Thursday, 31 December 2009

Does art progress? part 2

As we explored in part 1, even a superficial assessment of the social and productive advances of history shows a broad pattern of progress: a series of leaps by which society progresses to more advanced stages. Does this apply to art? Does art also ‘progress’ through history?

Well, the answer is clearly ‘no’. Otherwise, art would get better and better over time, outstripping the achievements of the past to attain ever giddier heights of genius. Nobody could seriously argue that this has happened: we still admire Paleolithic rock paintings, Greek sculpture, and so on, and sometimes even feel they are an achievement we cannot live up to. Our real task is to explain why this is.

The problem of uneven development

When Marx discussed the relationship between base and superstructure, he used art as an example of the unevenness of that relationship:

In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure as it were, of its organisation. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare. It is even recognised that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of the arts, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society.[1]

Marx clearly believed that there is no simplistic partnership between art and social development, between social progress and artistic achievement. He continued:

Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, i.e. nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination. This is its material... Hence, in no way a social development which excludes all mythological, all mythologising relations to nature; which therefore demands of the artist an imagination not dependent on mythology.

From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?

The particular conditions of Greek society produced great art — greater in Marx’s opinion than that of the artists of his own time — but those conditions actually became obsolete with technological advancement. Marx poked fun elsewhere at “the illusion of the French in the eighteenth century which has been so beautifully satirised by Lessing. Because we are further ahead than the ancients in mechanics, etc, why shouldn’t we be able to make an epic too? And the Henriade in place of the Iliad!”[2]

All art is historically located and heavily conditioned by the prevailing forces of social production, but the relationship between art and society is uneven because art depends not just upon economic factors but many others, such as philosophy and the subjective feelings of the artist, which are not directly economically determined (see my comments here on the relative autonomy of art). The example of classical Greece shows us that art sometimes prospers more in less developed societies than in advanced ones — we will consider the reasons for this fully another time.

To return to the Grundrisse, Marx then takes the question further:

The difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

Marx’s manuscript breaks off shortly after, and this has often been interpreted as a sign that although he recognised the problem, he could not answer it. In fairness to him, the manuscript is only a draft which he did not attempt to publish. It is true that his brief attempt at an answer is not satisfactory:

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?

The passage has been dismissed by many commentators, and it is certainly an inadequate response to the problem (perhaps Marx broke off because he himself recognised this). For example there is no reason, other than the conventional preferences of a nineteenth-century German education, why the Greeks should represent the ‘childhood of humanity’ rather than, say, the Mesopotamians, or the Magdalenians — though it should be said that European thought at the time was familiar with neither of those cultures. Marx does correctly identify ‘unripe conditions’ as the reason why Greek art flowered as it did: under those conditions, in Terry Eagleton’s words, “a certain ‘measure’ or harmony can be achieved between man and Nature” which allows art to flourish.[3] Where the passage fails is in adequately explaining why art, whether exceptional or not, continues to move or ‘charm’ us even when created within a more backward mode of production, i.e. in a society that has progressed less far than our own. Marx seems to be regurgitating, in a materialist form, the sentiments about Greek art and childhood that can be found in the writings of bourgeois theorists such as Friedrich Schiller [4], and later in Jacob Burckhardt. For this reason it falls upon his successors to try to resolve the question.

The dialectic of culture

There is an alternative way to explain why art does not ‘progress’ in the way that productive forces generally do.

Social and technological progress meant that art could become hugely more diverse, more sophisticated, more large in scale. Paleolithic society had very limited productive forces, allowing for no pyramids or palaces, no jewel-encrusted metalwork, no glazed porcelain, no monumental sculpture. And yet its art retains great power to this day, despite being largely stripped by time of the context familiar to those who made it. The reason why is essentially the problem Marx was posing when he asked why Greek art still pleased us.

It is not that art is somehow immune to the processes at work everywhere else. The development of art, like that of society, follows the dialectic, as concisely described in a literary context by Trotsky:

Each new literary school — if it is really a school and not an arbitrary grafting — is the result of a preceding development, of the craftsmanship of word and colour already in existence, and only pulls away from the shores of what has been attained in order to conquer the elements anew.[5]

Every ‘school’ of art arose in a particular set of social conditions which heavily influenced artists’ choices of form, medium, subjects and so on. Each new school inherited artistic norms from art forms that came before, but adopted new elements that both represented a complete break and renewed elements from its predecessors.

However, art differs from technical progress in an important respect. Art is created by human beings primarily not as a use-value but as a spiritual value. The fundamental character of art is the objectification and affirmation of our human nature — or in Sánchez Vázquez’s phrase, revealing our “human essence” [6] — in concrete, sensuous forms. And whereas use-value can be revolutionised by social advances, increased efficiency of production, technological breakthroughs and so on, it is not appropriate to try and understand our human nature or ‘essence’ in the same way.

Human nature

By ‘human nature’ we mean the characteristics that all human beings have in common and which distinguish them from other species. These include, as Marx himself noted, “eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things”[7], to which we might add further needs such as water, sleep, warmth, air to breathe and sexual relations. These needs are complemented by particular physical abilities including a hand with opposable thumbs, an enlarged brain and a vocal tract capable of complex speech. This collection of characteristics began forming before we were humans at all, and was further defined and made human by our discovery of tools and the associated advances of language and self-consciousness. Although we have experienced huge social and cultural evolution, these basic needs have remained the same for hundreds of thousands of years.

A connected though different concept is that of ‘species-being’, which Marx formulated in the 1844 Manuscripts [8]. Although he did not refer to it subsequently, it remains as a thread underlying his views on human nature and society. Humans must be productive in order to survive. More than that, they are social, active, universal and productive beings who take pleasure from seeing their human powers confirmed and objectified through the products of their free labour [9].

The rock paintings, figurines, etc of the Paleolithic outstrip early handaxes as aesthetic achievements, because Homo sapiens is a more advanced species than the early humans that preceded us and indeed is the only species capable of creating art. By contrast, the art of the Paleolithic and the art of today are both the work of the same species. This human or species ‘essence’ is almost identical, in a biological sense, to what it was 40,000 years ago when art truly flowered. In the words of Colin Renfrew quoted before on this blog: “a child born today, in the twenty-first century of the Common Era, would be very little different in its DNA — i.e. in the genotype, and hence in innate capacities — from one born 60,000 years ago.”[10] Of course, our humanity cannot be reduced to DNA or biology — more on that in a moment.

The development of the forces of production creates new needs, and results in a diversification of forms in art: a surplus of labour and better productive technique allowed more sophisticated feats of architecture during the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions; metallurgy allowed artworks of bronze, silver, gold and other metals; the invention of photography and moving pictures simultaneously created brand new art forms; the internet has given us streaming audio and video, virtual reality, etc. In a purely technological sense these represent not just an increase in the quantity of available forms but an increase in quality.

However, they are ultimately only tools — the spiritual element of their use, that is, the decisive element in works of art, can only be introduced by human beings. Renaissance frescos are more technically advanced than Paleolithic rock paintings, because they involve the use of plaster as well as painting techniques such as egg tempera which allow artists wider control of their medium — but whether they are necessarily artistically superior is open to debate, because technique and media are not the only criteria by which we judge works of art. A feeble artist does not create better work than a highly gifted one simply because he or she wields a mouse and monitor instead of a stick of charcoal. Although the materials and forms change, the sophistication, ingenuity and imagination with which humans forge a work of art exist within the same species boundaries: there is no reason to believe that the artists of today have ‘progressed’ to being innately more gifted than those of prehistory.

The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould addressed the same issue when he wrote about Paleolithic cave art:

We are, in short, surprised, even stunned, to discover that something so old could be so sophisticated. Old should mean rudimentary — either primitive by greater evolutionary regress toward an apish past, or infantile by closer approach to the first steps on our path toward modernity. (These metaphors of grunting coarseness or babbling juvenility probably hold about equal sway in the formation of our prejudices.) As we travel in time down our own evolutionary tree, we should encounter ever-older ancestors of ever-decreasing mental capacity. The first known expressions of representational art should therefore be crude and primitive. Instead, we see the work of a primal Picasso — and we are dumbstruck.[11]

Why, in Gould’s view, hasn’t art progressed over time? Because “the twenty-thousand-year span of known parietal art does not reach deep into our apish ancestry... the painters of the first known parietal art were far closer in time to folks living today than to the original Homo sapiens.” Gould points out that evolutionary change within a species over its geological lifetime is slight, especially for widespread, successful species. He suggests that, rather than assuming that we are creatively more advanced than our ‘caveman’ ancestors, we

consider instead the great satisfaction in grasping our true fellowship with the first known Paleolithic artists. There but for the grace of thirty thousand additional years go I. These paintings speak so powerfully to us today because we know the people who did them; they are us...

Don’t think of the Paleolithic as a time of ancient primitivity, but as a period of vigorous youth for our species.

Whether a man or woman is native American, European, Indian, Chinese, African or of some other division of the fabulously diverse human species, he or she can appreciate the art of any other culture and era, because the products of all our labour are the products of a humanity that we share equally. This is possible at some level even when most of the social context is absent or lost, as in the case of Paleolithic art. Social progress means we now have vastly more knowledge, technique and a longer and more diverse cultural history, but — even allowing that culture occasionally stretches to exceptional standards, as Marx believed was true of Greek art — the reach of our human powers is the same. All works of art, whether of the Paleolithic, the early civilisations or of our own time, are in part an affirmation of broadly the same species characteristics.

