Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 21, 2008

Art as commodity

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 1:17 am

My review of “No Country for Old Men” has generated a more general discussion about art and politics on my blog and on Stan Goff’s Feral Scholar. Although the debate has been pretty polarized over the role of Cormac McCarthy in realizing some ideal about Great Literature, just about every participant lays claim to radicalism or Marxism.

One of the more ubiquitous posters is one John Steppling, who seeks to rescue art from commissars like myself who are represented as latter day partisans of the proletarian novel and socialist realism:

You cannot attack Mccarthy for not writing a book making the didatic points you want him to make. Thats not what literature does at any time. I find a lot of people on all political sides become a bit frightened by characters when they are constructed as McCarthy constructs them…by which I mean without conventional sentimentality and motivation.

I should add that Steppling’s comments are almost always marked by such spelling and grammatical errors which led blogger Martin Wisse to observe: “How can anyone take a John Steppling seriously on literature when the fellow doesn’t even have a basic command of English?”

One of the benefits of the debate for me has been its triggering in my mind of some deeper considerations of the social role of art (I use the word art in reference to painting, music, theater, poetry, novels and all the rest), especially in light of a re-reading of the early chapters of volume one of Karl Marx’s “Capital”. When you think of the creation of art in the context of the commodity, use value and exchange value, certain thoughts come to mind that might help put the debate on a more “materialist” foundation.

Keep in mind that art only began to become a commodity in the mid-19th century as the artist was freed from feudal ties. For the musician and painter, the need for support from the prince or the church was obvious. A piano was expensive, not to speak of the orchestra needed to perform a composition. For the painter, fixed capital was fairly minimal: a canvas and some paint. But since each work was non-reproducible, there had to be a wealthy backer to support his efforts. This meant that the typical painting was a laughing cavalier or a crucifixion. The artist only became to be emancipated from feudal dependence when a new bourgeoisie began to emerge. For the musician the struggle was longer and harder as Mozart’s life story demonstrates.

In distinction to the painter or composer, the novelist benefited from the mechanical printing press and could get into commodity production simply by securing a pen, some paper and a good idea. It is no accident that the first modern novel–Don Quixote–takes as its theme the emergence of bourgeois society in Spain.

In the renaissance, paintings and musical compositions were not commodities. They only had use value. The Church or a monarch would commission a work that was used for the spiritual edification of the flock or for flattering the court. There was only a difference in degree between such works and the fine meals and fancy clothing that were also put together by the rest of the household staff.

By the mid-19th century, novels became the quintessential commodity with Charles Dickens’s novels being serialized in the newspapers. It took much longer for music to catch up, but with the introduction of the phonograph, the composer found a way to tap into the mass market as well. Painters are much more of a throwback to the age of feudalism as they have had to rely on the ruling class for patronage. But even in the case of one-of-a-kind works of art, you are dealing with the exigencies of the marketplace and the fetishism of commodities.

As the nation-state consolidated around the class rule of the bourgeoisie and replaced the latticework of feudal principalities that served as a platform for the arts, new use values began to emerge. The composer and the artist articulated the ruling class’s political and ideological ambitions even if in an indirect fashion. The use value of a Wagner opera was to articulate the yearnings for German national unity, just as Klimt’s paintings were seen by his Austrian governmental benefactors in the same fashion. Klimt’s modernism was meant to counter folkloric works of “lesser nationalities” resisting assimilation by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In Great Britain, the prototypical capitalist nation-state, “Great Literature” was drafted to serve the same purpose. As religion and belief in the monarchy began to subside among the working class in the Victorian era, astute servants of the ruling class came to the conclusion that Shakespeare, Jane Austin, et al could help bind the nation together in pursuit of the ruling class’s ambitions. Before literature became elevated to this lofty status, it was simply seen as entertainment–something that ladies and gentlemen enjoyed in their leisure.

