Three Paradoxes of Communist Art
The idea of a communist art form is from the start riddled with paradoxical tensions. Of course, there is no shortage of artworks that openly proclaim their communist credentials even outside the immediate sphere of influence of the ex-Soviet Union and its official propaganda. We can think, for example, of the Mexican muralists from the 1920s around Diego Rivera who included red banners with quotations from The Communist Manifesto (beginning with its opening line in Spanish: “Toda la historia de la sociedad humana, hasta el día, es una historia de lucha de clases”), alongside popular songs and autochthonous slogans (such as the Zapatista call for “Tierra y libertad”), in some of the most famous murals for the Secretaría de Educación Pública and Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. The form of these works, too, was meant to break with the limits of bourgeois art, emblematized by traditional easel painting to be viewed in the institutional space of the museum or enclosed within the four walls of the private salon or art gallery. Now, as was to be the case in many if not all other attempts to create a communist art in the twentieth century, art would become integral to a public space constructed collectively with the help of architects, sculptors, painters, technicians, and graphic artists. After all, even the term propaganda refers merely to that which must be propagated or disseminated; and, in this sense, the form of art’s production and transmission was to be affected as well in the rejection of traditional salon art. “That is why our primary aesthetic aim is to propagate works of art which will help destroy all traces of bourgeois individualism,” we can read in a manifesto from the period, first published in the communist periodical El Machete: “We believe that while our society is in a transitional stage between the destruction of an old order and the introduction of a new order, the creators of beauty must turn their work into clear ideological propaganda for the people, and make art, which at present is mere individualist masturbation, something of beauty, education and purpose for everyone.”
However, this formal break with salon art is still not specific to any particular ideological orientation. Many artists of the historical avant-gardes, too, had already radically attacked the bourgeois institution of art, as defined in Peter Bürger’s classical analysis in Theory of the Avant-Garde, without embracing the idea of communism. Quite the contrary, while Bürger may have preferred to sidestep this issue by paying but scant attention to Italian Futurism, for example, in many cases the formal avant-garde impulse turned out to be wholly compatible with fascist sympathies: “This may sound oxymoronic but it is indeed possible to have a radical art that not only dismisses, but is explicitly positioned against, communism and especially communist values,” as Angela Dimitrakaki has recently pointed out in discussing the work of Jan De Cock. “It is possible to have a fascistic radical art – and I would argue that today, especially in Europe but also elsewhere, fascism posits a real threat.” By narrowly focusing on the violent break with the institution of art alone, we are therefore not necessarily coming any closer to a genuine understanding of the possibility or impossibility of a communist art form.
The recent rebirth of interest in the idea of communism, sparked among other events by the 2009 conference in London organized by the French philosopher Alain Badiou and his Slovenian counterpart Slavoj Žižek, at first sight seems to promise a way out of this conundrum. At least this is what Jan De Cock suggests when he speaks of “sculpture communism” in relation to the work in his Everything For You series, openly invoking a certain fidelity to the work of Badiou. And yet, to some extent, this association creates an entirely different set of tensions, insofar as in the eyes of this French thinker there is supposed to be an element of communism not just in all artistic events but in political, scientific, or amorous events as well. In other words, the problem no longer consists in finding a communist form of art but in specifying how artistic events would be different from what takes place in these other realms, while still containing a communist element as well. Or, to the contrary, does the delimitation of this specific difference run counter to the impulse of communism toward generic equality?
For Badiou, art, politics, science, and love are the four domains in which events can take place whose truth would be available to all. This would have to be recognized anew by every philosopher today willing to step into the long shadow cast by Plato. Such a return of the Platonic gesture, most forcefully announced in Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy, would also have to occur in the realm of art. This means that in art, too, we must be able to locate a universally accessible truth immanent to the works themselves. As Badiou writes in his “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art”: “Art cannot merely be the expression of a particularity (be it ethnic or personal). Art is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to everyone.” In this sense the universal address of a truth induced by artistic events could be said to be essentially communist. It can be “everything for everyone,” or “all things to all people,” as Saint Paul would say (“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some,” we read in 1 Corinthians 9:22). No doubt, something of this universality resonates in the title Everything For You with which Jan De Cock presents his recent sculptures. There is, then, barely even a hint of particularity anymore, as might still be the case in Marx’s formula for the phase of communist society that would be able to inscribe on its banners the slogan “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” ("Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!” as Marx writes in his 1875 “Critique of the Gotha Program,” recycling a formula that was actually quite common among nineteenth-century utopian socialists). In this formula the reference to abilities, in particular, may seem to smuggle back a degree of naturalized inequality based on an individual’s specific faculties or talents. And, in the realm of art, such a notion of talent is closely tied to the romantic cult of genius, which—one hopes—would be superseded in any genuine form of communist art.
