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Stanley Mitchell

Marxism and Art


Hard on the heels of Lukcss two books, The Historical Novel (1962)
and The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1963), comes Ernst Fischers
The Necessity of Art: a Marxist Approach. Divided between two publishersMerlin Press and Penguin Booksthe succession is yet a
meaningful one, for Fischer, an Austrian Marxist, owes much to
Lukcs, and Vienna is not far from Budapest. That the debt is not
immediately apparentindeed, there are important divergences, and
Lukcss name is not mentioned oncemay be due to the fact that the
book was originally published in Eastern Germany where Lukcs is out
of favour. On the other hand, since the present translation differs in some
significant respects from the original, being geared to an English
readership, Lukcss name could no doubt have been mentioned,
alongside other Marxists, had the author wished. Previous studies by
Fischer, such as Dichtung und Deutung1, lean heavily on him. However,
that is not the point. What really matters in this book are the divergences from Lukcs, particularly those involving definitions and assessments of Romanticism and Realism. A real confrontation is needed
here, now that we have this body of Central European literary criticism
newly before usand a further confrontation, indeed, between this and
our own Marxist critical tradition. In the present article, I cannot hope to
do more than throw out a few ideas and questions.
The actual division of publishers is in itself significant. Fischers is a
popular book; Lukcs is unbendingly intellectual. Further, Fischer is a
poet (and a translator of Baudelaire) for whom the magic of the
word is an unresisted temptation, while Lukcss thought almost rebukes the sensuousness of language. The magic of the word is both
Fischers strength and undoing.
It makes him say fundamentally two things: art is spellbinding; art
proceeds from the magical beliefs which assisted and inspired early
man in his conquest of nature. The second proposition is the more
fruitful. Imitation is mans magic. To seize the likeness of an animal is to
seize the animal itself. To enact the hunt in advance is to heighten the
powers of the hunters. Yet imitation had still to become art. The hunter
was too close in evolution to his prey. Identification contained the
danger of regression; and the latter Fischer illustrates with an attractive
1

Globus Verlag, Vienna, 1953.


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hypothesis about primitive sexuality. Prehistoric man confuses woman


with the animal world. For evidence Fischer points to the suckling of
animals in primitive tribes today. The woman suckles the animal, the
man kills it; thus many hunting tribes came to believe in a mysterious
bond between their women and their prey, with all the contradictions
and fears that this implied. Sexual intercourse and the killing of the
prey blended in the mind of prehistorical man. He thrust a spear in the
ground outside his hut, and the spear was his symbol of the phallus.
Hence the sexual excitement collectively roused before a hunt, when
sexual intercourse was forbidden. Hence the sexual rites which attended
initiation ceremonies in the caves of the great prehistorical paintings.
Discussing the paintings of the Trois Frres cave, Fischer concludes:
The sorcerers were also considerably helped by the fact that their
identification with the originalthe collective merging of subject
and objectwas extremely intense. An atmosphere of collective sexual
excitement increased identification still further, and a state of collective sexual ecstasy may have preceded the actual work.
Fischer opens this section, entitled The Magic Cave, with the question:
. . . how do we explain the magnificent cave paintings of the Middle
Stone Age, admirable works of art produced by an extremely undeveloped society? Later he remarks: There was no question here of
aesthetic creative pleasurethe thing was deeper, more serious,
altogether more terrifying than that, a matter of life and death or of the
existence or non-existence of the collective.
Thus the paintings are magnificent works of art and yet art as such had
not yet been born: there is no question here of aesthetic creative
pleasure. The imitation is too near the real thing. Fischers confusion
over the relationship between magic and art is apparent throughout the
book. Sometimes art is magic, sometimes it has detached itself from
magic. Fischer can never make up his mind. Where he calls the art of
advanced societies magical, he simply surrenders to the metaphor.
The surrender is serious because it allows metaphor to replace reality.
Implicitly, Fischer often puts himself in he position of those Romantics
and Symbolists whom he so subtly (and lovingly) criticizes for their
escape into an ideal, harmonious world of art. For his own periodization of art comes essentially to this: are springs from the magic of the
primitive collectivity, fully emerges with social fragmentation and
returns to the collectivity under a mature and differentiated Communism.
The account or rather prophecy of this last phase, in the final chapter
The Loss and Discovery of Reality, is the least satisfactory, for reasons
which will appear presently. But it is the second which most perturbs.
For here art is defined essentially as a substitute. It restores the lost unity
of man. Art can raise man up from a fragmented state into that of a
whole, integrated being. What happens then in the third phase, when
man is reunited with himself? Fischers answer is lame: art re-unites
him still further. It remains therefor a substitute: the permanent
function of art is to re-create as every individuals experience the fullness of
all that he is not, the fullness of humanity at large.
What about the fullness of all that he is? In an unclear phrase Fischer
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grapples with the problem: In the second period of developmentthe


