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Marxism and Criticism

Introductory Note

In 1967, in a letter to Artforum, Robert Smithson called Michael Fried a “Marxist saint.” The tone of the letter suggests he meant it pejoratively but, since Smithson was in certain respects sympathetic to what he understood as Marxism, it’s not clear why. Perhaps it’s the “saint” that was supposed to be the insult? It’s also not clear, however, why he thought of Fried as a Marxist. It’s true that Fried had introduced his major essay on Morris Louis with an epigraph from Marx but the only other time Marx had figured significantly in his writing was in a long review of John Berger’s Permanent Red and that review, the piece we’re reprinting here, is not written from a position that one would call Marxist.

Indeed, in a certain sense, it’s just the opposite, an attack on Marxist criticism. Except that—in a way that’s imagined also in Smithson’s idea of “a double Michael Fried,” “that what Michael Fried attacks is what he is”—it can also be read as a dissatisfaction with what Marxist criticism looked like at the time and in that sense a call for a new Marxist criticism. It’s our interest in the question of what relation that call might have to Fried’s own subsequent work and what relation it might have to the field in general that led to our interest in reprinting the piece and to our inviting a number of people to use it as a starting point for their own reflections on both art and art history. Three of the four essays that follow were written specifically for this occasion. The fourth, Jeff Wall’s, was not but, after reading the review of Berger, Wall thought it might make a useful contribution and we thought it definitely did. Clearly there are important and ongoing questions about what Marxist art criticism/history should be, and there are doubtless many ways of beginning to raise those questions. The question of whether Smithson was right, and whether in Fried’s not-Marxist writing there is also a kind of Marxism, would be one of them.

—Walter Benn Michaels

“Marxism and Criticism”: Some Context 

When Todd Cronan and Walter Benn Michaels first proposed resurrecting “Marxism and Criticism” (Arts Magazine 36, no. 4 [January 1962]: 70–72) in I was dumbfounded—I only dimly remembered writing it, and wondered what the point of bringing it out again could be, other than to cause its author embarrassment. That’s still my basic feeling, but Walter and Todd are nothing if not persuasive, so here it is, for all my misgivings. But since this is happening, a few contextual remarks are probably in order.

First, the article was written during the fall of 1961 when I was living in London after two years at Oxford (I was then 22). Before sailing to England in 1959, while still an undergraduate at Princeton, I had written trial art critical reviews for Hilton Kramer, then editing Arts Magazine in New York, and when I moved to London in September 1961 Alan Bowness, who had been writing a monthly “London Letter,” stepped down and Kramer offered me the position—an enormous stroke of luck. (For one thing, it quickly led to my meeting Anthony Caro.) In the course of the year I wrote some other pieces for Arts as well, including this one.

The impulse behind it was my extreme dislike of John Berger’s early critical collection, Permanent Red (1960), together with what seemed to me the latter’s rapturous reception by the left-leaning British intelligentsia. Berger had for some years been the art reviewer for the New Statesman, and was widely admired for his views. I thought his criticism was dreadful as regards both its specific judgments, which I don’t discuss in my article, no doubt for reasons of space, and its “theoretical” frame, which I aggressively do. Subsequently, of course, Berger became a major figure in art writing, fiction, and socialist cultural production generally; let me say simply that I was never a fan.

But where did the article’s openness to Marxism come from? It started at Oxford, where I found myself intellectually at loose ends. Having majored in English at Princeton, I was expected to “read for” another B.A. in the same subject, which for various reasons I was determined not to do. But I was much too young and unformed to write a thesis for an advanced degree; and when, sponsored by a history don at my college, I tried to switch to a degree then called a B.Phil. in the history of the Enlightenment, the application was turned down on the grounds that I had never studied history before. As for art history there was no program, just the dominating presence of Edgar Wind. So what was I to do?