If in Marx’s formula the reference to needs and abilities risks introducing new measures of difference into the universal address of communist practices, in light of Badiou’s philosophy, by contrast, the problem becomes exactly the opposite one of too little, rather than too much, differentiation. Even though he typically restricts the use of the term “communism” to the realm of politics, all truth procedures—hence art as well—are presumably communist in their address, if not also in the actual treatment of their materials. All truth procedures, according to Badiou, are Universalist in their address, but only in the case of certain procedures, such as politics, are we also treating the materials themselves—the collectives being mobilized into a militant subject—at the level of generic universality. Art, which for this philosopher works on a variety of materials in the gap between forms and the formless, comes close in this regard to the functioning of politics. Thus, as Badiou himself explains, “we may speak of something like an artistic definition of liberty which is intellectual and material, something like Communism within a logical framework.” But then art at once loses its specificity and becomes the same—at least in this regard—as any other truth procedure. This generic dedifferentiation of art as being always already communist confronts us with a first paradox, insofar as art must at the same time remain distinct and recognizable as art. In other words, the first tension that we face is the one that lies between art as separate from other social activities and what we might call the necessary inseparateness of communist association.
Regarding the notion of art as separation, we may think of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s willfully anachronistic example of Odysseus (a figure also dear to Jan De Cock) and his cunning answer to the threat of enchantment stemming from the song of the Sirens. “Under the continuing jurisdiction of magic, rationality—as the behavior of the sacrificer—becomes cunning,” Horkheimer and Adorno write in Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Thenceforth, as a self-possessed master, the traveling adventurer ties himself to the mast and is free to enjoy the song as a purely contemplative work of art, whereas his men continue to toil without being able to hear the music at all. “Odysseus recognizes the archaic superior power of the song even when, as a technically enlightened man, he has himself bound.
He listens to the song of pleasure and thwarts it as he seeks to thwart death,” but the cost of this cunning use of artifice is the renunciation of happiness, for “the title of hero is only gained at the price of the abasement and mortification of the instinct for complete, universal, and undivided happiness.”
Above all, like his modern-day reincarnation in Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus stands for the individual who parts from the collectivity in pursuit of an atomistic interest—an interest that the likes of Hegel and Marx come to associate with the rise of what they call civil or bourgeois society. Art, in this context, emerges as just one sphere among others. No longer imbued with the force of ritual, it distances itself from magic only by promising a semblance of happiness that in the meantime has become synonymous with alienated solitariness.
Contrast this with the image of communist utopia that we find in The German Ideology and already we are in a better position to sum up our first paradox. “In communist society,” Marx and Engels write, “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Even though it is criticism, not artistic creation, that is invoked here, this brief passage suggests that communism would have to entail a radical overcoming of the existing divisions of labor. But, then, can art still remain separate as art? Can art still rely on the cunning genius of individual artists with their special talents or faculties? Or should not the specificity of the unequal production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of art resolve itself into the social production of the common? Should art, too, not vanish into the common as the last fixation of social activity?
The second paradox is actually little more than a different formulation of the first, expanded into the realm of theory or philosophy. Indeed, the tension inscribed in the very notion of communist art can also be translated in terms of the predominant role assigned to the aesthetic in a certain philosophical self-understanding of modernity that we have come to associate, whether knowingly or not, with the legacy of German idealism. Art, whether as the sensory production of the truth of an Idea or as the descent of the infinite into the finite, in this tradition comes to mediate between the theoretical and the practical realms. This can be seen not only in the crucial place of Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a necessary mediation, via the notions of beauty and the sublime, between the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason; but also in the passage through a certain “end of art” in the transition from objective spirit toward religion and absolute knowledge in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and, afterwards, in the no less prominent place reserved for his Aesthetics in the overarching system of the speculative dialectic. “Therefore, the investment in the aesthetic is considerable—the whole ability of philosophical discourse to develop as such depends entirely on its ability to develop an adequate aesthetics,” as the Belgian literary theorist Paul de Man concludes in Aesthetic Ideology. “This is why both Kant and Hegel, who had little interest in the arts, had to put it in, to make possible the link between real events and philosophical discourse.” Art, or rather, what in the tradition of German idealism comes to be defined as the aesthetic, then, is no longer the domain of one specific faculty so much as the place for the free play among the faculties as well as between reality, or the real, and speculative discourse in and of itself.
