Ergastulums and gallows: material work and social causality in the artistic work (part 2)

"Luctacsian aesthetics represents the most fruitful achievement of the conception of art as a form of knowledge.”[1]

Lukács's aesthetic philosophy, grossomodo, is a critical aesthetic, in many ways closed and based on normative assumptions. His reflection never separates art from its intrinsic ideological charge and condemns all art that is born from a bourgeois ideology or, from this, tries to reflect reality.

It stands as the maximum criterion of aesthetic validation, the quintessential form of "realism”[2], understood as a philosophical category and not as a formal expression or technique(s) of artistic production. "Art is for him one of the possible ways available to man to reflect or capture reality.[3]

So then, Lukács argues that art, good art, the one that has prevailed over oblivion and time, is the "realist". This makes realism the only satisfier of those conditions, those necessary for art.

We have to understand, Lukacsian realism is not a "portrait of reality" or a photograph. Various writings on Lukács's aesthetic proposition start from this misunderstanding. Here we will try to establish the central difference between what is commonly understood by realism in art theory and history as a descriptive concept of techniques or ways of doing, and the concept of realism in Lukács that is established from a specific philosophical proposition such as "apprehension". of reality”[4] in its aesthetic sense.

The point of reference for the direct way of apprehending reality as a cognitive process or ways of knowing (gnosis) is his contribution to the Theory of Reflection, where Lukács establishes three ways or forms of knowledge: scientific knowledge, aesthetic knowledge and everyday knowledge.

“Art is, therefore, one of the forms by which the world, reality is revealed to man. This reality, of course, is in a constant process of change, and hence the need for the means of expression to vary.”[5]

In this vein, art acquires a sense or a cognitive function, Lukács turns art into something socially useful – a position that we can find earlier in Chernishevsky – unlike the thought that condemns it to ornament.

Thought starts from the same process of appropriation of the real in all three forms, but as ways of apprehending reality, they are intertwined, intertwined, but distinguishable in their expression. Lukács establishes very well the differences between the scientific form and the aesthetic in his analysis of artistic production, although as forms of knowing, it is natural that they sometimes touch or are confused (Durán, 1998).

How is aesthetic knowledge constructed? Lukács establishes a dialectical approach between phenomenon and essence with objective and subjective conditions, it is then that aesthetic knowledge is built from the faithful and objective reflection of reality, from the aesthetic assimilation of the real-objective by the subject consistent with a historical-social legality.

Aesthetic knowledge allows us to understand what is universal in the singular, in order to then proceed to create another reality, the artistic reality, the work of art. The artistic reality is reproduced from the real through a reflection, the aesthetic reflection of the real world, the artistic reflection must faithfully and objectively reflect reality. It is from aesthetic knowledge in relation to the Aristotelian concept of veracity that another reality is constructed, the "true" artistic reality, the true work of art.

With this Lukács implies the supremacy of the content over the continent. Ultimately, the intrinsic ideology in all artistic work that has to be translated into a certain form. For him, the work of art is the one “that manages to correctly capture, according to the content, the direction and the proportion, the new essential that appears in its period, and that is capable of developing an organically adequate dation to the new content, born of him.”[6] At the same time, he points out the conception of the world corresponding to realistic art. This is why he is accused of his aesthetic being dogmatic, contentious and closed (Durán, 1998).

Regarding Plekhanov realism, at the beginning of Art and Social Life (1913) he highlights two opposite meanings and two examples, around the question of the relationship between the objective world and the artistic. On the one hand we have the aesthetic values and considerations adopted, among others by Chernishevsky, the position he assumes is that "art should contribute to the development of human consciousness, to the improvement of the social regime." [7]

In the same framework as Lukács, let's say that Chernishevsky gives art or understands the artistic with an intrinsic socially functional sense, and this sense resides in the mass of knowledge –and concepts elaborated by other disciplines– that he spreads in society. Under this perspective he demanded that art participate in the revolutionary struggle. Chernishevsky said: “Art for art's sake is today as strange an idea as wealth for wealth's sake. (...) art must also be of some essential utility, and not serve as a sterile pleasure”[8]

All human activities exist to be used if one does not want to fall into vain and idle occupations. Just as wealth should serve man to satisfy his "material" needs, art corrects his "spiritual" ones. For Chernishevsky, art not only reproduces reality, but also explains it. For him, the significance of art lies in reproducing life, often operating as value judgments about its phenomena (Plejánov, 1973).

