“‘Reality,’ sa molesworth 2, ‘is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'” – Nigel Molesworth
I know it’s not what you signed up for, but I will be breaking all the rules and discussing a work by the French impressionist painter Édouard Manet. The painting on the left, to be precise. Why? My answer to this, as to many other questions, is because I am being made to. Forced by the bourgeoisie powers that rule the Gormenghastian institution of which I am a member to give a presentation about it in terms of a Marxist theory of (art) history.
Of course Marx never wrote any such thing as an aesthetic theory, he was far too busy impregnating housemaids or drunkenly smashing streetlights on Tottenham Court Road with his mates (oh the things I learned majoring in political and Marxist philosophy at undergraduate), and then he wrote some political stuff, or so I have heard. Given the cultural significance of artworks and artistic institutions in history, a Marxist theory of art is something that subsequent scholars have tried to formulate ever since. And this is partly the problem, and what is now causing me to regret choosing this week’s topic from amongst the available options; Marxism is emotive, and we’re all guilty of picking and choosing from Marx’s writings to say whatever it is we want him to say. Marx’s words have been used and manipulated by a great number of people for their own goals, not all of whom have even attempted to remain loyal to his intentions.
But I have never been one to keep my mouth shut when I should (for reasons ranging from irrepressible childish excitement to my jaw-dropping ignorance), so I may as well stick my oar in. Briefly stated, Marx’s beef was that economic theorists wrote about human production in a way that made bourgeoisie property relations and private capital seem natural and universal, rather than just a particular state of affairs specific to capitalist society*. Right now, capitalists own the means of production (like factories and raw materials), but it is the working class that actually produces commodities (iPods, Ed Hardy clothing) whilst receiving almost none of the profit (dolla). This matters for art because the state of affairs in the legal, political and cultural spheres of any society are ultimately conditioned by the economic relations that describe the conditions of production. Without wishing to destroy the intricacies of Marx’s arguments – looking at the art of a period can tell us about the class relations of a culture that produced it in very specific and determined ways. For instance, Greek art is grounded in Greek mythology, which for the Greeks was a systematic attempt to understand the world, to rationalize the relations between men and between man and nature. What was revolutional about Marx’s way of looking at the world was that he didn’t think society was the way it was because men thought about it and had decided – it was society (as the conglomerate of relations of production between men) that determined the way men thought about the world.
This might not seem like much now – society is always telling me how to think about things, so what, big deal – but at the time it was a denial of the commonly accepted Hegelian notion that it was the ultimate and unstoppable force of man’s Will that shaped the world. If Marx’s emphasis on the ultimate explanatory power of economic relations between producers is too much for you, remember that for Marx they were literally everything. He had kept hold of Hegel’s idea that man comes to know himself by expressing his identity and difference to other things through what he produces. What we make and how we make it, how we use it and who we give it to – production governs our relationships with other people, which are active every moment that we live in a society.
Anyway, the painting and that. With its emphasis on ordinary subject matter, the changing qualities of light, and above all, movement, impressionism seems to be orientated around the momentary position of a mobile spectator. The painting above shows a young and stylishly dressed young woman, holding the hand of a small (blurry) child in the lower left, with the titular skating rink in the background. Impressionism, as an expression of modernity, often depicts informal occasions such as this, inhabiting the new world where social classes came together in previously unimaginable proximity. After Haussmann renovated Paris in the 1860s, spaces were created in which life was lived in public, spaces outside of the control by the state, where individuals exchanged views and knowledge – and more importantly, made a spectacle of themselves. Other people have written about Manet’s style in much more elucidating ways than I could here, so I will defer, and get back to the theoretical yawn-fest.
T.J. Clark, a Marxist art historian upon whose writings my presentation is based, tries to show how Manet’s pictures are a reflection of modernity as it was experienced in that period, when people were just coming to grips with all the changes that it brought. Clark uses a lot of salon criticism in his analysis – by looking at the critical reception of an object in the world of salon, for which Manet created his paintings, he hopes to reconstruct what these paintings meant for the people who viewed them. This would be highly unoriginal and mind-blowingly boring if it wasn’t for the fact that he is looking for specific types of criticism, the kind where the critic goes into some kind of hysterical hyperbolic rant that seems completely unjustifiable if it were based only on formal artistic considerations, as it purports to be. I mean, art can be good or bad, poorly executed or magnificently rendered, but you don’t have to freak out about it. And freak out they did. Critic and public alike went completely mental about Manet’s Olympia of 1863, showing a courtesan lying naked on a couch. It wasn’t that she was a courtesan or that she was naked, or even that she was both, as all these things had been done before. It was that she was so shamelessly so – there was no attempt to keep the naked female body safe and non-threatening by putting it in the guise of a mythological figure, anonymous and depersonalized. The critics weren’t scandalized by the content as such, they just couldn’t work out what they were meant to be looking AT. No, this was terrible, she had the personalized features of an actual woman, and she was looking right back at you, AND she knew exactly why you were looking at her and at other nudes like her. And it wasn’t because you liked the classics.
Clark likens his analysis to a Freudian one, whereby it is the episodic outbursts in a person’s psychological history that point us to the deeper workings of the unconscious. If we look for the psychotic breaks in the critical narrative, what disturbs the status quo will by extension tell us what the status quo really is, or at least how it was perceived to be. I think this critical gaze is encapsulated in our painting by the primly dressed figure on the right, who looks out towards us, mirroring our own gaze, but whose eyes are fixed on the fashionable dressed young female subject. The young woman, wearing makeup, jewelry, and elaborate clothes, is still a mother, bringing her child to this place of social transgression. Basically, she’s a MILF, which was even less appropriate then than it is now. She is a member of the petty bourgeois, a new social class with aspirations higher than its roots, the bearer of modernity. I think the staring figure on the right is somehow the key to this painting, and my presentation will be a statement of this fact followed by disconnected sentences and wild gesticulation as a form of argument in my usual manner.
Marx had some pretty good one liners, but there is one that stands out in light of all the negative ends to which his words have been bent towards (no doubt including formulations of a Marxist history of art such as the one above). After witnessing the self-serving and bitter power-mongering that led to the split of the French Revolutionary Party, Marx commented “If that is Marxism, I am not a Marxist.”
Although it is probably comparable, I am not yet so deeply entrenched in the internal politics of the art history department or the academic community at large to gauge the level of internecine warfare, and I still don’t know if I really am an art historian. I’ll leave that for the critics to decide.*If at any point you disagree with my formulation of Marx, please write a detailed account of your own position and its deviances from mine, making sure to cite your sources (in the original German if possible), roll it tightly into a tube, insert it into a bottle, then throw it into the *?#%@-ing sea.