Well, for one thing I started reading French seriously, recognizing that I would some day need it in order to work on Manet and other artists of interest to me (I intuited that art history was in my future). I learned some Italian. I wrote and translated poetry. I traveled during vacations and looked at lots of art, including a stupendous Poussin retrospective at the Louvre, which was a revelation. I even wrote an opera libretto for the late John Eaton, a composer I had got to know at Princeton, who was then on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. And (here comes Marxism) I started shadowing the reading of a fellow American at Oxford, John Womack, Jr., who was enrolled in a B.Phil. program in politics that led to his being tutored by eminences like James Joll and Isaiah Berlin. Jack was (is) formidably intelligent and it was a huge break for me that we were at the same college, Merton, and became close friends. (In 1969 he brought out one of the great books of our generation, Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. Retired now, he had a distinguished career teaching Latin American history at Harvard.) A fair amount of the reading assigned to him was in the Marxist tradition and I did my best to stay, not abreast, that was out of the question, but at least in touch with the texts that he was devouring so impressively. At that time, too, books by Marx and other writers in the Marxist camp (e.g. Lenin, Plekhanov) were available in cheap editions, no doubt funded by the CP; they were homely and gave off a distinctive glue-y smell but the print was okay and I soon amassed a modest collection of these.

It’s also relevant that 1960 saw the publication of Lucien Goldmann’s Le Dieu caché (a Marxist reading of Pascal and Racine) and 1961 the appearance of the French translation of Georg Lukács’ 1923 masterwork, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstein (in French Histoire et conscience de classe; eventually, in English, History and Class-Consciousness). These were events in certain left-wing intellectual circles, and I did my best to breathe their air. Other texts that made an impression on me were Merleau-Ponty’s Les Aventures de la dialectique (I passed on the long chapter on Sartre) and La Signification présente du réalisme critique, the French translation of a recent book by Lukács, in both cases working on my French while trying to absorb Marxist categories and criticism. So by the time I wrote my piece for Arts notions of alienation and the dialectic were buzzing in my head, along with Goldmann’s brilliant analysis of the social contradictions that impacted the 17th-century French religious movement called Jansenism. (I was already a devoted reader of Pascal and, believe it or not, Racine; actually, my passion for Racine made perfect sense: he worked with a restricted and euphemistic vocabulary that matched up well with my less than expert grasp of the language.)

And something else. When I moved to London I needed to find some means of support, minimal though it might be. The Arts position, which covered my portion of the rent on a small apartment near Primrose Hill that I shared with an English friend I had met at Oxford, Colin Falck, then teaching at LSE, hadn’t come through yet. But on a visit to London the previous spring Colin had introduced me to Stuart Hall, then editing New Left Review, and Stuart with characteristic generosity put me in touch with key persons at two technical colleges (as they then were called), Chelsea and Sir John Cass, which led to my picking up teaching jobs at both institutions. In addition I taught classes on the novel one evening a week for the Workers’ Educational Association, first in Hatfield and then in St. Alban’s, and together with the income from Arts I more than got by. (London was then marvelously inexpensive, though of course that was soon to change.) In fact I published a short article in New Left Review, a review of Thom Gunn’s My Sad Captains. Looking up the piece in preparation for these remarks I was amused to find that it bears the title “A Question of Form”; its distinction is that it highlights Gunn’s shift to syllabics in the course of the book, and it singles out as the strongest poem in the collection “The Feel of Hands,” which is exactly right. My point in mentioning this, though, is to suggest that at the time I wrote “Marxism and Criticism” I was in fact living in a world quite different in its cultural orientation than anything I had known at Princeton (to say the least) and indeed would know at Harvard—my immediate future, as events turned out.


It is hard to explain to an American audience just why John Berger’s art criticism has been by far the most widely, avidly read in England during the past decade. Among intellectuals on the Left there is the general conviction that he alone has taken the trouble to work out anything like objective criteria—an impression Berger himself encourages by rhapsodic declarations of faith in Marxism and in whatever it is he understands by dialectics. Berger’s own vision of himself is that of “the fighting critic,” and his work is everywhere alive with the kind of specious lucidity characteristic of all but the most distinguished polemical writing about art. The first paragraph from the introduction to Permanent Red, a collection of his essays published for the most part in the New Statesman, is a fair sample of his style:

If you take a long-term historical view, ours is obviously a period of mannerism and decadence. The excessive subjectivity of most of our art and criticism confirms this. The historical and social explanations are not hard to find. It may be unpopular but it is not stupid to condemn works as bourgeois, formalist and escapist.