Change and human nature

This does not mean, of course, that no change in human nature is taking place. Humans are active, productive beings whose humanness is the result of our labour changing our very organism. As Engels observed, “[Labour] is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself”[12] (see our discussion of this here). Paul Blackledge summarised the historicity of human nature:

Marx and Engels argued that it was only through history that men and women create themselves as social beings. If the first action of history is that which aims at satisfying some basic needs — to eat, drink, maintain warmth, etc — then in satisfying those needs real historical men and women, as opposed to humans understood as a transhistorical category, would create new needs. By historicising human needs in this way, Marx historicises the concept of human nature itself: for if it is our nature to aim at satisfying our needs, and if our needs’ capacities change through history, then so too does our nature itself change.[13]

Marxism does not accept that there is a fixed human nature that transcends history, but that does not mean that there are no universal elements within that nature. On a certain level we are biological organisms like any other animal, with biological needs which change only at a very slow evolutionary pace. The position has been clarified by the Marxist academic Sean Sayers:

Two opposed positions have dominated recent controversy in this area. On the one hand, Marxism is sometimes treated as a form of ‘anti-essentialism’ or ‘anti-humanism’ which rejects the notion of human nature altogether. Others, by contrast, maintain that this leads to a disastrous relativism and that Marxism must hang on to the notion of a universal human nature in order to provide a grounding for its social theory and critical values. Often it is assumed that these are the only alternatives. But they are not: Marxism, I argue, involves a historical account of human nature distinct from either... These views... lead neither to moral relativism nor to an untenable universalism, but to a historical form of humanism.[14]

Our human nature is a mixture of both relatively unchanging biological needs — such as the need to drink water — and needs and wants that change as society changes: new objects of desire are created, new conditions of life, new sorts of relationships between people, which expand and redefine the totality of ‘human nature’. In other words, we have a historical nature that contains biological elements within it. As Sayers comments: “We are both historical and material beings, and we are the one on the basis of the other. It is not a matter of either/or.”

In a million years, assuming humans are still around, we may have evolved into a new and higher species. Also it is possible that technology will eventually allow us to amend our biological nature, or control and speed up our own evolution. To try to predict such developments and what they might mean for art can only be speculative. It is not inconceivable that modern humanity can no longer appreciate some subtle aspects of the most ancient art due to evolutionary change, but this is impossible to test, and unlikely to be significant given the immense slowness of such change.

As we’ve pointed out, technological and other changes affect the media and language of art. Nobody in the ancient world created video installation art, for obvious reasons. If we were to transport somebody from the Paleolithic into the present and show them works such as Carl Andre’s brick sculpture Equivalent VIII or Damien Hirst’s pickled shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, it is very likely that they would not comprehend it as art at all (many commentators struggle with such works even today).

Yet introduce the visitor to our customs, ideas, art history, etc, and in time they would be as well-equipped to respond to those works as a contemporary person. This is because they are almost identical to us, as biological organisms and yet in addition much more: beings whose liberation depends upon, as Marx wrote, “the absolute working out of (human) creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the prior historical development.”[15] Eagleton framed it in this way:

How is it that we moderns still respond to the exploits of, say, Spartacus? We respond to Spartacus or Greek sculpture because our own history links us to those ancient societies; we find in them an undeveloped phase of the forces which condition us. Moreover, we find in those ancient societies a primitive image of ‘measure’ between man and Nature which capitalist society necessarily destroys… To ask how Dickens relates to history is not just to ask how he relates to Victorian England, for that society was itself the product of a long history which includes men like Shakespeare and Milton.[16]

Not only Shakespeare and Milton, but Chaucer, the author of Beowulf, Stone Age storytellers, and countless other tiny pieces of the long chain of dialectical interaction that composes history. The education of the Paleolithic visitor in modern art is possible because like us they are beings who can be orientated within history.

To turn the scenario around: the work of our fellow human beings of the past remains accessible to us because it is the product of a species identical to ourselves; it has been conditioned by history, but this history is not alien to humans who live later even under a different mode of production, because their nature is itself the product of it.

By acting upon nature, humans change the material forms of their means of production, and this engenders new social relations which explain the variability of human behaviour over different historical periods and cultures. To fully understand the nature of human beings, Sayers points out, we “must take into account not only the bare universal need to drink which they have as biological organisms, but the historically developed form of this need which they have as specifically located social beings.”

Yet the change upon our needs, ideas etc wrought by new social relations does not prevent us from recognising our common humanity in the very earliest works of art, and in all other human creative activity between then and now. Just as our Paleolithic visitor could be schooled in the social relations of our time, we could be schooled in theirs. Each new generation of humanity is, to paraphrase Marx, stamped with the birthmarks of the generation from whose womb it emerges. It is the connecting thread of our common humanity with its relatively unchanging set of capacities and powers that explains why art effectively does not ‘progress’ in spite of accelerating technological and social change.



[1] Marx, from the closing section of the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857). This work was part of the Grundrisse, an immense collection of notes on economics written in advance of Capital. That Marx turned to the question of art even in such a context reflects his great interest in culture.
[2] Marx, Chapter 4, Theories of Surplus Value (1863). The Henriade was an epic poem written by Voltaire in 1723 to celebrate King Henry IV of France.
[3] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976).
[4] See for example Schiller, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (1795).
[5] Leon Trotsky, Chapter 8 of Literature and Revolution (1924).
[6] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973).
[7] Marx and Engels, from Part 1 of The German Ideology (1845–46).
[8] See for example Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’ and ‘Private Property and Communism’ from the 1844 Manuscripts.
[9] Hence the satisfaction we derive from works of art. Again, the question of aesthetic pleasure is a topic in itself.
[10] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[11] Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Up Against a Wall’ from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998).
[12] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[13] Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (2006).
[14] Sean Sayers, ‘Marxism and Human Nature: a reply to Terry Eagleton’ (unpublished, 1989).
[15] Marx, from Notebook IV of the Grundrisse (1857–58).
[16] Eagleton, op. cit.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Two fingers to the machine

For the last few years it has been a foregone conclusion that whoever wins The X Factor, the juggernaut singing competition which has just completed its sixth series on ITV1, will go on to produce that year’s no. 1 Christmas single. Remarkably, that pattern has been broken.

Our Christmas treat was supposed to be Joe McElderry’s cover of Miley Cyrus’s saccharine ballad, ‘The Climb’:

I can almost see it
That dream I’m dreaming but
There’s a voice inside my head saying,
You’ll never reach it…
My faith is shaking but I
Got to keep trying
Got to keep my head held high…

People who really want to listen to this kitsch can find its self-congratulating video on YouTube.

But we will struggle to raise an earnest festive tear over this year’s actual Number One, Rage Against the Machine’s thrash-rap anthem ‘Killing in the Name’, with its unsentimental coda, “Fuck me, I won’t do what you tell me!”


Lyrics here: www.ratm.net/lyrics/kil.html

‘Killing in the Name’ sold about half a million copies, beating ‘The Climb’ by 50,000 in a victory organised predominantly via the internet. The ‘Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No. 1’ campaign, launched by part-time DJ Jon Morter on Facebook, won nearly a million members. This is important because it shows that the internet, although saturated with corporatism, has provided a space for alternative viewpoints to flourish.

Commodification

The outcome of this small cultural struggle represents a mass statement against the commodification of art.

A certain use-value exists in all the products of human labour, as production that does not meet any needs is a waste of energy. In art however this use-value is not paramount. What is most important in art is its spiritual value — the affirmation of our humanity in objective form.

The capitalist has no interest in the human content of a work of art. He or she wants to know what dimensions it has, who created it and how ownership can authenticated, and what price can be fetched for it. That is why Marx wrote that that ‘capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry’.[1] As a member of a ruling class with privileges to protect, the bourgeois prefers to excise radical content, and as a seller looking for the broadest market, he prefers a sanitised commodity which will appeal to the maximum number of people. Of course a huge amount of outstanding art of all forms has been published, patronised etc by capitalists. But the more art tries to meet commercial imperatives rather than spiritual ones, the greater the danger that its human content will be compromised.

Is ‘The Climb’ art? Of course. But it is art degraded by its submission to commercialism. Almost every aspect of such art — lyrics, music, singer, performance, cover art, distribution, etc — is determined by its ability to generate profit for the bourgeoisie. Whereas ‘Killing in the Name’ is an outburst of sincere human emotion, ‘The Climb’ is kitsch: the mass reproduction of cheap, pre-packaged emotions.

Capitalism likes predictability. The reason that the novels of Jane Austen are adapted over and over again — and when the novels run out, we are given pseudo-Austen like the film Becoming Jane — is not because of the quality of Austen’s work per se, but because it has proven commercially successful time and time again. The filming of sequels works on the same principle. Shows like The X Factor are designed to provide a guaranteed return on investment. The young singers elevated to celebrity by the show are, by virtue of the process, those prepared to be manipulated by corporatism. The X Factor nakedly represents the bourgeois attitude to music and musicians — they exist only to be exploited for profit. If the music is outstanding, then perhaps that will help sales in the long run. But a capitalist tends towards the short-term and judges everything by the bottom line.

The submission of singers like McElderry to his corporate sponsors makes it harder for us to feel personal sympathy for his defeat. But ultimately he, like most other winners of such shows, is a victim of the process. The true measure of capitalism’s loyalty to the hopeful people it exploits is that Steve Brookstein, the show’s first winner, was dropped after one album [2].

