Ergastulums and gallows: material work and social causality in the artistic work (part 3)

Without a doubt, tsarist absolutism had a lot to do with the fidelity of art and literature to nineteenth-century realism without hesitation until 1905. Especially literature reproached and accused a tradition that resisted the bourgeois-democratic backlash, which had taken place in Western Europe.

In fact, in the intellectuals of the time a revolutionary impetus lasted that, finding popular forces as allies, shook the feudal regime to its foundations, however, the tsarist power continued to resist until 1917. It is precisely in this period (between the first attempt and the revolution) where he breaks with the realistic tradition, and there is a rapid development in aesthetic experiments, where he turns towards exasperated individualism. From literature one passes to the pictorial arts. It is on this boiling stage that the seed of the avant-garde is sown and sprouts (De Micheli, 2008).

The last and definitive step from figurative art to pure abstraction was given by Malevich in 1913. What this new (suprematist) painting proposes is the absence of any image that refers us to the real world, it breaks the last link between cubist painting and objectivity and it is on the basis of the cubist lesson that geometric abstractionism was born.

This step was so important for modern art. In the face of Malevich's desperate efforts to free art from the shackles of objectivity, he took refuge in the form of the square, exhibiting a painting that is nothing more than a black square on a white ground; “everything we loved was lost”.

The critics and the public were drowning in a sea of incomprehensibility. What we have before us is nothing more than a black square on a white background! Their only desire was to rediscover an image of «reality», «real objectivity» . Malevich could not expect otherwise, -he said- "The ascent to the heights of non-objective art is exhausting and full of torments, (...) The contours of objectivity sink with each step, and at last, the world of the objective concepts becomes invisible, only the spirit of non-objective sensibility that permeates everything remains.”[1]

Malevich (together with Maiakovsky) published in 1915 The Manifesto of Suprematism in Petrograd, today Saint Petersburg; and later developed in The Suprematism, that is, the World of Non-Representation (1920) his thought in literary form, his art theory.

For Malevich, the art that survives does so not because of the reality it represents, but because of a timeless (transhistorical) quality that is not subject to the practical purpose of that representation. That mysterious virtue that distinguishes a masterpiece from a failed work is pure plastic sensitivity (De Micheli, 2008).

"Suprematism" is nothing other than the supremacy of "pure sensibility" in the face of practical questions, in the world of objectivity, of representation, of the figurative.

For the modern artist it is necessary to abandon the burdens of the real world. He must be willing to face the accumulation of phenomena, meta-aesthetic meanings and objective considerations of the oppressive real world and continue painting or sculpting unrelated to practical purposes and only under the demands and guidelines of pure plastic sensibility.

Only then will he be able to hear in all its purity the vox clamantis of art, which is otherwise impossible to hear in the deafening life of the objective world. Only then will he be able to extract the essence of art from its material-objective envelope. In other words, Malevich hated the idea that the contents of life could be the contents of art. Faced with such a dilemma, Mayakovsky wrote:

Suprematism, both in painting and architecture, is free from any social or material trend. Every social idea, no matter how great and significant it may be, is born from the sensation of hunger; Every work of art, however mediocre and meaningless it may be in appearance, is born of plastic sensibility. It would be time to finally recognize that the problems of art, those of the stomach and those of common sense are far removed from each other.[2]

In their obsessive search for plastic purity, the Suprematists lose sight of art fundamentally as a problem of expression. They dissociate art from all content, focusing solely on it as only a formal problem.

Although this was to change significantly after the victorious Revolution of 1917. The differences and suspicions between intellectuals and artists that the failure of 1905 had sown, leading them to mistrust and isolation. The victory was for many a point of reference in the midst of the chaos, numerous writers and artists took the side of the revolution, Suprematists and Constructivists alike, in addition to those who naturally, for years, like Gorky, had militated in favor of the people (De Michelle, 2008).

This context of agitated, very powerful circumstances, the material conditions, the social organization in antagonistic classes, contradictory interests and needs together with the productive forces, together generated the process of development, in the first years of the revolution, of elaboration of the Soviet culture and art.

This suggested a logical course that the Soviet government followed with regard to art. Lunacharsky, at the head of the People's Commissariat of Education, was interested in favoring and intervening in the avant-garde trends of modern art and contributed, as part of the obligation of the revolutionary State, to the dissemination and support of national art.

Artists and intellectuals held official positions in art schools and academies, museums, and cultural institutions. Malevich himself was a professor at the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts in 1917, the following year he was called to the Vitebsk Academy; and in 1919 he returned to Moscow to the Moscow National School of Applied Arts and was appointed director of the Leningrad Institute for the Study of Artistic Culture. But he never stopped his pictorial activity.

We can now return to the Pushkin case. It was the reciprocal relations between the material conditions - historically and socially determined - and the causality in his consciousness that caused him to adopt the doctrine of art for art's sake. Then then, yours is not true art?[3]

It is clear that each society has a different way of understanding beauty. Also, how do you embody it? It is also clear that the same people change and take another form at different times. Lunacharsky points out that at the base of why these changes occur we will find the events that occur in the economic structure -which constitutes the key to the materialist conception of history- and the degree of influence of the ruling class in culture (Lunacharsky, 1975).

The misery of a vision of the history of sterile art only knows how to see the varieties -essentially irreconcilable and contradictory- of the same aesthetic in different peoples and times. In this sense, I consider it necessary to build a fresh look at the materialist conception of art history.

Ergo, there is another way of looking at it: the point of view of the man true to his style, who has established his taste. Thanks to arriving at idealistic and subjectivist considerations, style must be understood as a product of both social conditions and the objectified work of the subject-artist. The close relationship and their reciprocal influence between these two aspects results in the causality of the work. Both the social causality of the artistic work, as well as the material causality of the artist's consciousness.

Faced with the dilemma of Soviet power and its relations with art, in an article published in the magazine Kommunisticheskoie Prosveschenie (Communist education) in 1920, Lunacharsky questions: can art revolutionize something? Can art give something to the revolution? ? A first quality of true art is the sincerity of the artist. Ideas cannot be forced upon artists, the fruit of such an imposition would be nothing more than false promises, cheap forgeries and fetishes of revolutionary art.

In this sense, what can be done is to stimulate the new generations with the corresponding education, with mediated forms of conviction that must be used in the task of providing a revolutionary inspiration to art (Lunacharsky, 1975).

Finally, material work thus constitutes the elementary base of art -although not its teleological justification. Granting a materialist conception of art in all its periods must necessarily include both the intellectual process and the material work, beginning with the latter.

Contributing to developing a materialist aesthetic that is more consistent with its fundamental principles, both with the stage of the productive forces and with its specific social conscience, could be a prevailing task of our time, one of alienation and (aesthetic) teasing.

We insist that it is material work in its dialectical relationship with social causality, an ontological condition prior to any intentionality, that will bring us closer to true art. According to these authors.

Final considerations

How is it that we arrive at the meta-aesthetic problems of our current society? Could it be that with the fall of the Berliner Mauer a certain disenchantment appeared, a hint of disillusionment and depression in the intellectuals and artists that prevented them from maintaining a materialist perspective? From this, did what we call postmodern vulgarity emerge -along with the globalizing capitalist reordering?

Understood here by vulgarity not only the abandonment of materialist philosophy, but also the crisis situation itself, the hostile and adverse environment of that historical moment led to giving up a critical position towards life and the world around them.

Somehow the collapse of the Soviet regime led them to think that what failed was not this but materialism itself. What prevented thinking about the new aesthetic reality that is in crisis and with this there was a rupture in the thought about the future of history dragged by the feeling of disappointment.

The depression weakens the perspective and with it the unitary thought is lost, theoretically cohesive and coherent with a vision of the history of art as a continuity (but not as a linear and ascending development). The historical subject, that is, the revolutionary subject, the class subject is diluted with capitalist post-modernity, the class perspective is lost; the new historical subject, declassed, postmodern, without content, without substance, empty of any transforming mission of reality.

The new vulgar reality, degraded, with misery covered with ornaments, disguised as wealth, high technology, extravagant fashions, false adornments. There is no depth, there is no poetry, there is no vitality; in truth there is death, there is violence, there is degradation, there is misery, there is pettiness, there is selfishness, there is arrogance. It is a real disaster, this misery invades aesthetics, this empire of unreason, of the absurd, of inhumanity, of selfishness, which expands throughout the world -as Lipovetsky says- we live in the era of emptiness and lightness, of hyper-individualism.

What is nefarious about capitalist postmodernity is the fact that it is ontologically primary for a person to be a citizen, father, son, worker, office worker, artist, curator, to fulfill these roles that society assigns us before being human beings. We enter a process of dehumanization; the tragic metamorphosis of the subject -in Kafka- is not the man inverted into an insect, but the gaze that he assumes, that man adopts in the face of postmodern reality.

There is in all this an arbitrary nature, a close affinity with hedonism, in a sense the assumption of egoism is a systematic refusal to sacrifice one's own happiness for the happiness of other people. The perennial triumph of the Self, against the other. Leaving the Ego the sole power to solve problems by subordinating reason. Contemporary art is immersed, circumscribed in this scenario. Naturally, the aesthetics that emerge from this scenario will only reflect this reality with notable vilification.

Contemporary art, imprisoned by bourgeois ideology, takes refuge in subjectivism, in "importamadrismo", in nonconformity, in ridicule; disque criticizing bourgeois values, they adopt them as anti-values ​​of their existence but at the same time they justify it. Self-absorbed and captivated by the "freedom" that postmodernity offers, contemporary artists liberate them from the heavy burden of thinking, believing, being, they close the circle of bourgeois ideology, lies and non-dialogue disguised as openness and lightness attack every possible path of artistic experimentation.

His destiny, the production for the gallery, the promoters, the triumphal entry of art into the capitalist market (Durán, 1998). Now, artistic production is governed by the laws of laissez faire. Elitist art makes fun of the spectators, contemporary artists only make fun of themselves. They will do no more than enslave art and condemn it to ergastulas and scaffolds.

It is true, we live in a not very encouraging scenario. We have two options, we can fall into depression and adopt the path of art for art's sake, or believe that true art is not dead and be optimistic about it. In any case, we have no choice but to return the fundamental problem to the position established by the materialists.

It is an essential task of our time to ask ourselves today if this position is still valid or to imagine new possibilities to assimilate contemporary art. It is time to illuminate the prevailing confusion. It is a cultural task of the first magnitude.


§ Bosch, Raphael. (1972) Material Work and Art, Mexico: Grijalbo, pp. 7-18.

§ De Micheli, Mario. (2008) The Artistic Vanguards of the 20th Century, Madrid: Alianza, Cap. 9, p. 229-240.

§ Duran, Silvia. (1998) Towards a Marxist Aesthetics, in: Graciela Borja (coord.) Memory of the International Symposium: György Lukács and his Time, Mexico: UAM-X, CSH, Politics and Culture, Chap. 9, p. 175-188.

§ Kosík, Karel. (1967) Dialectics of the Concrete: Study on the Problems of man and the World, Mexico: Grijalbo, Cap. 2, p. 125-152.

§ Lukács, György. (1966) Aesthetics, Mexico: Grijalbo, Volume I, Chap. 1 and 4, p. 33-80 and 265-296.

§ Lunacharsky, Anatoli. (1975) Art and the Revolution 1917-1927, Mexico: Grijalbo, pp. 83-87, 175-183, 193-204.

§ Lunacharsky, Anatoli. (1970) Tasks of Marxist Criticism, in: Sánchez, A. (comp.) Aesthetics and Marxism, Mexico: Era, Volume I, Chap. 7, p. 391-394.

§ Marx, Carl. (1975) The Capital, Mexico: Siglo XXI, Volume I, Vol. I, Chap. 1, 2 and 3, p. 43-178.

§ Plekhanov, Georgy. (1973) The Materialist Conception of History / Art and Social Life, Mexico: Roca, pp. 21-93.

[1] Fragment, Malevich, K. The Manifesto of Suprematism, which Maiakowsky collaborated in drafting, was published in Petrograd (present-day Saint Petersburg) in 1915.

[2] Cited by De Micheli, M. (2008) The Artistic Vanguards of the 20th Century, p. 239 (V. Maiakovsky, Opera; cit. ed., vol. II, p. 76.)

[3] We ask the reader to understand that two analogous examples are not representative of the whole of the artistic production of the society to which they belong. Different artistic movements and currents may develop at the same time, in the same place, or they may coexist, even influence each other; they are not necessarily contradictory, although there may be conceptions that see it that way. “Not necessarily” means that the fact that one arises makes the other disappear, and that even the same artist passes from one to the other. Let us understand the development of art, as well as of man himself, is not static or mechanical.