Despite the assumed unpopularity of the above, it is perfectly obvious that such a passage could only have been written by a critic assured of a sympathetic audience, and obvious that what members of this audience have in common are certain political commitments rather than artistic enthusiasms. In large measure this audience is composed of the New Left: young intellectuals who mostly were at university when England invaded Suez and when Russia put down the Hungarian uprising without a murmur of protest from the British Communist Party, and whose overriding concern is for the theoretical refurbishing and practical establishment of socialism. Broadly speaking they are sympathetic with Castro’s revolution, are members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and would like to see a neutralist England extricate herself from NATO. More fundamental, perhaps, is the fact that they have read Marx with some diligence and are concerned with proving the viability of his concepts against the realities of contemporary experience. And it is this last characteristic above all that accounts for the casualness with which Berger employs a critical jargon, derived from Marx, that cries out for definition in terms of the plastic arts. I might as well state right here my belief that it is the first responsibility of the Marxist critic to try and arrive at provisional definitions of this nature; and further that it is precisely this job of definition, of demonstrating with rigor and sensitivity the usefulness to the critic of Marxist concepts, that Berger shirks almost completely—with the consequence that Marxism in his hands provides not a critical vocabulary but an arsenal of praise and abuse.

Here, for example, is Berger’s working definition of “proper criticism”:

First, you must answer the question: What can art serve here and now? Then you criticize according to whether the works in question serve that purpose or not … The question I ask is: Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?

This seems fairly clear-cut. What Berger appears to advocate is socially conscious art, as practiced in the United States during the 1930’s. Today, however, it is generally recognized that so narrowly partisan and, above all, representational a view of art is no longer tenable. And Berger is quick to grant this by explaining what he does not mean by art helping men to claim their social rights:

When I go into a gallery, I do not assess the works according to how graphically they present, for example, the plight of our old-age pensioners. Painting and sculpture are clearly not the most suitable means for putting pressure on the government to nationalize the land. Nor am I suggesting that the artist, when actually working, can or should be primarily concerned with the justice of a social cause.

What then can Berger’s question mean? He goes on to explain that a work of art can make us aware of potentialities in ourselves we perhaps never knew we had.

A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness. Yet each of these examples is too personal and too narrow to contain the whole truth of the matter. … The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, an improvement.

This is offered as an objective criterion of value, as opposed to the excessive subjectivity of most bourgeois criticism today. And yet, is it possible to imagine anything more subjective? What Berger seems to contend is that every man decides for himself whether or not a given work of art increases his awareness of his own potentiality—in which event the work is valid. But the word “valid” is surely meant to carry more weight than this. By valid Berger means objectively valid. There is clearly a confusion here that goes much deeper than we have indicated.

In fact the confusion is deeply rooted in Berger’s Marxism, and influences even the most seemingly innocuous aspects of his language. In the last sentence quoted above the loaded word is “improvement”: as a committed Marxist Berger finds it impossible to conceive of personal as distinct from social potentialities for improvement. Moreover, he would dismiss any distinction between the two as the kind of falsifying dichotomy one might expect from the bourgeoisie. For Berger awareness of potentiality means awareness on the part of the spectator of the potentiality for social gains. Any other sense of the phrase “awareness of potentiality” (for example, feelings I might sustain before a Pollock) Berger would simply denounce as mere subjectivity. But the notion of subjectivity is meaningless unless contrasted with one of objectivity, which cannot merely be defined as agreement with an unexamined body of doctrine. In general, when the procedures implicit in Berger’s logic and use of language are brought into the open like this, their self-contradictory nature becomes clear.