period of the division of labour, of class distinction, and the beginning
of every kind of social conflictart became the chief means of understanding the nature of these conflicts, of imagining a changed reality by
recognizing existing reality for what it was, of overcoming the individuals
isolation by providing a bridge to what all men shared.2 The twin
strands of the problem: what could be and what is, are knotted in that
italicized phrase. Discussing the Trois Frres painting Fischer connected the two: the greater the realism, the more effective the hunt. But in
his second period of development what could be separates off from
what is to become the dominant characteristic of art, determining the
nature of art in the third phase, too.
I shall illustrate this with wo examples. First, the emphases of the book.
Fischer deals mainly with lyric poetry, where the confrontation of I
and not-I is most apparent and where the magic of word and form is
predominant. (His predilection for Romantic as against Classical poetry
is significant in this respect. The poetry of the Augustans, he writes,
was a kind of warehouse, a tailors shop of language, supplying garments made to measure for any given meaning or idea.) In comparison
Fischer devotes little space to the novel. What he does say is intelligent
and illuminating, particularly in his discussion of the relationship of
the novel to Romanticisim. But, unfortunately, there is little space here
to consider Fischers indvidual insights, contradictions, reservations. I
am trying to bring out the main lines of his argument, so far as the
impressionistic structure of his book allows. The table of contents
reads: 1. The Function of Art, 2. The Origins of Art, 3. Art and Capitalism,
4. Content and Form, 5. The Loss and Discovery of Reality. The leap from
chapter 2 to 3 illustrates the emphases of the book, which rest on the
antinomies of collective and individual. We pass essentially from the
collective rites of magic to the individual invocations of Romantic lyric
poetry.
One cannot quarrel with the way someone wishes to construct a book.
My point is that the personal emphases reveal an erroneous argument.
Fischer remarks that the discovery of the loneliness of modern cities in
Baudelaires poetry not merely brought a new tremor into the world
but also struck a note that reverberated in millions of minds already
unconsciously attuned to it. This forms one way of providing a
bridge to what all men shared. But the novels way is quite different.
Balzac, whom Fischer shows bravely breaking through the confines of
Romanticism, declared himself societys secretary. For him, therefore,
society was more than a conglomerate of isolated individuals, it was an
organism which could be reproduced cyclically. Fischer himself would
obviously never dream of regarding society otherwise. His whole
argument in the chapter Art and Capitalism is directed against the desocialization of art. Yet his antinomy of collectivity/fragmentation
tends to make the fragmentation absolute, so that art then naturally
appears as a substitute social unifier. To quote again the extraordinary
role he attributes to art during his second period of development:
art became the chief means of understanding the nature of these conflicts . . . of overcoming the individuals isolation. What about religion,
2

p. 219 (my italics SM).


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law, philosophy, social thought? Above all what has happened to