The irony is that ‘Killing in the Name’ is owned by Sony records, one of the largest conglomerates in the world with an annual revenue of nearly $80 billion. Even though Rage Against the Machine has declared that it will donate its profits to the homeless charity Shelter, Sony will take its cut. Simon Cowell’s record company Syco is even a subsidiary of Sony. Cowell is unlikely to profit directly from sales, but the publicity generated around this small struggle cannot do any harm to someone who has milked faux controversy as part of his career, and another of his protégés, Susan Boyle, is currently at Number One in the album charts with the sugary-titled I Dreamed a Dream. Capitalism has hundreds of years’ experience in commodifying art, and when art movements try to break free it has proved highly skilled in recuperating those in turn. Anyone who felt betrayed to see the erstwhile ‘anarchist’ Johnny Rotten doing butter commercials knows the power of filthy lucre. Rock music has always been a form of working class expression, arising from the cultural space created in the post-war boom — but also, it has always had to wrestle with the power of the capitalists who control popular music’s means of publication and distribution.

Nonetheless this is a victory for music fans, a genuine grassroots rejection of corporatism. In the words of Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, it has ‘tapped into the silent majority of the people in the UK who are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another’ [3]. The recent financial crisis has increased the class consciousness of the masses, and although the British revolution will not come for many years, perhaps this is one small expression of that process.

Readers may also be interested in my article ‘Michael Jackson and the cult of celebrity’.



[1] Marx, Chapter 4 of Theories of Surplus Value (1863).
[2] Patrick Barkham, ‘Remember this guy?’ (Guardian, December 2008).
[3] Quoted on ‘Rage Against the Machine beat X Factor winner in charts’ (BBC, 20 December 2009).

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Does art progress? part 1

When society moved from hunting and gathering to the more advanced economy and society of the early civilisations, did art also ‘progress’, advancing from primitive origins to a state of higher achievement?

We have argued elsewhere that humans only began creating unequivocal works of art with the evolution of Homo sapiens, which already implies a progression from very early aesthetic urges which are poorly understood. But did the process continue even after Homo sapiens had appeared and begun creating art? With the advent of civilisation, humans mastered ever more sophisticated techniques and materials, built intellectual traditions and theories of art [1], etc. To take the example of writing, from a tiny elite pressing reed-tips into clay tablets we have progressed to mass literacy and word-processing: a huge objective advance. Do such advances mean that the art of civilisation was ‘better’ than Stone Age art, or that contemporary art is ‘better’ than, say, the art of the Middle Ages? If not, why not?

To answer these questions we need to make a distinction between ‘progress’ in society and ‘progress’ in art. I will dedicate one part of the article to each, and explore how they inter-relate.

Social progress

In the Marxist view, everything in existence is unavoidably in a constant process of change, caused by the contradictions that exist between the particular elements from which every thing is made. However, ‘progress’ is not mere change: it is a process by which change attains successively more advanced states than before.

Until the nineteenth century, it was generally supposed by Europeans that the human story did not go back much more than 6000 years, to a time when God created Adam and Eve fully-formed in the garden of Eden. It was only when confronted by physical evidence in the form of fossils, and by advances in geology, archaeology and other scientific fields, that the religious establishment was forced to concede that the human species was much older than previously thought and had evolved from more archaic, pre-human forms [2].

Although evolution offers examples of the dialectical process of leaps to higher forms, it is unlikely that the concept of progress, i.e. of a broad advance over time from lower life forms to higher, more complex ones, can be applied. Through evolution species find a ‘best fit’ to ever-changing environments: the appearance of more complex forms is only a statistical likelihood given the extreme simplicity of life’s starting point. This has been persuasively argued by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who describes “the vaunted progress of life” as “random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus towards inherently advantageous complexity.”[3] Arguably the most successful organisms of all in terms of longevity, for example, are unicellular bacteria, which have persisted for billions of years. Or to take our own family of mammals, they are not progressively superior to dinosaurs — they only expanded from being tiny and marginal life forms when an external catastrophe wiped out the dominant competition. It is tempting for us to see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, but our consciousness might fairly be described as a ‘cosmic accident’ which would probably never have arisen had the dinosaurs not been removed first. Rather than forging ever onwards and upwards, 99.9 percent of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct.

Gould’s version of evolution is not undisputed. For our present discussion it suffices to point out that even if Gould is correct, it does not mean there is no place for progress. Human history is a different process, because humans are not passive subjects of evolution but play a uniquely active part in their own self-creation.

This has been noticed by human beings themselves, and attempts have been made to explain it. The archaeologist Chris Scarre wrote:

The concept of human progress has a very long history, and features in both Chinese and Roman writings of over 2000 years ago. It was during the nineteenth century, however, that the concept of universal stages of human progress was developed and applied to archaeological material. Among the most famous proponents were Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) in North America and Sir Edward Tylor (1832–1917) in Britain, both of whom argued that humans had passed through stages of savagery (as hunters and gatherers) and barbarism (as herders and cultivators) before progressing to civilisation, which they equated with the invention of writing. Two separate ideas were embedded in this view of the human past: first, that each stage was an improvement on the one that had preceded it; and second, that the pattern of progress was driven by a kind of social Darwinism, in which less efficient kinds of social organisation were supplanted by more advanced social forms.[4]

Scarre goes on to discuss the influential scheme devised by Elman Service, who divided human societies into four major categories: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and state societies/civilisations [5]. Although Service’s terminology was a useful update of the old language of ‘savagery’, ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilisation’, it sets out the same basic pattern — a progression from hunter-gatherer society into early forms of class society and then to the early civilisations. Of course, history does not work so neatly, but the scheme is still broadly accepted, and with good reason.

Scarre writes that archaeologists today are ‘very wary’ of the idea of progress, and even that the concept has been laid aside. Many writers now think that ‘progress’ is an old-fashioned idea from the Victorian era, and that it is arrogant for us to assume that modern civilisation is superior to hunter-gatherer or other less advanced societies. Jared Diamond for example commented:

Don’t words such as ‘civilisation’, and phrases such as ‘rise of civilisation,’ convey the false impression that civilisation is good, hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that ‘civilised’ states are better than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress’, or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilisation are mixed.[6]

In part this attitude results from disillusion with how bourgeois society has failed to solve ongoing problems, and with the failure of the Soviet model as distorted under Stalinism to provide a viable long-term alternative. For some, it is difficult in the light of gross inequality, two World Wars, famine and mass starvation, political dictatorships, nuclear and biological weapons, climate change and all the other horrors and cynical alienations of modern life to keep one’s belief that any meaningful sort of ‘progress’ is being made or is even possible.

The attitude also follows in part from a laudable concern about racism. Societies less advanced than the West were for centuries routinely described as ‘inferior’, their peoples as ‘savages’. From the late fifteenth century, European explorers hunting for booty [7] encountered peoples significantly less technologically developed than themselves, and found that these great civilisations could be defeated by a few hundred well-equipped soldiers. The Europeans, who had the tremendous advantages of horses, literacy, steel weapons and armour and some infectious diseases deadly to the local population, decided that they were superior to the indigenous peoples. This wrong conclusion was partly due to the inadequacy of their scientific and historical understanding, but more decisively it was a useful ideology that excused the Europeans’ atrocities on the grounds that they were bringing the ‘blessings of civilisation’ to poor, backward peoples. The West continues to this day to show contempt towards less advanced societies. Concern about falling into such assumptions helps lead some writers to unscientifically reject the idea of ‘progress’ altogether.

The Marxist view of progress

Marxists however have never given up on the concept, because progress is observable in the real world.

The Victorian conception of the so-called ‘march of progress’ was bound up with the leadership of British capitalism and its extension into less developed parts of the world by brute force. What Marxists understand by social ‘progress’ is very different. It is the improvement in the conditions of humankind: in our material living standards; our political rights; the equality of male and female, black and white, gay and straight; the clarity of our understanding of the natural world; the quality of our environment; our access to knowledge and education; the protection of the planet; the ability of every individual to fulfil their potential; and so on. The Marxist goal is a classless society where everybody is treated equally [8] and freely takes their fair share of the resources of society as a whole — this is true communism. Every step that takes us closer to that is progressive. Every step that pushes us back from it — e.g. the restriction of women’s rights, imperialist wars, racism and chauvinism — is regressive and must be fought against.

Through a painfully slow process, humans learned to make tools, to slowly take command of what was provided by nature, and develop our productive forces, thereby dragging ourselves up from an impoverished subsistence economy to modern industrial society. This was not fore-ordained according to a plan, as in the religious worldview. Marxism argues that society advances through a series of qualitative leaps, as Marx wrote for example in Chapter 32 of Capital:

At a certain stage of development, [capitalism] brings forth the material agencies for its own dissolution. From that moment new forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society; but the old social organisation fetters them and keeps them down... As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form... The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated…

Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a process of nature, its own negation. It is the negation of the negation.[9]

This passage explores the transformation of capitalist society into socialist, but the process holds throughout history. The Human Revolution, the Neolithic Revolution, the Urban Revolution, and famous political revolutions such as those of America and France in the eighteenth century and in Russia, China and Cuba in the twentieth, all arose from a similar dynamic. Over time, the contradictions that exist within every form of society accumulate until the old social forms are no longer adequate to contain the new ones. Within class society, the ruling classes seek to defend their privileges by holding back change, but eventually the new forces become too strong and break through to a new and more advanced stage of society. Through this long process, human beings are gradually taking control of nature and unfolding their potential — and eventually will achieve freedom.

Where Marxists differ from the pessimistic or post-modernist sections of the bourgeoisie is that they are not afraid to apply a hierarchy of value to different social forms. It is true that the West has a vile tradition of denigrating other cultures. All people and cultures should be treated with respect, but that is different to suggesting that backward societies are of equal value to, or even better than, more advanced forms. Is humanity better off now than it was in, say, ancient society? The Marxist answer is a firm yes.

