“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. In this respect, Romanticism represents the revolt of repressed, channeled, and deformed subjectivity and affectivity.” (Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity)
“Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work.” (Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch.”)
As J. Matthew Camp argues in “New Jerusalem Unbound” the fact we are having an historical and theoretical debate on the Marxist understanding of Romanticism and art is a good thing. The infrequency of such debates has stymied the development of both cultural theory and art itself. In the resulting vacuum cynicism has reigned supreme.
The editors of Red Wedge have done a great service in creating a platform for the exploration of the relationship between Marxism, radical politics and art. It is also important to note these debates are in no way questions of principle when it comes to the main arenas of socialist struggle—working-class self-emancipation, abolishing oppressions and opposing imperialism.
Nevertheless, the conclusion of “New Jerusalem Unbound” leads me to believe that we are engaged not only in a debate about Romanticism but also, in this instance, the attitude of Marxism to art:
“The best contemporary artists, in the horror genre and beyond, are—and will be—those that negotiate the best elements of Romanticism away from itself and bind them to a new militant, revolutionary consciousness.” [emphasis added]
Marxism and Art
In this case J. Matthew Camp appears to see art—and judge art movements—primarily in their relationship to the development of class-consciousness.
While I believe this is an important aspect of any Marxist analysis of art, it must be seen in relationship to two other (central) factors: the origins of what we now call art as a spiritual phenomenon and the dialectical relationship between the evolution of art and its situation in various class societies.
Art is simply unable play a leading role in the formation of class-consciousness.
The best political art tends to lag the development of class-consciousness historically—Constructivism, the short stories of Isaac Babel, the films of Sergei Eisenstein, the plays of Bertolt Brecht, Weimer-era photomontage and expressionism. This high point of conscious Marxism in art occurred in the aftermath of the Russian and German Revolutions. The high point of Marxism in art echoed the high point of Marxism itself.
Since the inter-war years there have been many important Marxist contributions to art—but as Marxism was minimized by capitalist demonization and Stalinist distortion so too was its cultural influence.\
When conceptual art completed the project begun in 1917 by Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain—and the art world became conscious of itself as a lab of signification—artists tended to look to postmodernism.
More bluntly, artists of wildly divergent political and philosophical orientations produced the “best” contemporary art—both popular and “avant-garde”—in the post-war decades (and after). All this had political content (and context) and those things should be part of any critique. But art can’t be judged simply in relationship to the development of class-consciousness—because the development (or retardation) of that consciousness is not, ultimately, the primary function of art.
Marxists do not advocate so-called “pure art”—there is no such thing. All cultural artifacts are a product of their social origins—and all cultural artifacts exist in relationship to the ideological struggle between social classes. Regardless, Marxists do not advocate a defined political program for art.
Trotsky argued, in far more politically developed circumstances, that the revolutionary party should not direct the production of art towards revolutionary consciousness. Revolutionary ideas, he asserted, could only find genuine expression within art when the artist—as a subjective individual—genuinely felt and believed them.
These political concerns evolve in a dialectical interaction with the “spiritual” core of art.
This spiritual core is the web of “internal logics” in art (see Trotsky and Breton)—the seemingly “irrational” methods of signification influenced by a long and collective—but often subconscious—history of past sign systems, each formed in a dialectical relationship with various stages of social development—beginning in the long era of primitive communism and stretching into late capitalism—repeatedly filtered and reformed through individual as well as class subjectivities.
In this light, the bifurcation of consciousness that Matthew Camp refers to is not only characteristic of Romanticism. It is a characteristic of artists and art itself—as well as a characteristic of all mixed consciousness. The “bifurcation of consciousness” is, as a specific charge, an essentially tautological formulation.
“Irrational” signification is also intimately tied with those things that have not yet been answered by the rational—either due to false consciousness or the limits of current social development or the human condition itself—suffering, death, love, birth, loss, etc.
Art is ultimately about the creation of spiritual artifacts and experiences. How those artifacts are shaped, produced and distributed is determined by both the subjectivity of the artist (or art movements) as well as the objective social conditions of their formation.
Trotsky’s comparison to hunger is apt. Capitalism did not create the need to eat. Capital shapes how modern food production is organized. Capitalism did not create the need for art—but shapes how art is produced and organized in bourgeois society.
