In Defense of Art, Part Three: For a Revival of Fine Art

Painting, drawing and sculpture, although they are always the bearers of ideological elements, and acquire significant aspects of their particular forms through socio-economic influences, are, as material practices, no more reducible to ideology than are childhood, spermatozoa, or, above all, ‘man’.

In Defense of Art, Part Three: For a Revival of Fine Art

Part 2 of “In Defense of Art” is here; part 1 is here.

I have raised certain questions about the Marxist approach to art; I have clarified my view of ideology and politics. I wish to end by making clear how all this affects my aesthetics and my critical practice. Let us return to The Lady of Warka. Certainly, what Parrot wrote about it was tinged with the ideology of bourgeois spiritual idealism. I admit that. But it was a more materialist account than any offered by Marxists who deny the psycho-biological continuity of civilized “Man” altogether.

The Althusserian art-historian, Nicos Hadjinicolau, is forced to explain “aesthetic effect” as “none other than the pleasure felt by the observer when he recognizes himself in a picture’s visual ideology.” Such a view of art, as Brighton has argued in his cogent critique of Hadjinicolau, excludes the viewer’s capacity to experience the work, and the work’s capacity to act upon him. The pleasure to be derived from art is reduced to a narcissistic mirroring process, in which all the work can do is to reflect back to the viewer some aspect of his historically-specific illusions. But if ideology is as historically specific as the Althusserians suggest, it is hard to see what I could recognize in a work produced in Sumeria in the fourth millenia B.C. “Eternal Man” may be an ideologically loaded construct; but, demystified, it points in the direction of a much more materialist account than that which we can derive from Althusser, Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Balibar, Hadjini­colau, Coward, Ellis, Tagg, Burgin, Griselda Pollock, Kelly, Screen Ed., or Tel Quel.

Marcuse, you will remember, claimed that the fact that a work truly represents the interests or the outlook of the proletariat or of the bourgeoisie does not yet make it an authentic work of art. Marcuse feels that the universality of art cannot be grounded in the world, or the world-outlook, of a particular class. Art, he says, envisions a “concrete, universal humanity, Menschlichkeit, which no particular class can incorporate, not even the proletariat.” This Menschlichkeit is, you might think, “Eternal Man” transposed to a Marxist framework. Unlike the bourgeois aestheticians, Marcuse stresses not transcendence into the ethereal realms of spirituality, but “the metabolism between the human being and nature,” which, he says, “Marxist theory has the least justification to ignore” or to denounce “as a regressive ideological conception.”

Marcuse’s view is reminiscent of the one I expressed earlier: not only the social relations between men, but also the relations between men and nature give rise to artistic expression. For example, as Timpanaro writes:

. . . love, the brevity and frailty of human existence, the contrast between the smallness and weakness of man and the infinity of the cosmos, are expressed in literary works in very different ways in various historically determinate societies, but still not in such different ways that all references to such constant experiences of the human condition as the sexual instinct, the debility produced by age (with its psychological repercussions), the fear of one’s own death and sorrow at the death of other’s, is lost.

But Raymond Williams takes us even further than this. He says:

. . . it is a fact about classical Marxism that it neglected to its great cost, not only the basic human physical conditions which Timpanaro emphasizes in his reconsideration of materialism, but also the emotional conditions which make up so large a part of all direct human relationship and practice.

In my view, these “relative constants,” deriving from man’s continuing embeddedness in nature, are of the greatest importance in the experience of many works of art.

Rothko once wrote that he was interested only in “expressing basic human emotions.” He added, “the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions.” Predictably, Rothko is attacked in a recent article by two Marxist art-historians both for his allegedly “a-historical” utterances, and for the ahistorical vacuousness of his pictures. But I think Rothko was right—in theory and practice. The reason his work transcends the shabby ideology and vacuity of American colour-field painting, whose socio­economic determinants I have described elsewhere, is that, using these unpromising conventions, he does indeed reach through to significant aspects of the underlying “human condition” by finding convincing representations for basic emotions. Similarly, Vermeer seems to have done much the same—although his painting refers not just to emotional life, but to certain “relative constants” in the possibilities of human encounter with light, space and time. Again, Vermeer used the most “ideologically” loaded of conventions—those determined by the Dutch, petit-bourgeois picture-market in genre painting. He was enmeshed within the “signifying practices” of the class to which he belonged. Today, none of that matters very much to those of us who admire his great paintings. The point is that Vermeer “ruptures” the ideology of his time, and of ours, by finding forms which speak vividly of potentialities inherent in those aspects of the life of “Man,” as a biological species, which do not change greatly from one socio-economic situation to another.