As we touched upon earlier, this was theorised by Engels when he adopted Morgan’s conception of a progression from hunter-gatherer ‘savagery’, through agricultural ‘barbarism’, to the urban ‘civilisation’ of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome [10]. This scheme was later elaborated upon by Gordon Childe, who commented:

Progress is real if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in those domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the low level of the preceding one, each crest out-tops its last precursor.[11]

It is only by gradually increasing the forces of production that Homo sapiens created the material basis for civilisation. The development of science, literacy, philosophy etc were only possible once we were producing enough to support specialists who were free to explore various fields of knowledge. The development of productive forces therefore goes hand in hand with that of human needs and potential. For us, ‘production’ often implies unpleasant work done involuntarily, but it need not be so. Humans take satisfaction from shaping the world and seeing their powers given objective form — it is under the alienated and exploitative conditions of capitalist wage-labour that production has become so onerous.

Each of the stages of human society — whether we use Engels’ terms, or Elman Service’s, or others — represents a particular stage of development. Each, in its time, was the most advanced yet seen and played an essential part in history. But as the productive forces slowly grew, each became outdated and was replaced by a new, higher level of development.

The general movement of human society has been progressive. Take a straightforward comparison with five thousand years ago. From a world largely run by despotic monarchies, millions of people now enjoy universal suffrage. From a world in which everyone except a tiny elite was relatively ignorant and illiterate, four fifths of the world’s population can read or write and, especially if they have internet access, can tap into a vast public reservoir of knowledge. From a world where the vast majority were superstitious peasant farmers, half of the world’s population now lives in cities. China alone, through its exceptional growth over the last thirty years, has lifted 600 million people out of poverty. The renowned statistician Angus Maddison calculated that world GDP has risen from $102.5 billion in the year 0 CE to $33,726 billion in 1998 [12]: that is an immense advance in the total material wealth of humankind. And this is not a mere question of meeting humans’ material needs but also their spiritual needs. Greater material wealth provides the basis for education, for greater independence and fulfilment of the individual, and, through wider access to art, training, spare time, materials and so on, the exploration of our creativity.

Progressive advance to higher states is therefore not merely a theory, it appears to be supported by our empirical observation of history. No theory has much value if it does not serve to explain what happens in the real world.

Such advances can only be explained if we have a theoretical understanding of the social and productive processes that drove them. History is more than, as the aphorism goes, ‘just one damn thing after another’, popping up by chance for no obvious reason. It is driven in broad movements by particular forces, amongst which the most decisive are the forces of production.

Of course the benefits of progress are not shared equally within and between societies — that is being held back by capitalist property relations. Men control more wealth than women, the global north more than the south, and so on.

Progress and inevitability

Childe’s comment quoted above overlooks the fact that many societies have not only failed to ‘out-top their last crest’ but have actually broken down completely, whether due to internal or external pressures or both, as studied in detail by Jared Diamond in Collapse (2005). Diamond gives examples of societies which, instead of progressing to higher forms, have been devastated by human recklessness, such as on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), or have lost the struggle to survive and disappeared altogether, such as the Norse colonies in Greenland. Less dramatically, other societies such as the Pila Nguru or the Kalahari Bushmen have remained at the level of hunting and gathering for thousands of years, even into the present day, suggesting that progress is not built into our genes.

Childe did at least recognise that the process was ‘discontinuous’, and his concepts of Neolithic and Urban Revolutions recognise that history advances in leaps, not smooth graduations. In Soviet archaeology under Stalin and after, progress was seen as an inevitable and unilinear passage from one historical stage to the next. It is of course wrong to read the process in such a schematic way. In the real world, contradictions both internal and external to a society can not only slow or stop progress but even throw it into reverse. The Roman empire, which had a low productivity of labour based upon slavery, was unable to expand indefinitely and therefore to maintain its supply of new slave labour; as it slowly declined and was gradually over-run, civilisation in its former territories was thrown back, and it took centuries for the new and more progressive system of feudalism to establish itself. The capitalist order today, having hit its own limits, is facing a comparable crisis.

Even where great advances have been won, they can be subsequently defeated. They may, like the Nicaraguan and Panamanian revolutions, be militarily overthrown by imperialism. Or they may degenerate and fail to play the world progressive role they promised and sometimes even impede it. The October Revolution was the greatest single step forward for humanity in the twentieth century, yet the Stalinist bureaucracy that took control of the USSR from the mid-1920s must bear responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s, the victory of fascism in Germany, and ultimately the defeat of the October Revolution itself when capitalism was restored in 1991. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, flowing from the mistakes of the bureaucracy, has set back the struggle of the working class across the whole world.

A correct Marxist understanding of ‘progress’ therefore insists upon the complexity of real life. “In spite of the pretensions of ‘Progress’,” wrote Marx in The Holy Family, “continual retrogressions and circular movements occur.”[13] Contrary to the claims of his enemies, and indeed the rhetoric of his own Communist Manifesto [14], Marx did not believe that social change was literally ‘inevitable’. Although society can advance to the point where productive forces make huge social advance possible and ultimately extremely likely, success or failure depends upon the class struggle — that is, it is human action that is decisive.

Or as we have pointed out before, it is always possible that an asteroid could hit the Earth and put an end to the ‘inevitable’ road to human liberation by obliterating the species next week.

It is also true that progress has often come at an immense cost of human suffering. All class societies that have hitherto existed have been guilty of assorted horrors. The introduction by the Roman empire of roads, law, security and many other civilised improvements to barbarian states was built upon militarism and slavery. The same applies to the European empires. Despite the glorious cultural achievements of the societies they colonised, the Europeans represented a more advanced stage of development; they were also arrogant, vicious and even genocidal in their treatment of the invaded peoples. In Marx’s words, “capital came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore.” [15] It would be far better for all of humanity to advance by peaceful and co-operative means, free of exploitation, and it was right to struggle against colonialism just as it is right to struggle against imperialism today, so that peoples may determine progress for themselves. (Western interference in the rest of the world has long ceased to be progressive.) But even though many social advances were accompanied by great brutality, it does not mean that the loss of those advances once imposed — as actually occurred for centuries in post-Roman Europe — would not be a step backwards.

Conclusion

A good Marxist must place all developments within the totality of human experience. The lesson from history, and therefore the Marxist view of progress, is that it is a broad forward movement within which an immense variety and contradiction can be observed — the eventual achievement of complete human liberation is very likely but never guaranteed.

Marxists do not view setbacks on this long journey as reasons for disillusion and despair. As Lenin put it, “Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle.” [16] It is currently fashionable to dismiss the idea of progress: this is sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes merely cynical, and entirely logical in a context where capitalism, once a tremendous motor for social development, is straining at its limits and no longer capable of taking the world forwards. The suggestion that outdated social formations are not necessarily more backward than the most advanced ones creates a platform for reaction. Right-wing governments across the West are busy trying to roll back the forward steps made since the war such as improved labour rights and the welfare state, and their miserable values of selfishness, militarism and exploitation are contrary to what progress represents. The stultification of one particular phase of progress does not mean that progress has never happened or will not happen again. Current attempts to deny progress simply indicate that the next leap of progress will come in a form unacceptable to the bourgeoisie.

To forego the inventions of the past 10,000 years and return to a hunter-gatherer society, or ‘primitive communism’, would be impossible even it were desireable. No utopian ‘golden age’ has never existed. Once technological advances have been made, they cannot usually be undone, and the question becomes one of who will benefit from them. Modern industrial society is able to degrade the environment and kill people on a massively greater scale than any previous society, but this does not mean we must abolish industry — it means we need genuinely democratic control of what is done with it. Industrial society is also able to feed, clothe, house and educate every human alive and organised on a global basis, something never previously possible. If people wish to live in a society in which everyone has an equal share of the world’s resources, where decision-making is truly democratic, where women and ethnic minorities have equal rights and respect, then the solution lies not in the past but in the future.

We appear to have diverged from our subject of art, but it is important that we set the broader Marxist framework. If society does progress, and given that artists like all humans are social beings, surely that must mean that art also ‘progresses’? We shall consider how, and whether, art fits into this process in part 2.



[1] As Bruce Trigger has observed (Understanding Early Civilisations, 2003, p597) no evidence has survived that the ancient civilisations composed systematic theories of art, philosophy etc before the ancient Greeks and Zhou China. This does not of course mean they had no ideas on the subject: no treatises survive on how to build pyramids, yet the Egyptians were expert at it.
[2] The most backward sections of this establishment, such as the egregious Creationists, continue to resist scientific evidence.
[3] Stephen Jay Gould, ‘The Power of the Modal Bacter, or Why the Tail Can’t Wag the Dog’, from Life’s Grandeur (1996). The point that follows about the appearance of consciousness is discussed in ‘Challenges to Neo-Darwinism and Their Meaning for a Revised View of Human Consciousness’, reproduced in The Richness of Life — The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (2006).
[4] Chris Scarre, Introduction to The Human Past (2005).
[5] Outlined in Primitive Social Organization (1962).
[6] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1998).
[7] The huge expansion of Europeans overseas, and their subsequent creation of empires, was driven by the rise of the capitalist class and what Marx termed the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital — i.e. their hunger for resources with which to build their new mode of production (see Chapter 31 of Capital, vol 1).
[8] This doesn’t mean that everyone is treated ‘the same’ — every human being is unique. Hence Marx’s slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Part 1 of Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875).
[9] Marx, Chapter 32 of Vol.1 of Capital (1867).
[10] See The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[11] Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[12] Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (2001). Figures in 1990 international dollars.
[13] Marx and Engels, Chapter 6 of The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (1844).
[14] Marx writes for example: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” Chapter I, ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’, Communist Manifesto (1848).
[15] Marx, Chapter 31 of Capital, vol 1 (1867).
[16] Lenin, ‘L. N. Tolstoy and the Modern Labour Movement’ (1910).

