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But Is It Art?

Robert Ballagh

The Dialectics of Art, by John Molyneux, Haymarket Books, 271 pp, $24, ISBN: 978-1642591316

The Dialectics of Art by John Molyneux is a reflection on the role played by the visual arts in Western society, from the Renaissance up to the present day, a reflection that is unapologetically Marxist in character. However, I urge the reader not to be turned off by that. This is no turgid political tract, nor is it just a well-reasoned, well-written critique of the visual arts; it is a considered overview of the complex relationship that art has had with economics, politics and nature over many centuries.

Obviously a modest knowledge of art history is required when approaching a book like this, which is packed with references to specific works of art. The author, in acknowledging this fact, admits that he would have liked to similarly pack the text with images, but obviously the production costs of such an endeavour proved prohibitive. On the other hand he reminds us that practically every image referred to in the text is easily accessible online.

The opening chapter investigates the simple yet often perplexing question “What is art?”. John Molyneux points out that his aim is to define art for what he designates the capitalist or bourgeois era ‑ that is roughly from the beginning of the Renaissance through to the global present, his reasoning being that it was during the Renaissance that the modern concept of art began to emerge.

During the Middle Ages the objects we now consider art were often produced in communal workshops and, as a consequence, had no individual authorship; there was little discrimination between the work of artist and craftsman. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the art of shoemaking, cooking, juggling and grammar with the same emphasis as painting and sculpture. It was only by the end of the fifteenth century that the artistic occupation began to differentiate itself from craftsmanship. 

According to Arnold Hauser, the historian of aesthetics, Michelangelo became one of the first artists to claim “independence to shape the whole work from the first stroke to the last”. This is an incredibly important distinction. As Molyneux contends, “a defining characteristic of art may be the labour that produces it”.

With the slow yet deliberate advance of capitalism, the labour of the overwhelming majority of people was determined and controlled not by individual choice but by those who profited from such a system. As a result most workers developed an unsatisfactory relationship with the product of their labour, since frequently they had no creative input into what they produced. Artists, on the other hand, became an exception to this predicament in that, according to Molyneux, “painters controlled the making of their paintings, poets the writing of their poetry, composers the composing of their music and so on”. Nevertheless this individual control was not always unchallenged. Patrons, whether ecclesiastical or secular, frequently sought to influence the artist’s intentions and today, critics, curators and an unregulated art market strive to do the same.

Molyneux is the first to concede that artists are not the only individuals who have some control over their labour. For example he mentions a person’s work on an allotment or the “work” of playing sport for pleasure, but insists that no one would dare argue that what they do is art. 

So what is it that makes the work of an artist different, and in some cases of real significance? Molyneux contends that it is only when the creative endeavour of an artist embodies a successful fusion of form and content that it can be considered an art work of some consequence. He defines “content” as the sum total of a work’s emotional, intellectual and psychological meanings and “form” as the concrete make-up of a particular work; in the case of a painting “every single brush-stroke as laid on the canvas”.

To my mind the form of an art work not only includes its structural arrangement but also the nature of the materials involved and their actual deployment. So, to conclude, Molyneux contends that “art is work produced by un-alienated human labour and characterised by a fusion or unity of form and content”.

In his second chapter the author suggests that “judgement [of art] is more or less inescapable” and then proceeds to raise “questions of how judgement is made, by whom and on the basis of which criteria”. As far as John Molyneux is concerned “the judgement of art is a social process” which “operates through a range of institutions and strategically placed individuals within those institutions” and he infers that “key decisions are made in secret and never explained”.

In the sphere of the visual arts it is possible to identify the key players in the formation of aesthetic judgements. They are critics, historians, museum and gallery directors and auctioneers. In his satirical essay “The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe ruefully observed that “the notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in modern art is merely a romantic fiction. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened. The public that buys records by the billions and fills stadiums for concerts, the public that spends £100 million on a single movie; this public affects taste, theory and artistic outlook in literature, music and drama. The same has never been true in art.”