When the critique of alienated life in the nineteenth century begins to take a decisively socialist and communist turn, this is in no small part due to the kind of transformation of everyday life—what Marx calls “human” as opposed to merely “political” emancipation—promised in the realm of the aesthetic as theorized in German idealism. “The human revolution is an offspring of the aesthetic paradigm,” as Jacques Rancière writes. “This is the reason that the Marxist vanguard and the artistic avant-garde converged in the 1920s, since each side was attached to the same program: the construction of new forms of life in which the self-suppression of politics matched the self-suppression of art.” Over and against the existing hierarchies and inequalities, art thus would give us a foreshadowing, or sensible anticipation, of the new fabric of life in common. Indeed, as John Roberts also has shown, such a view of art connects the ideas of the young Marx directly or indirectly to a whole range of writers in the autonomist and post-Stalinist New Left: “This is a heterodox tradition (Deleuze and Guattari, Nancy, Badiou) in which communist form and practice is both de-Stalinized politically and re-aestheticized culturally. In this regard the early Marx’s emphasis on the radical and revolutionary function of Bildung (communities of collective self-learning) comes to define non-statist and autonomous forms of productive, intellectual and creative community.”
A paradoxical tension then at once comes to upset the logic of this prefigurative interpretation of art in relation to communism. Indeed, if and when art manages to heal the wounds and supersede the boundaries that currently afflict an alienated world, it seems as though such a therapeutic and prefigurative power nonetheless required as its prior condition the separateness, or at least the singular unicity, of art itself. On the one hand, whatever art anticipates must already be present in the situation at hand, albeit in an alienated form: “As Marx puts it, the collective forces of humanity already exist in their objectification in the unilateral form of capitalist production. The only requirement, then, is to find a form for their collective and subjective re-appropriation.” And yet, on the other hand, such a process of re-appropriation would ultimately have to lead to the cancelation of art itself. More strongly put: whatever makes art uniquely capable of anticipating a world of free association at the same time turns it into an obstacle that will keep such association from being truly egalitarian and free. Art’s utopian power is paradoxical insofar as whatever prefigurative force lies within art has, at its root, a separateness that still keeps it apart from a world of free association.
The third and final (at least for the time being) paradox beckons to us with another symptomatic sign, which is the fact that art offers us a symbol of universal freedom in the traditional Kantian sense while at the same time constituting a most lucrative commodity or investment opportunity, seemingly immune to the cyclical crises of capitalism. Indeed, if museums and galleries are the churches of a secular age that is said to be moving toward a post-auratic art form, they are all also strictly alike and remain unchanged in at least one regard, namely, that at the end of the hallway someone is always waiting with a handy collection box.
This is the arena—what we might summarize under the heading of the political economy of art, whether capitalist or communist—in which Jan de Cock courageously seeks to intervene by attempting to restructure the very principles for the exchange, exhibition, and consumption of his sculptures. And yet, one has to wonder whether the tensions regarding the separation or inseparation of art are not in fact so intimately bound up with the logic of capitalism that even the notion of free exchange or distribution is likely to be part of the very core of this logic, instead of promising its prefigurative supersession. This is because freedom, defined as mentioned earlier in the tradition of German idealism, remains the quintessential ideologeme that provides the system, so to speak, with its endlessly renewable energy source. Distance from the given, criticism of the status quo, minimal difference with regard to the existing hierarchies: these are just some of the ways in which art’s utopian promise is linked to the freedom of a creative subject who would be capable of changing the very circumstances that otherwise are not of our own choosing but rather confront us, as so many effective presuppositions that lie before us like an alien power.
Marx himself, after all, was ironically aware of the fact that the lasting charm of certain artworks, far from presenting an accomplished image of the highest stage of communist society, was inextricably bound up with the underdeveloped levels of material production at which they emerged historically. Utopia, then, would come to operate under the sign of unevenness: art as sublime or merely picturesque disjuncture rather than art as beautiful synthesis and harmony. Such would be the great dichotomy that, ever since Kant and Hegel’s reflections on the aesthetic, has been typical of all nineteenth and even twentieth-century thinking on art. But at the root of this dichotomy lies a question about the material conditions of art, insofar as all those ideals of distance, disjuncture, and dissociation, from which even postmodern reflections on art could not separate themselves, would be determined by uneven development at the level of the material production and reproduction of life. Thus, for example, as a note to himself in the famous introduction to the Grundrisse, referring to “points to be mentioned here and not to be forgotten,” Marx cites the following item: “The uneven development of material production relative to e.g. artistic development. In general, the concept of progress not to be conceived in the usual abstractness.” And, on the following page, as if to begin elaborating this point, he adds: “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 organization.” What makes art from the past appear lofty or charming, for example, may well be the symptom of a paradoxical tension that runs through the very essence of art in general, namely, the fact that its truth shines forth in all kinds of monstrous disproportionateness and unevenness, including in terms of its economically unequal production, distribution, and consumption. Monstrosity, thus, would no longer remain internal to the realm of aesthetics but instead refers to disjunctions between the arts and the general development of society at large. To Marx, much later in the Grundrisse, even the artist’s workshop, with its antiquated structure of the master and his apprentices, appears as an alternative to modern capitalist alienation only insofar as we continue to perceive remnants therein of older forms of social cooperation which, while obviously tied to all kinds of hierarchy and privilege, also stand for an escape from the vulgar cash nexus of capitalist exchange: “This is why the childish world of antiquity appears on one side as loftier. On the other side, it really is loftier in all matters where closed shapes, forms and given limits are sought for. It is satisfaction from a limited standpoint; while the modern gives no satisfaction; or, where it appears satisfied with itself, it is vulgar.” Marx certainly understands the continuing appeal of such prior forms of organization and cooperation, which are to a tired modernity what childhood is to old age, but he also implicitly warns against the naïve belief in their self-sufficiency.