Romanticism is, essentially, the defense of art’s spiritual core from its status as a utilitarian appendage of capital. It is the art world’s version of a peasant uprising—and like a peasant uprising it looks backwards and forwards at the same time.
The Spiritual and Material Origins of Art
As far as we can tell, tens of thousands of years ago human beings started to carve in stone and paint on walls. Soon after they molded clay and carved musical instruments from bone. What we call art began with a spiritual impulse in societies that did not yet have a word for the “political.” These were primitive communist societies—egalitarian hunter-gatherers that knew nothing of social classes, exploitation or gender oppression.
With little separating early human beings from nature—from animals, disease and hunger—our ancestors sought through the creation of fetishes, familiars and totems to connect the immediacy of their material existence with a vast spiritual unknown. Early humans—through art and storytelling—populated the unknown with spirits.
The spirits created were not “good” or “evil.” They were both creators and destroyers, tricksters and helpful guides, representatives of flora gathered and fauna hunted, as well as the (usually) gendered (but balanced) forces of earth and sky, moon and sun—forces seen as central to the reproduction of life.
Art was a spiritual-humanist action. The specifics of that art varied widely from place to place—but the cosmologies of early art reflected both the egalitarian nature of society and its close proximity to nature. The spirits invented mirrored the vacillations of the natural world—providing abundance one moment only to remove it the next.
The First Artists
During this long pre-history the first artists appeared—the shamans—medicine men and women who served as storytellers, historians, healers, artists and magicians.
The shamans went into altered states of consciousness—through the aid of drugs or rituals—to the “spirit world”—to attain special knowledge for the benefit of a group. This might have been to heal a sick child or to divine what to paint on the wall of a cave.
The shamans, mimicking the ancient spirits, were tricksters. They passed down “magic” tricks from generation to generation—tricks that proved their connections to the spirit world.
Shamanism—along with animism—appears to have ruled the spiritual life of humanity for thousands of years. These were the “faiths” of primitive communism. The spirits were thought alive in all things. All things were magic.
The enchantment of daily life and “irrational” signification were part and parcel of art from its earliest inception—and through the shamans the immediate needs of early human beings—as a collective—became intertwined with the magical play of art.
Art expressed the early human need for a “harmonious and complete life” in an environment that alternated between paradise and oblivion.
The Overthrow of the Shamans
With the rise of class society priests replaced the shamans. Early agricultural societies even created mythological accounts of the “overthrow of the shamans.” Spirituality became the specialized domain of institutional religions—religions tied to new class orders.
The new ruling-classes understood the power and magic of art, of stories and myths—and that these forces could no longer be the playthings of artists in democratic dialogue with egalitarian groups.
Just as the rise of class society came in tandem with slavery and the oppression of women, it drove the first wedge between art and life. As kingdoms became empires the magic of art was directed toward the majesty of the ruling elites, high priests and hangers on.
The shamans became clowns. Totems became ziggurats. Fetishes became monuments. Art was divided into more and more specialized crafts—at all levels of the new class structure.
Even so, in pre-capitalist class societies, use value reigned supreme—and the primary use value of art was its spiritual function—however tied to the new ruling elites.
Art offered transcendence and ascension—escape from suffering and death—and sometimes escape within worldly pleasures. It did so in images of the medieval plague crucifix, in whirling dervishes, in Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and in the schematics of chakras. There are thousands of examples, each specific but connected to a long historical arc.
Class struggle, of course, shaped the art of every society. New art and ideas challenged—and were metabolized by—ruling elites. Early Christian, Muslim, Sufi, Buddhist, Zen and Taoist art all challenged ruling-classes only to become, eventually, the official art.
Within this long history the shamanistic origins of art continued to echo—even into the Renaissance and Baroque.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa features the saint—known for mystical visions—in what can only be described as sexual abandon—about to be pierced by the arrow of an angel. Here, against “Protestant rationalism,” Theresa is presented as medicine woman.
The Rise of Capital
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.
Shakespearean tragedy and comedy would not have been possible without capitalism. 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.
The Birth and Character of the Romantic
Camp’s apparent avoidance of art’s spiritual nature shapes his misunderstanding of the Romantic. He emphasis its subjective character as a specific 18th and 19th century movement and de-emphasizes phenomenological commonalities with elements of modern cultural movements.