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Remembrance

On this day 11 November at Compiègne in France, the Allies and the Germans signed the armistice that ended the war on the Western Front. That date, now also known as Remembrance Day, has in many countries been declared a public holiday to commemorate those killed in the war.

Few things better capture the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie than the sight of British Prime Ministers solemnly laying wreaths at the Cenotaph while their administrations are spending billions of pounds on aggressive foreign wars.

But if the bourgeoisie prefers empty phrases to learning the true lesson of the Great War, most artists do not:


Käthe Kollwitz, ‘Nie wieder Krieg’ (No More War), lithograph, 1924.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Frequently Asked Questions

This page aims to provide succinct answers to the questions that most interest people regarding Marxist aesthetics. More detailed answers can sometimes be found in my articles, which I give links for when possible.

I will add more questions, answers, article links, etc to this page as we go along. Readers are welcome to suggest questions for inclusion.

1. What is art?
2. May art be political?
3. May art be used as propaganda?
4. Does Marxism advocate Socialist Realism?
5. Do Marxists want to dictate what artists are allowed to do?
6. What is this human ‘essence’ that is objectified in works of art?

1. What is art?

Art is a form of labour unique to human beings. Through our labour, we fill the world with our objects, in which are concretised all our powers and contradictions. Art and work are commonly perceived as opposites, but both are a creative process by which we objectify our humanity and see it reflected back to us. Through all production we give our human essence a concrete, sensual form, affirming it in external objects we can see and touch.

There is no firm dividing line between what labour counts as ‘art’ and what doesn’t, but art is a form of labour in which spiritual values are particularly important.

For more detail: See my four articles on the origins of art, starting here, and on the development of the aesthetic sense here.

Back to top

2. May art be political?

Yes: there is no incompatibility per se between art and politics. Artists take their materials from human experience. Politics is just as much a part of that experience as Grecian urns, romantic love and so on, and may be explored in art. Like all people, artists have — to a more or less conscious extent — political views, and these will often find expression in their work. From the stelae of ancient Mesopotamia to Emin’s My Bed, art has always contained both overt and subtle political messages.

However, politics should not be forced on works of art from outside, either by decree or by artists themselves, even with the best intentions. Politics should be an organic part of the work and arise from the artist’s own personal conviction.

Even the most political artists should be under no obligation to treat political subjects if they do not feel like it. The choice of theme must belong to the artist. There is nothing in Marx’s writings to say that art must be political.

Back to top

3. May art be used as propaganda?

Many fine works of art convey a very deliberate political message. Take two ‘iconic’ works of Western art. Michelangelo’s David was commissioned by the city of Florence as a symbol of their political independence from the Medici and other enemies; Picasso’s Guernica was a statement against fascist violence. Every statue of a pharaoh conveys a message in support of the ancient Egyptian ruling class. Did these works have a propaganda purpose? Certainly. Does this detract from their qualities as works of art? Not at all.

The problem is more how propaganda roles are played by particular works in particular cases. If the political message dominates over aesthetic quality, or is imposed from outside upon an unwilling artist, then politics and art are likely to be in contradiction. If however a work’s propaganda message is an organic part of the work as a whole, then there need be no contradiction. Nowhere do Marx and Engels demand that artists must create propaganda for the struggle. Again, the choice of theme must belong to the artist.

Back to top

4. Does Marxism demand that artists practice Socialist Realism?

Not in the least. In its early years, the USSR was founded on direct workers’ democracy and was the home of a great diversity of experimental artistic movements. Socialist Realism was a mediocre brew concocted by the Stalinist bureaucracy which, for various reasons, rose to power from the mid-1920s. This bureaucracy distorted Marxist ideas to serve a philistine agenda, and insisted upon controlling what artists and others were allowed to say.

Socialist Realism’s real roots lie in nineteenth-century Russian realism, i.e. it draws its highly conservative aesthetics from pre-revolutionary art. Some artists still managed to create true art within its confines, but the imposition of standards upon artists is unacceptable and there is no reason to claim that Marx would ever have supported it.

In fact, Marx and Engels never advocated any artistic style in preference to others. There is no such thing as a ‘Marxist style’ in art. The early Soviet leadership, including Lenin, Trotsky, and culture minister Lunacharsky, agreed that artists must find their own way. Many progressive artists who do not or did not practice Socialist Realism, from Breton and Picasso to street artists in contemporary Cuba and Venezuela, have found no contradiction between their art and their socialist politics.

Back to top

5. Surely Marxists want to dictate what artists are allowed to do?

Absolutely not. It is a common error to equate Marxism with Stalinism on this issue, and bourgeois commentators cannot be relied upon to represent the Marxist position correctly. Although Marx made no explicit statement on artistic freedom, he did write early articles supporting freedom of the press, and it is no misrepresentation of his general outlook to extend this commitment to the arts.

Lenin and Trotsky, amongst others, later explicitly insisted that the state should not interfere in the arts. The only caveat was that work should be suppressed which might assist counter-revolution in the period when the revolution was not yet consolidated. In this, they thought no differently to bourgeois revolutionaries before them, including the English poet Milton. Once the revolution was safe, restrictions could be lifted and complete freedom granted to artists. This never occurred in the USSR, because the Bolsheviks were replaced by bureaucrats who tragically distorted Marxist ideas.

Proof that a socialist revolution does not have to go down the Stalinist path can be found in Venezuela, which is actively building a workers’ state and has not suppressed or dictated to the arts in any way.

Back to top

6. What is this human ‘essence’ that is objectified in works of art?

This concerns the debate over human nature. Marx believed that there was such a thing as a universal human nature. This consists of two aspects. Firstly there are characteristics, common to all human beings, which are biologically determined and relatively unchanging: e.g. the need for food, drink, sexual relations, and so on. This doesn’t mean they are fixed forever, only that they change at a very slow, evolutionary pace. Secondly there are aspects that are cultural and historical in character, such as our institutions and intellectual concepts. In fact, even the particular forms taken by our basic biological drives are also conditioned by history.

When we create works of art, we transform the material world into objects in which our drives, our needs, our desires, our ideas, our manual skills, and so on are made concrete. The immense variation in forms across cultures is the result of the immense variety of our social, cultural and historical experience.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Marx quotation that never was

“Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time.”

A multitude of quotations websites will tell you that this remark was made by Karl Marx. I’m not so sure.

When I came across it, I was puzzled. I have read most of Marx’s writings on art, but didn’t remember this phrase. And then there was the unlikely language. The ‘secret confession’? The ‘immortal movement’? It didn’t really sound like Marx. Hardly any of these websites provide sources for their quotations, so they were no help.

The answer to the puzzle seems to lie in a book by one Adolph Bernhard Marx, called The Music of the Nineteenth Century, and its Culture, published in English translation in 1855 by Robert Cocks and Co. Or, to give it its German title: Die Musik des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts und ihre Pflege: Methode der Musik (Leipzig, 1855). Marx, a German music theorist, writes on page 63: “Art is always and everywhere the secret confession as well as the undying monuments [sic] of its time.”

It is not difficult to see how this might have been translated slightly differently to give us the version that circulates unchallenged around the cheap and cheerful websites dedicated to quotations, who haven’t troubled to check precisely which Marx they’re quoting.

It’s only a small matter, but if any readers can prove me wrong, I’d be happy to hear from you.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Street art in revolutionary Venezuela

I reproduce an article by Dale Graden published on www.venezuelanalysis.com. July 30th 2009.


A short ride heading west on the metro from the center of Caracas is the Agua Salud station, which serves as a major entrance into the 23 de Enero parish. The surrounding area is always a busy place, with lots of vendors selling all sorts of products and small buses lined up waiting for riders. A striking first impression is the diverse visual images painted on walls and buildings.

Venezuelan street art #1

Street art plays an increasingly vital role in revolutionary Venezuela: It is a mode of political expression, a form of popular education, and helps build a collective historical memory. Few places show this more brilliantly than the walls of 23 de Enero with its combative spirit inscribed on almost every corner.

23 de Enero has long played a pivotal role in Venezuela’s turbulent political life. When the area was built in the 1950s, it was first christened “December 2,” taking its name from the date General Marcos Pérez Jiménez took power with his military junta.

Jiménez ruled with an iron fist, while the junta stole millions in public funds, depriving Venezuelans of basic services. A popular insurrection, supported in part by disaffected military officers, overthrew Jiménez on January 23, 1958. The December 2 district played a key role in the uprising and was subsequently renamed 23 de Enero in homage to the courage shown by so many its inhabitants. Today, 23 de Enero includes some 40 different barrios with a total population of well over 200,000 inhabitants.

Venezuelan street art #2

Since those turbulent days of early 1958, 23 de Enero has gained renown as one of the most radical urban areas in all of Latin America. In the words of one local resident, “Because of its combativeness and spirit of struggle, this urbanization has always been viewed by all our governments, except for the present one, as a ‘zone of subversion’ or a ‘red zone.’”

The depiction is not surprising given 23 de Enero’s widespread popular mobilization during various critical political junctures: protests against police repression during the mid-1980s, confrontations with army troops during the uprisings of February 1989 known as the Caracazo, votes in support of Hugo Chávez in elections, and the thousands who poured into the streets to demand President Chávez’s return during the coup d’état of April 2002.