All this is discussed in some detail in “The Rise of English”, an article in Terry Eagleton’s “Literary Theory, An Introduction”. Eagleton states:

If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. By the mid- Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control…

Fortunately, however, another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature. George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford, commented in his inaugural lecture that ‘England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.’ Gordon’s words were spoken in our own century, but they find a resonance everywhere in Victorian England. It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth- century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer’s guides to Pound.

I would argue that the elevation of reading novels and poetry into a kind of transcendental sacrament roughly equivalent to eating communion wafers in the 20th and 21st century is a direct result of the British transformation of what was basically entertainment into the “Classics”. When you think of all the papers delivered on Austen and Pound to Modern Language Association conferences over the years, it is helpful to understand their real purpose, which is as Eagleton points out, a mechanism to “save our souls and heal the state”.

This might not be so obvious with the MLA Conferences, stocked to overflowing by one type of Marxist professor or another, but it becomes more obvious when you consider the high priests of modernism such as Harold Bloom and Saul Bellow. They were quite conscious of why Great Literature serves as totems for the Great Civilization they beat the drums for. Obsessions with “Canon” at places like Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago unwittingly betray religious antecedents when you consider that the term referred originally to the books considered authoritative by religious sects, either Judeo-Christian or Moslem. Controversies have broken out at prestigious universities over whether non-Western literature should be added to the Canon. My tendency would be to get rid of the idea of a Canon altogether.

If saving our souls and healing the State serves as the ultimate use value of “Great Literature”, there is also exchange value to be considered. A book is the ultimate commodity as the proliferation of Barnes and Nobles in every major city would demonstrate, not to speak of amazon.com. Authors are under enormous pressure to differentiate their commodity from the competition, just as laxative manufacturers must.

The marketplace demands novelty. When a young novelist is considered by the NY Times Book Review section, saying something “fresh” and “new” is about as important as it is in the clothing business. Nothing could be more superfluous than last year’s designer jeans or novels.

One should never underestimate the power of the capitalist system to absorb, assimilate and co-opt even the most “daring” forms of art, including surrealism which emerged in the 1920s as a revolutionary cultural movement led by a Trotskyist André Breton.

On October 2, 1998, the Times reported on “A new spot for Chanel No. 5 dabs on some sex and surrealism.” Chanel ads always featured the work of leading-edge photographers. From 1979 to the 1990’s, their products were peddled in highly sophisticated, sex-suffused images reminiscent of Salvador Dali paintings. They were the work of Ridley Scott, who went on to become a movie director with mixed results. Here’s one of his best-known ads.

And here’s word on Ridley Scott’s possible new project:

According to The Hollywood Reporter, William Monahan is in negotiations to adapt Scott Rudin’s long-gestating feature film of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel “Blood Meridian,” which is now set up at Paramount Pictures.

Although no offer has been made, Ridley Scott has been approached to direct. Scott and Monahan are currently writing and directing two projects together — “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Tripoli,” which are both set up at 20th Century Fox. In the last incarnation of “Blood Meridian” in the late 1990s, Tommy Lee Jones was set to direct and rewrite Steve Tesich’s adaptation and take a small role in McCarthy’s dark Western.


  1. I don’t think Thomas Frank would call himself a Marxist, though your post reminded me of his book Commodify Your Dissent.

    Comment by Bruce F — February 21, 2008 @ 2:24 am

  2. did you mean to say Harold Bloom, who has a whole big book on the canon in literature, rather than Allan Bloom?

    Comment by uh...clem — February 21, 2008 @ 2:32 am

  3. Harold Bloom had the same outlook as Allan Bloom, but I mentioned Allan Bloom because he was closely associated with Saul Bellow. In all 3 cases, you get this kind of self-designated priesthood on behalf of Western Civilization.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 21, 2008 @ 2:41 am

  4. Landscapes, still life paintings and other small-scale works were bought and sold as commodities long before the 19th century. It seems to me that wherever you have an emergent bourgeoisie, you have an art market. Just look at the art history of the Low Countries or Northern Italy.