Without recognizing the spiritual core of art, its defense seems like an anachronism. If one recognizes the spiritual core of art, however, one sees how that core is imprisoned and retarded by capital and how the Romantic can be an ally to revolution.
The argument that the Romantic must be taken first and foremost as a product of early capitalism—rather than, as I argue, both a product of the early capital and its subsequent development—is based on a presentist reading of the initial Romantics.
Far from being a clearly defined subjective movement many of the original Romantics did not identify as Romantic. They shared contrasting philosophical and political ideologies. This supports Löwy and Sayre’s argument that Romanticism was not a coherent ideology as much as it was a weltanshaung—a worldview—sharing a common signifying structure—characterized by opposition to quantification and the disenchantment of everyday life.
The Lake Poets—Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc.—only came to be known as Romantics some decades later. Löwy and Sayre argue, in fact, that elements of the Romantic began long before the Industrial and French Revolutions in tandem with the starts and stops of early capitalist development.
It is necessary here to delineate the origins of the term “Romantic”—and “Romanticism”—and its history as a cultural phenomenon.
The term “Romanticism” only came into use some five or six decades after the heyday of what is widely considered Romanticism. The term “Romantic” appeared long before.
Its earliest uses tended to be associated with certain novels from the Middle Ages in which primacy was given to emotion and imagination. These novels—in which, for example, the concept of romantic love was first widely introduced in Europe—presaged capitalism’s fostering of individual subjectivity.
Löwy and Sayre argue:
“[T]here is a prehistory of Romanticism that has its roots in the ancient development of business, money, cities and industry and that is manifested later, especially in the Renaissance, in reaction to the evolution and abrupt forward surges of progress and modernity. Like its antithesis, capitalism, Romanticism evolved over a prolonged historical period. But these two antagonists only come into being as fully developed structures—as Gesamtkomplexe—in the eighteenth century.”
This is crystallized in the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
“The ancient peoples are no longer a model for the moderns; they are too foreign in every respect. You, especially, Genevans, stay in your place… You are neither Romans nor Spartans; you are not even Athenians. Leave those names alone; they do not become you. You are merchants, artisans, bourgeois, always occupied with your private interests, your work, commerce, profits; you are a people for whom freedom itself is only a means toward untrammeled acquisition and secure possession.”
Here, from a central Enlightenment and republican figure, is a clear manifestation of the Romantic—nostalgia for a pre-capitalist past, qualitative vs. quantitative value, etc.
This is the cultural counterpoint within capital established—the Romantic antithesis to capitalism’s constant assertion of the “end of history”—an appeal to historical evidence that something else existed before.
The Romantic-political moment—represented by Rousseau—is long gone. The Romantic in culture, however, continues. This is because the political antithesis of capital—proletarian class-consciousness—can’t play the role of cultural antithesis.
No one knows what proletarian culture (which is more or less impossible) looks like. Nor does anyone know what genuine communist culture (which has not yet existed) will look like. There are as of yet no “logics” to post-capitalist signification.
The (conscious or unconscious) anti-capitalist artist turns again and again to the Romantic frame, digging into the vast pool of past signs, searching for a way to express the inexpressible, escape reification, connect with the spiritual and humanist elements of art, or connect to proletarian aspirations.
To return to Löwy and Sayre on the advent of the Romantic:
“[I]n this generalization of the marketplace, culture, art and literature were by no means spared; in the second half of the eighteenth century, intellectuals, artists, and writers became, to a vastly greater extent than ever before, free agents in the various marketplaces for their cultural products. The system of patronage increasingly gave way to the sale of books and paintings. The producers of culture thus found themselves confronted with a contradiction between the use value and the exchange value of their products; the new socioeconomic system affected them in their innermost reaches.”
Writers, poets, monks and artists found themselves in a similar position to that of their predecessors—the shamans—adapt to a system that undermined the very nature of their role (as conduit to the spiritual-humanist realm of art) or be vanquished.
Commodification of culture completed the separation of art and daily life. From then on art would be alienated from the vast majority of the human race, filtered through structures of mass and bourgeois consumption.
With capitalism art was separated from both heaven and earth.