Venezuelan street art #3

More than forty collectives have coalesced in 23 de Enero, including the Colectivo Alexis Vive (the Alexis Lives Collective). The collective is named after Alexis González, an activist raised in 23 de Enero who spent five years in Nicaragua participating in the Sandinista rural literacy campaign. During the massive street demonstrations of April 11, 2002, demanding Chávez’s reinstatement, military troops shot and killed Alexis González. Several members of the Alexis Vive Collective are versatile street artists whose work has gained international attention. Their bright paintings are readily visible in several barrios of 23 de Enero.

The artists of the Colectivo Alexis Vive exhibit their political views through street art. Common are simple statements in support of President Chávez, such as chants or phrases often used at pro-government rallies: “Uh, Ah, Chávez No Se Va!” (Oooh, Aaah, Chávez is Here to Stay) or “Con Chávez Todo, Sin Chávez Nada” (With Chávez Everything, Without Chávez Nothing).

Venezuelan street art #4

The collective encourages residents of 23 de Enero to be involved in political decisions affecting their communities. Articulating such a position is logical, given the thousands of individuals who have struggled to have their voices heard during the parish’s 50-year history.

Venezuelan street art #5Community involvement has helped residents achieve community-driven goals, such as creating educational programs or addressing the major problem of garbage collection. The artists of the Collective Alexis Vive have effectively aligned local concerns with a national agenda. Communal councils, an integral component of the Bolivarian Revolution, have aided this process. One sign (above) erected near the headquarters of the collective reads ‘Alexis Vive Carajo: Avanza hacia la Consolidación del Poder Local’ (Alexis Lives, damn it: Advancing Toward the Consolidation of Local Power).

The Collective’s art is heavily imbued with anti-imperialism. In recent years, critical depictions of U.S. policy in regions outside of Latin America have proliferated. Some paintings denounce Washington’s financial and military support for Israel and its disregard of Palestine. Other artworks rail against the war in Iraq: One work (left) painted on a wall by a gas station reads: ‘Su guerra no ha mundializado el miedo’ (Your war has not globalized fear). More subtle forms of cultural imperialism are also commonly analyzed.

A prominent topic involves the techniques employed by reactionary television and media companies to spread anti-Chávez propaganda. And numerous paintings emphasize the benefits of community radio. These small stations have sprung up in several barrios of Caracas and receive financial support from the government.

Venezuelan street art #6

Some of the art simply offers words and images for reflection. On a wall near the Agua Salud metro station passed by thousands every day, the Radio Arsenal graffito suggests ‘ideas’ and ‘consciousness’ are today’s most effective weapons.

Venezuelan street art #7

The material gains of the revolution and other relevant social issues are also sources of inspiration. Some of the art celebrates the role of the government-funded Barrio Adentro health care program, the benefits of playing sports, the danger of drugs, and the need to assume personal responsibility for one’s actions.

Several murals reinforce the importance of serious study and education, but place the emphasis on pedagogies of social emancipation. The Alexis Vive Collective calls for education that instills a socialist consciousness that contributes to the Bolivarian Revolution. Such sentiments have given impetus to the Boliviarian University system proposed by the Chávez government. In a huge mural, one message calls for the ‘construction of an insurgent’ and ‘revolutionary’ pedagogy.

Venezuelan street art #8

The Chávez government is often criticized for trying to impose a socialist project on Venezuelans from above. The collective rejects this critique, countering that residents of 23 de Enero have been — and remain — a constant source of progressive ideas from below.

Venezuelan street art #9The collective insists that initiatives surging from the urban underclass are a critical pillar of the Bolivarian Revolution. The sentiment is summarized in a mural depicting Che Guevara scrawled with the phrase: ‘El Socialismo se construye desde las bases: Consciencia Vive’ (Socialism is built from the grassroots; Consciousness Lives).

The Collective’s work instills a deep sense of historical memory. Given the long history of police violence inflicted upon the residents of 23 de Enero, artists often pay homage to the commitment of marginalized folk. Portraits remind residents of local heroes from the barrios of 23 de Enero that have met violent deaths on the streets of Caracas, such as activist-poet Sergio Rodríguez, who was killed by security forces, and Kley Gómez, an activist shot by criminal thugs.

The struggles of Afro and Indigenous Venezuelans are highlighted through such icons as the black hero of independence Negro Primero and the sixteenth century Indian leader Guaicaipuro. Famous figures in the history of Venezuela, including Simón Bolívar, Manuela Saenz and Simón Rodríguez are placed alongside other revolutionary icons, such as José Martí, Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, activist-singer Alí Primera, and Salvador Allende. But the art also celebrates political movements more generally, including the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from Buenos Aires and the Basque independence movement from Spain.

Venezuelan street art #10

The artists pay tribute to the courage and ideals of these individuals and groups. By focusing on what might be called a people’s history, the artists shed light on the fact that struggling Venezuelans are not alone — and never have been.

Through this revolutionary art, 23 de Enero’s sense of community has been strengthened, its sense of place enhanced. Artists representing the Alexis Vive Collective have played an important role in articulating the combative ‘spirit of 23.’ Astute observers of the world around them, they have proven adept at linking local concerns to urban, national and international issues, sharing their perspectives and ideals with all who encounter their inspiring art.

Source: NACLA

Friday, 3 July 2009

Michael Jackson and the cult of celebrity

A week after Michael Jackson’s death on 25 June, his greatest hits album Number Ones tops the album chart, and four others have charted. Six of his singles have entered the Top 40. HMV reports an 80-fold increase in sales of his music. We are repeatedly informed that he sold 750 million records worldwide.

The mythologising of Jackson has intensified since his death. Documentaries and talking heads enthuse about his ‘genius’, his defining of popular culture, his global fame, and how he provided ‘a soundtrack to our lives’.[1]

Michael Jackson was one of the most important cultural figures of the last thirty or forty years — whether you enjoyed his work or not, his influence upon pop, video and dance is beyond question. Thriller alone revolutionised the music video as a medium. But whether he was in fact a ‘genius’ is, from capitalism’s point of view, completely irrelevant. Exceptional talent helps, because it makes the cult of celebrity more persuasive. But the purpose of ‘celebrity’ is to sell products. For the recording industry, the measure of quality is not creative but commercial success.

Create a mythology around an artist, and even their worst work will be bought in huge quantities, together with the usual mass of accompanying products like T-shirts, books and DVDs. People will watch a mediocre film simply because it has a favourite ‘star’ in it, or buy a weak album out of a sense of completism or loyalty. The identification of the fan with a particular personality — more correctly, a brand — becomes a pursuit in itself. A mass of magazines and other media work round the clock to glorify celebrity — without it, they and many other lucrative businesses couldn’t exist at all.

A fair assessment of Jackson’s achievement is difficult while the media remain dazzled by his ability to make money. Genuine appreciation of his work, and sadness at his death, must compete with commercialism until it is often difficult to tell them apart. With typical hypocrisy, the same tabloids that labelled him ‘Wacko Jacko’ eulogised him once he was dead. AEG Live’s cynical offer of a ‘souvenir ticket’ in lieu of refunding fans’ money is only one example of cashing in, or, as the chief executive put it, “Since [Jackson] loved his fans in life, it is incumbent upon us to treat them with the same reverence and respect after his death.”

A complex relationship exists between artists, the capitalist who distributes their work, and the values of wider society. In this atmosphere, artists are often complicit in the manufacturing of their celebrity, and Jackson was no exception. Stories of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, or of his pet chimp Bubbles, were publicity stunts staged by him and/or his team deliberately to excite the media.

Statue for the HIStory tourStatue for the HIStory tour. Photo: Noud! (flickr)

The overblown statues created for the HIStory tour symbolise the milking of the cult of celebrity at a time when Jackson was faltering creatively. And his ‘messianic’ performance of Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards fully deserved its deflation by Jarvis Cocker.

Yet Jackson was the victim of celebrity as well as a beneficiary of it. Hounded by the media, repeatedly turning to plastic surgery, possibly anorexic, he was denied a childhood by his premature success. As remarked in the obituary by Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian:

The band’s working life was brutal: when they were not in studios they were on tour, sometimes playing 45 shows in 90 days. As lead singer, Michael’s schedule was more onerous than that of his brothers. After three hours’ daily tutoring, he spent the rest of the day recording the 13 albums the Jacksons released for Motown between 1969 and 1975. From the studio window he watched ordinary children playing, and would “always cry from loneliness.”[2]

Jackson is often described as a Peter Pan trying to recapture a lost childhood. Whether or not this is so, he does appear to have behaved inappropriately with children. Although he was never proved to have molested them, his acquittal was never a satisfactory outcome for the right-wing tabloids, nor did it spare him the abuse of those who assumed him guilty. He was himself a victim of abuse, from his ambitious father, the recording industry, and those keen to sit in judgement upon his private life.

The most striking outward expression of his troubles was his appearance. Jackson has been criticised for turning to plastic surgery to make him increasingly resemble a white person. His own claim was that he had the skin condition vitiligo. Perhaps he did, but this surely can’t be the whole story: the cosmetic surgery which gave him a narrower nose and thinner lips had nothing to do with his pigmentation. Rather than blaming Jackson, however, we should be asking what were the racial attitudes that caused him such anxiety over his identity? Whether Jackson should have handled the issue differently is a debate for the black community, which has preferred on the whole to stress his contribution to culture.

Likewise, Jackson is not ultimately to blame for the excesses of his celebrity cult. Jackson’s former publicist, Michael Levine, commented, ‘a human simply can not withstand this level of prolonged stress.’ The list of casualties in music, film and other arts is long — Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty are the obvious contemporary examples. The problem lies less with artists than with capitalism and its commodification and exploitation of them and their art. Michael Jackson’s talent was distorted by a context of abuse, racism and commercialism. No doubt he always had anxieties, as we all do, but his celebrity exacerbated them until they took over his life and career.

