Red Aesthetics: Rodchenko, Brecht, Eisenstein
With Red Aesthetics, Todd Cronan examines the relationship between art and politics by looking at the work of three leftist artists—Aleksandr Rodchenko, Bertolt Brecht, and Sergei Eisenstein—who transformed their respective fields of visual arts, theatre, and film. Despite working in different media and across diverse geographical contexts, these artists each produced art characterised by a close union of aesthetic and political ambition. Moreover, as Cronan suggests, Rodchenko, Brecht, and Eisenstein are connected by an ability to successfully express political convictions that rests “in the seriousness of their art, not (or not only) their politics.”1 My own research into the history of the European avant-garde has been predominantly oriented toward issues of political intent and shaped by evidence that has challenged the characterisation of avant-garde movements as politically naïve. Red Aesthetics by contrast provides a change of perspective, as Cronan invites us to revisit the relationship between art and politics from a position that favours artistic intent.
As an opening salvo Cronan poses the question of how art relates to the world in the work of the three artists who form the basis of his study. The common vision of artistic production shared by Rodchenko, Brecht, and Eisenstein is defined by a notion of art “that both mirrors social realities and models a different one” (RA 7). Russian avant-gardists, inspired by Futurist rhetoric, famously expressed the essence of this definition in more forceful terms, calling for an art that would no longer be solely a mirror of reality, but a hammer for constructing reality anew. This logic sits at the core of Cronan’s term “Red aesthetics,” which designates the artists’ quest for a “new realism” that could better capture and transform modern life.
Drawing on my interest in the history of Soviet avant-gardes, and specifically the work of the Left Front of the Arts, I will reflect on the discussion of art and politics within the Rodchenko case study outlined in Red Aesthetics. In considering the phenomenon of new realism in Rodchenko’s art, and specifically his photographic practice, I found two aspects of Cronan’s analysis to be particularly insightful. The first concerns the artist’s theory and practice of sequenced (or analytical) photography. For Rodchenko, the conventional, single (synthetic) image had become too restricted, and was unable to capture the dynamism and multiplicity of modern life. This form of representation had also become politically obsolete, as its singular point of view expressed only one static (bourgeois) position. Instead, Rodchenko would produce a series of photographs of a particular subject matter, providing multiple points of view and different moments in time to build a more complex, dynamic, and accurate image. This practice of sequenced photography perfectly embodies the avant-garde ambition to engage with and overhaul the world in its totality, along with its encyclopaedic and factographic impulse. It is an approach that certainly captures an instance in Rodchenko’s practice where aesthetics and politics operate in concert.
Cronan’s focus on the themes represented in Rodchenko’s photography provides another rich insight. Particularly illuminating is his discussion of the artist’s effort to free the photograph from the constraints of the pose. The act of posing is here associated with the traditional construction of an image and read politically according to Cronan as “the hallmark of a bourgeois habit of mind (blunted perception) and pattern of behavior (faked gestures)” (RA 59). Rodchenko would instead focus on moments “automatically free of the pose” as a way to produce a more natural and accurate account of life. This logic is particularly evident in what Cronan terms “absorbed actions”—depictions of individuals consumed in reading, of children unaware or uninterested in the photographer’s gaze, or of athletes and circus performers caught mid-act. Equally significant are Rodchenko’s images of his family members, friends, and colleagues who, though not unaware of his camera, are “free of the pose” owing to their relationship with the photographer. Cronan appears to suggest that Rodchenko evokes these themes irrespective of context—his interest in absorbed actions remains central to his art, whether he is shooting in a domestic setting or at the construction site of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. I wonder if the argument of the primacy of artistic intent could be more qualified here, as I am reminded of the words of Vladimir Paperny that “the aesthetic and the extra-aesthetic … do not flow parallel to each other, and they do not exist independently but are rather altogether not separated from each other. Life has always been too artificial in Russia, and art has always been too lifelike.”2 Cronan’s analysis does, however, certainly extend our grasp of Rodchenko’s creative arsenal in which the aesthetic and the political become near indistinguishable.
I wish to also reflect on the question raised in Cronan’s discussion of how artist, medium, and world align in Rodchenko’s case, and the turn that occurs in his career once this alignment had been disturbed. Rodchenko understood communism as makeshift and contingent—a world in the making. This worldview indeed underpinned the art and politics of the Soviet avant-garde, whose proponents witnessed the rapid destruction and reconstruction of the world around them and were committed to devising mutable creative strategies that could keep pace with this era of rapid change. Theirs was indeed a permanent revolution, and the modern mechanical medium of photography was its ideal match. Cronan argues that it is in the photography that Rodchenko produced between 1924 and 1932 that the triumvirate of artistic worldview, medium, and reality are in sync. The end of the First Year Plan in 1932 marks in this analysis a turning point—a moment when the world began to speak “in monotone” and “Rodchenko’s vision of a near-perfect fit between artist, medium, and world came to an abrupt end” (RA 9). From this moment until his death in 1956, Rodchenko’s career would be defined by a “sense of artistic, and indeed human, failure” (RA 37).
This reading is grounded in the oft-evoked temporal divide between the early years of the Soviet Union—which is seen as a dynamic period of political and artistic experimentation—and the turn to a more conventional, hierarchical, isolationist, and repressive approach in the early 1930s. This turn was reflected in the sphere of arts in a 1932 resolution that sanctioned Socialist Realism as the official line in the arts—a development that formally eliminated all other contemporary artistic and literary groups, including the avant-garde. 1932 was also the year in which Rodchenko was expelled from the October art association for his formalist sins. The importance of these shifts notwithstanding, (art) historians tend to be cautious in declaring the early 1930s as a clear moment of rupture. The 1920s, as numerous studies indicate, were liberal in relative terms only, while revolutionary dynamism often revealed itself to be but a thin coat of red paint over traditional institutions and conventional thinking. Avant-garde artists were not blind to these realities—documents on their fierce fight for space on the Soviet cultural scene and their struggles with the red bureaucracy make it clear that their extraordinary creative achievements during the 1920s occurred within a challenging social, economic, and political reality—one that frequently fell well short of the revolutionary ideal.
Equally, the 1930s did not bring about a total collapse of the avant-garde; indeed, many avant-garde artists continued to play important roles in shaping Soviet visual culture. Leftist artists, including Rodchenko and his partner and creative collaborator Varvara Stepanova, continued to work for the state and fulfill high-profile commissions. This duo, for example, made an enormous contribution in the field of graphic design, producing numerous richly illustrated celebratory albums to promote Soviet achievements both at home and abroad. These luxurious photobooks continued to be printed well into the Second World War, and commonly included Rodchenko’s own photographs—many of which exemplified creative principles that are central to Cronan’s discussion, from images of athletes and sports parades that demonstrate his interest in figures immersed in action, to an abundant use of photo-series and repetition, as well images that were directly inspired by his interest in unusual viewpoints, which served to disturb a traditional mode of viewing from the “navel level.”
This, of course, is not to say that there was not a change in the avant-garde creative vocabulary in this later stage nor that the artists themselves did not feel disoriented. Rodchenko’s diary, which Cronan draws on in his discussion, makes for confronting reading, and there is no doubt that the artist wrestled with deep bouts of depression and dissatisfaction with the work he was able to undertake. In analysing the photobooks that he and Stepanova produced toward the end of the 1930s, I was struck by the fact that Rodchenko found their production to be uninteresting and exhausting. Yet they represent a rich body of work defined by innovative visual solutions, many of which drew directly on the avant-garde tenets, while also taking these creative principles to a new stage. There is no doubt that the artists associated with the Soviet avant-garde front felt a keen sense of disillusionment as the 1920s came to close—but the impact (and indeed the legacy) of their work invites some qualification of the assessment of failure.
In both success and failure, the work of Soviet avant-gardists continues to command our attention and, as Cronan demonstrates, provide us with a rich source for challenging our understanding of the mandate of political art. It is important that we engage with this challenge, particularly as calls for new transformative art fit for our era of planetary crisis grow ever louder, and the need to appreciate the relationship between art and politics has become so profound.
Red Aesthetics is a sober antidote to the endless bacchanalia of ambiguity and indetermination that characterizes the world of bourgeois art and theory. The boldness and clarity of its central thesis, inspired by the work of Bertolt Brecht, might indeed shock those who revel in aesthetics as a repository for superstition. Art, according to Cronan, can and even should provide “an accurate picture of the world.”1 This, he argues, is “essential for any leftist account of art and politics” (RA 1).
An accurate picture is one that helps us understand the “‘real social forces’ of capitalism,” which are “not the ones one immediately sees and feels as the real forces” (RA 5). All three of the artists that are the primary focal point of the book—Bertolt Brecht, Alexander Rodchenko, and Sergei Eisenstein—thus put forth “a new realism […] that offers a correct picture of the world by breaking with conventional understandings of what the world looks like” (RA 2). “Red aesthetics,” which is the term that Cronan uses to describe their work, is hence “an explicitly political form of modernism that aims to capture the complex and changing modernity with an equally complex and changing mode of representation” (RA 2).
How does this fundamental thesis relate, readers will perhaps wonder, to the broad spectrum of forms of communication and interaction commonly affiliated with the modern concept and practice of art, notably those that are non-representational? The first thing to note is that Cronan is clearly interested in developing a rather expansive and supple understanding of art’s capacity to correctly depict the real, and this is one of the reasons why he diligently tracks various aesthetic tactics and theoretical formulations across the work of the artists in question. Since some readers might assume that there are nonetheless forms of art whose principal social function cannot easily be described as one of either providing or prohibiting an accurate depiction of reality, let us consider two examples that will allow us to unpack this thesis and raise some questions regarding the book as a whole.
To begin with, what would Cronan make of the use of music, song, dance, and performance to bind together communities of struggle and create, for instance, a collective communist culture? While such a Red aesthetics is undoubtedly linked to a correct image of the world in some general and highly mediated sense, much of it principally serves to embellish our existence and create communal affect, shared desire, and collective empowerment, including for children and those who might not be prone to a rational apprehension of an accurate image of the world.
Secondly, what would the author of Red Aesthetics make of material practices that are capable of transforming what we even experience as “art,” meaning work that recomposes the very framework of our perception and aesthetic appreciation? Consider the case of Ma Kew, the composer who wrote the music for one of the most important mid-century Chinese operas, The White-Haired Girl. In 1942, as a young music student, he had participated in the Chinese Communist Party’s Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. Ten months later, as Tings Chak has explained in an insightful dossier on the Forum, he went to the countryside to learn from the peasants, following the directives of the Central Committee of the CPC. He later admitted his frustration when listening to their folk songs: “I felt it was a bit monotonous, that it lacked refinement and so-called ‘artistry.’ […] In one word, I didn’t like them, nor did I sing their songs.”2 However, through the process of engaging with the peasants and their art, Ma’s aesthetic appreciation started to shift. His sense of superiority as a professional artist with refined tastes gave way to the vitality of a living, popular culture. The material practice of participating in the latter reconfigured his aesthetic ideology, which itself was rooted in his class standing: “I [began] to sense the rich emotion contained in their music. I began to hear it differently. It now appeared so free and spirited, so simple and natural that it seemed that every valley and stream rang with its melody. Carried away by my sentiments, I too joined the rest, singing loud and long.”3
This example raises the larger question of what qualifies as art and how ideology regulates our perception of it, as well as the values, meanings, and feelings we attach to it, including our sense of what it can or cannot do. The very category of art, after all, is historically and socially specific, as well as being a concept-in-class-struggle. Red Aesthetics primarily focuses on the fine arts and literature as they are commonly understood in the modern world, which has been characterized by the expansive growth of capitalism. While it is certainly true that the three eminent artists analyzed by Cronan engaged with the popular arts in various ways and were invested in socialist politics, what would he make of folk art and culture in the sense of the everyday arts of working people like the peasants in Ya’nan?
One of the historical functions of the bourgeois concept and practice of art has been to restrict creative labor to a small number of purported geniuses, whose work is elevated and then monetized within an exhibitionary framework, while subjecting the masses to the drudgery of uncreative labor whose principal function is to produce value for the capitalist class. Part of the socialist project has been to truly democratize the arts by providing workers and peasants greater opportunities to make art, thereby engaging in the full spectrum of human experience and expression, while also having their cultural production taken seriously and considered to be art in its own right. This has involved class struggle over what qualifies as “art” and an effort to render its production, circulation, and reception more egalitarian. Isn’t this project of substantive artistic democratization at the very core of Red aesthetics, if we understand the latter as a collective project of socio-cultural transformation?
Considering these two examples of art’s capacity to forge affective bonds of collective struggle and democratize the social relations of creative production, some readers might interpret Cronan as over-emphasizing a rationalist core in art at the expense of the other powers of aesthetics. It seems that the author’s argument, at its highest level of generality, is that art is a weapon of class struggle, and the book convincingly argues that, in this regard, one of its most important capacities is to provide an accurate depiction of the world. Are there not, however, other significant ways of using this weapon? Can it not also serve to tap into and potentially recompose all of the different dimensions of our existence, including not only our cognition, but also our material practices, feelings, desires, perceptions, tastes, and so forth?
At the heart of these questions is the issue of ideology. Drawing on the work of a broad array of historical materialists, I have argued with Jennifer Ponce de León that ideology is not simply reducible to the realm of thought but includes every facet of human experience: our behaviors, affects, drives, values, sensory experience, et cetera.4 Art, and culture more generally, play a significant role in composing subjects in all of these different dimensions of their lives. Ultimately, as Mao Zedong compellingly argued in “On Practice,” cognition is situated at a higher level of generality than sense perception insofar as it concretely abstracts from the immediacy of experience and reveals the systemic coordinates of the latter. “Perceptual knowledge,” he writes, “pertains to the separate aspects, the phenomena and the external relations of things, whereas logical knowledge takes a big stride forward to reach the totality, the essence and the internal relations of things and discloses the inner contradictions in the surrounding world. Therefore, logical knowledge is capable of grasping the development of the surrounding world in its totality, in the internal relations of all its aspects.”5
It is perhaps in this sense that Cronan privileges logical knowledge and art’s capacity to correctly depict reality, i.e., not as a reductive, rationalist didacticism disconnected from the other powers of aesthetics but as a higher level of synthesis. After all, one can be taught—through art—to see injustice or to feel indignation at the ruling class without, however, fully grasping why injustice is produced or how the capitalist class exploits the masses (or, for that matter, comprehending how to transform the world so that the causes of these perceptions and feelings are definitively eliminated). One can also have one’s perception and appreciation of art changed without completely understanding the historical constitution of the bourgeois concept and practice of art as a form of class struggle in culture.