On the other hand, we owe the opposite point of view - Plekhanov mentions - to the "second stage”[9] of the poet Pushkin, in his own interpretation of the mission of art we find the so-called "theory of art for art's sake" in its clearest expression:

We were not born for the turmoil of life
Neither for combat or ambition;
We were born for inspiration,
For prayers and sweet melodies.[10]

This radical adoption of art for art's sake, in principle, corresponds to certain moments in the life of a human being in accordance with their specific social reality. How is this? Let's examine it in more detail.

There is a specific historical moment where the existing social conditions encourage involvement - as was the case with Pushkin in his "first stage" - but there may be other moments where the hopes of men vanish along with their lives. The beginning of the reign of Nicholas I exerted a huge influence on the further fate of 19th-century Russia, on the society of that time, and on the fate of Pushkin himself:

(...) high society fell into degradation and sank into abjection and servility. The aristocratic independence and chivalrous fearlessness of Alexander's time disappeared with the year 1826. It was very hard for a sensitive and intelligent man to live in such a society. (...) everything was solitude, silence; not an echo, not a human feeling, not a hope.[11]

The look that sought sympathy at first found nothing but threat and fear, later, the boredom and vulgarity prevailing in the society that surrounded him, his relationships with the "high spheres" that led him to morality made his life bitter. official. Forced to live “generously”[12] in awe of Nicholas I, under such conditions —says Plekhanov regarding Pushkin— it was natural to hate “moral greatness” and feel deeply repelled by any “utility” that art could bring him. In other words, Pushkin's situation led him to take the position of art for art's sake.

The following conclusion emerges before us: it is when the reciprocal relationship (dialectical unity) between subject (artist) and medium-objective (society) is broken that the tendency to art for art's sake arises ―spontaneously―. Ergo, the arguments presented here are insufficient to support such a conclusion.

It is not necessary to explain more exactly how this divorce occurs. After all that has been noted, the brilliant statement that, in my opinion, finds expression in Plekhanov on this matter is that art cannot be understood from the point of view of "duty", the consequent approach is from the point of view of what was and what "is". It changes from a normative reading to a descriptive reading of the artistic phenomenon.

However, Kosík's criticisms of the Plejanovian reduction of art to social conditions arise from the foregoing. He rejects all reductionism (of art, for example) to the economic. When Kosík says: “Poetry is not a reality of a lower order than economics; (…) The economy does not generate poetry[13] he refers to the fact that it is man who creates the economy, poetry, both are products of human praxis (work).

Both economy and poetry are human realities with different meanings; the approach is based on the materialist determination of man, as a subject-objective, as a being that creates social reality and not on human products that dialectical materialism investigates the origin of the economy itself. Otherwise, a teleological conception of reality, of history, of the economy and of man himself is based; as of something already given, it turns economy (or poetry) into a result, into a thing, into a fetish (Kosík, 1967).

It is from the materialistic determination of man and through praxis that a new reality is created, an aesthetic, artistic-social reality, and indispensably with the material conditions present in nature, that we can explain the economy as a fundamental structure of social relations, of human objectification. Ultimately, it is the work and the praxis ―basic characteristics of said objectivation― that give meaning to the creation of reality (aesthetics).

Kosík in Dialectics of the Concrete (1961) deals with the issue, facing the relationships of the work of art and a given situation, of how and why it is that art survives its time:

In the Renaissance, creation and work are still united, because the human world is born in full transparency like Botticelli's Venus is born from a seashell in springtime nature. There is a direct link between work as creation and the highest products of work: the products refer to their creator, that is, to the man who stands above them, and expresses in them not only what is already and what has already achieved, but also what it can still become. They testify not only to their current creative capacity but also very particularly to their infinite potentiality, (...) capitalism breaks this direct link, separates work from creation, the product from the producer, and transforms work into a tiring, strenuous and non-creative activity. . Creation begins beyond the border of industrial work. Creation is art while industrial work is a trade, something mechanical, reiterated and, therefore, something little appreciated that devalues ​​itself.[14]

Plekhanov's method is insufficient for understanding the problems (not only) of (modern) art, because it lacks objective human praxis, "sensible human activity", the conception of the subject as a constitutive element. In this sense, Kosík says, “it moves away from Marx”; in his conception of reality he reduces the subject-objective to “social psychology”, or to the “spirit of the times” and positions him as the opposite pole to economic conditions; he does not manage to overcome the dualism of the given situation and the psychological element of men (Kosík, 1967). Let's examine this in more detail, let's take Russian Suprematism as an example:

The first thing that should be mentioned, and as De Micheli rightly points out about «abstractionism» (a movement to which Suprematism belongs), is the inappropriate use of the term to refer to something that by definition is not abstract. Indeed, an idea or an image deposited on a canvas or in a stretcher is, however abstract it may be, in itself concrete. In the same way, the product resulting from sculpting plastic matter impregnated with feeling.