Without a collective and material restructuring, not just of the distribution and exchange of art works but also of their production, guided by a principle of generic and universal equality that paradoxically may have to sound the death knell of art as a separate activity or social domain, any endeavor to accomplish artistic instances of communism will be able to do so only from a limited standpoint. In the case of Jan De Cock, however, perhaps we are dealing with a form of “sculpture communism” that no longer seeks to be universal in this older sense but rather combines a universal address and a format that can be modified to fit the specificities of very different local contexts, in villages and towns—rather than cities—from Russia to Mexico?
- See Ida Rodríguez Prampolini, “Rivera y su concepto de la historia,” in Diego Rivera: Retrospectiva, Mexico City, Ministerio de Cultura, 1986, 141-7.
- See the “Manifesto of the Union of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters, and Sculptors,” originally in El Machete, 1923; reprinted in Readings in Latin American Modern Art, ed. Patrick Frank, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004, 33-35. For a broad account of the challenges posed by communist art after the defeat of socialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, see the special issue of Third Text on “Art, Praxis and the Community to Come,” beginning with the introductory essay by the issue’s guest editor, John Roberts, “Art, ‘Enclave Theory’ and the Communist Imaginary,” Third Text 23, 2009, 353-367. By the same author, see also the assessment of the recent explosion of writings on the communist idea (including my own), in John Roberts, “The Two Names of Communism,” Radical Philosophy 177, 2013, 9-18.
-  Angela Dimitrakaki, “The Avant-Garde Today,” Workshop Everything For You, Otegem, Deweer Gallery, August 31, 2013.
-  See Alain Badiou, “Platonic Gesture,” in Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. Norman Madarasz, Albany, SUNY Press, 1999, 97-102.
- Alain Badiou, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” Lacanian Ink 23, 2004, 105. For a critical analysis of Badiou’s recent success in the art world, starting from the nexus between the mediation of art in global art theory and economies of the spectacle, see Andrew Stefan Weiner, “Immanence and Infidelity: Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou,” ARTmargins. This analysis is based on a recent collective exhibition, Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou, put together in Egypt in the context of the Arab Spring, with the express purpose of exposing the limits of Badiou’s vanguard universalism and modernist formalism. See also the earlier annotated analysis of Badiou’s theses in Nico Baumbach, “Something Else Is Possible: Thinking Badiou on Philosophy and Art,” Polygraph 17, 2005, 157-173.
- Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in The First International and After. Political Writings: Volume 3, London, Penguin, 1992, 347.
- Badiou, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” 119.
- Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, “Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming, New York, Continuum, 1989, 50n, 57, 59.
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Part One, edited and with an introduction by C.J. Arthur, New York, International Publishers, 1991, 53.
- Quoted by Andrzej Warminsky, “Introduction: Allegories of Reference,” in Paul de Man, Aesthetic Ideology, edited and with an introduction by Andrzej Warminsky, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 4.
- Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, edited and translated by Steven Corcoran, London, Continuum, 2010,120.
- Roberts, “Art, ‘Enclave Theory’ and the Communist Imaginary,” 353. Roberts fails to mention the work of Jacques Rancière as one of the foremost figures in “new communism” writing who links the communist imaginary to the early Marx’s “communism of the senses” and the notion of an aesthetic education or Bildung.
- Rancière, “Communism: From Actuality to Inactuality,” in Dissensus, 76-77.
- Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), translated by Martin Nicolaus, London, Penguin, 1973, 109-10.
- Marx, Grundrisse, 489.