Understanding is a process of concrete abstraction that reveals the general structures at work behind particular experiences, and it therefore has superior explanatory and transformative power. If we approach Cronan’s insistence on the importance of a correct depiction of the world in this light, then it means that the full spectrum of the power of aesthetics can—and arguably should—be mobilized to transform the various aspects of our ideological composition, but that its goal should not simply be to make us see or feel differently. Instead, it is a matter of synthesizing sensory experience at a higher level so that art can assist us in elevating ourselves to the point of logical knowledge, not just leave us with sense perceptions.
I am curious if Cronan would agree with this characterization, which I think is in line with the overall orientation of the book, his refined reading of Brecht, and his broad understanding of what it means to develop an accurate picture of reality. I would also like to know what he makes of Mao’s additional claim—which emerges out of the historical materialist tradition and its profound reworking of G.W.F. Hegel—that there is an even higher synthetic level of knowledge grounded in the dialectical relationship between logical and sensory knowledge. In Mao’s account—which, I should note, does not focus on art per se—there is no such thing as a fixed depiction of the world that would be true for all time or all places since we can only apprehend reality in medias res. Our understanding of the real is thus in a constant feedback loop with sensory experience via practice, and this permits us to adapt our understanding to an infinitely complex and changing world. Rather than knowledge being a static object of possession, which it can become if it remains only at the level of pure comprehension, it is a living force that is regularly tested and modified through concrete activity. Practice is thus the highest level of knowledge and the ultimate criterion of truth: “Marxist philosophy holds that the most important problem does not lie in understanding the laws of the objective world and thus being able to explain it, but in applying the knowledge of these laws actively to change the world.”6
With this in mind, what would the author of Red Aesthetics make of the suggestion that art can advance to an even higher stage by not only correctly depicting the world but by contributing in some capacity to its material transformation? There are some passages in the book that certainly lean in this direction, such as when Cronan cites Brecht’s assertion that an accurate picture of the world could “provide the basis for acting with a view to success” (RA 2). What would he make, however, of Augusto Boal’s critical engagement with Brecht in his Theater of the Oppressed, and more specifically his claim that in Brecht “the dramatist alone appropriates speech, not the citizen,” and “the stage still belongs to the characters and the actors?”7 Far from rejecting Brecht’s work, we should note, Boal sought to further develop certain aspects of it, at least in principle, by bringing the oppressed themselves into the writing process and onto the stage. “The spectator must not only liberate his Critical Consciousness,” he wrote, “but also his body—invading the stage and transforming the images shown there.”8 What would the author of Red Aesthetics make of this attempt, or other similar efforts, to connect art’s ability to correctly depict the world with the effort to transform the very world of depiction, meaning the sphere of art and its agents?
It is important to note that Mao’s insistence on the primacy of practice does not imply in the least that the other features—the transformation of sensory perception and the cultivation of a correct understanding—are not important. On the contrary, all three of these elements, while qualitatively distinct from a certain vantage point, are not divorced from one another but are rather dialectically intertwined. Indeed, art can draw on the full breadth of sense perception to engage with and remodel people’s lived experience, cultivate an accurate comprehension of the social totality, and ultimately bring them into a collective process of world making. Would Cronan agree with the suggestion that this very expansive understanding of an accurate depiction of reality—which includes a dialectically entwined relationship between perception, comprehension, and practice—is operative in Red aesthetics?
In a thought-provoking passage in chapter three, Cronan discusses a significant turn in Brecht’s and Eisler’s work when they moved back to the German Democratic Republic in the wake of WWII: “No longer pitched directly to bourgeois viewers, Brecht shifted his art away from didactic commitments to promoting reason and understanding—Verfremdungseffekt as an aesthetic instrument directed toward better understanding of the structure of capitalism, a structure which required a disidentification with the individuated plights of workers—and instead toward what we might call aesthetic propaganda” (RA 96–97). Cronan points out that, when the artists worked in a socialist as opposed to a capitalist context, they emphasized the importance of aesthetics, pleasure and taste, rather than “political lessons” (RA 97). This demonstrates that Brecht’s work was always attentive to the precise context within which it took shape, and he regularly insisted on the situatedness of art because specific times and places require different tools. As a weapon of class struggle, art is most effective when it is dialectically adapted to the needs of each specific conjuncture and those struggling within it. Formal and abstract approaches that would purport to define art’s social function once and for all, independently of context, are thereby rejected in favor of a dialectical approach similar to Mao’s insistence on the primacy of practice.
After all, to really address the issue of the politics of art, it is insufficient to only examine isolated aesthetic artifacts and their relationship to individual producers, according to the dictates of bourgeois aesthetics. Instead, we need a historical materialist account of the entire system of artistic production, circulation, and reception, as I have argued in Radical History & the Politics of Art. This is what Brecht aptly referred to as “the cultural apparatus,” and it is an important component of the ideological superstructure. Ernesto “Che” Guevara has provided one of the most insightful and memorable descriptions of how this apparatus functions within capitalist society: “The superstructure imposes a kind of art in which the artist must be educated. Rebels are subdued by the machine, and only exceptional talents may create their own work. The rest become shamefaced hirelings or are crushed. […] Those who play by the rules of the game are showered with honors—such honors as a monkey might get for performing pirouettes. The condition is that one does not try to escape from the invisible cage.”9
With this in mind, another question provoked by Red Aesthetics concerns the differences between art within the capitalist cultural apparatus and aesthetic practices in the emerging socialist world. While Cronan’s book touches on this issue in various ways, hopefully his future work will include a more sustained engagement with the socialist cultural apparatus, thereby developing a much broader account of Red aesthetics. Such an approach would situate the artistic production of the three major artists that are the focal point of this book within the larger project of transforming the overall social relations of artistic production, circulation, and reception. All of the extensive debates and initiatives, new institutions, forms of cultural class struggle, and efforts at democratization within the USSR and Eastern Europe would be germane to this (as well as, for that matter, those to be found across the socialist world, including in Vietnam, China, Cuba, Burkina Faso, et cetera). Grounding the Red aesthetics found in the work of three individual artists in the collective Red aesthetics of the socialist world, while certainly an expansive project, would further develop the connections between Cronan’s valid concerns with an accurate image of the world and the project of actually making a new and different world of art.
This would also serve to further flesh out Cronan’s reflections on the politics of art. To be sure, the use of this weapon of class struggle will vary considerably depending on which class owns and controls the means of aesthetic production. One of the important goals of the socialist cultural apparatus—which of course has emerged in fits and starts, and has sometimes been marred by setbacks and contradictions—has been to mobilize art and culture in a collective project that consists in overcoming alienation and making human beings fully human. This has meant, amongst other things, celebrating the cultural production of workers and providing them with more opportunities to make and appreciate art, instead of simply being spectators who are formatted as cogs in the capitalist machine or, in Che’s words, petty-bourgeois artists doing pirouettes à la monkeys in invisible cages. These material changes imply, more generally, a transformation in the social relations of artistic production, circulation, and reception in such a way as to—once again in the words of Che—make “the new person.”
If one approaches art as a form of labor that can marshal the full range of human abilities to transform sensory perceptions, develop the understanding, and ultimately incite meaningful action, then it is important to add that individual artists can contribute to various aspects of this struggle and at different levels. In other words, they can participate in a shared project that dialectically brings together the full power of aesthetics in a collective project of world making.
The fifth chapter of Red Aesthetics, which is one of the most powerful, further develops the Brechtian themes of the book as a whole via a rich and thoughtful analysis of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Through a sedulous examination of the writings of figures like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Friedrich Pollock, Cronan demonstrates the substantial shift orchestrated by this vaguely Marxian group of intellectuals away from class analysis and in favor of a culturalist framework that anticipated identity politics. In this way, superstructural elements like racial identity became primary, and the economic infrastructure receded into the background as class was reinterpreted as a question of power and domination. This inversion and perversion of fundamental Marxist categories—which themselves have been the objects of rich and complex dialectical analyses far from the reductivist accounts often put forth by the dominant ideology—paved the way for the anti-Marxist culturalism of the neoliberal era: “It was Horkheimer, along with Adorno, who altered the very nature of political argumentation on the left after 1940. They opened up the possibility from within Marxism of seeing class as a matter of power, of domination, rather than economics (the Jews were not a category defined by economic exploitation). And once that possibility was raised, it became the dominant mode of analysis on the left at large. In other words, it was the tool the left had been seeking all along to get ‘beyond’ Marxism itself” (RA 132).
Cronan’s insightful analysis is obviously in close dialogue with the important work of Adolph Reed, Jr. and others, who have provided blistering critiques of identity politics and of the tendency of the Western intelligentsia to turn its back on class analysis in favor of culturalist and idealist approaches. It deftly connects this distinctly neoliberal ideology to its historical precursor, whose roots can arguably be traced back to the social chauvinism of the early revisionist Marxists. His account has, moreover, been confirmed by the broader contextualization of Frankfurt School critical theory within the global history of class struggle, which reveals that cultural Marxism is a counter-revolutionary project. As I have shown, in dialogue with Cronan’s work, the Frankfurt School rose to international prominence with the backing of the capitalist ruling class and imperialist states by promoting Eurocentric social chauvinism, rabid anti-communism, and a form of cultural “Marxism” completely, and deliberately, severed from praxis.10 Such perspective on their work was only possible by situating it within the cultural apparatus that has promoted it—as well as the overall political economy of knowledge—and recognizing that it is a product of very specific social relations of production.
Red Aesthetics’s account of this shift “from class to race” is particularly important in a historical conjuncture characterized, like that of the early years of the Frankfurt School, by a sharp rise in fascist or proto-fascist politics around the world, personified by figures such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Erdogan, Modi, Meloni, and many others. This growth of fascism has been accompanied by a boom in culturalist accounts that present it as a politics of hate, a racial rejection of the other, and so forth, while ignoring or downplaying its roots in capitalist crisis and class warfare. Against this, Cronan’s book, like the tradition within which he is writing, proposes a class analysis that allows us to identify the real driving forces behind the rise of fascism, its particular modi operandi in the current conjuncture, and how best to combat it.
This is particularly important in a context like that of the U.S. empire, where a fulsome PR campaign swept Joe Biden into office by presenting him as the savior of our purported sacred democracy. Such doggerel political theater has provided thin cover for the ruling class’s political operatives to continue to treat with kid gloves the homegrown fascist movement (the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and other militias) while funneling billions of tax dollars into supporting a philo-fascist police state in a proxy war against Russia—and ultimately China—that runs the risk of sparking WWIII. If people thought that having a Democrat in office was going to stave off fascism because the latter is simply a political ideology of “hate” affiliated with vulgar demagogues, they were duped by the political theater of bourgeois democracy. Cronan’s book, by contrast, provides them with the tools necessary for developing an accurate understanding of reality.
Finally, returning to the question of art, the position that Cronan takes in this chapter clearly means that it is material reality and class struggle, not culture, that are the driving forces of history. While celebrating art’s ability to mobilize, empower, educate, and transform the masses, we should never lose sight of the fact that it is not capable of radically changing the world on its own. This, after all, was one of the many mistakes made by figures like Adorno. Based on the incorrect assumption that political revolution was foreclosed (at a time when the revolutionary socialist world was actually expanding around the world, from Vietnam to China, Cuba, and beyond), he and others invested in culture as the potential bearer, albeit nebulous, of political promise, even if it only meant putting vague literary messages in a bottle for future generations. Against this, Cronan reminds us—or, at the very least, this seems to follow from his argument—that art and culture are part of the superstructure. Although they can and often do have significant effects upon the infrastructure when they come to grip the masses in class struggle, they are not the principal driving force of history.
Cronan’s clear-eyed account of the need for a radical class analysis, as well as his erudite elucidation of art as a weapon of class warfare, make Red Aesthetics a major contribution to contemporary debates on aesthetics and politics. It should be widely read and debated since the issues that it raises are essential for understanding our current conjuncture, where political spectacles and bourgeois art seek to mystify the masses, and the lucidity and power of a truly Red aesthetics could hardly be more necessary.
I’d Like an Inefficient Brecht, Please: Reading Red Aesthetics
I have feared—in the past few weeks of reading Red Aesthetics in the Atlas mountains where, under the oceanic sky and not far from the sprawling graveyards bordering the Atlantic, being human, taking oneself seriously enough to think you have an opinion that matters, is brutally and honestly cut down to scale—that perhaps the terms of my understanding of politics and the political are so at odds with Cronan’s that I should not even be invited to this party. But it is precisely because communist hospitality does not entail the sham of invitation since the party is always already ours, that I have to assume that a comrade would be able to hear what I have to say and hopefully reassure me that the party has not merged with some kind of “original position.” I cannot come to the party of equality, freedom, or justice—of winning back our world—without history, especially the history that taught me to read politically. Neither can Brecht.
The Brecht I know didn’t ever come up in forty-eight-hour-long party meetings in Karachi that resonated through all the rooms of the homes where I grew up, in quite the same way as the question of fascism also seemed irrelevant or somehow triumphantly dialectically overcome by the revolution and its inheritors—a wishful absence that is haunting life in the subcontinent right now—with a residual regret that the Party dignified the national independence question a little too much, leaving us cleft and wounded, and we cannot run away from it. I think these two things are connected, and this connection shapes the Brecht that is dear to me. Brecht’s own road to Marxism is instructive of the fact that he encounters and builds a repulsion toward war and incipient fascism as the first “concrete” encounter with class struggle in capitalism (the other being, in the fashion of Georg Simmel, that of money, which is a character for Brecht from very early on). The rest of his journey could be seen, like Marx details for us in the Grundrisse, a journey of increasing concreteness, which is also a process of abstraction in another sense which, according to Marx, entails the proliferation of relations within which the seemingly concrete encounter that we began with is held, but which in fact only becomes actually—wirklich, effectively, to invoke Nietzsche—concrete through this process of abstraction.