The Continuation of the Romantic
It is art’s rebellion at these separations that inform its modern history.
If we are to take the subjectivity of specific literary and art movements into account—and by all means we should—we have to grapple with the many divergences within early Romanticism as well as its expressions within later movements.
Moreover, I would not argue that there is a subjective coherence in all iterations of the Romantic. There is not. In each movement, with its own specific characteristics, artists (both as a group and as individuals) have interacted and reflected the broader social context filtered through the “spiritual core” of art.
Some 20th century art movements—the Romantic surrealists and the unromantic minimalists for example—have had clear manifestos and organizations. Others—the sometimes Romantic Dada and Fluxus—have been chaotic nodes of artistic activity and served more as a clearinghouse for radical aesthetic and political impulses that had built up within art.
Dada is a great example of the sometimes-contradictory nature of the political and spiritual within art. In its short lifespan Dada included radically anti-political anarchists, the Romantic work of Hugo Ball’s “Verse Ohne Worte”—“Poetry Without Words”—and the explicitly Marxist photomontages of John Heartfield.
The Romantic is not the “conjuring stone” of all anti-capitalist art movements. It is a phenomenon of capitalist culture. Futurism, Constructivism, naturalism, minimalism and pop art eschewed the Romantic—for progressive, apolitical or reactionary reasons. Regardless, the Romantic has always returned, because it represents the aspirations of art imprisoned by capital.
To borrow shamelessly from Victor Serge, I have no objection to the idea that the germ of nihilism was present in Romanticism from the beginning. However, there are many germs within Romanticism, as there are in any oppositional tendency within capital. Any movement, idea, tendency or ideology that fails to deal with the actuality of revolution is prone to become the politics or aesthetics of despair.
The germ of nihilism metastasizes in the absence of hope.
The Romantic, however, is not an ideology proper, it is, as mentioned earlier, a worldview, an approach to signification. It is entirely possible to be both a Romantic and a Marxist—and therefore to deal with the actuality of revolution without jettisoning the spiritual core of art (of which the Romantic is the standard-bearer).
In 1968—the year of the student revolts and the French General Strike—the artist Mario Merz scrawled in huge letters on a garage wall the words, “Che Fare?”—echoing in Italian Lenin’s What is to Be Done?
Merz—who was imprisoned as a young man for antifascist activity—was one of the more overtly political artists associated with the Arte Povera—“Poor Art”—movement. His installation did not mindlessly echo the words of Lenin—or seek to undermine them like a common bourgeois.
In front of the words, “Che Fare,” Merz built an igloo—which he saw as a perfectly balanced pre-modern structure—out of pre-industrial materials. Beneath the scrawled text he rigged water to drip into a bucket, overflow on the floor and run into a drain.
The primary example of socialist subjectivity—often misleadingly so—is coupled here with the utterly objective phenomenon of gravity’s effects on water and the balanced form of the igloo.
Art does not have to choose between its spiritual past and the socialist future. On the contrary—it is art where those two things intermix—where the illogical signification of art can be a “conjuring stone” for our imaginations, imaginations that can project an emancipated future.
It is impossible—from the Marxist point of view—to know what art should do between now and its eventual jubilee. What art can do, however, is act as a “mystical” bridge between the past, present and future.
Art can be a social totem—however constrained by this world—echoing the worlds that came before, telegraphing the “New Jerusalem” to come.
- Bowlt, James, Russian Art of the Avant Garde, Thames and Hudson: New York and London, 1957
- Campbell, Joseph, Masks of God Volume 1, Penguin: New York, 1991
- Engels, Frederick, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Penguin: New York, 2010)
- Hopkins, David, After Modern Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
- Kunzeli, Rudolph, Dada (Themes and Movements), Phaidon: London, 2011
- Löwy, Michael and Sayre, Robert, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001
- Lukacs, Georg, History and Class Consciousness, Boston: MIT Press, 1972
- Eds. Marlch, Mayer-Stoll, Pro, Che Fare? Arte Povera: The Historic Years, Luxembourg: Kehrer Verlag, 2011
- Stiles, Kristine, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996
- Trotsky, Leon, Art and Revolution, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970
- Trotsky, Leon, Literature and Revolution, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005
- Walsh, Roger, The World of Shamanism, Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2007