There has long existed a tendency with art critics, curators etc. to argue that aesthetic evaluation is a matter of “intuition”; that there are those who simply know a good art work when they see one and “their judgements are usually expressed in terms of approval or disapproval – masterly, superb, interesting, challenging versus banal, derivative and illustrative”.

Molyneux maintains that this approach has “a strong element of upper-class snobbery” and in its place suggests that a frank examination of certain criteria might provide a much more valid approach to artistic judgement. Those criteria are the following: “mimesis, skill, beauty, the sublime, morality, emotional power and expression, innovation and critique”. It’s curious how “mimesis”, the ability to accurately depict nature, “skill”, the deployment of acquired manual dexterity and “beauty”, which, in the past were key characteristics in judging art, have now been downgraded by most mainstream connoisseurs in favour of “innovation”. Molyneux maintains that this point of view pervades the language of art-writing today, “with the proliferation of terms such as ‘cutting edge’, ‘pathbreaking’ and ‘seminal’, while ‘derivative’ becomes, along with ‘uninteresting’, a major put down”.

The second chapter is followed by a selection of already published essays on specific artists and exhibitions which clearly underscore the author’s approach to art criticism. For example, in his essay on Michelangelo. Molyneux calls into question a commonly observed notion that the main explanation for his elevated status is his designation as genius. According to the art historian Ernst Gombrich: “One cannot explain the existence of genius. It is better to enjoy it.”

However, Molyneux, while acknowledging the enormous individual talent of Michelangelo, points out that the flowering of that talent in effect coincided with the affluence of the Florentine city state. According to the author, “it should be noted that the association of artistic ‘golden ages’ with periods of spectacular wealth is common in the history of art … and as always, the art that penetrates most deeply into and responds most powerfully to, the social relations and forces of its time is also the art that achieves the greatest ‘universal’ appeal and validity”.

In his penultimate chapter, “How Art Develops”, the author dismisses the notion that “ideas in general and artistic conceptions and images in particular drop into the minds of artists “from the sky” or arrive there by “divine inspiration”’ and to commence his challenge he quotes from Marx: “the changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure”, and as he stresses, “clearly art is part of the superstructure”. He suggests that “if individual artworks are conditioned by the economic and social base and always stand in a definitive relation to it, the same is true of broad developments in art history – ‘movements’ and ‘periods’”.

This is a significant proposition, as it directly contradicts many art historians who frequently maintain that art history is simply the history of art and, as a result, often fail to reference any relevant political, social or economic realities. This tendency reached its peak in the mid-twentieth century when critics like Clement Greenberg insisted that the only valid subject matter for any painting of significance was art itself. An artist friend of mind is fond of describing the art history conundrum in the following succinct yet cynical terms: “every epoch gets the art it deserves”.

In his final chapter, “The Dialectics of Modernism”, Molyneux suggests that “it is possible to identify two particular dialectical processes at work within the overall trajectory of modernism”. The first he calls a “dialectic of differentiation”. He mentions that this is caused by “the rapid pace of social change, the privileging of ‘originality’ and ‘the new’ and the self-assertion of emerging schools or trends in the competitive jungle of the art market and art world … each generation tends to stress its differences with the cohort that precedes it … thus impressionism, which emphasised light and colour at the expense of form, was followed immediately by Seurat and then Cézanne, who reintroduced form”, and so on.

The second major dialectic at work in modernism, according to the author, is the clash between democratisation and elitism. According to Molyneux “the democratisation process in art is a reflection of and response to the rise of political democracy, initiated primarily by the American and French Revolutions … however, the tendency towards democratisation has always existed in dialectical tension with a strong pull towards elitism”.

Visual artists may wish to represent the lives of ordinary people, but this desire can often be offset by the necessity “to appeal to a minority of wealthy and privileged ‘patrons’, rather than, as with music or literature, by mass popularity and mass sales”.

In conclusion, I might say that while I am in accord with Molyneux’s general thesis, I am at variance with some of his judgements, particularly when it comes to contemporary art. He enters a vigorous defence of artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin; I still feel incapable of uttering their names in the same breath as those of Velázquez and Rembrandt.

1/2/2021

Robert Ballagh is an artist.

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