    Comment by Adrian — February 21, 2008 @ 5:33 am

  5. The revolutionary avant-garde has historically tried three strategies to prevent art’s transforming to commodity:

    1) Art as a reproductive technique 2) Art as murals (wall painting) and 3) Art as Proletkult/Production art/Constructivism/LEF with artists like Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky and writer Sergei Tretjakov. See http://www.sovlit.com/lefprogram/ and Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

    The best-known artists in category 1 were Alexandr Rodchenko (photo collage) and the German John Heartfield for his famous anti-nazism photomontages. (“Hitler: Millionen stehen hinter mir”. Today Klaus Staeck and Leon Kuhn are selling posters for 5 dollar apiece.

    Mexican muralists as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco meant that public art was a counterpunch towards art as commodity.

    This kind of revolutionary art was only in its beginnings – its experimental stage. Expelled from bourgeois art history writings, Stalinism, Nazism and Cultural Cold War. This valuable knowledge has never been taught in any western art academy.

    By the way: Siqueiros was political active and as Stalinist he tried to murder Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Beat that.

    Comment by Rolf — February 21, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

  6. “frightened by characters when they are constructed … without conventional sentimentality and motivation” does not seem to me to be the issue. Compare Erskine Caldwell and James Farrell. No sentiment, but a world of difference in how you come away feeling about the characters.

    “the elevation of reading novels and poetry into a kind of transcendental sacrament” Marx and Engles themselves saw art as one of the principal futures replacemtns of religion. Characteristic 19th century secular Geist.

    Comment by Chuckie K — February 21, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

  7. # 5. Currently in London there are key works by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexandr Rodchenko on temporary display. You have to pay a hefty charge to get into both the Royal Academy and the Hayward Gallery. So I suppose you could say that the revolutionary avant-garde has failed to prevent art from being transformed into a commodity.

    # 6. Right. That books have become commodities is hardly hot news. But someone who wants to talk seriously about them still has to distinguish a Caldwell from a Farrell. That operation has nothing to do with establishing a canon.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 22, 2008 @ 5:14 am

  8. Byrne: Of course you have a good point, but selling photos (or models) of his utopian projects doesn’t mean that Talin failed. Karl Marx “Das Capital” is also sold on the market.

    Tatlin`s concept of the monument Third International was never realised; lack of electricity was one aspect – the other was Lenin and the Communist Party incompetence concerning artistic questions.

    Mexican Diego Rivera sold easel paintings and portraits of rich people, but this was bread-works. Sometimes revolutionary artists also have to buy milk and butter.

    The artmarket`s repressive tolerance is incredible and totally absurd. In 2000 the Tate bought a tin purporting to be the excrement of Italian artist Piero Manzoni for £22,350 from Sotheby’s. The conservative art critic Robert Hughes calls it cultural obscenity. But DADA-Manzoni`s effort to ridicule bourgeois art taste doesn’t necessarily mean that provoking Institution Art from inside is wasted time?

    Comment by Rolf — February 22, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  9. “It took much longer for music to catch up, but with the introduction of the phonograph, the composer found a way to tap into the mass market as well.”

    Long before the phonograph, musicians prospered with the sale of sheet music. By the 1840s/50s many middle class families could afford a piano as well as other instruments and could thus create concerts in their own homes. Reductions of symphonies and string quartets for 2 or 4 hands at the piano as well as operatic transcriptions and paraphrases were a great source of income for Liszt and the child of the Hamburg slums, Brahms.

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — February 22, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

  10. I would just like to comment on the statement you made about Stepplings spelling errors. I have no opinion on the Cormac McCarthy or the movie No Country For old Men sense I have neither read his books or seen the movie.