When we look at Brecht’s works from various periods, I do not feel the need to extract from their distinction and prolificness one final Brecht that is not also on a journey of a finality that is not here and in fact must be postponed—finality not of meaning or action alone (which seem to be Cronan’s operative concerns), but that of feeling, construed as either meaning or action. There is the Brecht of the late ’teens and early ’20s in Bavaria, perhaps a likely recipient of Weber’s call about what politics must not be allowed to become in the aftermath of the war; his music and poetry is his way into theatre (and not the other way around), and he is unequivocal in his rejection of a “civilization” that can produce destruction of bodies, hearts, and minds with such efficiency. Then, there is Brecht in Berlin in the mid-1920s, sharpening his practice of epic theatre to counter dramatic theatre, working with communist artists and learning from traditions of non-western theatre that might allow him a chance to imagine not only an abstract idea of “theatre arts” but the role of each of the elements and the practice of each of the producers of that theatre. The following decade and a half in exile sees Brecht’s poetry attempt to bring together the precise responsibility to depict a barbaric reality and to provide a vision out of it, which Cronan finds essential to Red aesthetics. However, the way Brecht accomplishes this across Scandinavia and the United States does not follow an efficient template: the scatter is great. He writes poetry, his most famous plays, novels, columns, film scripts and also sees the culture industry up close with great disgust. Returning to Europe and finding his way in the new cartographies of the Cold War but also political possibility in the Eastern Bloc, he ends where he began: with poetry. These cliff notes on the spacetime of his cultural work do mean to suggest that the particular way in which the visual ensemble of Brechtian theatre is envisioned in Red Aesthetics might welcome complements that highlight that we get to understand the form of Brecht’s theatre and its particular form of sensory apparatus differently if we see it as having its origins, as someone once said, in the spirit of Brecht’s music and poetry. That Brecht is able to take that axiomatic burden and produce a form of theatre that learns from the epic and not the “tragic” is noteworthy and makes for an important conversation where it comes to thinking of how we must speak of aesthetics and politics in a historical materialist manner: these genealogies of form and genre matter not just because they show each to have a history, but also because of the shape and life afforded to history by form and genre. This includes the history of fascism as a particular synthesis of war, capital, and colony that are only to our detriment in the present, separated from each other in our analyses of politics and increasingly performative and feeble invitations to a future. Political knowledge does not come processed in these categories, and the poet and the reader, the actor and the spectator, know well how to carry these knowledges without the blunder of having these realities confess themselves to the knowledge systems of colonial and capitalist modernity rather than the other way around. Brecht, importantly, teaches us how these systems are contained within each other; hence Cronan’s nervousness around the antipolitics of recognition, which almost undercuts the ways of seeing and acknowledging that Brecht constantly shows us, feels a bit misplaced. Brecht, if anything, is not an artist of nervousness.
If this genealogy matters in any way, what does it mean for the epic to emerge from the dialectical and to surpass it? It is also the case that Brecht characterized his poetry as dialectical and described his theatre as epic; is it a far stretch to suggest that epic theatre carries elements of the dialectical—contradictions and motion—but is interested, in the way Arendt would describe Homer to be, in the possibility of the emergence of the new at the hands of the historian? For Arendt, Homer, “the educator of Hellas,” the epic poet, keeps us from being reduced to history and history from being reduced to us. Similarly, Brecht bargains with history for time; poiesis happens in the poem and the play, one with the voice of the poet attached to the real, the other with the actor who has come to trust the audience enough to know that these relations in the play matter only when they occasion a relation between the actor in the play and the actor in the world without reducing one to the other. Time is bought through the certain antics with “accurate” history to open up a door for the dialectic to pass through without closing the door behind it. The role of the epic poet or theatrician is, then, to allow for the possible. Just like the teacher. Even Rancière’s ignorant schoolmaster. And it happens by an assumption not of expertise on the part of the actor but a pact of the actor with the spectator where they both are at work producing a world in circumstances not of their own choosing. The historicity of the actor is a model for the historicity of the spectator, each of them irreducible to the histories that have produced them—bold enough to distance from the stories in which they were placed without their consent, along with others. In Brecht’s “Marxist” theatre, the here and now is remarkably unimportant, a point that is just missed in Cronan’s narrative of reality, actuality, accuracy, honesty, truth (some words used much more than others) where a particular consensus over what knowledge is, who has it, what it feels like to those who have it and don’t (sorry!), whether all knowledge is political and who is authorized to tell the difference, somehow already prevails without the participation of those who in a particular relation of space and time, community and authority, come together to answer the questions pertaining to them as political subjects. The precise lesson from Marx that I find Brecht holding close is that the artistic fabulation of history is not an affront to the historical materialist but something that allows us to isolate the transhistorical processes from the forms their outcomes take, which vary over the course of history, and where the issue of how something came to be what it is remains inseparable from the question of its meaning. Why does Cronan insist on these separations? Why do we have to dignify these wills-to-power that he identifies with named and unnamed scholars over democratic meaning-making, which is what political subjects do all the time? What’s the charm of not letting the political subject actually in?
In one of his important early essays, Tracy Strong warned against “the lure of the aesthetic” away from the political, something that is consummately present in the impulse to theatre, the mode of perfection that comes from seeing character and its perfection as the mirror within which the political subject undoes itself and walks into the sunset of self-fashioning but not of a demos. What is intended, I believe, is not caution against something but a recognition that modernity, especially liberalism, brings this particular mode of identification and perfection to stand against the possibilities of politics and democratic self-fashioning, which everyone from Rousseau to Marx to Wolin to Strong and Arendt—not all of these particular favorites of Cronan’s—have asked us to fight for. I worry that in understanding theatre, even Brecht’s theatre, Cronan has subscribed to this idea of theatre—as a place where an artist posits something that can be true or untrue, and the spectator remains a gullible plebeian idiot who has to be constantly shown the way—or, worse, that the artist has any power at all in determining what becomes of her artwork when it’s out in the world. The aesthetic imperative that comes with democracy in its appropriate communist and historical materialist form is the moment where the art becomes merely an occasion for the coming together of the collective and then appropriately removes itself from that space. Brecht’s disassembly and reassembly of ontologies of art and theatre, whether realist or expressionist, whether Strindbergian or Ibsenite, already pull together genres of art that seamlessly form and inform each other in a way that asks us to not continue to speak in the same old ways. He does something unique in allowing for the “method” of expressionism to jettison its pathos and proceed outward in the world because he also needs to fight the same fight with naturalism, positivism, and romanticism but in a different way. Here, music helps the exteriorisation of what would be merely a subjective interiority, something that involves a remarkable trust in the audiences, an element that Cronan misses in his discussion of ostensibly a peoples’ aesthetic. A good historical materialist in the making, confronted with not the here and now, can just not justify any identification with another in another here and now—and must learn to assemble a task in the present for himself. I worry that Cronan’s entire project is rooted in an acceptance of this defeat of ours in the here and now.
My nudge is to push aesthetics closer to politics not by reproducing defunct binaries of emotion or reason or by valorizing feeling only as long as the artist can use it forensically. Rather, I seek to bring back a Brecht whose own becoming is a lesson in historical materialist method which, when removed from our discussions in the present in the name of some programmatic or prescriptive expediency, which also seems deeply anachronistic (I mean, whose nervousness about art am I trying to pacify here?!), leaves a conversation happening among the same people in the same way as before. What has become of the artworld and the academy since Brecht lived? The sheer expanse of Brecht’s work constitutes many chapters of thinking and politics and a kind of abundance of production that can only be forced into univocality to our peril. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to make sense of it and see its unfolding. This is where, while I understand the undertaking of Red Aesthetics to incorporate and use Brecht’s corpus to incarnate a Red aesthetics, I am more interested in which kind of aesthetic we are deploying in reading Brecht himself as a figure, and a kind of assemblage or totality, which asks us to be accountable to ourselves and each other in a different way. It is almost as if the search for a homogeneous Brecht is also a submission to that apparently concrete empirical reality of the political economists that Marx resented all his life, who had not been touched by his dialectical materialism’s debt to Epicurus. So, might it be possible to continue to find a Brecht that is not final or total yet not inaccurate? Is the “accuracy” Cronan wants us to grasp for and privilege at all costs as a political imperative incompatible with the possibility of Brecht himself changing and becoming suspended within multiple more relations and in order to become something other than what he/we began with? Such is the curse of inheritances of so-called Marxist functionalism that we remain always at the point where history is still unfolding for us, that our knowledge is still incomplete, that somehow we have to pretend that we haven’t been at this for so damn long, just so we can establish some kind of accurate picture that endures at our behest rather than us submitting to those realities and their calls to “hic rhodus, hic saltus” that have fallen on the deaf ears of those who continue to describe the world repeatedly, unable to give up on the habit of commanding, colonizing, “settling” both the object of inquiry and its product, ostensibly in the name of freedom and justice. How much have we suffered from the complete stasis of forms of cultural and political production that have stilled all history, accumulated knowledges in the commodity form, taken to adjudicating their use and exchange value from those very positions of expert, genius, artist, or creator, whenever it came time to actually embody and enact those knowledges and build some worlds together? What opportunity is Red aesthetics missing?
Perhaps it is that I am attached to Brecht the poet, and the Brecht who is irregular and whose programmaticism is not all it is made out to be, that chapter four of Red Aesthetics spoke to me the most. The discussion of how painters and the debates around expressionism guide Brecht to a particular mode of seeing (theoreia) is interesting to me as a political theorist, far from the left-utilitarianisms and instrumentalisms that he is also attached to. I also think that this holds the key to resolving some of the quandaries of chapter five around the question of the politics/antipolitics of class/race, which feature an unfortunate surrender after such a long well-fought battle (recall what I find to be the first lesson about fascism and class struggle and also the way the structure and elements of his theatre do produce a form that allow various aspects of the assemblage to be operative). However, beneath the surface/depth reading debates that are invoked, there is no presence of the reader that is you and me, the reader that is called upon, the actor who is afforded a particular kind of agency, from whom Brecht has expectations not unlike some of us have of our students, knowing if they cannot take hold of what they are capable of and rise to situations on behalf of others that others cannot, then who is going to do it.
For me, a discussion of art, where the only relevant who is the artist, or the expert commenting on the art’s possibilities and impossibilities, distracts and perhaps even sabotages the work done in order to speak of the subject of that art, of the question of emancipation, equality, as democratic meaning-makers in the contexts of class struggle that we each encounter something as patriarchy, sometimes as supremacism that cuts against our bones, sometimes as the jarring discourse of the expert who, despite the sheer defeat of programmatic pronouncements called geopolitics, still lunges onward along some kind of conveyor belt (or slaughter bench) of history given what day it is, having been able to stop nothing from going wrong, able to bring about no more of a just world than the one where we all continue to desire all those subjections that we were supposed to have expiated and exorcised from our bodies. So, where must I go when my body repels texts and pronouncements that exclude any sense of knowledge that isn’t already determined and certified as knowledge by those on whose watch the world did become what it has? Why are we still speaking about categories like leftist art or progressive art, and who is part of these discussions? What are the artists actually talking about? When all attempts to tempt academics, artists, and neoliberal political expert “activists” to find some common ground in their practice rather than in their legitimations and walk away from the institutions that enslave them are sabotaged by one realm conferring legitimacy on the other in some weird game of thrones, with no one getting freer, much feels lost and our Red aesthetics don’t know how to show us the way. The hidden abode of the production of art now entails something other than what it did in 1930s and 40s—art schools, art worlds, culture industries where any attempt to entice the cultural worker out of the entrapment of the institutions that did put the aesthetic regime in charge, seems crucial to factor into who gets to now be included within, let alone legislate, a Red aesthetic. It is precisely when reality becomes a kind of insipid repetition, and when we know that lack of knowledge really isn’t the problem when we speak of reality, accuracy, and truth today, I am wondering whether those aspects need to be updated precisely by returning to the actor and the reader in a different way and anointing something other than the maker of art as the determiner of meaning, a kind of community of interpretation, of a hermeneutic of longing rather than one of witnessing or one of empathy and identification with that which, if one has to be absolutely honest, one cannot dare to witness or bear to identify with, if one actually sees and cares.
In the following I am going to restrict myself to discussing the portrait of Brecht that emerges over the course of these essays and to considering the implications of Cronan’s claim that Round Heads and Pointed Heads is “one of Brecht’s most brilliant, challenging and neglected plays.”1 I will neither agree nor disagree with those terms of approbation but will instead give what I hope to be a Brechtian response, premised on the question of utility.
Suspicion and Surfaces
Does a clear message, founded in political commitment, render a work of cultural production “unartistic?” Only, Cronan argues, for one who endorses a definition of “art” and the “artistic” purely as something both autonomous from authorial intention and also hermetically withdrawn from engagement with the world. For Cronan, such a definition of art is illogical because for someone to see something as art requires the viewer to first infer some sense of artistic intention, to have a spectatorial sense that it was meant by an artist to be seen as art. To suggest that art is necessarily autonomous from intention is also politically quietist. In support of his argument, Cronan delves into the thought and work of three committed political artists of the twentieth century who worked, respectively, in photography, theater, and film. Throughout the essays in this book, we see moments in their thought where art and commitment cross paths and “inflect” one another (RA 35).
The declared antagonist here is a version of “surface reading” that eschews political agendas and takes images to be self-evident. Cronan quotes Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus as advocates for this critical turn:
The assumption that domination can only do its work when veiled, which may once have sounded almost paranoid, now has a nostalgic, even utopian ring to it. Those of us who cut our intellectual teeth on deconstruction, ideology critique, and the hermeneutics of suspicion have often found those demystifying protocols superfluous in an era when images of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were immediately circulated on the internet; the real-time coverage of Hurricane Katrina showed in ways that required little explication the state’s abandonment of its African American citizens; and many people instantly recognized as lies political statements such as “mission accomplished.” (RA 5)
This comment, published in 2009, seems, in retrospect, deeply symptomatic of its own historical moment. What is most perturbing here is the suggestion that full and complete understanding of the events in question could be achieved simply by looking at images in the media. From the perspective of 2022, nothing seems less self-evident.
The above quote raises another question. Is there a difference between the “surface” analysis of art, premised on exactness, accuracy, and accountability, and an attitude towards visual information in social life that stops at the so-called “surface” of things and insists that critical thinking and suspicious enquiry are not just unnecessary but misguided distractions? I would like to think there is some difference, although the quote above implies that there is a deliberately depoliticizing agenda involved in “surface reading.” The above quote suggests that the metaphoric image of the “surface” can be unproblematically imported into the activity of looking at the daily news, but these are very different “surfaces.” Just because we may over-interpret literature does not mean we should be under-interpreting the news. Perhaps we should keep these things separate, but perhaps we cannot. Perhaps the problem is the word “surface” itself, which risks turning everything into one seamless, impenetrable, unbroken continuum.
Cronan’s book is, like Brecht’s thought, suspicious of the uninterrogated appearance of things. I am reminded of Brecht’s early essay on the literarization of the theater, describing the desire on his part to transform theater spectatorship into an experience akin to reading a book.2 This readerly attitude would involve critical freedom and distance from one’s own engagement; it would involve cognitive reflection in an environment where this is not typically encouraged. Such an activity is suspicious of just stopping at the so-called self-evident surface of things, and it is particularly suspicious of taking the visual alone as substantial evidence. Brecht calls his readerly attitude “complex seeing.” This has sometimes been called Brecht’s “anti-theatricalism.” Brecht’s Round Heads and Pointed Heads, the subject of chapter five, speaks to this, illustrating what happens when one takes the visual register as an index of substantial ethnic or racial differences between human beings. For Brecht, appearances are at best meaningless and at worst deeply deceiving.
According to Cronan, “What emerges as a dominant picture of postmodern art and theory (although the idea haunts modernism itself) is the incapacity to think art and politics, art and intention, as anything but in necessary conflict with one another in the work” (RA 34–35). This sentence slyly conflates political messages and intentionality, and second, it creates a version of the postmodern that is not entirely recognizable to me. Cronan insists that postmodern theory is anti-intentional; this is too sweeping an assessment. Brecht declared over and over the intentions for his theater and was heavily invested in an Enlightenment rationality and a faith in transparent thinking. He attempted to make sure audience responses fit his declared agenda and fiddled endlessly with his plays if the audiences didn’t seem to get his point. Is there a text in Brecht’s class? Absolutely, and it is the working class. What could be less postmodern?
Roland Barthes and Fredric Jameson are two critics held up as examples of the postmodern problem here. To be postmodern is to be anti-intentionalist and thus apolitical. Yet Barthes’s Mythologies is a great Brechtian work of ludic ideological demystification, deeply, poetically invested in the hermeneutics of suspicion and determined to expose the hidden agenda lurking beneath the surfaces of everyday life in post-war France. The Barthes who shows up in Red Aesthetics is the anti-intentionalist, death of the author Barthes. You can call one Barthes structuralist and the other post-structuralist, but you cannot have the second without the first, and they are both part of the historical monster called “postmodern theory” that Cronan holds accountable. Similarly, Jameson appears in Red Aesthetics as overly invested in “countless mediations” and “multiple possibilities” (RA 25, 121). Yet I have always thought Jameson to have a highly Brechtian approach, both intentionalist and anti-intentionalist, equal parts demystifying and postmodern, ultimately committed towards the exposure of the dialectic between ideology and a utopian impulse in works of art.
I am not convinced that being anti-intentionalist is necessarily asserting the apolitical autonomy of art. Plays, for instance, because they are a kind of communal event, have meanings that are inherently contextual and arise from the moment, rather than in a predetermined manner. I have often considered that the most important part of live theater are the accidents and moments of unrehearsed spontaneity. Why else go see live theater? Moreover, political meanings sometimes emerge spontaneously from new contexts. Consider one example of the emergence of committed theater: the theater scene in the U.K. was heavily influenced by the Berliner Ensemble’s visit in 1956, and the 1960s saw the increasing conflation of art and commitment in the English theater as something assumed and widespread. Yet by the 1970s some committed playwrights reconsidered their work in light of their failure to create working-class audiences or revolutionize English society, acknowledging that they weren’t mute artists working in a vacuum and that their committed intentions alone weren’t enough.3 David Hare, for example, infamously presented his own conclusions in a talk at Cambridge in 1978:
A play is not actors, a play is not a text; a play is what happens between the stage and the audience. A play is a performance. So if a play is to be a weapon in the class struggle, then that weapon is not going to be the things you are saying; it is the interaction of what you are saying and what the audience is thinking. The play is in the air.4
At the time this was seen by some of his auditors as a capitulation on Hare’s part, but if you have ever sat in an audience on opening night of a play you wrote or directed, you know his point is irrefutable. This might be one of the ways that theater is not painting. A painting is a mute inanimate object and is primarily visual. Theater is a transient act of communication between a group of people. It is not the case that a play exists except at the moment an audience is watching and listening. It is generally considered inappropriate for one to take up a brush and tinker with an old painting. The same can’t be said of plays. Hare says the play is neither his artistic intentions nor the audience’s subjective response. It is the interaction between them.
Similarly, the crude intentionalist reading is too glib a rendering of Brecht. This portrayal of Brecht avoids a central contradiction in his theory. Cronan seems to argue early on that Brecht’s theater is, from beginning to end, didactic, intentionalist, and manipulative, and that the predetermined goal of Brecht’s dialectical abstraction is to educate the audience both in how deindustrialized capitalism works in an abstract sense, and in how the relation between workers and those in economic and political power is one of cynical, manipulative exploitation (RA 9). Is Brecht here because he can be portrayed as suiting Cronan’s (and nonsite.org’s) intentionalist agenda? Are the very reasons Brecht is dismissed from the modern scholarly landscape what makes him so appealing here? And does that mean we are only getting the aspect of Brecht’s thought that suits this agenda?
The answer is no, but it wasn’t immediately apparent. Throughout the essays I was eager to encounter the key complication in the kind of political theater Brecht envisioned. There is certainly a didactic, intentionalist Brecht, the Brecht whose professed theater is bluntly political and committed and which sees the world in a very black and white, right and wrong kind of way. Brecht’s “Epic Theater” is overburdened with artistic intentions, leaving the spectator with as little room to maneuver as possible. Affective response was to be throttled (or at least heavily choked), and audiences educated into the correct point of view.
And yet. Brecht’s theater was also always trying to free the spectator from a particular way of looking at the world, a passive way of looking which finds expression in phrases like, “It was a tragedy, but there was nothing we could do.” This way of looking sees the world as fixed and unchanging and in particular encourages human beings to feel defeatist and disempowered. Such theater tells stories that encourage people to think of the world as immutable and also uses emotionally manipulative tools to control audience response by distracting people from thinking about reality or from having any kind of independent response at all, be it emotional or cognitive. Brecht calls this tragic or Aristotelean theater, which isn’t a very good name for it, but the point I want to stress here is that the theater Brecht is trying to displace is understandable as being the truly intentionalist theater, so intentionalist that its intentions are to simply and completely de-activate the audience altogether, by which I mean to neutralize the audience’s attempts to have any kind of reaction not predetermined by the intentions underpinning the spectacle.
So, is Brecht also telling us what to think or not? People who don’t like him certainly think so, but those are usually people who also feel threatened by didactic messages in art. This is because they carry around in their heads an ideological assumption that if you are presented with a clear emphatic message by somebody, then they expect you to agree with them. In fairness to this assumption, people picketing an abortion clinic aren’t, I assume, really looking for a healthy debate. John McGrath, in chapter three of A Good Night Out, his collection of Cambridge lectures about political theater, argues that resistance to didacticism is a middle-class problem, rooted in the high cost of middle-class education. Expensive educations need justification, and art offers one in pseudo-puzzles of artistic indirection and ambiguity, the “solving” of which are a kind of sham thinking-for-yourself. They make you feel like your expensive education was worth it. Working-class audiences, McGrath suggests, enjoy a clear didactic message because they want to know where you stand so they can take their own position and argue with you. They don’t assume we are all meant to agree.5
As McGrath also points out in that lecture, Brecht’s plays never found a working-class audience.6 For the most part, he wrote for the middle classes, and this matters.7 And it may sometimes seem like he is using the same tools as those of middle-class theater but with a Marxist puzzle to be solved at the end. Is there any difference between middle-class art’s “ambiguity” and Brecht’s dialectical theater, other than the different ends? Is the supposedly didactic Marxist just withholding the key point and refusing to tell you the answers and instead presenting these topsy-turvy jokes to show you how everything can turn into its opposite if the circumstances change? Is this just a false dialectic? Is Brecht pretending to ask innocent, open questions of his audience so he can let them think they are arriving independently at their own conclusions when he is actually leading them by the nose? Under what conditions could a political work of art actually be “open-ended?” Or could any work of art be “open-ended?” These questions are particularly pertinent to Round Heads and Pointed Heads. The narrative works through its carnivalesque dance of licensed misrule, turning society on its head for a time and restoring order at the end in order to make a blunt, and slightly indirect, point about how the rich and powerful divide the poor from each other along perceived racial lines in the service of the maintenance of the status quo. The play fits in with Cronan’s declared Brecht, who is first and foremost the Marxist demystifier and consciousness raiser, but as the collection of essays proceeds, glimmers of another Brecht emerges. There is a sign of this in chapter three:
The point of Brecht’s theater is to introduce cognition into mimesis, to “divide the audience,” to provide space to reflect on, even refuse, one’s affective responses, not just succumb to them. And yet, Brecht also assumes that the kinds of responses his plays produce would lead to certain predictable results. But the predictability of response he intends is not a matter of the viewer’s normal response to stimuli—the products of empathetic identification—but rather to the normative demands of educated response; that is, socially, historically, and culturally saturated, normative responses allow for a failure to respond. (RA 91)
This I read as a somewhat complicated description of Brechtian estrangement effects: not so much telling the audience what to think as distancing them from what they are already thinking and allowing them to see their habitual thinking as something strange. Here is the productive contradiction emerging. In good Brechtian fashion, this “not-but” Brecht appears not at the conclusion of the book but midway through. But how, in this Brechtian formulation, is the audience encouraged to think for itself? And how much freedom to reason for oneself is allowed? In chapter four, Cronan writes: “Brecht’s aim in this text is to describe the two-way nature of theatrical production. The audience is both the object of the author’s determination and the one that determines the play in return (a situation rendered literal in the collapsing of audience into the work with the Lehrstücke). Theatrical situations should ‘indicate’—but not make inevitable—precise political results; they should make those results follow from the action as though they were effects of the causes performed” (RA 111). Then, by the end of this chapter we find a Brecht who admires and valorizes a Chinese scroll for the way it leaves out something essential from its picture of the world. This leaving out, when artfully done, means the picture is not a picture at all, not a simple mirror but one containing an element of “empty mirror”—a kind of cognitive tool placed in the audience’s hands for them to complete for themselves (RA 125). But there is also something more here. As Cronan notes, Brecht’s analysis of the Chinese scroll is ignorant, a selfishly creative misreading without any proper context for what he is looking at (or, for that matter, any sense of, or concern for, artistic intentions). In his fashioning from the act of visual analysis “a kind of Brechtian utopia” as Cronan puts it, this Brecht resembles no one more closely than Jameson (RA 124).
Cronan admires an instance of formal visual analysis that he acknowledges is ignorant of the religious content of the image. Here we get to the heart of the matter: Brecht has two rules, one for his own art (my artistic intentions are paramount, I will control the meaning and performance of my work for all perpetuity) and one for all other art (it means whatever I find it pleasurable and useful for it to mean). If these are two Brechts, we can call the first the intentionalist Brecht, and the second the anti-intentionalist Brecht. Perhaps what I am really observing here are the inconsistencies that emerge from this book as a collection of essays with an attitude that seems to change from essay to essay. By the time we arrive at chapter five and Round Heads and Pointed Heads, Cronan’s Brecht is back to being the didactic Brecht who wants to educate us.
It is the rule Brecht had for everyone else that I find most productive, useful, and fun to apply to Brecht’s work. Why should he be exempt from his own praxis? Why should we study or watch his old plays today, especially in tandem with a bunch of old techniques regarding how to provoke “correct” audience response, techniques so historically specific to his time and place as to be toothless, ineffective, and irrelevant to us now? Ideas and theories are, in the Brechtian discourse, tools to be carried around in one’s pockets and pulled out and tested in practice. Is the tool useful to the situation? There is only one way to answer that question: practically.
The rhetoric of usefulness, which sidesteps the question of representation, also liberates us from metaphors of visuality, rhetoric which is too mired in mimetic thinking. This is in keeping with the concerns of Cronan’s book, visuality and its pitfalls being a throughline in Red Aesthetics, from the criticism of surface reading to the analysis of Round Heads and Pointed Heads and perhaps even to the discussion of Eisenstein’s automatic writing. A focus on the surface of things leads to deception. Usefulness also helps us escape the trap of artistic value, a kind of commodity fetish to be preserved and nurtured and carried forward into the future. Usefulness is the opposite of the fetish. Nothing is useful just for its own sake. Sometimes it is okay to paint over the original. Use is always historically bound, and usefulness can be exhausted. Brecht’s plays, similarly, might be exhausted. But there is only one way to find out.
Round Heads and Pointed Heads
So, can we use Round Heads and Pointed Heads today? Not as the play stands. Round Heads suffered because it was held up to its own historical reality too closely and mimetically by spectators looking for analogy and correspondence with Hitler specifically and German anti-Semitism more generally. Brecht tinkered with the play to try to avoid this close analogy, but he didn’t tinker with it nearly enough. In the collected works, for instance, Tom Kuhn and John Willett write:
Round Heads and Pointed Heads is certainly long and complex, and it perhaps needs another firm hand, to impose some discipline and to rescue what remains of its political insights. We underestimate the play, however, if we read it just as a botched satire on Nazism. The elements of more abstract and polyvalent political parable remain far more interesting, and indeed frighteningly contemporary. The portrait of a change in government as a betrayal of the people, the gulf between its programme and social reality, the empty promises of populist reformism, the strange mixtures of political conviction and cynicism, political demagogy and its confused echo amongst the people, all strike familiar chords. … The analysis of racial politics, although it may in retrospect seem inadequate to Nazism, has a great deal of relevance to later twentieth-century conflicts on several continents. The use of racist politics, or even war, as a calculated distraction from social and economic problems is depressingly familiar.8
As it stands, Round Heads and Pointed Heads works very comfortably as an example of the demystificatory Brecht, although the “invisible” hand of power is so transparently visible in the play that it is explained, simply and completely, in the first few moments. The rest is a belaboured, if sometimes witty and entertaining, demonstration, following the fable or parable form that Brecht also uses elsewhere.9 The difference in Round Heads is that he employs the parable form without interrogating the traditional form itself, whereas in, for example, The Good Person of Setzuan, the parable itself is exploded as an ideological tool. It is a parable that says don’t listen to parables; think for yourself. As a parable play about the political dangers of parables themselves, Good Person destroys its own form and leaves the audience at a loss about how to resolve the contradictions of Shen Te’s existence. In Shen Te’s world, there is no solution for the contradictions that tear her in two.10
While Round Heads was politically correct regarding economic exploitation, if the play nevertheless failed, it is because it was not realistic enough regarding its embodiment of racist ideology. I say was not realistic enough, because while I read the chapter on Round Heads, I found myself wondering whether the questions raised there regarding the cynical use of anti-Semitism (Brecht’s protests notwithstanding) by political leaders are perhaps more relevant now than ever before. You don’t have to go far to find media analyses of Donald Trump’s public use of anti-Semitic language, most notably in front of large groups of Jews, but those analyses always find themselves asking old-fashioned questions like “Is Trump an anti-Semite?” or “How can a person with Jewish family members be an anti-Semite?”11 It is an old, tired form of question. Perhaps what the blunt, cynical representation of racism in Round Heads, combined with the negative critical reaction to it claiming the play misunderstood on a fundamental level the entrenched anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, can teach us is that racialized thinking is never simply a question of individuals holding to these heinous beliefs in either good or bad faith.
The problem in Round Heads isn’t the message about power and cynical deceptive manipulation of the people by politicians and the wealthy. That’s an easy message to get behind today. If Round Heads is the Brechtian equivalent of a “problem play,” I suggest that the problem in it (what prevents it from being useful, either for Brecht’s original intentions or for any new uses we might find for it) is found in its central conceit, located in its title. At the beginning of the play the actors are randomly assigned artificial caps for their heads, and “rich” and “poor” clothing for their costumes. The opening dialogue indicates that the first set of “differences”—racial ones, apparently like those observed all around the world by the author—are arbitrary and unimportant, chosen at random, no more significant than, say, those who choose to walk versus those choose who ride bicycles, as Brecht stated (RA 138). Yet the play’s conceit, via its theatricality, turns something arbitrary and immaterial into something located in human physiognomy, something highly visible, and something which contains echoes of nineteenth-century phrenology and eugenics. While the play claims this is an arbitrary difference, and Brecht claimed that it is not an analogy for the identification of “Semitic” traits by the Nazis, the visual conceit nevertheless reproduces a form of thinking that associates physiognomy with racialized character traits.
The play is not useful in this form because it reproduces via mimicry, rather than estranging, the racist (and also the racialized) thinking that is the problem in the first place: it enacts the activity of racist thinking as a form of visual identification, even while claiming briefly, in the opening prologue, that this visual identification is not based on anything substantial. This reveals nothing of any actual substance about the activity of racialized thinking: it merely shows us one common manifestation of it, which is the identification of “easily” detectable visual racial or ethnic differences. The problem with this kind of simplistic reduction of racism to the identification of visual differences was rendered apparent in a highly public manner on January 31, 2022, when Whoopi Goldberg insisted on television that the Holocaust was not motivated by “race” but rather was an instance of “white people doing it to white people” [sic].12 She later insisted it was not race but “ethnicity” that drove the Holocaust, before subsequently apologizing altogether for her remarks. What is illustrative for our purposes is her insistence that the Holocaust could not possibly have been about race because of the pigmentation of European skin. As Keenan Malik articulated in an analysis of the incident, in America, “racism today is viewed primarily through the lens of ‘whiteness’ and of ‘white privilege.’ … Goldberg’s comments illuminate not just the contemporary view of Jews but also the amnesia that exists about the historical use of racial categories. Race has never been simply about black and white.”13 Neither has it ever simply been about round heads or pointed heads or indeed “about” physiognomy of any kind.
The incident provided a productive public estrangement of the current assumptions about racism that dominate a great deal of contemporary thinking. The incident held up to public attention the habitual thinking that large numbers of people currently take as self-evident (and thus assume to be in no need of interrogation) and provided the ground for us to notice this thinking as habitual. (Malik calls Goldberg’s error a “common misunderstanding about race.”14) The incident suggests to us that by remaining too caught up in these assumptions about the surface of things, we are perhaps missing something important, something that is less easily visible.
In its current form, Round Heads and Pointed Heads remains mired in this morass of thinking about racism because its political concerns are too narrowly focused on the blunt Marxist message that racism is a cynical tool wielded by those in power to divide and conquer those who would otherwise unite against the rich and powerful exploiters. This narrow Marxist focus means that the play makes no real effort to illustrate how racialized thinking actually works. Unconvincing on this level, it is then ineffective altogether.
How can we render the play useful to our current circumstances? It is the same question Brecht no doubt asked of Measure for Measure when he used it as rough material for his plot. Brecht’s intentions were to reveal the secret machinations and manipulations of the wealthy and powerful, and to dismiss racialized thinking as a mere smokescreen, but if we wish to fulfill that first intention, we must now go against the second and create a play which actually functions as an estrangement of racialized thinking. And here we must think for ourselves, rather than think what Brecht wanted us to think, because he was wrong.
I don’t plan to stage this play any time soon, but I do like thinking about these things because it is a form of practical thinking. The question I would start with is: What if the skull-man’s illustrative skulls in the prologue were both the same shape instead of one round and one pointed? What would happen if the actors didn’t wear those grotesque headpieces at all? What if the “visible differences” imposed at the beginning of the play were not visible to the audience in the least? What if the play, from the start, encouraged us to think rather than to look? “And where the skull-man goes / People look more closely at your hair and skin and nose.”15 Indeed, they do, but how closely do you have to look to find a difference? For that matter, what if the costuming the characters wore did not delineate who is rich and who is poor? I would start with those questions in order to estrange assumptions shared by both the play and the audience about differences being found in visible traits.
Only then, when we stopped depending on the visible and estrange visibility itself, could we begin to approach the underlying social reality, and in this we would be enacting a truly Brechtian aesthetic.
Finally, was I personally affected?
While this response required that my engagement with Red Aesthetics be primarily critical and distanced, my favorite parts of Cronan’s book were the instances of visual analysis, particularly the elegant readings of Rodchenko’s photographs of workers. I have no basis on which to determine their validity as interpretations; that is for art historians to assess. Nevertheless, I found the analyses highly affecting as translations of line, composition, light and the human form into political images of a socialist society.
The Problem of Political Art: Notes on Red Aesthetics
One of the great virtues of Cronan’s Red Aesthetics: Rodchenko, Brecht, Eisenstein is that it names the enemy early and clearly: “Bad art, like bad politics, is driven by empathy.”1 This has the effect of placing the book, a study of the great revolutionary artists of the first half of the twentieth century, in the midst of some of the more intense contemporary debates surrounding art and aesthetics. Empathy has namely in recent years risen as one of the central terms organizing contemporary opinions about art. In her recent critical dissection of this trend, the poet Alice Gribbin writes:
In this new century, scholars, educators, curators, arts writers, museum administrators, and cultural critics have made empathy their great basis for defending and promoting the arts. As they now see it, encounters with artworks engage and strengthen our ability to empathize, and herein lies art’s value to humankind. … By activating our inborn capacity for empathy, the reasoning goes, art can be a tool of social transformation—an unadulterated good. Administered effectively, art is a means by which people can be coaxed into greater emotional understanding of others, and this in turn will impact their behavior in myriad favorable ways. Empathy makes one a better person and citizen. But it does not end with the individual. Somehow, too, empathy makes us better collectively. … From there, it can tidily be deduced that greater empathy will lead to progress in all areas.2
Through its identification with empathy, art is removed from its association with the aesthetic and placed within an essentially moral framework. As Gribbin points out, empathy today primarily means “the ability to vicariously experience in oneself the feelings and thoughts of another” (TER). Yet in arriving at this definition, the word has traveled quite a distance from the term it translates, Einfühlung, which was proposed by the German experimental psychologists of the nineteenth century to describe aesthetic experience as an act through which we perceive the vitality of an object by projecting into it aspects of our own, often unconscious, psychic life. It is this reversal of the current of Einfühlung, from an active and projective gesture (feeling one’s self into an object) to an essentially receptive and “introjective” faculty, that has allowed for empathy’s usefulness in transforming the existence of art into a set of calculable effects, what Gribbin calls the “results-based management of aesthetic experience” (TER). That an encounter with art is supposed to produce an empathetic response means that the value of a work of art depends on the quality and intensity of the moral effects the work provokes in us. These effects are then imagined as producing further effects in the sphere of human behavior and social interaction, which in turn makes the discourse of empathy attractive to art and cultural institutions and the various state and private agencies that fund them.
Reliance on empathy as a meaningful category thus has the added benefit of gathering together and negotiating in a peaceful manner a series of heterogeneous and potentially disruptive relations: between art and its audience, between artists and institutions, between art institutions and society. Underpinning contemporary opinions about art and making possible such peaceful negotiation, empathy endows art with what, following Gilles Deleuze, we may call its common sense. Common sense, a crucial aspect of any opinion or doxa, is namely what makes us consider a thing in relation to “a function, a faculty of identification that brings diversity in general to bear upon the form of the Same.”3 It is not difficult to see how empathy, in Gribbin’s description of the use of this category, does precisely something like that. It allows people to speak of art as though art possessed a certain functional identity. Art becomes the organ through which empathy may be produced and exercised. As such, empathy allows us to identify and recognize art (as the same art, art identical to its function) across a set of diverse practices and institutional contexts.
At the same time, Gribbin’s polemical analysis reveals how empathy provides the contemporary opinion about art not only with its common sense but also with its good sense, which Deleuze defines as the second key aspect of doxa. “[G]ood sense is said of one direction only: it is the unique sense and expresses the demand of an order according to which it is necessary to choose one direction and to hold onto it. This direction is easily determined as that which goes from the most differentiated to the least differentiated.”4 Empathy allows people not merely to identify the function of art that makes art recognizable across a heterogeneous set of practices and contexts (common sense), but also to envision or foresee the temporal trajectory of art as a kind of humanizing agent. “To the empaths, powerful art is benevolently humanitarian,” Gribbin writes (TER). Art serves, as the empaths would have it in their vulgarized version of Schillerian aesthetic education, the progressive education of humanity as humanity. It provides humans, who are implicitly understood to be perfectible, with a collective temporal orientation and simultaneously establishes their shared humanity as the general and single meaning of all artistic and art-related endeavors.
The role of empathy as the constitutive element of contemporary opinion about art may therefore be defined by its ability to link the form of moral calculation of artistic effects (empathy as the function of art that is recognized as identical across any number of heterogeneous contexts) with an essentially humanizing temporal orientation of all artistic activity (“humanity” as the proper meaning of art in general that is to be realized in the future, but which empathy allows us to “preview” in the present). For Gribbin, such moral (or even moralizing) and humanizing framing of art is to be understood as an imposition of severe constraints on what an encounter with art might be able to offer us. It functions as a “racket,” a form of criminal extortion which extracts value from the arts and leaves art in a subordinate and dependent position, “chronically insecure and beleaguered from within” (TER). The state of affairs must therefore be countered by the desire to free the encounter with art from the doxa of empathy, to free what art can do from the moralizing and humanizing racketeers, to establish the sense of art at a distance from its common and good sense. In Gribbin’s case, this entails the affirmation of a kind of vitalist aestheticism whose contours may be at least partly traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche. “How the individual values art,” she writes, “is a matter of personal judgment, of cultivated aesthetic sensibility, which is an aliveness to the full emotional, psychological, intellectual, and sensual dimensions of one’s life” (TER). This individualism goes together with the affirmation of the autonomy of artistic encounters. Any encounter with art is, above all, to be conceived as an immanence, its value consisting not of moral effects or the use it has for humanity but in itself. Art should be freed from its social mandate as well as from any claims to truth (the Nietzschean dimension). Its purpose is not to serve human education, the humanization of humanity, but rather the “aristocratic” cultivation of singular imaginations (irrational, unconscious, ambiguous) through which life is able to pursue the multiple and plural play of its cruel becoming.
From Empathy to Political Art
Cronan’s opposition to empathy in Red Aesthetics begins from a radically different place than such quasi-Nietzschean affirmation. The starting point of Red Aesthetics is namely Brechtian, not Nietzschean. It is not enough to free the encounter with art from the form imposed on it by the moralizing and humanizing doxa—though this may indeed be a necessary first step, since it is precisely by escaping the form of opinion that artistic form and construction allow us to see the world differently (Anderssehen, in Brecht’s language). Yet the point is not only to see the world differently, to have our perception and imagination exercised by difference as such, but to see the world correctly, to produce “a correct representation of the world,” as Cronan quotes from Bertolt Brecht’s 1937 “Prospectus for a Diderot Society” at the very start of his book’s introduction (RA 1). Freeing art from the doxa of empathy in the direction of autonomous artistic encounters does not go sufficiently far, for it remains silent on the questions that the very imposition of doxa, the existence of any opinion at all, is meant to squash in the first place, which are the questions of truth and knowledge. The position of a Nietzschean or an aesthete ultimately consists in seeing knowledge as merely another form of opinion. That art allows us to see differently (beyond opinion) thus has to mean that the very categories of knowledge and truth become suspended in our encounter with art. The position of a committed artist like Brecht, on the contrary, consists in the old Platonic wager that doxa, the racket that good and common sense impose on us, may and must be separated from knowledge (episteme), in which case art comes to be seen not as the operator of any-difference-whatever or of difference as such, but precisely as the operator between opinion and thought, the common and good view of the world and the view through which we may come to know and think the world as it is.
The selection of three great communist modernist artists—Alexander Rodchenko, Brecht, and Sergei Eisenstein—as the subjects studied in Red Aesthetics suggests we should not confuse such a position of commitment with the far simpler idea that artistic work is to be turned into a mere vehicle for the communication of knowledge about our otherwise non-artistic reality. Rodchenko, Brecht, and Eisenstein were not only remarkable propagandists of the Revolution; they were also the creators of some of the most striking and inventive forms and images in the history of twentieth-century art. It is therefore better to say that commitment in art operates as the differentiator between doxa and knowledge on two simultaneous levels. The difference must be clarified politically, which in the case of these three artists meant becoming Marxist diagnosticians of history and partisans of the Revolution, but it must also give a new sense to artistic images themselves as artistic images. Political and revolutionary commitment of an artist has to, in some way, be properly artistic, for it must combine the political wager with the invention of new forms that break with the inherited doxa of artistic tradition. Even the flirtation with the instrumental that frequently appears in the works of these artists—Eisenstein borrowing his famous “montage” from engineering; Brecht’s description of his aesthetic strategy as Umfunktionierung; Rodchenko’s constructivism—cannot be read simply in terms of a reduction of art to a certain political or social function, but rather as part of an attempt to apply a shock to classical aesthetics and to call for new artistic images drawn from an expanded field of social reality and historical struggle against the norms of good bourgeois representation.
Cronan, stressing the dual politico-artistic character of their commitment, describes the revolutionary modernism of Rodchenko, Brecht, and Eisenstein as an attempt “to create a new realism, one that offers a correct picture of the world by breaking with conventional understandings of what the world looks like. Red aesthetics is an explicitly political form of modernism that aims to capture the complex and changing modernity with an equally complex and changing mode of representation” (RA 2). Implied in this attempt, Cronan continues, is the need to distinguish “surface and depth, ideology and reality, true and false pictures of the world” (RA 2). The reaffirmation of these binaries, fundamental for any conception of political art, is also where we find the clearest statement of the polemic Red Aesthetics stages against some of the predominant tendencies in contemporary humanities: the turn away from the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and the affirmation of the surface; the abandonment of ideology critique and the corresponding proliferation of various “new” “materialisms”; the all-embracing spread of historicist relativism, which coincides with the disappearance of truth-claims in either politics or art. The polemic is well-aimed, but the far more intriguing and more substantial interest of the book consists in working out what may be at stake in conceiving revolutionary modernism in art as a new realism and how the seemingly outdated binaries may be reanimated and dynamized toward a renewed conception of political art.
Surface and Depth, Resemblance and Meaning
Take the example of surface and depth, the difference between the way we see things (our experience) and the typically invisible social forces that determine and constrain our reality (the meaning of our experience). To illustrate how some kind of relationship between the two dimensions is necessary for any conception of political art, Cronan turns to examples that include Eisenstein’s analysis of a drawing of a barricade in “Montage 1937.” In this text, Eisenstein is interested in how an artist can produce a recognizable appearance of a barricade (something identifiable as a barricade on the surface) that would at the same time give us the essential meaning of the barricade (the idea of the barricade as the element of depth), which Eisenstein identifies as “struggle.” In Eisenstein’s conceptual apparatus, an image of something consists precisely in the successful coordination of these two tasks, which may very well be comparable to the task of “new realism” proposed by Cronan: to at once make something appear in its recognizable (naively realistic) form and also disturb this surface appearance (modified mode of representation) so that the latter may become expressive of the essential meaning or true reality of this something (a new kind of realism).
In the drawing of the barricade analyzed by Eisenstein one therefore finds the recognizable or “realistic” depiction of the barricade as well as the “abstract” zigzag line, which dynamizes the surface of the drawing beyond pure visual recognition and serves as the literal expression of the idea of struggle. To present only the zigzag line, only the essential meaning, Eisenstein suggests, would be to lose the image of the barricade itself. In Cronan’s reading, this suggests that, “For Eisenstein, the effort to remove the ‘representational element’ from the work of art, to turn ‘ideas’ into ‘sensations,’” leaves behind something that is but a surface abstract and an “empty form” (RA 4). Yet Eisenstein’s interest in his analysis is not exactly the opposition between representation and pure formal surface abstraction, but rather the difference and the interaction between two forms of representation, which may be distinguished as depictive representation (based in resemblance and the surface recognizability of objects in our experience) and essential representation (the expression of the “deeper” meaning of objects not necessarily visible on the surface of things). The critique Eisenstein levels against the representation of the barricade drawn up as a pure zigzag is a critique against the kind of essential representation that has one-sidedly given up on any attempt of depiction, a type of representation that tries to directly render the essential meaning of the barricade (“struggle”) without providing us with the barricade as a recognizable object resembling itself in the image. What Eisenstein is defending in this case is the very necessity of the surface, of depictive representation, the necessity to maintain some element of the superficial and recognizable appearance of things through which the essential, “deeper” aspect of phenomena may be represented in artistic images. “I believe,” Eisenstein writes, “that it is in the existence of these two elements—the specific instance of depiction [izobrazhenie] and the generalising image [obraz obobshcheniia] which pervades it—that the implacability and the all-devouring force of artistic composition resides.”5
The binary of surface and depth may therefore be recast in terms of the dialectic of resemblance (or depictive representation) and essential representation (or meaning).6 The relationship between these two modes of representation is necessarily unstable and may shift across time. One way to inquire into it is therefore to ask whether the relationship between resemblance and meaning, between depictive and essential representation, is itself to be grasped as representational or whether there are other modalities of this tension we may be able to imagine. In the case of Eisenstein, for instance, it is quite clear that in the 1920s he does not conceive of the dynamic between resemblance and meaning as necessarily obeying a representational logic but instead assumes a more arbitrary relationship between the two. In what are perhaps his most famous texts on montage, those written in the second half of the decade, Eisenstein suggests the work of form may to a large degree suspend the function of resemblance and break up the surface of things into fragments that can then be articulated as more or less discrete signs and according to the autonomous “language” of montage to produce the specific meaning of the work.7 The production of meaning therefore depends on a certain indifference to the superficial realism of artistic depiction insofar as the same fragment of resemblance or surface recognizability may be used in two different chains of montage associations to produce two opposite results or meaning-effects. At the extreme point of Eisenstein’s ideas about intellectual montage in the late 1920s, realized most fully in some parts of October (1928), the depictive and superficially realistic function of cinematic images is stripped of its own force and put to use in the name of a cinema that, far more than representing historical reality, aims to participate in the movement of its essential production.8
In the late 1930s and 1940s, however, when Eisenstein returns more systematically to his theory of montage in the moment of high Stalinism and socialist realist aesthetics, the relationship between resemblance and essential representation assumes a somewhat more stable form. No longer arbitrary, it is now, as we saw with the example of the barricade, a matter of expression behind which lies an ultimately representational, or perhaps meta-representational, relationship between resemblance and meaning. Meaning expresses itself through the recognizable and identifiable elements of resemblance that one finds on the surface. The historical meaning of struggle may no longer be produced through a montage articulation of more or less arbitrary elements of resemblance, as was the case during the “constructivist” 1920s; it now requires a specific set of depictive representations. Resemblance, though not the ultimate aim of artistic image-making, is nevertheless a necessary, irreducible function in the artistic process, which Eisenstein in his late theoretical work translates into the language of organicism. Artistic work must animate and dynamize elements of resemblance. The surface recognizability of the barricade needs to surprise us; it needs to give us an unconventional impression of the barricade, but some element of resemblance must remain. Some visible aspect of the barricade that still allows us to identify it as such is necessary for the meaning to be expressed and for the element of essential depth of the barricade as a historical phenomenon (“struggle”) to attach itself to the surface of the picture.
We can therefore identify not one but two versions of a “new realism” in Eisenstein’s work. In the case of Eisenstein of the 1920s, the unfamiliar (the historical meaning of things) has to be produced through the unfamiliar (fragments of resemblance stripped of their depictive function and articulated according to the principles of montage). As Eisenstein revisits his theory of montage in the late 1930s and 40s, the task becomes to express the unfamiliar (the historical meaning of things) through the familiar (the irreducible element of depiction and resemblance).
The central figure of Red Aesthetics, however, is not Eisenstein but Brecht. The reason for this lies in the fact that Brecht, perhaps more than any other communist artist of the twentieth century, situated the problem of the relationship between resemblance, or depictive representation, and meaning, or essential representation, in the context of advanced capitalist reality. It is in Brecht’s work and his writing that the specific difficulty of staging capitalist social relations is tackled most directly and brought to the foreground in its clearest articulation. In the key chapters of his book—chapter three, “Art and Political Consequence,” deals with Brecht’s critique of affect and empathy, while chapter four, “Seeing Differently and Seeing Correctly,” offers a stunning reading of Brecht’s lesser-known texts on abstraction in painting—Cronan shows how, for Brecht, the problem of political art in the context of advanced industrial capitalism must start from the fact that something essential about the social reality of capitalism remains necessarily hidden from the domain of our everyday perceptions and experiences. As a consequence, the way things appear to us, the way they resemble themselves as identifiable and recognizable objects across our encounters with them, in an equally necessary way blocks our grasp of the essential.
If we may use a simple, perhaps even somewhat simplistic illustrative example, we can see how already in the sphere of capitalist exchange things can quickly become quite complicated for someone trying to represent them. Let’s say a cruise company sells a luxury yacht it no longer intends to use to a Russian oligarch. As the yacht passes from one owner to the other, it undoubtedly continues to resemble itself throughout the exchange. It remains recognizably, identifiably, even functionally the same yacht. And yet an essential transformation has taken place. For the yacht has changed hands not merely as a visible and usable object but as a commodity (exchanged for money)—and as such, its essential determination, its meaning in the social structure has changed as well. Essentially, the status of the yacht shifted from that of a form of constant capital (a means of production owned by a company and used to produce a specific commodity for the market: luxury travel) to that of a commodity which exits the sphere of exchange to serve the private luxury consumption of a single capitalist and to potentially double as a speculative asset, a commodity that may appreciate or at least store value over time and may be sold sometime in the future. The point is that one is not necessarily able to observe this essential change in the form of value that the yacht represents by merely looking at the yacht itself. How could one depict this mediation of exchange? In fact, the yacht could have remained still, docked in some distant safe haven, its appearance in no way indicating its new essential role. One may even imagine a further step in the scenario where the Russian oligarch lends the yacht back to the company in exchange for rent, in which case the essential status of the yacht is once again modified without this in any way necessarily registering on the purely superficial level of the yacht’s resemblance to itself.
The meaning of the yacht or any other commodity in capitalism is constituted by a series of mediations (in our example, exchange relations) whose connection to the surface appearance of the commodity is fundamentally problematic in the sense that our knowledge of these essential mediations doesn’t seem to in any recognizable measure correspond to the changes in our experience of the surface of things. And the other way around: changes or stillness on the surface are in no way a reliable indicator of what is going on in the “depth” that actually determines the meaning of things. Were we to, then, remember that exchange relations in capitalism are themselves further mediated by the process of production (just as the process of production is mediated by exchange) and, furthermore, that mediations of production and exchange in capitalism give rise to (and in turn themselves depend on) additional levels of mediation—those of finance capital, for example—we would indeed be tempted to lose hope and concede that capital constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for the task of (correct) representation. This is especially the case because the interaction between these levels (exchange, production, finance) does not merely repeat the representational challenges that may be found at each of the levels individually but itself “invents” new ones, new obstacles to representation.
Cronan quotes Brecht, who notes that the “situation [of contemporary capitalism] has become so complicated because the simple ‘reproduction of reality’ says less than ever about that reality” (RA 105). This is the meaning of Brecht’s famous observation from the “Threepenny Lawsuit,” according to which a “photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG reveals almost nothing about these institutions. Reality as such has slipped into the domain of the functional. The reification of human relations, the factory, for example, no longer discloses those relations” (RA 105). To the extent that things or phenomena merely resemble themselves, they hide or obscure the dynamic and true dimension of the mediations that give them meaning, which are to be found in the metamorphoses of value and the structure of capitalist social relations. And furthermore, there is something in the metamorphoses of value and the social relations that serve the metamorphic process that fundamentally resists coming to the surface and revealing itself as recognizable in the sphere of resemblances, and which therefore remains at once real and irreducibly abstract.
Because resemblance hides and because meaning or essence withdraws into what Marx called “real abstractions,” Brecht is forced to recognize the critically arbitrary relationship between these two dimensions (like Eisenstein in the 1920s). As Cronan notes, the arbitrariness at work in the relation between our experience (the domain of resemblance) and the metamorphosis of value in capitalism (meaning, structure) puts a great deal of pressure on any conception of realism in political art. As Brecht’s statement about the photograph of the Krupp factory indicates, it is necessary to abandon any naive realism based in merely copying reality or reproducing the already existing forms of our experience. The task of realism becomes instead the production of a new appearance of reality, which does not quite resemble anything in our experience and therefore allows us not only to see reality differently but also, and perhaps more importantly, to reframe our relationship to the very function of appearance as such.9 What is indicated here as Brecht’s goal is an openly “artificial” realism, a realism that makes visible the construction of appearances or, indeed, makes visible the very gap between construction and appearance (RA 106). Because it must respond to the arbitrariness of the relationship between resemblance and meaning, surface and value in capitalist society, this new or “modern realism,” as Cronan also calls it, must in the Brechtian conception work “‘with every means to get a hold of reality’; rather than the ‘one and only realism’ one must ‘make use of all means, old and new, tried an untried.’ Brecht went so far as to suggest … that even a ‘simplest mode of writing’ … might ‘better enable us to make abstractions’” than the more classically realist modes of representation (RA 107).
To get beyond the sphere of resemblances toward the essential determinations that produce the capitalist world, realism must in some way stop resembling itself. It must abandon the demand for a unique mode of representation (something that Eisenstein eventually encountered in his confrontation with the dogmatic prescription of socialist realism) and replace it with an opportunistic exercise in the combination of modes and forms. What is at stake is less the becoming-abstract of realism (the passage from realism to abstraction) than the possibility of creating a realism of abstractions. That is to say, the task is to find a mode of representation, or rather a plurality of modes, which in their combination (or montage) might help us think the strange and in some sense unlocalizable relation between, on one hand, the essential dimension of value and the structure of social relations that determine and constrain our lives and, on the other hand, the seemingly “concrete” or “lived” elements of our experience, which are, however, incapable of revealing anything essential.
Eisenstein: Automatism and Intention
Although, in some very general sense, Eisenstein shared Brecht’s problem, he only managed to truly approach it in its specificity in his attempt to make a film based on Marx’s Capital. This unfinished project, which preoccupied Eisenstein in 1928, does not get a mention in Cronan’s book, but it is the one place, perhaps along with the other unfinished project of the late 1920s, The Glass House, where Eisenstein managed to explicitly pose the question of representation and value in a decidedly capitalist context. What Eisenstein did share with Brecht quite unmistakably is the conviction that any successful artistic attempt to make us encounter and think the social forces and the mediations that constitute the true meaning of things depends not on some neutral and distant position that an artist or a work of art may want to assume in relationship to the reality it is representing, but instead on an explicitly partisan position, on taking sides. In other words, the ability of political art to elucidate and to help us think what is in effect the universal condition of our lives (the mediations of capitalist social forces and relations) depends not on some general overarching perspective, a perspective exempt from the social field, but must, on the contrary, rely on a commitment to a partisan and to some extent partial perspective, which, however, is precisely the one within the field of social struggles that makes possible the grasp of totality, or perhaps, more precisely, the grasp of the totalizing nature of capitalist mediations themselves.
[Eisenstein, once again on the drawing of the barricade:] Any kind of generalisation applied compositionally to an artistic representation gives it a resonance that is in the tonality which we wish to impart to the phenomenon depicted. It derives from our social relationship to our phenomenon. At this point we may also widen the scope of our example of the barricade. While the image of struggle was an essential element revealed by its contour, that is by no means all that the contour should tell us. The characteristics of the barricade, read as concrete object, will, apart from this general idea of the barricade, always also include the particular image of the idea peculiar to the situation in which that barricade figures.10
[Brecht, in the “Platform for Left-wing Intellectuals” from 1937, the same year as Eisenstein’s barricade:] We may recognize one of the reasons for the alarming ineffectiveness of our cultural initiatives in the fact that we again issued an all too vague appeal to everyone, in the same way as we aimed our work at “everyone” and intended it to serve the interests of “everyone.” Developments in Germany teach us that by no means everyone is concerned for everyone else, and that only a very specific class of people … [distinguished precisely by this from all other classes] is prepared to represent the interests of everyone. (RA 115)
In the conception of Red Aesthetics, this necessity of a partisan point of view (as the key to universality) belongs together with the quest for “correct representation” (and the crucial distinction for the idea of “new realism” between surface/resemblance and depth/essence). The two elements, partisanship and meaning, that make up the condition of political art find a shared reference in the concept of intention. This is perhaps the most difficult concept in the book. It is namely clear that what is meant by intention here is not simply a phenomenological category or some phenomenologically describable structure of consciousness but something different. At one point in the book, Cronan speaks of “unconscious intentionality” as a way of characterizing “artistic intentionality itself” (RA 34). And in another part, he writes paradoxically of the intentionality “of the impersonal system of capitalism” (RA 167). These two references alone suggest that what is at stake in the political intentionality of art is a certain possibility or even a need to presuppose something like intentional agency (meaning and a partisan perspective) within a field characterized by the absence of intention (the unconscious, impersonal system of capitalism).
This need is the main topic of the remarkable final chapter of Red Aesthetics, which is dedicated to Eisenstein. In his discussion of the Soviet director, Cronan focuses on the dialectical tension within Eisenstein’s thought between processes that are fundamentally characterized by a certain automatism and the moments that interrupt these automatic processes in order to establish a form and to find some support for meaning. Beginning with a discussion of Eisenstein’s memoirs, Cronan describes Eisenstein’s autobiographic writing as a process that closely resembles Freudian free association, as Eisenstein gives himself over to a formless, meaningless flux of digressions and “unrestrained expatiations in all directions.”11 This purposeless automatism of writing registers what Eisenstein himself called a “primeval flood” of reminiscences, to which he would surrender fully without attempting to master or direct them. Only then, within this flood of reminiscences and not simply in opposition to them, Eisenstein begins to construct a form of remembrance, a form of memory that is neither a pure unconscious flux (the unconscious would at any rate be what escapes our capacity for remembrance) nor simply a result of a voluntary act of conscious recollection. In Cronan’s words, “it is this pattern of utter loss of coherence followed by dialectical reversal toward a new and higher state of unity that is the thematic and formal content of Eisenstein’s enterprise as a whole” (RA 156).
How is this possible? How may automatic flow give rise to form? It is only possible because we can at times isolate an element of negativity at work already in the automatic flux of associations themselves, an element that is part of the directionless chain of associations and at the same time allows for some distance from the associational automatism. This must then be an element that, as part of the automatic flux, begins to equivocate and can, as such, in a gesture of dialectical reversal, be turned against mere immersion in the flux, creating thereby enough of a distance from the automatism for the effect of a new form to take place. Something like that may be observed in the pedagogical example that Cronan discusses in his chapter on Eisenstein. Teaching his students in one of his film direction classes, Eisenstein considers how to effectively stage Viktor Nekrasov’s novel Frontline Stalingrad. Important for the example is that Eisenstein considers the novel as characterized by a certain basic formlessness: Nekrasov is so “immersed in the ‘thick of events,’ he is woefully ‘unable to comprehend’ the meaning of those events and give them form” (RA 172). To avoid the fatal mistake of Nekrasov’s directionless automatism, Eisenstein suggests to the students that they “extract the one basic idea that will provide a ‘reorientation’ for the ‘whole line of action’” (RA 172). The scene of a German air strike they are analyzing exists in the novel as “an episode mired in meaningless detail” (RA 173). In order to escape this meaningless and formless flow of details and to extract an idea, Eisenstein does not suggest an imposition of a form on this material from an outside, but rather by finding in this very flux some in itself meaningless and insignificant detail, which may however function as a kind of cut, a moment of negativity in which the flux of details might begin to stumble and equivocate, and thus give the budding directors in Eisenstein’s class an opportunity to turn the chaotic depictions in the novel against themselves and open up the path to form and genuine artistic construction.12
Similarly, in Eisenstein’s autobiographical writing, the form of remembering is not constituted through a willful imposition of the general form of recollection on the meaningless association of details that make up his reminiscences. On the contrary, it is most often precisely some detail in the automatic flow of reminiscences themselves, such as the artichokes in the chapter entitled “Otto H. and the Artichokes,”13 that begins to double as a kind of cut, separates itself in some minimal way from the chain of associations, and begins to equivocate. As an element of equivocation, a detail may then allow the memoirs to start moving between the initial sequence of reminiscences and another chain of associations. The form of remembrance, in so far as something like that emerges in Eisenstein’s memoirs, is constructed out of linkages between such details that function as moments of negativity (cuts) and equivocation (displacements between different series) rather than in reference to some overarching architectonics of recollection. But what this process describes is precisely the emergence of intention (the intention of memory, the intention of an autobiographical subject) that does not come about as a project of some intentional agency (voluntary recollection) but through the gaps and equivocations of a field fundamentally foreign to the structure of intentionality (the automatic flux of reminiscences).
The other significant example Cronan discusses in the chapter on Eisenstein allows us to pose the question of automatism and intention not at the level of biography or even artistic work but that of capitalist society itself. Eisenstein’s treatment for a film based on Theodor Dreiser’s American Tragedy, one of Eisenstein’s unrealized Hollywood projects from the late 1920s, is namely preoccupied precisely with the question of capitalist social machinery as a wholly automatic system indifferent to questions of individual intention. As Cronan notes, the difference between Dreiser’s text and Eisenstein’s adaptation of it is substantial. Dreiser in his novel is concerned with leaving open the question of the protagonist’s intention: the young Clyde takes his girlfriend Roberta boating on a lake in the Adirondacks. She comes from a poor family. Clyde has gotten her pregnant and is under pressure to marry her. In the meantime, he has grown close with the wealthy Sondra and dreams of marrying her instead. He decides to take Roberta out on the lake and drown her. Yet as they set out in their boat, his intention seems to weaken. Instead of performing his action, he freezes up. Perplexed by his behavior, Roberta moves, and Clyde accidentally hits her with a camera. They stumble and the boat capsizes. Roberta drowns as Clyde swims to the shore. In narrating this event in the story, Cronan writes, “Dreiser’s text takes the reader on the roller-coaster of Clyde’s inner life, passing through many shades of intentionality and accident” (RA 167). So that even as his case is taken up by the cruel and corrupt automatism of the American judiciary system, resulting in his execution by electric chair, Clyde, his individual conscience, remains an element of equivocation stuck in the automatic machinery of the system.
Eisenstein chooses differently: “In contrast to Dreiser, Eisenstein is unequivocal: Clyde is innocent because the crime is the ‘summary result of the social relationships whose influence he had been subjected to at every stage of the development of his life and character’” (RA 166). In his script, Eisenstein firmly establishes the innocence of Clyde’s intention and the accidental nature of Roberta’s drowning. But the lesson his treatment wishes to draw from this is that the automatic machinery of the system does not care about the intentions of individuals. “Capitalism commits the murder. Worse still, capitalism renders one’s intentions irrelevant. Guilt is fate for those at the bottom. … For Eisenstein, the only drama is to see what is made of an innocent man before the indifference of the law” (RA 166–67). Eisenstein’s difference from Dreiser may be ascribed to his skepticism about the possibility of an individual to function as an element of equivocation and of minimal freedom within the large automatic machinery of the capitalist order. Such a conception—that our individual intentions, or even the lack of clarity about them, matter—is indeed crucial for the liberal understanding of the world, but in Eisenstein’s view, which is the view of an outsider writing from the perspective of the Soviet revolutionary experiment, it constitutes an unsustainable illusion. The only thing that may cause the automatism of capitalism to equivocate is collectively organized political action capable of transforming the social forms of our existence.
At the same time, the example of Eisenstein’s treatment of American Tragedy does throw some doubt on the usefulness of the dynamic between automatism and intention sketched above once we place it at this larger level of the system or the social order itself. In Eisenstein’s version of the American Tragedy, the automatism of capitalist society locks people in as a form of fate or predestination. Its air-tight causal nature leaves no room for cuts and equivocations, with which intentions capable of producing new forms might be able to emerge. In Cronan’s reading this means that, for Eisenstein, only a complete identification with the gap-less automatism might offer us a path out of its grip:
Eisenstein’s own associational project mimes the capitalist structure of meaningless causality he is attacking. The risk of resemblance is the only chance to defeat it, as though only through near total proximity to mere materiality could meaningful difference arise. (RA 168)
In other words, far from contrasting automatism and intention, Eisenstein seeks to radically identify them, as though, from his socialist perspective, he could discover meaning in the least element of factual reality. (RA 163)
Yet we can quickly see that such a gesture, an act of political art faced with the overwhelming automatism of capitalist reality, would have to rely precisely on the idea of mimesis and the kind of relationship between resemblance and essence (“Resemble the automatism to arrive at meaning!”) whose absence gave rise to the problem of political art in the first place. What if it is instead the case that the dialectic of automatism and intention at the level of biography and artistic practice is not homologous but at best allegorical of the problem of the “automatic subject” of capital, as Marx called it? What if miming capital’s own automatism, unlike perhaps other mimetic exercises, does not lead to mastery and rediscovery of the power of our intentions? What if capital’s automatism is in this sense sui generis, immune to our identifications? And what if in our historical situation, in which it has now managed to envelope the entire planet, this automatic nature of capital has become indifferent to us in a manner far more radical and thorough than anything Brecht or Eisenstein were able to encounter, since for them the existence of the Soviet Union guaranteed the presence of a meaningful difference? Would this not be the problem and the line of questioning that a conception of political art for our own age would have to pursue alongside the reinvigoration of revolutionary projects of the modernist art of the twentieth century that is the subject of Red Aesthetics?
A project like that would in any case remain Brechtian: “Don’t start with the good old days but the bad new ones.”
Marxism versus The Avant-Garde
Many consider the Great Order … as an order utterly opposed to all existing order or disorder, a completed plan that had to be realized. … But the new comes about by upheaving, continuing, developing the old. … That’s why you cannot expect the Great Order to be introduced in one go, on one day, through a decision … it is a long process and a production. —Brecht, Me-Ti
Standing before the House Unamerican Activities Committee on October 30, 1947, Brecht was asked whether he was a member of the Communist Party. He answered “no” (which he also says was the truth) but that “the basis of my plays is marxist and [I] state that plays … cannot be written intelligently in any other framework.”1 When I assert, in the opening pages of Red Aesthetics, that politically progressive representations should be judged in terms of their “accuracy,” “correctness,” and truth of their “picture of the world,” I mean nothing more or less than that Marxism provides the best account available of contemporary society. For my respondents, this assertion, based on the primacy of economic exploitation under capitalism, is by turns anachronistic, rationalist, colonialist, and, above all, not new.
There is significant commonality among the responses in that all the authors take issue with my (seemingly controversial) claims about intention, truth, surface and depth, and audience response. There is some consensus either that my picture of Brecht is too rigid (Rockhill, Abbas, Carney, and Arsenjuk) or that Brecht himself is too rigid (Carney). Rockhill raises concerns about my “over-emphasizing [of] a rationalist core,” my putative belief in “fixed depiction[s] of the world that would be true for all time.” Abbas, recoiling in apparent horror, rejects the “finality” of my Brecht, my effort to “close doors” so that no “political subject actually [gets] in,” my “programmatic [and] prescriptive expediency,” “univocality,” an account that “exclude[s] any sense of knowledge that isn’t already determined and certified as knowledge,” or (even stronger) a “commanding, colonizing, ‘settling’ both the object of inquiry and its product, ostensibly in the name of freedom and justice.” Rockhill raises a similar concern about my too codified account of art: “what qualifies as art and how ideology regulates our perception of it … including our sense of what it can or cannot do.” Carney similarly rejects a Brecht who “sees the world in a very black and white, right and wrong kind of way,” creating a theater “overburdened with artistic intentions, leaving the spectator with as little room to maneuver as possible,” “affective response” being “throttled” as audiences are indoctrinated with “the correct point of view.”
All my respondents posit newness as an alternative to the various “closures” of my account. Glisic calls for a “new transformative art fit for our era of planetary crisis.” Rockhill insists on a new art that would “recompose all of the different dimensions of our existence, including not only our cognition but also our material practices, feelings, desires, perceptions, [and] tastes.” Against my artistic canon of “geniuses,” Rockhill affirms a “project of actually making a new and different world of art,” a new art that would generate “a transformation in the social relations of artistic production, circulation, and reception in such a way as to … make ‘the new person.’” (“Those who are against … must also continually attempt to construct a new body and a new life,” wrote Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire.2 To which, Walter Benn Michaels rightly countered that “In ideological struggles, victory is imagined as the triumph of one political and economic system over another; no new bodies are required.”3) Abbas, writing against “the same old ways,” affirms “the possibility of the emergence of the new,” of opening a “dialectic … to allow for the possible.” Like Arsenjuk’s Deleuzian montage, Abbas posits Brecht as “assemblage,” something that is “suspended within multiple more relations … in order to become something other than what he/we began with.” Carney uses the same image of suspension. The work is not reducible to what the artist is “saying,” Carney writes (citing David Hare), “it is the interaction of what you are saying and what the audience is thinking. The play is in the air.” When the work is loosened from the artist’s intention, new “political meanings” are allowed to “emerge spontaneously from new contexts.”
Arsenjuk’s account is most explicit in its commitment to an aesthetics of the new, affirming “the invention of new forms that break with the inherited doxa of artistic tradition [and] call for new artistic images drawn from an expanded field of social reality and historical struggle against the norms of good bourgeois representation.” Like Rockhill’s “new mode of perception,” Arsenjuk calls for the “production of a new appearance of reality, which does not quite resemble anything in our experience and therefore allows us not only to see reality differently but also, and perhaps more importantly, to reframe our relationship to the very function of appearance as such” (Abbas writes of a “historicity … irreducible to” any previous history).
As all the authors recognize, my criterium is not newness but the accuracy of one’s representation of the world. Accuracy, of course, is not the same as mimetic realism. Accuracy, in terms of the current state of capitalism, requires a “new realism,” meaning flexible, contextual, but also abstract in light of the financial abstractions with which capitalism functions. It is impossible to understand the structure of capitalism from its surface manifestations. Sticking to the surface, one is led to believe that bad individuals and tragic events define the nature of capitalism. Brecht’s point is that empathy no longer (if it ever did) provides access to the structure of capitalism, which is defined by exploitation, a fact that often resists clear visualization.