society itselfthe contradictory unity of class struggle, not just its fragmenting conflict? It is precisely this contradictory unity which the
social novel of Balzac presents. The fact that society continues to be a
unity despite its fragmentation should be the touchstone of any history
of culture, indeed any history.
It is here that one would want to confront Fischer with Lukcs.
Lukcs no doubt errs on the side of objectivism; art for him, at least
good art, is always an objective reflection of an objective reality. Hence
(as against Fischer) poetry occupies very little room in his critical work;
he prefers the great narrative and dramatic genres. But his strength lies
in his recognition of the unity of society, however fragmented. This
was interestingly illustrated in a pre-war polemic with Ernst Bloch on
Expressionism.3 Against Blochs description of a fragmented contemporary reality Lukcs distinguishes between distorted surface
(appearance) and total essence. Society, he argues, remains whole,
despite and indeed through, or rather inclusive of, fragmented individual
experience. Fischer, when the title The Loss and Discovery of Reality
reveals its meaning in the course of the chapter, sides with Bloch. Thus,
on the anti-novel: The official illusory world has been replaced by a
private yet no less ghostly one. The official world may appear illusory,
yet is real enough.
Thus art for Fischer is always the substitute for social unityand
therewith for life. Let me move to my second example: Fischers
treatment of art and labour. He calls the primitive toolmaker the first
artist, but once he has done with prehistoric society he dwells exclusively on the fine arts. In a stimulating section on painting he traces
the changing meaning of the theme of work from the Egyptians to
Diego Rivera. But he never deals directly with the relationship of work
and art in class society. One consequence of the division of labour is the
separation of the fine and applied arts. His neglect of the applied arts
proves him a prisoner of this division. In the main chapter on the arts
of class society, Art and Capitalism, alienation is his basic category and
the bourgeois artist his subject. Interestingly, his best discussion of
folk-poetry appears in the later chapter on Content and Form, while in
this one folk-art is seen through the eyes of the bourgeois artist. For
instance, the connection between the dispossessesed peasantry and the
English Romantic movement is made not here, but later. Instead, the
dimensions of Romanticism are narrowed by his characterization of it as
a petty-bourgeois revolt in petty-bourgeois terms: In the capitalist
world the individual faced society alone, without an intermediary, as
stranger among strangers, as a single I opposed to the immense
not-I. Fischer is chiefly concerned with the effect of industrialization
on the consciousness of the bourgeois artist. William Morris, when he
wrote of art under capitalism, linked it directly with labour on the
antithesis: useful labour/useless toil. The art of Communism, he
prophesied, would be that of useful labour. Nor did he understand
labour in a narrow craft sense. Fischer writes, somewhat similarly:
And it is the magic of art that by the process of re-creation it shows
3

See Es geht um den Realismus in the volume Essays uber Realismus.

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that reality can be transformed, mastered, turned into play. But Morris
connects art more directly with work and everyday life. Compare:
Art, the divine solace of human labour, the romance of each days hard
practice of the difficult art of living.4 Art was still a natural adjunct
of labour and its aim was to destroy the curse of labour by making
work the pleasurable satisfaction of our impulse towards energy. In
their own (not unimpeachable) idiom these remarks chime in with those
of Marx on the nature of work once the division of labour has been
ended: In a Communist society there are no painters, but at most
people who among other things paint.5
The idea then of art as substitute, derived from class society and applied
to post-class society, art as creative consciousness rather than creative
labour (I should not want to separate these: I am simply picking out
Fischers emphases)this idea constitutes the main weakness of
Fischers book. The other, and not unconnected, weakness is its
Europocentrism. It is dangerous thing today to be a European
Marxist, dangerous that is for ones Marxism. For one tends to accept
European development as a model for the rest of the world. The
present dispute in the international Communist movement is putting
this attitude to the test. We have seen how the development of capitalism plays a key part in Fischers history of the arts, how relatively small
a part is played by popular culture (though he is very stimulating when
he does deal with it), how large a part is devoted to the individual
bourgeois consciousness or vision. We have heard him in this connection
on Romantic poetry. This now is how he describes, somewhat vulgarsociologically, the music of the bourgeoisie: . . . it might be said that
whenever harmony and expressiveness make an appearance in music,
the bourgeoisie is knocking at the gate, sublimating mercantile competition in the competition of musical themes (p. 191). Further on he
mentions the popular dances and folk songs incorporated in concert
music. But the first statement characterizes his model of musical and
art history in general. Fischers historical view in this respect is of the
merchanistic-evolutionary kind recently criticized by Quintin Hoare
in these pages.6 One class rule, therefore one class culture, follow each
other in fixed succession. Today, when in Asia, Africa and Latin
America, historical developments are being telescoped at a dizzying
speed, when yesterdays serfs are making Socialism, we have a new
perspective in which to see the history of popular culture in industrialized Europe. Fischers remarks on work songs in the anthropological
sections of his book, on folk song and ballad in the chapter Content and
Form, are excellent. But they do not affect his historical model which
leads from primitive hunting society to industrialized, town-dominated civilization, capitalist and socialist. This model is European with
a vengeance. As revolutions occur in predominantly peasant countries,
so the pattern of industrialization changes. The Chinese peasant, for instance, industrializing his commune, is not building a town-dominated
4

Art and Socialism, Nonesuch Press, 1948, p. 627.