With both these artists, however, it is important to emphasize that the historically transcendent was not achieved by a denial of the culturally and historically specific, but rather by a working through of it. Here, too, we have an answer to an implicit problem for all Marxist criticism. As a theory of historical development, Marxism has always found it difficult to account for the fact that art is not subject to continuous or consistent development. The Lady of Warka is one of the oldest existing sculptures: it is also among the best. “Greatness” and “quality” in art must therefore derive from a relationship with aspects of human life which are, relatively speaking, very long-lasting indeed.

This is why Marcuse seems to me to be right when he says:

A work of art is authentic or true not by virtue of its content (i.e. the “correct” representation of social conditions) nor by its “pure” form, but by the content having become form . . . Aesthetic form, autonomy, and truth are interrelated. Each is a socio-historical phenomenon, and each transcends the socio-historical arena.

If I understand him correctly, Marcuse’s defence of the autonomy of aesthetic form in the name of art’s own dimension of truth, protest and promise, does not imply a hermetic separation from exploration of the continuous potentialities of man’s underlying biological condition, but rather points towards an immersion in them as an implicit affirmation of the possibility of Menschlichkeit, as against the reality of a class-divided world. Or, as he puts it, “The autonomy of art contains the categorical imperative: ‘things must change.'” Elsewhere, I too have spoken of the way in which great and authentic art, whatever its subject matter, constitutes a “moment of becoming” which speaks of a possible historical future now.

Here, however, I wish to introduce what is perhaps the single most significant idea that I have learned from an Althusserian critic—namely Pierre Macherey. He argues that the aesthetic product is, like any other, the result of the application of a means of labour to transform a raw material. Unfortunately, because of his relativistic extremism, Macherey cannot usefully elaborate this concept. But Williams, recognizing the validity of biological “Man” is able to do so. He writes:

The deepest significance of a relatively unchanging biological condition is probably to be found in some of the basic material processes of the making of art: in the significance of rhythms in music and dance and language or of shapes and colours in sculpture and painting. . . What matters here—and it is a very significant amendment of orthodox Marxist thinking about art—is that art work is itself, before everything, material process; and that, although differentially, the material process of the production of art includes certain biological processes, especially those relating to body movements and to the voice, which are not a mere substratum but are at times the most powerful elements of the work.

This passage is crucial. Most discussions of Marxist aesthetics take literature as their model: indeed, much of the sort of Althusserian Left writing on art which I am attacking is a direct transposition of arguments about literature into the domain of the visual arts. However, I am maintaining that if we attend closely, in a materialist fashion, to the material practices of drawing, painting, and sculpture, we will discover that the arguments from literature are not valid for these practices, precisely because the biological processes (whose importance the Althusserian cannot admit) are much more important in them. It is not just that you do not have to study life-drawing or anatomy in order to become a good writer. A major difference between literary practice and drawing is that the word dog has a more opaque relationship to a dog than does a drawing of a dog. But the sculpture of The Lady of Warka is—to use Saint Louis’ own phrase about art—”bathed in ideology” to nothing like the same degree as any work of literature, precisely because of its much deeper dependence, at the level of what it expresses and the way it expresses it, on relatively constant, underlying, biological elements of human life. Again, it is not just that in the entire history of sculpture, from the time of the Sumerians to that of Rodin, there has not been one significant work which is not either a representation of a man, a woman or an animal, whereas texts have been written on many varieties of purely abstract subject. It is also that in its material processes, sculpture is much, much more intimately linked to the biological and physical levels of existence than are, say, literature or philosophy.

Painting, of course, is in an intermediate position—some­where between literature and sculpture; the significance of immediately biological processes and representations is greater than in the former, less than in the latter.

In my view, this recognition that the different arts are material processes in which the underlying biological processes are of varying significance casts quite a different light on the now all too familiar and often hysterical attack by Althusserians and structuralists on painting and sculpture as “bourgeois” forms which must be smashed, superseded, destroyed, or otherwise annihilated. It was Burgin, I think, who dismissed painting as anachronistic daubing and smearing with coloured shit. But my point is that painting, drawing and sculpture, although they are always the bearers of ideological elements, and acquire significant aspects of their particular forms through socio-economic influences, are, as material practices, no more reducible to ideology than are childhood, spermatazoa, or, above all, “man.” The Althusserian-Structuralist mode of discourse on painting is about the ideological elements within painting, not about painting as such—as a material practice. We might well pause to ask why in all their multitudinous utterances upon art, Althusserians never speak of song or of dance. It is not just that the trans-historical character of these particular material practices—whatever their specific forms—is self-evident. (Who, after all, would want to march forward into a world where song and dance had been wiped out as “bourgeois” art forms, except perhaps a few King Street die-hards?) But in these arts the material substance upon which the performer—or psycho-biological existent subject—works is that of his or her own bodily being; precisely that which, if you are an adherent of Althusserian theology, you wish to reduce to a mere ghost of no determinative significance.