We could say that abstractionism -because it is the result of an abstraction that proposes a new concrete reality- is logically placed outside such denomination, however, the use of the word abstractionism has become so widespread that it makes no sense to replace it now, because inherent to it is a whole series of well-defined preconceptions in its history and in its properties, something that the word «concretism» does not imply with the same clarity (De Micheli, 2008).

Briefly, we note that there are two tendencies in the abstract movement[15]. In the first Kandisky we find an abstraction made of "lyrical impulses", connected with the principle of inspiration -coming from romanticism- understood as "effusion of the spirit".

Ergo, here we will concern ourselves with the second tendency of abstractionism, that of "intellectual rigor", of the geometric language that we find in Mondrian. Although the origin of both is found in idealism, or at least they share the same "mystical" root, their nature is different.

The first (of the young Kandinsky) is of an ascetic mysticism that frees itself from worldly pleasures and the ephemerality of material reality to enter the substantiality of the universal spirit. In Mondrian[16], on the other hand, we find a quasi-religious (Calvinist) rigor to overcome passions and temptations, fluctuating between uncertainty as an incentive for depersonalization, a discouraging process of objectification.

In the new reality that the «abstracts» promise, there is nothing “in itself”, it will only be part of the whole (De Micheli, 2008). But, if abstractionism has its origin in idealism, how can we criticize or analyze it from materialism? We will go to that later.

As a consequence of a series of historical and aesthetic premises, it was the inevitable birth of abstractionism around 1910[17] almost at the same time in various latitudes of Europe, and by 1914 they jointly acquired their properties as a movement in the history of art. western.

It must be said that the major center of abstract research and theoretical formulation was Russia, both Russia in the years immediately preceding the First Great War (1905-1914), as well as the "abstract" movement whose epicenter was the Soviet Republic (1917-1925) that spread widely under its three fundamental currents: Rayonism, «suprematism» and constructivism.

Continues (part 3)...


[1] Sánchez, A. (2005) The Aesthetic Ideas of Marx, Mexico: Siglo XXI, p. 85.

[2]This represents a first problem: “Every conception of realism or non-realism is based on a conscious or unconscious conception of reality.” (Kosík, 1967: 136). In other words, what we consider to be realistic art will depend on what we consider to be reality.

[3] Sánchez, A. (2005) The Aesthetic Ideas of Marx, Mexico: Siglo XXI, p. 85.

[4]This represents a second question: “The discussions revolve around the artist's attitude towards reality, (…) or whether the artist reflects in an adequate, truthful and artistically perfect way this or that trend of reality, but it is always tacitly assumed that the most obvious, the most notorious and, therefore, the least that requires investigation and analysis is precisely reality. But what is reality? (Kosík, 1967: 135).

[5] Sánchez, A. (2005) The Aesthetic Ideas of Marx, Mexico: Siglo XXI, p. 85.

[6] Lukács, G. (1965) Prolegomena to a Marxist Aesthetics, Mexico: Grijalbo, p. 219.

[7] Ibid, p. 72.

[8] Ibidem, p. 73.

[9] Plekhanov mentions: the time of Nicholas I, and not the previous one with Alexander I.

[10] These verses belong to Pushkin's poetry “The Poet and the Crowd”.

[11] Plejanov, G. (1973) Art and Social Life, Mexico: Roca, p. 78.

[12] The “protection” afforded Pushkin by his political “juvenile dalliances” manifested itself in a long series of excruciating humiliations; he was wanted to become a singer of the regime (Plejánov, 1973: 79).

[13] Kosík, K. (1967) Dialectics of the Concrete, Mexico: Grijalbo, p. 136.

[14] Ibid, p. 138.

[15]We refer here to the periodization and definition found in Western art theory and history as taught in the academic centers of the developed world.

[16] Piet Mondrian is known as the clearest representative of geometric abstractionism, but the abstract artists par excellence are the Russians.

[17] Although from before art began to distance itself from realism and experiments with abstraction began.