Despite that, Jackson was the most influential pop performer since Elvis Presley and gave pleasure to millions of people across the world. How he would have developed in a free, fair and equal society is something we can never know.



[1] Comparison of the blanket coverage of this one death, when the stabbing of a Muslim woman by a racist on 1 July was met with indifference, tells us a great deal about current attitudes in society. The BBC item in my link does not even trouble to record the date of her death.
[2] Obituary, The Guardian Friday 26 June 2009.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Early civilisation, part 7: The art of ancient Egypt

Around 10,000–5000 years ago at the turn of the Pleistocene, north Africa was becoming dryer. Its inhabitants moved towards the Nile, a 4000-mile water source that ran like a thread through the arid landscape. Not only did the river attract game animals, its periodic floods made the neighbouring land very fertile for the growing of crops. In Jaromir Malek’s phrase, “ancient Egypt was created by the Nile”.[1]

A chain of cities grew up along the Nile, uniting in around 3100 BCE to produce a civilisation we now know as ancient Egypt. Large-scale agriculture required organisation and centralisation, and this combined with the wealth created by surpluses formed the basis of a class structure, whose social apex was a god-king, the Pharaoh. The pre-eminence of the Pharaoh and his relationship to the divine and the dead is inseparable from Egypt’s most accomplished art.

The making of Egypt

Egypt was home to a series of Neolithic cultures that produced pottery, rock art, jewellery, statuettes and other items, often preserved as grave goods. By the end of this Predynastic period and in transition from the Naqada II culture, the region began to be unified and we find evidence of an emerging hierarchy. Egyptian tradition credits this to a king named Menes, who may simply represent a number of early leaders in the period 3200–3000 BCE. In this context, the Narmer Palette is very significant. Made around 3150 BCE, it depicts the king Narmer, who is believed by some historians to have brought together the north and south, or to be one of several kings responsible.

The Narmer PaletteThe Narmer Palette, carved from siltstone and found in the ancient town of Hierakonpolis. Large image here.

Egyptian culture of the pharaonic period had its own character from the beginning, building upon its Neolithic antecedents. The Palette already shows a recogniseably ‘Egyptian’ style with its strict sense of order, arrangement into bands or ‘registers’, and the characteristic stylisation of the figures. From this point art “became the main vehicle for expressing the ideology on which the Egyptian kingdom was based, especially the definition of the role of the king in Egyptian society and his relationship to the gods and to ordinary Egyptians” (Malek).

The Egyptians rapidly mastered a variety of art forms, such as carvings, pottery, furniture, metalworking, glassworking, sculpture and architecture, and absorbed new forms and materials as their civilisation developed. Native materials included an abundance of stone, such as diorite, alabaster and limestone, whereas others were imported: copper from Sinai, timber from Palestine, gold from Nubia. The decorative material called faience, in which a core of powdered quartz was coated in a glaze, often in a rich blue, was moulded into a range of small items. The human body itself was adorned with makeup, kohl being used as a distinctive eye paint.

The conventions of Egyptian art seem to have been established by the beginning of the Dynastic period, within a space of a few generations. This speed was in marked contrast to the conservatism that followed.

The ancient artist was a specialist employed by priests and princes, kept busy in workshops attached to temples and palaces. These roles were often handed from father to son. Reliefs and paintings show us craftsmen making sculptures, making music and dancing, etc. Egyptian artists had the financial and intellectual resources of a powerful civilisation behind them, and boasted some of the most impressive artistic achievements of the ancient world. The best works have been equalled but arguably never surpassed.

The form of Egyptian art

As with other early civilisations, very little of Egypt’s art could be described as ‘art for art’s sake’. Egyptian art was functional, either as an everyday item or as a political, funerary or religious object. For reasons we have discussed, this functionality does not detract from its value as art. Instead, the aesthetic and functional aspects of an object went hand in hand.

The aesthetic aspects aligned with a particular way of seeing. Modern Western artistic practice since the Renaissance, influenced by bourgeois individualism, has tended to show how the world looks to one individual at one moment, as if through the lens of a camera. The Egyptians showed little awareness of perspective, and never discovered the dynamic three-dimensional modelling mastered by the Greeks. This was not down to the shortcomings of their artists — anyone doubting their ability to work naturalistically need only look at the portrait busts of Nefertiti or Vizier Ankh-haf, or later the haunting Faiyum mummy portraits.

Bust of NefertitiBust of Nefertiti, ca. 1350 BCE. Painted stucco on a limestone core.

Rather, individualism and ephemerality had nothing in common with the worldview of this ancient civilisation, whose artists worked according to very different conventions to our own. Rather than attempting the illusion of space, ancient Egyptian art was schematic, or diagrammatic. It used flat colours and shapes and generally had a very shallow sense of depth. It is therefore no surprise that relief was a popular form, either raised, where the surrounding stone was cut away from the image, or sunk, where the image was cut into the surrounding stone. Painting used the same visual style but was cheaper and allowed a little more freedom.

The goal of Egyptian art was to preserve the appearance of things as completely as possible, without foreshortening. Each element of an object was drawn from the angle at which its appearance was most typical, then assembled into a whole that was not naturalistic, but was in its own way consistent.

Agricultural scene from the tomb of NakhtAgricultural scene from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes, showing the distinctive Egyptian conventions for rendering two-dimensional figures.

In two dimensions, the head is shown in profile but the eye and eyebrow are seen as if from straight ahead. The chest is shown frontally, but the waist is in profile, and the limbs are shown from the side so their articulation is most clear. The left foot is advanced so that we may see there are two feet. By assembling these conventions, a figure can be made as complete as possible. One method of ideological differentiation between figures is scale: an important person, usually male, is drawn bigger than his wife, children, servants or subjects. Various other rules follow, for example that we are sometimes allowed to see through the side of a box or vase so that an object inserted into it can be seen in full. Men tend to be painted red and women yellow.

Most images come side by side with texts describing what is happening, who is shown, or other information. Stylised images blend seamlessly with hieroglyphs, which are themselves pictures and become a part of the composition.

The result was a precise and predictable rendering of the subject. Egyptian artists drew what they knew was there, not what they saw — their art was not only schematic but conceptual. This doesn’t mean that artists were entirely oblivious to perspective, viewpoint and so on, or that there were no deviations at all. See how the feet of the bottom two farmers above are invisible because they are standing amidst their crops. Artists found ways to introduce subtle variations to avoid monotony, and the static and highly conventionalised figures of gods and aristocrats contrast with more freely treated images of the lower classes. Paintings of animals in particular, perhaps because less depended upon animals’ place in the hierarchy, show a very keen eye for naturalistic detail and texture (see for example the famous image from the Tomb of Nebamun, whose unusually lively images have earned the unknown artist the label ‘the Michelangelo of antiquity’).

The use of colour complements the scheme, as it is taken from a very limited palette and applied flat without variations in shade. Objects are clearly outlined, mostly in black. Equally complementary is the use of registers, that is, the organisation of figures along horizontal lines that, one on top of the other, form vertical strips. Again the emphasis is upon symmetry, uniformity and clarity.

No treatises on art from ancient Egypt have come down to us. But an insight into the Egyptians’ methods can be gained from the unfinished tomb of Horemheb, and from a drawing at the tomb of Ramose, governor of Thebes at Luxor. Perhaps because of political upheaval or the moving of Ramose to Amarna, the tomb was not quite finished, and the drawing shows clearly the lines of a grid marked in red paint. The grid was established by 2000 BCE and appears time and again in both painting and sculpture — imposing a predictable and idealised order upon artists’ work.

A similar grid technique was used to mark out sections on a block of stone in preparation for a sculpture.

Statue of KhafraStatue of Khafra. Photo: José-Manuel Benito.

There was no role in ancient Egypt for the lithe and transitory dynamics of the human body later explored by the Greeks. Egyptian statues at their best are powerful and beautifully finished — they are also schematic extensions of the system we have just explored. The left foot of standing figures is set a little forward, just as the feet of painted figures were separated, and all gaze to the front in static poses. We must overcome any temptation to criticise this, because the statues were designed for a particular context. As votive images in which the gods manifested themselves, they were addressed frontally, and were often set into niches from which only a frontal approach was possible. Arnold Hauser offers a further insight:

In the frontal representation of the human figure, the forward turning of the upper part of the body is the expression of a definite and direct relationship to the onlooker... [It] makes a direct approach to the receptive subject; it is an art which both demands and shows public respect. Its approach to the beholder is an act of reverence, of courtesy and etiquette. All courtly and courteous art, intent on bestowing fame and praise, contains an element of the principle of frontality — of confronting the onlooker, the person who has commissioned the work, the master whom to serve and delight is the artist’s duty.[2]

Art and the Egyptian worldview

The schematic approach to art did not arise randomly. It was partly influenced by Egypt’s geography: isolated by deserts on the west and east and by the sea to the north, and built upon the mostly predictable floods of the Nile. The Egyptians distinguished between the ‘black land’, or cultivable area darkened by the Nile inundations, and the ‘red land’, the inhospitable deserts that surrounded it. The Pharaoh acted as the guarantor of fertility in the face of barrenness, of order amidst chaos. Malek argues that this duality between order and chaos is “all-pervading” in Egyptian art:

The examples are endless, and careful observation of almost any Egyptian work of art will reveal them... That the concept of duality encouraged balance and equivalence, especially in architecture, is immediately obvious to the viewer. Egyptian symmetry always emphasises the contrasting character of the two elements rather than that of two identical components, so that the balance is never absolute and can be more aptly described as opposition.[3]

Just as the human order was supposedly unchanging, so too was the cosmic. The Pharaohs mediated between humanity and heaven, ensuring the smooth running of the natural and human worlds, so challenging the order they represented was an affront to the gods [4]. The rules of art themselves were of divine origin and must be respected. As observed by the art historian H. W. Janson:

Since the scenes depict solemn and, as it were, timeless rituals, our artist was not concerned with the fact that this method of depicting the human body made movement or action almost impossible. Indeed, the frozen quality of the image seems well suited to the divine nature of the pharaoh. Mere mortals act; he simply is.[5]

Janson writes here about the Narmer Palette, but he might as well be describing any ancient Egyptian image. Egyptian art was produced under royal patronage, and its conventions were predicated upon the values of the ruling class. These interests were characterised by a preoccupation with stasis, permanence and a geometrical sense of order. This tendency can be seen in the art of other early civilisations, but perhaps most of all in Egypt, where art’s purpose was the creation of an idealised world, abstract and timeless. Realism and historical accuracy were not very important — thus scenes and exploits attributed to particular monarchs sometimes re-occur, ascribed to another monarch, centuries later. This is one reason why we must be cautious before interpreting scenes in Egyptian art as historically correct records of everyday life.

