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Author: Richard Barbrook

MARXISM AND THE VISUAL ARTS by Richard Barbrook

It is the opening plenary of an academic conference on Marxism and the Visual Arts being held at a magnificent lecture theatre in University College London. After the organisers have had their say, the chair proudly announces: “…the next speaker is Nicos Hadjinicolaou – the author of The History of Art and the Class Struggle and other books on…? Who cares what else he has written? Nothing since has matched the sheer chutzpah of this title. The 120 people in the hall aren’t here to listen to Hadjinicolaou’s subtle analysis of Goya. They want him to remind them that – in the early-1970s – making radical art was an integral part of making the revolution. Above all, they want him to be an unapologetic Marxist.

Only a few years ago, things were very different. There was nothing more unfashionable than books with titles like The History of Art and the Class Struggle. Marxism had disappeared along with the Soviet Union. Semiotics, structuralism and psychoanalysis were the only ways to explain the multiplicity of identities found within the post-modern world. It was the emergence of the global justice movement which shattered this academic consensus. Cultural studies simply didn’t have the theoretical tools to challenge free market orthodoxies. In contrast, Marxism was founded upon a critique of capitalist economics. Even better, this intellectual current could explain how market competition shapes modern culture, including the rarefied world of the arts. At this conference, some of its younger participants started hissing in disapproval when one of their elders praised Foucault and Kristeva. What had once seemed so subversive is now the epitome of conservatism.

In the early-2000s, Marxism symbolises a break with the immediate past. Anti-capitalism is much more modern than post-modernism. At the same time, this theory also connects contemporary intellectuals with an impressive revolutionary tradition. For instance, one speaker at this conference celebrated the fabulous life of Ralph Rumney: the English abstract artist who helped to found the Situationist International. As another contributor emphasised, here is one avant-garde group which art galleries and art history departments have found very difficult to domesticate. Instead its legacy lives on in the playful tactics of the global justice movement. As if to prove this point, one of the audience was wearing a red t-shirt which proclaimed ‘anti-capitalist’ in the style of the Coca-Cola logo. The history of art can inspire the class struggle…

Ironically, this revolutionary tradition is also the major obstacle to the renewal of Marxism. Unlike the Situationists, most radical intellectuals and avant-garde artists in the last century were – more or less – supporters of Russian totalitarianism. Despite the implosion of the Soviet Union over a decade ago, their interpretations of Marxism still dominated this conference. Sometimes this influence was benign. In one session, academics from the former Eastern bloc gave an historical overview of the artistic movements of the old system and attacked attempts to downplay their achievements. However much you dislike Stalin, it is impossible not to admire Mukhina’s giant Worker and Collective Farmer statue.

What was much more problematic was the uncritical attitude of many Western academics towards Russian totalitarianism. At this conference, the Marxist theory of art was – once again – defined by two infamous fellow-travellers of Stalinism: Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno. Although they argued over whether Socialist Realism or high modernism was the politically correct style, these two mandarins agreed that the proles had no taste. Hadn’t Marx proved in Capital that their brains were confused by commodity fetishism? Like helpless children, they needed rescuing by the enlightened few.

During the conference, some of the audience pointed out that Karl Marx himself had written about art. Far from being an elitist, he had consistently argued for the democratisation of knowledge and culture. Anyone who reads Capital soon realises that Lukács and Adorno deliberately misinterpreted his analysis of commodity fetishism to fit their own dubious politics. How outrageous! Speaker after speaker emphasised that Marxist theory of art was what Lukács and Adorno said it was. Marx never wrote anything serious about art. The vehemence of these responses had been anticipated by Nicos Hadjinicolaou at the opening plenary. During his speech, he commented that the conference would have to confront two crucial questions: “Who is a Marxist? Who decides?? From the evidence of this academic gathering, neither can yet be answered. For some, the exhaustion of post-modernism means the revival of totalitarian ideologies. For others, Marxism is the theory of participatory democracy and DIY culture. Which interpretation will prevail? Just like art in Hadjinicolaou’s classic text, the evolution of Marxism is now part of the class struggle…

The Marxism and the Visual Arts  conference ’ took place on 8th–10th April 2002 at University College London, London, England.

This article was first published in Mute magazine.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.