    As I have said befor Louis I love your site, but it’s snobby comments like this one that really piss me off. I make spelling errors too, so what, am I not alllowed to express my belief on what is great literature. This seems to be a very elitist stance for a marxist to take. Stepplings comment was on the way McCarthy depicts his characters, not on how he constructs sentences. Instead of dealing with his point you made a snide comment about improper grammer.

    I will say that I agree with your main point that there are lots of things that elites tell us were supposed to like, but are ultimately equal parts pretentious and boring. There are many of your more contrarian movie reviews I have agreed with like your review of Little Miss Sunshine which I fully agree was extremely overated. When I do see No Country For Old Men I may end up fully agreeing with your sentiments, but when you make snide comments like this I think your damaging your cause.

    Comment by Dave — February 22, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

  11. Going back to #9, it seems to me that the artist is, and has been for centuries, working in an ironic margin. You underline it when you note that “Das Capital” is also for sale. The artist’s work will be treated as a commodity. His aim should be, all the same, to express non-commercial values. Part of criticism’s role is to point out the latter. For instance, referring back to #6, the critic will show that Farrell expresses values Caldwell ignores. The danger of wielding too freely a blunderbuss concept like the “commodification” of art is that it directs attention away from the artist’s concrete problem. Of course he would operate differently in a non-mercantile world, but he hasn’t had that opportunity since (maybe) the Middle Ages. By the way, in the irony department, Tatlin’s monument to the Third International has been realized, after a fashion, by the merchants of the tourist and museum industries. The current Russian exhibition at the Royal Academy shows the tower superimposed on a film of St. Petersburg as if it were in fact part of the urban architecture.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 22, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

  12. “Condescension is the High Price of Art”

    I wrote this in an English Lit. paper in college, at the time thinking I was the next Oscar Wilde with his pithy literary proverbs, and trying to understand F.R. Leavis & Edmund Wilson’s criticisms. I get the Blooms mixed up too. Earl Shorris in a 2004 Harpers Essay on Leo Strauss(its online: google Earl Shorris + Harpers + Leo Strauss) calls Allan his most famous student(more famous than Paul Wolfowitz??) a vicious misogynist.

    Comment by m.c. — February 22, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

  13. Dave, do blame the right person for these snobby remarks; it was I, not Louis, who made them. And yes, I do agree they were snobbish, but then again John Steppling was asking to have his pomposity punctured. Being a Marxist does not necessarily means dropping one’s standards of English however; we’re not post-modernists!

    Comment by Martin Wisse — February 26, 2008 @ 8:11 pm

  14. “It is style which makes it possible to act effectively, it is style which enables us to find a harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and a regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason.”
    ~Robert Oppenheimer

    This is one of my favorite quotes, especially in the context of Kitsch, Cliche, Caricature, & Stereotype.

    Comment by m.c. — March 1, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

  15. Everything that Terry Eagleton claims about the rise of English studies coinciding with the decline of religion is true enough, so far as it goes, but it doesn’t seem to have occured to either Eagleton or you that the rise of Marxism is even more directly tied to the decline of Christianity. Nietzsche was certainly correct to perceive revolutionary socialism as nothing other than a Christian heresy, with the workers’ paradise replacing Paradise, heaven-on-earth replacing Heaven in the good little Marxists’ simple-minded fantasies. The consequence was the same as with Christian crusaders of previous eras: the cold-blooded massacre of anyone and everyone standing in the way of “The Good”.

    Everything you claim about art as commodity, art as defender of the status quo, is a half-truth at best. It’s not entirely wrong, but it’s largely so. Certainly you provide no proof for your spurious claims. Before you sneer at worshippers of art, you should at least recognize the far greater degree to which your own political ideology takes ALL of its aims and perspectives and dogmas and tenets from orthodox Christianity. Thus, you yourself are in the deepest sense a reactionary, far more so than Harold Bloom or Cormac McCarthy, whatever their faults.

    Comment by Chris — August 26, 2008 @ 6:49 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: