Marxism rather than a point of view, within Marxism, he happens to disagree with.
The Mundane and the Spiritual
Of course art is not literally a product of spirits or magic. Nor have I argued such a thing.
The problem is partly due to language. As Michael Löwy observes, in English the word “spiritual” is almost a term of abuse. In other languages the word does not carry negative connotations. Most notable, in German, it is related both to Hegelian philosophy and, in colloquial language, the idea of dealing with complex, not-easy-to answer issues, ideas or phenomena.
To argue that art has a “social-spiritual function” is to argue that art deals with both the “mundane” aspects of everyday life, a life subsumed in social classes, crash cash payment and necessity, as well as complex, not-easy-to answer issues, ideas or phenomena. These include: death, love, sacrifice, existential crises, failure (personal and political), etc.
In this sense, art is firmly rooted in both heaven and earth. At its base is a word of shit and cum. At its apex is the cosmos. It cannot exist without both.
The reasons for this dynamic are in art’s origins in primitive communism, its subsequent transformations in various class societies, and its most recent adaptations by capitalism and bourgeois society. We have no way to know, with any certainty, what art will look like in a genuine post-capitalist society.
The best accounting we have for art’s origins comes from the Marxist art critic Ernst Fischer. Fischer argued, basing his work on Frederick Engels, art was bound up in the biological and social evolution of human beings. As I argue elsewhere:
Fischer’s thesis is essentially that art has a dual social-spiritual function — and it has this function because of its role in the evolution of human beings. As Fischer argues, ‘Art is almost as old as man. It is a form of work, and work is activity peculiar to mankind.’ … The use of tools created an entirely different relationship between homo sapiens and the environment… Our interaction with nature became mediated — and from that mediation came consciousness.
Marx famously described the differences between human and animal “labor” with the example of a spider spinning its web. The spider is an architect of instinct. Human beings, on the other hand, learn to conceive of the fruits of their labor in the abstract. We imagine and plan. We maximize the use of tools and material. We imagine something that does not exist. We both create in our mind and in the world.
Art is, in one sense, the same principle applied to a larger scale. The use of tools, and the development of consciousness,allowed early human beings to project abstract consciousness onto all of existence. With tools, as Fischer argues, nothing seemed impossible…
[Early humans] generalized about nature itself… Our abstract knowledge of the world became more complex. The world was a system. It had patterns. It could be known. Through dialectics of hand and tool and brain and mouth we produced a social culture — knowledge of the world. We became the social and biological humans that we are today.
This consciousness could imagine far more than could actually be known. As religion, science and art became separate, it was art that maintained, most of all, the marks of its “magical” origins: the projection of consciousness on that which can not be fully measured or understood. The existential condition became the providence of art.
A further confirmation of art’s magical origins can be found in the arguments of anthropologists that much pre-historic art was shamanistic in nature.
The rise of bourgeois society created a new dynamic, both emphasizing and undermining the subjective individual. As Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre argue:
Capitalism gives rise to independent individuals who can carry out socioeconomic functions; but when these individuals evolve into subjective individualities, exploring and developing their inner worlds and personal feelings, they enter into contradiction with a universe based on standardization and reification. And when they demand their imagination be given free play, they collide with the extreme mercantile platitude of the world produced by capitalist relations.
As I argue elsewhere:
[Before capitalism] art was a qualitative entity — to be judged on its merits as craft and in its success in communicating what often seemed beyond communication. With capitalism all values were subordinated to exchange. Art became a commodity and its separation from daily life became complete.
Nevertheless, capital allowed for the connection of the spiritual core of art to individual subjectivities. The individual — his and her emotions, bodily form, personality, position in the world — became part and parcel of art…
In Renaissance art the archetypal forms of the past — death, the virgin birth — became vehicles for tragedy and hopes that relate to us as individual human beings.In Michelangelo’s Pieta, for example, we do not see the ascension — although the hope of ascension is still there. Instead we see the inevitability of death as Mary cradles (impossibly so!) the dead Christ. It is sadness that is communicated — not for the human race (as in medieval pietas) but the loss of a specific individual.
It is the contradiction — built upon the history of art as spiritual phenomenon — between the rise of individual subjectivity (and specifically that of the artist) and that individual’s debasement before capital — that helps create the Romantic.
Art is communication, but Mandarino is mistaken if he believes this is art’s primary function.
As Walter Benjamin argues, “A story does not aim to convey an event per se, which is the purpose of information, rather, it embeds the event in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the trace of the storyteller, much the way an earthen vessel bears the trace of the potter’s hand.”
Here again is the social and spiritual function of art—the passing of experience, the subjective marks of the potter’s hand, the traces left by the dead, the heart ache of lost love, the tragedy of the subjective victim within the various holocausts, the aspiration to personally ascend from existential doom (through Christ, the Bodhisattva, ecstasy or proletarian revolution).
Art and Autonomy
Adorno argued that the autonomous art object was not merely a product of bourgeois ideology. Instead, the art object, in and of itself, exists in a critical relationship to capitalist society. The autonomous object has a bourgeois element (the commodity), but also an element that is eminently hostile to a utilitarian system based on crude exchange (that its use value is primarily social and spiritual).
Therefore, the question of autonomy in modernist art arises from material conditions and contexts, such as the clashes with the art academies (often established by absolutist monarchs), the rise of the art market, the class position of the artist, broader social and political questions, as well as political repression and upheaval.
For example, the Russian Academy of the Arts, founded by Catherine the Great as part of her attempt to modernize Russia, initially allowed artists some degree of freedom (albeit within the constraints of academic painting). Artists (those granted membership) were exempted from military service and serfdom, and allowed academic self-governance. Nicholas I, however, imposed his will on the Academy directly, managing not just its general direction, but the day to day activities of its members, including what art they were to produce and how they might produce it.
This loss of autonomy contributed to the resignation, in 1863, of several Academy graduates and eventually led to the foundation of the Russian realist art movement Peredvizhniki (“Wanderers” or “Itinerants”). Like non-violent Narodniks (with paint brushes) the Wanderers went into the Russian countryside and painted, among other things, the lives of peasants and the natural world. They helped lay the foundation for the late 19th and early 20th century Russian avant-garde (that tended to support the Bolshevik revolution).
The revolt of Peredvizhniki against academic art and absolutism was bound up with their impulse to connect with a more popular audience as free subjective agents. In other words, rebelling against the loss of artistic freedom (however partial it might have been) was an antecedent to the 20th century Russian avant grade.
Other influences on the Russian revolutionary avant-garde were even more removed from (seemingly) practical revolutionary considerations: cubism and icon-painting chief among them. This is not to argue that these artists were not influenced by the revolutionary process itself. It is not to argue that artists like Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko did not aim to serve the workers’ state or gain a working-class audience—although this was only a possibility after 1917. But artists remained largely self-directed in the early years of the revolution, and continued to find inspiration in Western modernism, mystical Jewish and Russian Orthodox art.
The Stalinist counterrevolution eclipsed this autonomy and turned official Soviet art into an echo of the old Russian Academy under the guise of “Socialist Realism.” While it might be argued that this had only minimal impact on the agit-prop of John Heartfield, the impact was devastating to the work of Russian artists like Kazimir Malevich, who was forced to produce paintings in a traditional manner, utterly opposed to his earlier work translating Russian (often spiritual) visual idioms into modernist abstraction.
While it is surely true that artists seek a “means for sustaining their practice and reaching an audience,” that begs the question: what is the nature of that practice? Why does this peculiar category of human activity persist? An exaggerated focus on the dynamic of “audience defines practice” (or vice-versa) is at best a tautology and at worst reduces both artist and audience to automatons. Such an approach would be no less erroneous than one that denied the social and material contexts of artistic production. As Breton and Trotsky argued, recalling Marx:
The conception of the writer’s function which the young Marx worked out is worth recalling. ‘The writer’, he said, ‘naturally must make money in order to live and write, but he should not under any circumstances live and write in order to make money…The writer by no means looks on his work as a means. It is an end in itself and so little a means in the eyes of himself and of others that if necessary he sacrifices his existence to the existence of his work…The first condition of freedom of the press is that it is not a business activity.’
It is more than ever fitting to use this statement against those who would regiment intellectual activity in the direction of ends foreign to itself and prescribe, in the guise of so-called reasons of state, the themes of art. The free choice of these themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of his exploitations –these are possessions which the artist has a right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must under no pretext allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who urge us, whether for today or for tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula complete freedom for art. [emphasis added]
Here Trotsky and Breton argue that art should have (at least some degree of) autonomy from both political and economic forces. While they refer here specifically to the state, albeit it a “degenerated workers state,” Trotsky also argues, in “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” that “[a]rt, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its laws–even when it consciously serves a social movement.” [emphasis added]
In contrast to these arguments, let us examine the arguments of those who ultimately established “Socialist Realism” as the official doctrine of Soviet art.
As early as 1922, the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR) argued, “We will depict the present day: the life of the Red Army, the workers, the peasants, the revolutionaries, the heroes of labor. We will provide a true picture of events and not abstract concoctions discrediting our Revolution in the face of the international proletariat.”
Two years later the AKhRR issued the following:
Those artists, those young artists who wish first and foremost to be sincere, who wish to shake off the yoke of various philosophizing and inversion of the bases of visual art decomposed through the process of analysis, fully realize the necessity to regenerate the unity of form and content in art; and they direct all their strength, all their creative potential, to the ceaseless scientific and completely professional study of the new model, giving it acutely realistic treatments that our epoch dictates.
The primacy of the working-class audience became a cover for reactionary artistic forms. In 1928 AKhRR argued:
As artists of the Proletarian Revolution, we have a duty of transforming the authentic revolutionary reality into realistic forms comprehensible to the broad masses of the workers and of participating actively in Socialist construction by our socioartistic work.
The hand of the artist, the marks on the clay, is herein erased. The AKhRR would be soon be abolished as well — its artists incorporated into even less democratic, more state-directed organizations.
The Problem of Audience
We must also historicize the question of the art audience and movements like Dada, which, unlike 21st century contemporary art fit into an avant-garde model that often precluded a significant hearing (bourgeois, petit-bourgeois or proletarian).
As Walter Benjamin argued of Dada, it was a projection of what culture would become (due in part to the advent of film, radio, mass media and popular photography). In this sense one aspect of the modernist avant-garde was about the realization of a future (now current) bourgeois culture.
That this was carried out against the cultural predispositions of much of the ruling-class, and sometimes in sympathy with left-wing politics, is why I described the modernist avant-garde as, in part, a “deflected cultural permanent revolution.”
That historical process is, of course, now complete. The innovative principle of modernism (often described in Oedipal or Hegelian terms, but in truth shaped in large part by 19th and 20th century social and economic dynamics) is no longer a defining feature of “serious” art making.
The audience problem of contemporary art is therefore related to, but different than, the audience problem of the historic avant-garde.
Today, serious art does not promise to carry forth a stylistic or conceptual breakthrough (such breakthroughs are no longer possible on a significant scale). Therefore, serious art has come to exist in a rarefied “art world” defined by academicism on the one hand, and the art market on the other, without the historic purpose of the old avant-garde.
While the question of audience is important, and for the Marxist artist it is bound up with the reestablishment of socialism as a true working-class movement, it is not the only question.
The main thesis of my original article on Dada was that the movement represented a series of contradictions, chief among them that it combined both the intolerance toward any orders (described by Trotsky above, and manifested most clearly in the Cabaret Voltaire) as well as the progressive attitudes sketched by myself (and documented by Mandarino) toward an ongoing proletarian revolution.
My argument was that this produced a tension within Dada that could not be reconciled as Dada — because the nature of the movement was inherently anarchic and pluralistic. Dada was not a coherent movement, but a rapid clearinghouse for political, conceptual and aesthetic impulses that had built up within art, nourished by the advent of mass industrial culture and unleashed by world war.
As J.C. Middleton argues:
Dada resists any attempt to split it into neat sectors for special scrutiny. Its lavish ambiguities — between pro-art and anti-art, between constructive anarchy and destructive nihilism—its sublime defiance of all systems, its rejection of all suave or sedentary attitudes, require us to keep the whole phenomenon in view all the time when we study any one aspect of it.
Therefore, it is of note that Tristan Tzara, who took over the helm of Zurich Dada after Hugo Ball left the city, came into conflict with both André Breton (in Paris Dada) and Richard Huelsenbeck (of Zurich and Berlin Dada) over Tzara’s embrace of abstraction and hostility to Marxism.
Huelsenbek denounced Tzara’s Dadaism as “false Dada” while embracing the idea that Dada was “Bolshevism in Art.” When Breton sought to have Tzara thrown out of the Paris group, he did so, however, by appealing to Dadaist aesthetic anarchy rather than political principle. Ten years later, Tzara himself became a communist. Huelsenbeck, the founder of Berlin Dada, drifted away from communism.
During the earliest days of the German Revolution, the painter Max Ernst produced a pro-Bolshevik newspaper, Der Ventilator, to be sold at factory gates and on street corners in Cologne. Occupying British soldiers confiscated the publication. A year later he started a new Dadaist paper, Die Schammade, that eschewed politics altogether.
Such stories should underline the volatility of Dada, politically and aesthetically. As Middleton argues, “Dada entailed many tendencies of modernism, but was a state of general intellectual emergency rather than an exclusively literary or artistic ‘movement.’” Dada consensus was, therefore, rare and fleeting.
Moreover, there was little to no socialist consciousness in Zurich Dada — its birthplace — in its heyday. There is no evidence that the Zurich group was even aware of the meeting of the Zimmerwald left, or of Bolshevism, even though they were neighbors with Lenin and many other political exiles.
Zurich Dada rejected the war and European decomposition in largely cultural and apocalyptic terms. Hugo Ball wrote in 1916:
The Dadaist fights against the agony and death-throes of the age… He knows that the world of the systems has disintegrated, and that the age, pressing for cash payment, has opened a jumble sale on the now profanized philosophy. Where terror and a bad conscience begin for the vendors, there for the Dadaist begins gales of laughter and a quiet sense of relief.
A group of “radical Dadaists” did briefly form in Zurich, but they did not organize themselves on a Marxist or socialist basis, and quickly dissolved.
Berlin Dada, of course, interacted much more closely with Marxism and proletarian revolution. But even in Berlin, Dada continued to mime the stunts, philosophical opposition and (anti)aesthetic gestures it honed in Zurich.
It is the analytic function of Dadaism to jettison a world’s horribly ossified basic notions which have long since become a towering system of madness, to reduce them to zero, to dissolve them into that… shadowy sea of unserveyable meaninglessness which can only be represented by metaphors, in the abstruesest absurdities and with ultimate idiocy.
Dada magazines in Berlin therefore published explicitly Marxist and non-Marxist texts, gathered together around the anarchic logic of the Zurich cabaret.
Johannes Baader, in particular, led the way in a series of stunts (that would be hard to reconcile with someone seriously courting a working-class audience). At the first Weimer National Assembly he threw leaflets at the delegates proclaiming himself “president of the universe.” He organized what would later be called “happenings” reading obscure books on the street. Baader attempted to declare a “Dada Republic” in a Berlin suburb.
Theo van Doesburg, a Dutch Dadaist, wrote that “The bourgeois have called Dada Bolshevist, the Communists have called it bourgeois. Dada laughs.”
In 1920, the Dadaist (and future surrealist and communist) Louis Aragon wrote:
[N]o more painters, no more writers, no more composters, no more sculptors, no more religions… no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more bolshevists, no more politics, no more proletarians, no more democrats… enough of all these imbecilities, no more anything, no more anything, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING.