Indeed, Marcuse has said that the rejection of the individual as a bourgeois concept recalls and presages certain fascist undertakings. The attack upon such material practices as drawing, painting and sculpture not only echoes those undertakings; it is also suspiciously reminiscent of that theoretical project to eliminate “Man” as a psycho-biological entity, under the guise of an assault on bourgeois ideology, which characterizes Althusserian theory and Stalinist practice, and which I have already described at length. “This notion of theory,” writes Thompson, “is like a blight that has settled on the mind. The empirical senses are occluded, the moral and aesthetic organs are repressed, the curiosity is sedated, all the ‘manifest’ evidence of life or art is distrusted as ‘ideology.'” Thus, inevitably, when those blighted by this theory or its derivatives turn to making works of art, they can themselves produce only art which is nothing but ideology.

In “Fine Art after Modernism” I discussed in detail my conception of the historical growth of the Fine Art tradition and of the way in which it was shaped and contained by the institutional and professional structures of the bourgeoisie. I have talked about the development of a Mega-Visual tradition in the era of Monopoly Capitalism, and about the way in which this greatly changed the social function of the professional Fine Artist. I took the view, which has also been argued by Kristeller, and more eloquently by Raymond Williams, that the concept of “Art” (with a capital “A”) as we use it today was historically specific, i.e. ideological. While that still seems to me to be true—and I unequivocally re­affirm it today—it is perhaps the case that I did not make it sufficiently dear in the past that the material processes of drawing, painting, and sculpture were not, in this respect, identifiable with “Art.” They have a material continuity which extends back into the earliest social formations. That continuity is now threatened by the encroachments of the Mega-Visual tradition. Indeed, E.P. Thompson draws attention to the way in which so much Althusserian idealism is not so much the inverse of bourgeois ideology, but rather an immediate reflection of its academic modes. Similarly, in the art world, the case against painting and sculpture is not unique to the Left. What Victor Burgin advocates is also what Monopoly Capitalism is bringing about in reality. Burgin’s expressed hostility to “privileged” media can be compared with the arguments of a specifically anti-Marxist sociologist, Robert Taylor; while his compositional devices are those of a Mega-Visual advertising man. Meanwhile, it is as well to remember that Burgin is not some outsider who has, as it were, been allowed into the extremities of the Fine Art garden-party by mistake. He is now at the very centre of the stage, deeply imbedded within the art institutions, prominen­tly featured in two out of the three Hayward Annuals and in the Hayward photography show. He has held a succession of academic appointments and fellowships in visual arts schools. If there is any merit in his own argument, all this would not be possible unless the prevailing ideology favoured the destruction of those specific material practices to which he opposes himself: painting, drawing and sculpture.

At a recent “State of British Art” conference, I made out my defence of the Fine Art tradition. Griselda Pollock then announced from the floor that she wanted to see the apparatus of art practice “uprooted, root and branch.” She must be pleased with the job Margaret Thatcher is doing, with, it would seem, a little bit of help in both theory and practice from her structuralist friends. Meanwhile, I continue to defend the Fine Art tradition, not for the ideological myths embedded and perpetuated within it, not on behalf of those economic forces subtending it, and certainly not for those ideologists who have recently invaded it and manipulated its weaknesses, but rather in the name of these specific material practices: painting, drawing and sculpture. I am defending these practices not for their own sake, but on the grounds that the imaginative vision of men and women realizable through them—what Marcuse calls the aesthetic dimension which speaks of a changed future, or that which I have called “moments of becoming”—are not realizable in the same way either through words, or through mechanically made images, which imply quite a different relation to those underlying biological elements and to the world alike.

I do not only wish, however, to conserve drawing, painting, and sculpture as such, but further to see retained, revived and developed certain specific aspects of the bourgeois achieve­ment within these practices. Some of my earlier texts unfortunately tended to imply that because certain techni­ques and conventions had arisen in the process of elaborating a bourgeois world-view through painting, they were necessarily wholly “ideological” and of no value except in the service of the optic of that class. In stressing that the relation­ship of a work of art to history (and I did not mean art history) was decisive, I tended to underestimate the capacity of certain elements within the bourgeois Fine Art tradition to serve as means of approaching what Timpanaro called non-superstructural areas of reality.

Now these are complex problems which I will be developing and exploring elsewhere. But, broadly, my attitude to certain elements in the bourgeois pictorial aesthetic is (roughly) comparable to Timpanaro’s attitude towards the achievements of the natural sciences. Let me give one example. I am convinced that the theory and practice of expression as it developed within the Western Fine Art tradition is not reducible to ideology, but, on the contrary, gives many fruitful indications of where we might be looking for the material bases of significant aspects of pictorial and sculptural aesthetics.