What all this comes down to, then, is that Berger accepts a priori a militant and often staggeringly vulgarized brand of Marxism from which all his judgments about art derive, in language anyway. (Since we are never allowed to view the actual procedure by which Berger judges that one painting is “subjective” or “decadent” and another not—this would involve defining Marxist terminology in visual terms—we can say no more than this.) Furthermore, when Berger finds himself in a position that, even to the layman, is pretty obviously untenable, he is prepared to deny its apparent meaning and then reintroduce the untenable notion through the loaded use of supposedly neutral or descriptive words—such as “improvement” in the above example. My fundamental objection is not that Berger begins from a position of accepting Marxist theory. In the world we live in more and more critics of art may be expected to start from similar political premises. But what is imperative is that the critic define his terms; that he show with sensitivity and logical rigor the usefulness and, if possible, the necessity of employing Marxist concepts and terminology. Unless he can do this his judgments will reveal nothing more than the strength of his bias and the slovenliness of his mind: they can say nothing about the works of art in question. What is called for is the development of Marxist concepts in terms of the visual arts—the kind of theoretical groundwork the Hungarian critic Georg Lukacs has sought to provide for literature. Until this is done it is impossible for us to take would-be Marxist critics like Berger seriously when they use words like “decadent,” “subjective” and “formalist.” In fact, we may say that until such a groundwork has been accomplished there can be no Marxist criticism of art.

This is not to deny that Marx represents a turning point in the study of art as in virtually all other humane disciplines. Whether we like it or not, after Marx it is no longer possible for anyone to delude himself that his attitudes toward art or society are a-political. What Marx accomplished was nothing less than the enlargement of the realm of the political until it embraced all human activities, attitudes and institutions. Thus Plekhanov, in Art and Social Life (1912), showed how the attitude embodied in the slogan “art for art’s sake,” far from being a-political, was in reality the expression of profound political despair. And in general it is possible to say that innumerable studies written in this century would have been inconceivable before Marx—Hauser’s Social History of Art, for example, or Auerbach’s Mimesis. None of this should be news to anyone. But it is a long way from all such contributions of this kind, however revolutionary they may be, to the development of a genuine Marxist critical theory.

One more thing before going on to another aspect of Berger’s criticism. There is no reason for Marxist criticism of art to take over all the terms that have proved valuable in the study of other aspects of society. In particular it would be a grave mistake to assume, with Berger, that the superiority of Marxist to bourgeois criticism resides in the possession by the former of objective criteria of excellence. It is at least an open question whether such criteria can be formulated; and by decrying subjective judgments of value in the name of objectivity it is more than likely that Marxists place themselves in the absurd position of opposing not, as they think, a bourgeois phenomenon, but the very nature of aesthetic experience. (To my knowledge only Plekhanov has had the vision to suggest the inadequacy of traditional Marxist thinking on the subject; and he was attacked by no less an authority than Lenin. In any case he was inconsistent on this point, especially in the face of opposition.) Beyond this, the traditional subjectivity-objectivity opposition will have to be evaluated carefully in terms of visual experience to see if it can be meaningfully defined or whether it will have to be scrapped. There is a clear sense in which all literature may be conceived of as representational; and, as Lukacs has shown, the term “objectivity” can therefore be used with considerable force and precision. But unless we are willing to declare unequivocally for a representational theory of art it is hard to know what sense to attach to the notion of objectivity as a criterion of excellence in the visual arts. Nevertheless the unexamined notion persists. This is why Berger, though forced to accept the significance of Cubism, rails against Action Painting on the grounds of its near-pathological subjectivity; and, what is more serious, why any Marxist theory of art that has not consciously come to grips with the ideal of objectivity will contain at least an implicit bias against abstraction.

What I hope I have made clear by now is the confused and shallow character of Berger’s critical theory, such as it is. There is another aspect of his Marxism, however—characterized by Richard Wollheim in Encounter as “old fashioned Populism”—which emerges in statements such as the following (from an article published in the Summer, 1957, issue of Universities and Left Review):

Why is it that contemporary art is unwanted, and most contemporary painters have to earn their living doing some other job?

No intelligent thinker today is going to deny that we have a disintegrated culture; that is to say that art is created and exists in little pockets, instead of being part of the mainstream of our social life. Equally no-one is going to pretend that this is a desirable state of affairs: both art and our consciousness within our social life suffer as a result of it.

… the artist’s present position is the result of the values and structure of our whole society.