It is not hard to see the material basis of this worldview: the nobility created by the Neolithic Revolution had an absolute right to rule over everyone else, and lived in opulence in finely furnished houses with large staffs. It is little wonder that they insisted that this arrangement should not be changed, and encouraged ideologies that helped to perpetuate it.

One of the most powerful of these ideologies was of course religion. Egypt had hundreds of gods, some of them — such as Amun, Horus, Re and Osiris — more important than others. Their importance is nowhere clearer than in the huge amount of art created for the dead. The Egyptians believed that it was proper to provide for the afterlife — of the aristocracy, at any rate — so that it might be conducted in much the same way as before. This meant the storage not only of food, furniture, weapons and so on but of ‘art objects’ as well. The decorated tombs built for members of the ruling class were designed to last, just like the mummified remains inside, and those that were not plundered by robbers kept works of art protected.[6] (The most complete collection of funerary objects to survive was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.) Beginning as relatively modest box-like structures called mastabas, which had a burial chamber under the ground, Egyptian tombs progressed to step pyramids such as that of Djoser at Saqqara (“so that [the King] may mount up to heaven thereby”, as one inscription put it), and then to the perfected form exemplified by the great pyramids at Giza.

The step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, ca. 2800 BCE. Photo: Buyoof.

Other architectural forms included pylons, obelisks, and temples, the grandest of which is the one dedicated to Amun at Karnak. Art on this scale required not only central organisation but mass labour — it had a massive effect upon the everyday life of thousands of people.

It would be inaccurate to label all Egyptian artworks as masterful homages to the gods and aristocracy. The masterpieces now illustrated in art books and displayed by museums existed alongside a great number of cruder or less imposing works. The Egyptologist Gay Robins commented:

The difference between those objects that we prize as high-quality art and those we relegate to storage frequently derives from the status of their owners. The prized objects prove on examination to have been made almost invariably for kings and their high-ranking officials; the lesser pieces were usually commissioned by people lower in the social hierarchy. Since the king and his top officials commanded the most resources in ancient Egypt, it follows that they had access to the best artists... People of lesser rank who could not get access to first-class artists had to accept work from second-rate talents.[7]

Many craftspeople worked among the common people, and although the work was of lower quality, it was still important to them and offered a mix of the practical and the aesthetic. We have models of butchers, brewers or women grinding grain; musical instruments including the flute, harp and tambourine; erotic statuettes; even children’s toys. Modest secular objects included jewellery, mirrors, vases, game-boxes and decorated utensils such as combs. And one of the treasures of ancient Egyptian art is its poetry, which is more intimate, secular and human than the great works of public art and expresses feelings with which we can easily identify. Here is an excerpt from The Flower Song:

To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

There were also variations across Egypt’s long history, such as the breakthroughs of individuality and turn to everyday subjects seen in the politically fractured Middle Kingdom. In this period the eternal confidence of the kings appears to have been shaken by years of internal warfare, as seen for example in statues of Senwosret III (example here), whose worldweary expressions betray the burden of rule. Religion was reinterpreted over the centuries, and there was a temporary break with tradition during the reign of Akhenaten. So Egyptian art is not quite as static and unchanging as has often been portrayed, although it showed a remarkable continuity over 3500 years.

Art of the Amarna period

The artists of ancient Egypt were expected to produce art that belonged to one official style, with little room for ‘self-expression’ or experimentation. There are thousands of human figures depicted in tomb paintings but all follow the same conventions. The forms for two- and three-dimensional art were ordained by the creator god Ptah, and artists’ role was to keep to these eternal rules as closely as they could. Also, we know from evidence at sites like Deir el-Medina, home to workers on the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, that artists worked in teams under close state supervision. It is a great lesson in the relative and social origin of our assumptions about art that despite these restrictive conditions, Eygptian artists created some of the great art of all time. They seem to have felt no need to sign their work or ‘immortalise’ themselves [8]. The only people to be immortalised were their aristocratic patrons, who were the principal audience for the art that glorified them and assisted their passage into the afterlife. This does not mean that all art was identical. As Malek pointed out, “the creativity of Egyptian artists lay in producing a new and pleasing combination using known elements”.

Egypt’s great example of aesthetic deviation was the so-called Amarna period, roughly corresponding to the reign of Akhenaten (1353–1335 BC) and taking its name from the new capital city [9]. Akhenaten, originally named Amenhotep IV, rejected the state pantheon and tried to create a cult to the sun-god Aten, a new world view celebrated in the monotheistic text Hymn to the Aten. This dramatic shift in religion was matched by a shift in art, though it is unclear how far Akhenaten intervened to bring this about. Amarna art introduces a new aesthetic language. Temples were built with courts open to the sun; diverse deities disappeared from reliefs and were replaced with new realistic subjects; and conventions softened to allow figures to show emotion, individualised details, and a languid sense of movement.

Relief in the Amarna styleA relief in limestone of a royal couple, in the Amarna style, ca. 1330 BCE.

The bust of Nefertiti already illustrated belongs to this period, found in the remains of the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose at Amarna. In it we see some of the elongation typical of the sculpture of the period. Akhenaten himself was portrayed in a very distinctive way, with an long head, almond eyes and thick lips, and feminine body. The reasons for this are still debated.

The essence of the innovations of Amarna art is a significant shift in ideology. As the old gods were replaced with monotheism, the old artistic conventions were shaken as well. As Hauser put it, “the formalism of the Middle Kingdom yields both in religion and art to a dynamic and naturalistic approach which encourages men to delight in making new discoveries.”

After Akhenaten’s death, his successor Tutankhamun renounced the new religion and artistic conventions were quietly restored. Already in Tutankhamun’s funerary goods, only glimpses remain of the Amarna style.

Conclusion

A great deal has been lost from the culture of ancient Egypt, and we have to piece together as much context as we can when trying to understand its art. The key theme is the religious and political role played by the pharaoh and his peers in the ruling class.

Ancient Egypt changed hands several times over its long history: the Hyksos, the Kushites, the Assyrians and the Persians each ruled it between periods of independence. In 332 BCE it fell to Alexander the Great, and was never to be independent again — the Greeks ruled Egypt through the Ptolemaic dynasty until the Romans incorporated it into their empire in 30 BCE. This was the beginning of the end for ancient Egyptian civilisation, not least because it became exposed to Christianity. This zealous new social force was savage in its treatment of Egyptian culture, mutilating buildings, destroying images of gods and kings, and burning papyrus texts in the name of their ‘one true god’. In 642 CE the Arabs conquered Egypt and the majority of Egyptians went down a new road again, that of Islam.

A great deal of Egypt’s ancient art has fortunately survived. And from it we can trace a line of influence into the art of archaic Greece, and from there to Rome, whose respect for this ancient culture can sometimes be seen in works made in a pastiche ‘Egyptian’ style. We will explore the art of these two later civilisations in later articles.

Further investigation

Youtube user easeen has posted the History Channel documentary Civilisations: The Way of Eternity (2006), a popular show narrated by Simon Chilvers. See the episode in six parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.



[1] Jaromir Malek, Egyptian Art (1999).
[2] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[3] Malek, op. cit.
[4] Pharaohs were not normally thought to be gods themselves, but neither were they ordinary mortals. They interceded with the gods to keep society running smoothly, thus supposedly acting for the good of everyone. In the period following the Old Kingdom, a series of low floods hit agriculture and contributed to bringing the Pharaoh’s ability to rule into question.
[5] Janson, H. W. and Janson, A. F., History of Art: The Western Tradition (6th ed. 2003).
[6] Tomb robbery was already a problem at the height of Egyptian civilisation, showing that not everybody at the time took the Pharaoh’s divine nature, or the curses laid upon anyone disturbing their tombs, very seriously. Tomb robbery may have been committed by unpaid tomb workers, or even by pharaohs hungry for gold to recycle.
[7] Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt (2008).
[8] Nonetheless we do know some names. The famous bust of Nefertiti was probably the work of a sculptor called Thutmose, whose workshop was found at Amarna. The multi-talented Imhotep (2650–2600 BCE), whose most imposing work was the step pyramid of Djoser, may be the first architect known to us by name. Many names of architects were recorded not to immortalise the artist but simply because they were high-ranking figures mentioned in tomb inscriptions, etc.
[9] At the time the city was called Akhetaten, and became known as Amarna in the later Arabic period.