I have already said something about this in my discussions of the painters Bomberg and Hoyland. The point is sufficiently significant to bear repeating here. In the Renaissance, a theory of expression emerged based upon the empirical study of anatomy. Alberti, one of its earliest theorists, believed that a good painting functioned by evoking emotions in the viewer through the expressiveness of its subjects. The “scientific,” or material basis of painting was thus rooted in the study of physiognomy and musculature. These were not sufficient for good expression: a brilliant anatomical painter might fail to call forth the emotional response in his viewers. Nonetheless, within this tradition of expression, there was no way around anatomy. In general, it remains true that as Western artists moved away from the anatomical base, as they came to prefer style to the scalpel, painting fell into Mannerism, where the painter’s primary preoccupation seems to be with his own devices and conventions, rather than with the representation of expression as learned from empirical experience. Inevitably, ideology then subsumed the search for truth.

By the end of the 19th century, the old science of expression was beginning to break up, or, to be more accurate (with the exception of certain pockets and enclaves such as the Slade in Britain), it had shifted out of the Fine Art arena and was being pursued by scientists like Darwin, author of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Artists were increasingly preoccupied with a new theory of expression—whose rudimentary “moment of becoming” is, as a matter of fact, discernible even in High Renaissance anatomical expression. Expression came to refer more and more to what the artist expressed through his work, rather than to the expressiveness of his or her subjects. Indeed, the artist became, in a new sense, the subject of all his paintings, and the relevance of the old, “objective,” anatomical science of expression withered.

However, like the old, the new theory of expression was also ultimately rooted in the body, though in this case in the body of the artist himself. In Abstract Expressionism—and I am referring not only to the New York movement, but also its precursors and parallels elsewhere—the body of the artist is expressed through such phenomena as scale, rhythm, and simulation of somatic process. (This is quite obviously true of a painter like Pollock.) But again, as in classical expression, physiological depiction was not pursued for its own sake—even when it was skilfully done. Rothko might not have been able to render to us the physiognomy of Moses, Venus, or Laocoon—but he could, through the new expression, vividly introduce us to the face of his own despair. (But just as abstract expression was present as a “moment of becoming” within High Renaissance anatomical expression—and as a significant element in much Romantic painting—so High Renaissance anatomical expression is present as a critical residue within much abstract expression. It is perfectly possible to talk about the anatomy of De Kooning, the drawing of Newman, the physiognomy of Rothko.) But just as the Renaissance science of expression had tumbled into mannerism, so too did the new abstract expression. Arguably, it was even more prone to do so because its guarantor was not so much the “objective” discoveries of observation and the dissecting room, but rather the authenticity of the artist, his truth to lived experience. Similarly, the development of “Modernism” saw the efflorescence of a Crocean, idealist, notion of “expression”—which paralleled the re-entry of idealism into the physical sciences at the beginning of the century—which sought to detach expression decisively from any relationship to the body, or material practice, and to locate its source in some spiritual domain. Now I do not think that we, as socialists involved in cultural practices, will get far by clinging to the Crocean idealist concept of expression or its derivatives. I do, however, feel that we could advance beyond the present impasse in Fine Art practices by re-examining the full gamut of expression which roots itself in experience of and through the body. Here, for example, we might find many answers to such problems as the historical “transcendence” of the expression of the Lady of Warka; the science of expression allows us to identify one way in which the art of the past, and of other cultures, can ‘speak to us’ without invoking eternal essences or any such nonsense. (A grimace is also a transformation of material.) But this is merely to point in the direction of my own future research.

My defence of the Fine Art tradition is not aestheticist, but part of that defence of “man” against both the structures of capitalism and the reductions of resurgent Stalinism in the theorisations of the Left. I would like to end with a final quote from Edward Thompson: “The homeland of Marxist theory remains where it has always been, the real human object, in all its manifestations (past and present) . . .” Thus my defence of drawing, painting and sculpture is my contribution to the defence of that “homeland of Marxist theory . . . the real human object,” and my contribution to the struggle for what admittedly seems to me at present a remote possibility, the realization through the historical process of a society in which men and women, as biological beings necessarily entering into social life, can live as fully and as happily as is possible within those limits which nature places upon us.

Peter Fuller (1947–1990) was a British writer and art critic. He founded the art magazine Modern Painters, and was the appointed art critic of The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of many books, including Art and Psychoanalysis (Writers and Readers, 1981), Aesthetics After Modernism (Writers and Readers, 1983), and Robert Natkin (Harry N. Abrams, 1981).