It strikes Berger as an appalling bourgeois manifestation that artists in our time are often misunderstood:

Success, with the meaning it has now acquired under capitalism, is something which may or may not happen quite arbitrarily to one or several of his finished works, considered simply as commodities. Thus, whether he seeks or despises success, whether his aim is to please or startle, the bourgeois artist’s conscious or half-conscious concern with success takes the form of his having to foresee, whilst he is still working, the likely effect of the finished work according to quite arbitrary criteria—arbitrary because in no way connected with the truth he may well be trying to communicate. The Bitch-Goddess prowls between him and his canvas, between intention and execution, inhibiting him, making him caricature himself or prompting unnecessary caution or unnecessary excess.

One could sum this up by saying that every sincere bourgeois artist in our society constantly faces the possibility of being misunderstood; and this is destructive of the imagination.

This last quotation (from Permanent Red) is typical of Berger’s more passionate indictments of capitalism. And yet for all the passion the logical connections between its various parts remain obscure. There are so many points one wants to take violent issue with: In what sense can the success of his paintings be considered arbitrary? Doesn’t this imply total condemnation by Berger of all bourgeois standards? And if so, hadn’t he better argue the point? Just who exactly considers the artist’s works merely as commodities? Is that how Pollock thought of his own paintings, or Arshile Gorky? Is that how we think about their paintings? What does Berger mean, “arbitrary because in no way connected with the truth he may well be trying to communicate”? Wouldn’t the artist in a socialist society still be hopeful of winning praise or fame or the love of women? And wouldn’t the same or similar considerations of probable responses to his work occur to him as under capitalism? Does Berger seriously maintain that the whole question of personal integrity will disappear under socialism? And finally, isn’t it often intrinsic to the nature of great art that the full significance of its achievement may not be appreciated, at least for a time?

And yet, when we raise these objections, it must be granted that there is enough truth behind Berger’s accusations to make us distinctly uncomfortable. No one can be entirely pleased with the fact that most people feel thoroughly shut out by the best painting today, or with the proliferation of non-art in hundreds of fashionable galleries, or with the increasingly direct interest taken in contemporary painting and sculpture by moneyed concerns of all kinds. And if the relations obtaining between art and economics are vastly more complex than Berger appears to believe, that is all the more reason for critics who find his thought repugnant to study these relations.

Berger’s ideal, in our society at any rate, is the small-town art show, the spirit of which he evokes in a few pages of brilliantly disgusting sentimentality:

I champion it for the sake of what I tried to imply at the beginning of this article—its human context. The works there, despite both their faults and their virtues, will form a nucleus for associations, reminiscences, arguments, stories, history, to nearly all who climb the stairs to see them …

Until we have achieved that spirit—not in terms of so many small towns—but in terms of an entire people, art will generally remain a luxury. And we shall not achieve it by ‘education,’ by discovering Primitives or by lectures on art appreciation. We shall only achieve it by a revolutionary change in our whole society.

Underneath the disarming surface of Berger’s sentimentality, then, lies the unquestioned belief in revolution as the sole efficacious means of changing the present situation. Art is created and exists in little pockets today, and Berger would denounce attempts to educate, say, miners about modern art as mere paternalism on the part of the cultural bosses. Berger once wrote, “Indeed, like the doctor, the critic works for his own redundancy.” But if this redundancy is not to be achieved through education, what then is the critic’s job of work? The implication is unmistakable: the only valid course of action is that of the Marxist revolutionary. Anything short of this is mere talk.

It follows that Berger can barely be considered an art critic in the usual sense of the term; but this is not to deny his significance, or that of his popularity in England. Either Western critics who are themselves not committed Marxists will subject relevant aspects of our culture to the pitiless scrutiny that is long overdue, and maybe avail themselves of Marxist concepts, or we can expect a growing body of criticism no more sensitive and intelligent than Berger’s—and no less insistent on revolution as the only remedy for vaguely divined ills. In any event there can be no assurance that far more intelligent critics than Berger will not similarly speak out for social revolution. In the long run capitalism will almost certainly get the Marxist critics it deserves.

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