German Ideology, quoted from Marx und Engels uber Kunst und Literatur, Berlin,
1951, p. 90.
6 NLR 20.
5 The

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civilization. The efficiency of the big city is even being questioned by


sociologists in the West7.
By taking industrialized Russia as his example of a Socialist country
Fischer is able to find a common platform for bourgeois and socialist
artists. Further, his view of socialist art still proceeds from the position
of the individual artist. In the section Art and the Masses he writes: The
major task of a socialist society, where the art market is no longer
supplied with commodities mass-produced by capitalist speculators, is
therefore twofold: to lead the public towards a proper enjoyment of
art, that is to say, to arouse and stimulate their understanding; and to
emphasize the social responsibility of the artist. We hear nothing of the
artistic activity of the masses themselves.
Fischer groups the names of Eisenstein, Mayakovsky, Brecht, OCasey,
Makarenko, Lger, and Picasso with those of Kafka, Joyce, and Faulkner to underline their similarity of method and the search for a new
world picture book which is common to them all. A little
later, to confirm that these methods are not just bourgeois but universally modern, appropriate to an industrialized, town-dominated civilization, Fischer notes that at a recent exhibition of drawings and paintings by Austrian railway workers in Vienna two thirds showed the
influence of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Czanne, Picasso, and modern
Austrian artists. What does this prove? Simply that both workers and
professional artists in Europe (or a major part of it) inhabit and reflect
an industrialized, town-dominated civilization. But the aim of communism is to remove the disproportion between the top-heavy city
and the backward village, a thing not once mentioned in this book.
It may well be that modern art, whether practised by Joyce or Picasso,
will go down in history as a peculiarly European phenomenon, not as
the art of a civilization through which all nations must pass.
At this point we must inquire what is socialist art, a question raised in
earlier numbers of this journal. Fischer divides the problem into outlook (or perspective) and method. Thus the artists whose names are
mingled above use similar methods, but their outlook differs. The
question immediately arises: will not outlook affect method? Fischer
does not tackle it. Again it is worth comparing Fischer with Lukcs.
Lukcs argues that if the methods, say, of Mann and Joyce appear
similar, this resemblance is only outward. It means simply that each
writer is faced by a similar immediate surface of life. Essentially, however, their methods differ because a different view of the world animates
and shapes them. Method and outlook for Lukcs constitute twin,
dialectically inter-related, aspects of a single artistic activity. Fischer
leaves them separate. In this way, he undoes his own distinction between Naturalism and Realism, if each can be shown to be using realist
methods. Not that Lukcss formulations are irreproachable, but they are
more stringent. Earlier in the book Fischer writes: Socialist art,
different in its attitude from the art of a capitalist world, requires always
new means of expression. Later we learn that they are those of modern
European and American art in general.
7

See most recently Mark Abramss statement reported in The Observer, December
8th.

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Fischers lack of stringency may owe something to the reshaping of his


book for an English public. The most political chapter of the original,
for instance, Problems of Transition, has been omitted. Here the question
of the relationship between Communist Party and artist, the problem
of censorship were argued.
One aspect of this revision is the greater attention devoted to English
and American literature, in particular English poetry. And this, after all
my criticism, makes me end on a note of admiration and gratitude.
Fischers range is remarkable, his powers of evocation (e.g. his reading
of La Belle Dame sans Merci) enviable. Here the magic of the word does
not betray him. He enjoys art and helps you enjoy it with him. For
those who know their Marx, Plekhanov, Caudwell, Lukcs, much,
particularly in his chapter on Art and Capitalism, will be familiar. But
the critique of Romanticism, Impressionism, Naturalism is excellently
restated. Indeed, Fischer offers a very positive counterpart to Lukcss
tiresome denigrations of Romanticism. And much will illuminate: the
suggestive parallels between nature, society and art, the analyses of
architectural styles, of the social content of folk song. Above all, the
sections on primitive art. This observation, for instance, is worth a lot:
. . . . if we bear in mind that the primitive hunters attention was totally
concentrated upon the preynot upon the specific or individual
features of any particular animal but upon the essential features
of the species he set out to hunt; that, in other words, what
mattered to him were the contours of the animal and not the manifold
details of its appearancewe shall, I believe, have found an adequate
explanation for the works of art of the Stone Age. George Thomson
has commented that Fischers connection of sexuality with the economics of totem and taboo takes his own work a stage further.
For many, however, The Necessity of Art will be their first introduction
to Marxist aesthetics or indeed Marxism as such. It is well that they
should find so sensitive a guide. If I have criticized Fischer for Europocentrism, at least he knows his contemporary Europe, he knows his
contemporary film, play, novel, thriller, serious and pop music. His
treatment of decadence is not the undifferentiating anathema popularly
expected from a Marxist. The non-Marxist reader will feel at home,
though let us hope not too much so.

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