Dada contained both revolutionary and non-revolutionary impulses — often at the same time. Dada was inherently unstable.
Berlin Dada’s embrace of materialism was also highly contingent. Rauol Haussman argued, in Der Dada 3, that “Dada is the full absence of what is called Geist. Why have Geist in a world that runs on machinery?” At the same time he described Dada as “the only practical religion.” Hausmann and Baader had both read, closely, the works of Eastern and Western religious mystics. As Timothy Benson writes:
For some time [Raoul] Hausmann had been attempting to invoke a synthesis of Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism. He was recording Lao Tse’s models of polarities, the T’ai-chi-tu, along with numerous quotations from the Tao Te Ching, in his notebooks during the months just prior to his entry into Dada in April 1917 with a manifesto on new materials in art. The divine — in Hausmann’s words, the “permeation of the world with spirit” [in German this would probably be a reference to Hegel’s Geist] — was encountered in his earliest Dada works in the generic world of human symbols, sensations, and sounds.
Similarly, Benson writes of Baader:
A more overtly mystical acceptance of cultural givens is seen in the work of the Oberdada alter-ego of [Johannes] Baader… One of his quasi-mystical pronouncements, the Eight World Theses, presented the earth “as a piece of heaven” and all nature as an array of “magical processes” that included man as but another unit of its consciousness.” Appearing messianically in the “clouds of heaven” Baader apparently felt himself to be, as Hannah Hoch once observed, “a neutral instant between heaven and earth.”
The materialism of the Dadaists was often less about a consistent Marxist worldview that an enraged reaction against the perceived culpability of expressionism in the horrors of the war, as the expressionists had “set out with their volumes of Goethe in their kitbags to stick their bayonets into French and Russian bellies” (Richard Huelsenbeck).
To be sure, the Berlin Dadaists wanted a working-class audience. They had rejected all the illusions of bourgeois society in what amounted to a Romantic tantrum (and I mean this in a good way) just as the working-class appeared as a genuine revolutionary force. The Dadaists sensed agency and kinship, but it does not follow that this determined their artistic practice. On the contrary, it pulled Dada in separate directions.
Hausmann argued, in characteristically “woolly terminology,” “The proletarian,” in contrast to the poet, is the “intellectual-spiritual fighter” that “requires no special ‘spiritual’ incendiary art.” How this translated, in practice, was the continuation of an automatic version of Hugo Ball’s poems without words, “Seelen-Automobil” poetry:
Solado Solaan Alma
lanee laneao emamb
anbi ambee enebemp
saddabt kadou koorou
adaneop ealop noamth
That there is a contradiction here, between the avant grade practice and the desire to attain a working-class audience (in revolutionary Berlin), should be rather obvious. This contradiction, however, does not devalue either enterprise. If one values art (as art) and the proletarian revolution (as the emancipator of humanity and art), one can easily appreciate both aspects of this dynamic.
Nevertheless, there is a contradiction, and it was repeatedly expressed in arguments between Baader and similar Dadaists on the one side, and more practically minded communists like George Grosz and John Heartfield on the other. As Benson argues, “Berlin Dadaism was rooted in a synthesis of mysticism, anarchism, and psychology that took place at the fringes of Expressionism.”
I would add that it was also conditioned, tempered and pulled apart by the proletarian revolution that surrounded it.
- Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume 4 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003)
- Timothy O. Benson, “Mysticism, Materialism and the Machine in Berlin Dada,” Art Journal (Spring, 1987), Vol. 46, No. 1
- John E. Bolt, Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1957)
- Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
- Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (New York: Verso, 2010)
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (New York: Penguin, 1994)
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
- Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Modernism Against the Tide of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001)
- J.C. Middleton, “Bolshevism in Art”: Dada and Politics, Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Autumn, 1962), Vol. 4 No. 3
- Leon Trotsky, Art and Revolution (New York: Pathfinder, 1992)
- Elizabeth Valkenier, Russian Realist Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)
Adam Turl is an artist and writer pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He is on the editorial board of Red Wedge.