While Abbas calls this commitment to truth “anachronistic” (meaning not new), Arensjuk helpfully describes it this way:
The reaffirmation of … binaries, fundamental for any conception of political art, is also where we find the clearest statement of the polemic Red Aesthetics stages against some of the predominant tendencies in contemporary humanities: the turn away from the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and the affirmation of the surface; the abandonment of ideology critique and the corresponding proliferation of various “new” “materialisms”; the all-embracing spread of historicist relativism, which coincides with the disappearance of truth-claims in either politics or art.
Arsenjuk clearly identifies the problem but for him, as for other respondents, what is “far more intriguing and more substantial” about the book is defining the terms of a “new realism.” For Arsenjuk, this means one must “abandon any naive realism” based in “reproducing the already existing forms of our experience.” There is a massive slide in that sentence between the rejection of mimetic realism to the putative necessity for new forms of experience. Arsenjuk, in a Deleuzian strain, calls for the “production of a new appearance of reality, which does not … resemble anything in our experience.” In other words, for the truth of capital he substitutes new experiences, as though capitalism is defined less by exploitation than by the capture and territorializing of the senses.
Arsenjuk affirms “combination[s] of modes and forms,” “a plurality of modes” that will help us “think the strange and … unlocalizable relation” between structure and the falseness of lived experience. But at no point do any of my three artists make formalistic claims for the value of new artistic modes; this is to reverse their priorities. For all three artists, what matters is the reality one aims to understand while the form is driven by the effort to capture it accurately, to “think things out anew in every new situation,” as Brecht put it.4 So while it is true that contemporary capitalism requires new and constantly changing artistic and explanatory resources to capture it accurately, it would be a mistake to see the new resources themselves as the goal.
As Arsenjuk is well aware, the core aim of the book is to show how deeply invested these artists are in refusing to turn politics into a matter of experience. Thus, the problem the book opens with is Jacques Rancière’s effort to see Left art as synonymous with a commitment to a “new regime of sensibility” (RA 4). Whatever their differences, Eisenstein and Brecht are equally opposed to an art predicated on novelty as an independent value. So while Eisenstein (in 1926) called for a “new art,” it was only insofar as it “corresponded to the new social relationships,” later affirming, predating Brecht, that it is “new and accurate pictures that we need.”5 Inaccurate works, by contrast, leave themselves open to reading into them “anything you like.” Brecht similarly took aim at works driven by “sensory perceptions” which can only generate “very general, vague, nameless feelings, which are available to everyone, to the thieves and the robbed, to the oppressors and the oppressed” (RA 4, 5, 115–16). Far from affirming novelty as an independent value, both artists insist on getting representation right, which requires alienating conventional habits of seeing.
Like Arsenjuk’s combinatory aesthetic, Rockhill conceives of an art directed toward altering “the very framework of our perception.” And while Rockhill is less committed to the primacy of the new, he is centrally committed to what I would describe as a theory of practice. So while it is certainly true that material practices alter the ways in which one sees the world, everything depends on the specific nature of those practices, which is another way of saying theory and practice are inseparable. The primacy of practice for Rockhill rests on a more basic supposition that it is noncodified forms of practice, such as workers or folk or children’s art, that, far from taking accuracy as its aim, seeks to affectively “bind together communities of struggle” for “collective communist culture.” Rockhill calls for a democratization of art to include “workers and peasants,” “citizens,” implying that the spread of aesthetic practices (outside the confines of an artistic canon) might lead to a broader shift in the perceptual capacities of the society at large. Much like Arsenjuk, Rockhill describes a form of art that could transform “the different dimensions of our existence” including cognition but also, and more centrally, “feelings, desires, perceptions, tastes.” As should be clear, the idea that cognition is split off from feeling would be pure ideology for these artists. (As Brecht never tired of saying, the “aim” of art is always “pleasure,” even if the means are “instruction”; “thinking,” he says, is one of “life’s [greatest] pleasures” [J 453, 379].) Rockhill rightly sees that a correct depiction of the world does not mean “fully grasping … how the capitalist class exploits the masses,” but could be more like gaining access to the “general structures at work” in the system of exploitation.6
The heart of Rockhill’s critique rests on bringing the “oppressed … onto the stage” (literally and figuratively). The assumption being that the oppressed, as a subject position, automatically provides the tools or experiences for a new art. The grounds for this claim are unclear. One should never rule out any subject position as unable to create vital forms of expression, but nothing follows from any subject position that suggests more direct access to the truth. This is a question Brecht and Eisenstein confronted at length in the broader Soviet context. Not long after his arrival in East Germany, Brecht received a copy of a book “written by a working-class student” about Brecht’s work. Brecht’s verdict was crushing: “ideology, ideology, ideology.” The problem is that there is “nowhere an aesthetic concept.” The “first thing we have to do is institute exhibitions and courses to develop taste,” he wrote (RA 97; J 429). Far from automatic, the worker, like everyone else (“teach the teachers”), must be trained to see correctly.7
Brecht makes this point again and again in his later work. A few weeks after he received the worker’s commentary, Brecht was accused, like so many left artists before him, of “formalism.” Brecht writes of how Otto Grotewohl, the Prime Minister of the GDR, felt that the “formal elements” of his music for Herrnburg Report “are always taking the songs out of immediate reach.” Immediacy becomes a cudgel used against the artist. Brecht laments the mistaken demand that “artistic expression should merely be heightened expression, and should not turn into a different quality, namely that of art. They want people to write—or paint, or make music—from the heart” (J 439). Making art “from the heart”—he is especially thinking of folk and worker art—far from rendering the work immune to capitalism, threatens to turn it into a commodity.
Like Rockhill, Abbas affirms, against high art Brecht, a more democratic form of art making, one that is closer to the demands of “feeling.” Abbas presents a “genealogical” approach, pointing to the ways that Brecht’s views changed with his circumstances, not unlike the emphases of Glisic and Arsenjuk on the differences between 1920s Constructivism and 1930s Socialist Realism. But for Abbas what matters is not how Brecht changes his mind but more about reorienting his work toward its origins in “music and poetry.”
Abbas sees this musical Brecht as offering a fuller means of accessing the nature of fascism, an account that necessarily draws together “war, capital, and colony,” but also “patriarchy,” “supremacism” and the “colonializing … discourse of the expert,” what she also calls “knowledge systems of colonial and capitalist modernity.” Abbas warns the reader against the urge to “separate” these terms as these “systems are contained within each other,” so that for Abbas, addressing one is addressing the others. This is, I argue, a classically “inaccurate” picture of capitalism. So, even though Abbas is explicitly opposed to separations, what else is this but dividing up of capitalism into a series of disparate ills, a picture that puts the “violence” of discourse on the same terms as war. Or that makes colonialization—a military operation—into a “knowledge system.”
For Abbas each of the above ills might be “seen differently” by differently oppressed subjects—in other words, intersectionality. But are any of these terms separable? What is war? Frantz Fanon gave a good definition: “War is a gigantic business and every approach must be governed by this datum.”8 Capital requires war. What is colonialism? Fanon again: “a military conquest continued and reinforced by a civil and police administration.” Capital requires colonial expansion. Colonialism “is not a type of individual relations but the conquest of a national territory and the oppression of a people: that is all” (so much for colonial “knowledge systems”). In case we missed the point: colonialism, Fanon concluded, is “only military domination.”9 And what is racism? Fanon again (but the terms are identical to Brecht’s): it is “economic oppression” that “precedes, makes possible, and legitimizes racism.”10 Racism is what capitalists use to sort and divide their victims. The point being that an accurate picture of the world is precisely one that sees how the effects of capitalism are not the same as capitalism itself and that fighting the effects is not the same as fighting the cause. Fighting patriarchy—a good thing—does nothing to end capitalism (precapitalist societies were patriarchal). Fighting racism—a good thing—does nothing to end capitalism (it would result in a system that no longer sorts its victims based on their skin color). Consider too the billions of dollars spent by corporations in support of Black Lives Matter—are they anticapitalist?
Inaccurate too is the commitment to the “new” or “dialectical” reading of Brecht. Abbas asks us to play off “‘accurate’ history” so that one might “open up a door for the dialectic to pass through without closing the door behind it.” The role of the artist, Abbas writes, is to “allow for the possible,” a reality shaped in equal parts by artist and audience. As the ontology of the new requires, the “here and now,” and the past as well, is “unimportant.” Like Rockhill (but in more hostile terms), Abbas affirms “democratic meaning-making” over and against my (putative) insistence on the preformed assumption of an elite knowledge that is dispensed to passive subjects from on high. It is hard to know who or what the target is here. My assumption is that it is imperative for anyone on the left to have an accurate sense of how capitalism functions. And that understanding capital in the 1930s and even more now means renouncing empathy as the means to get there. By contrast, the pursuit of novelty as a good in itself is a description of the problem, rather than the solution.
Abbas, like Rockhill and Carney, worries about my artistic bias. Abbas describes my position as “an artist posits something that can be true or untrue, and the spectator remains” an “idiot” who needs to be “shown the way.” Bracketing the question of the artist, it is certainly the case that people make claims about the world that they believe to be true. They may be wrong. Other people may contest one’s claims, or they might come around to seeing the world in a different way (changing one’s mind). All three artists affirmed this basic setup, and all three artists changed their work according to feedback they received from audiences (even a passing glance at Brecht’s journals shows the degree to which he was in constant dialogue with others to improve his work).
So, I return to the sore spot of the whole enterprise, Brecht on the difference between seeing differently and seeing correctly. It is not a matter of people simply “seeing ‘differently,’” he writes, “we want them to see in a quite specific way.” The point is not to see “different from every other way” but correctly, what he calls “appropriate to the thing” (RA 117). The “thing” is capitalism, which wants to be seen differently by different people according to different needs. Once capitalism dissolves into the variety of experiential encounters, the totality of its structure disappears and naturalizes itself out of existence.
As Abbas’s argument reveals, an affective account of art is the necessary correlate of an intersectional politics and vice versa. No artist has any “power at all in determining what becomes of her artwork when it’s out in the world,” Abbas asserts. This is incontrovertible: no one should ever imagine they can determine what becomes of what one says. There is always room for mistakes and misunderstanding. Artists—Brecht and Eisenstein to a high degree—think through how audiences might respond to their work, but they cannot determine how someone will respond. But this is not Abbas’s point.
Abbas is far more interested in the audience side of the equation than in what the artist intends. For Abbas, it’s not just that works can be misunderstood; it’s that works become something else when they enter the world. Thus, her emphasis on the “interpretive community,” how audiences make the work in their varying responses, what she calls the strategies “we are deploying in reading” each of us “in a different way.” This is what newness means: audiences, beyond what the artist means, make works of their own according to their subject positions, and, if they are politically minded, according to how capital personally affects them. In other words, the literary commitment to the primacy of the subject position is, in a political register, nothing other than the expression of the commitment to the market—each of us seeing the world in our “different ways” being something like a definition of liberalism.
Like Abbas, Carney argues for an anti-intentional politics, observing how plays as a “communal event” are full of “accidents,” thus creating different meanings for different audiences. And like Abbas, Carney insists that anti-intentionality is an “irrefutable” fact of theater; the work is more “in the air” than in the artist’s intent. What is irrefutable is the fact that what the artist means can be misunderstood and that accidents happen, but the intent does not change because someone misunderstands it. Carney, like Abbas, just means what is valuable is what the audience makes of the work. Unlike the other respondents, Carney sees Brecht (and myself) as “inconsistent,” on one side is the “didactic, intentionalist, and manipulative” Brecht, disempowering his audiences, making works that are (counterintuitively) Aristotelian in the sense that world is construed as “fixed and unchanging.” On the other hand, there is “another Brecht,” the one who estranges his audience so they can begin to “think for themselves.” To the first point, it’s not as if offering an accurate picture of the world is the same as saying one cannot change it! The whole point of getting our pictures right is that one can begin to see the real problem so that one might fight it directly (and not shadow box its surface manifestations).
Carney’s “other Brecht” emerges with my discussion of Brecht’s account of a Chinese scroll, where the audience is given the space to complete the work themselves (RA 125). As Carney sees it, Brecht’s reading of the scroll is a “selfishly creative misreading” based in ignorance. So that there are “two rules” and “two Brechts,” one intentionalist, the other anti-intentionalist. But this is to misunderstand the meaning of intent. If one intends something, that does not mean the artist or audience imagines the encounter as an act of mind-melding. Aspects of every work of art are “open” and “closed,” and those boundaries are porous. As I argue, any Red aesthetic must explore a space “between closure and openness, specific idea and active response” (RA 125). All three artists pursue very different approaches to art in different media in different places and assume highly varying audience responses, even if they share the belief that Marxism is the “only intelligible framework” by which those modes of expression and response make sense.
Brecht’s Round Heads and Pointed Heads and Eisenstein’s Automatism
I am especially grateful to Carney and Arsenjuk for pressing me on two core readings in the book: Brecht’s Round Heads and Pointed Heads (chapter five) and Eisenstein’s automatism (chapter six); I think of these as the heart and soul of the book. Carney quotes Tom Kuhn and John Willett on the basic drift of Brecht’s point in the play: “The use of racist politics … as a calculated distraction from social and economic problems,” a point Kuhn and Willett find “depressingly familiar” and Carney “politically correct.” Where the play fails, Carney writes, is that it is not “realistic enough” about racist ideology. Carney elaborates on a critique I make about the play. In his letters and notes Brecht describes racial differences as utterly arbitrary (like the difference between “bicyclists and pedestrians” [RA 138]) while in the play he uses prosthetic noses that, for Carney, “reproduce” phrenological thinking.11 For Carney, there is not enough estrangement of racist tropes. This is a legitimate question although I am not sure I share this judgment, as photographs of the play show that the prosthetics are just that, stuck on, and from the look of it, about to fall off. It is meant to look ridiculous, and it does. But I certainly take Carney’s point that a contemporary production of Round Heads might require further estranging techniques, not least because racial diversions today are less about explicit racism—although there is plenty of that on the Right—and more about the celebration of racial difference, an antiracism stripped of any relation to capital. This issue gets clarified when Carney finally asserts that an exploration of “how racialized thinking actually works” is opposed to Brecht’s “blunt Marxist message that racism is a cynical tool wielded by those in power to divide and conquer those who would otherwise unite against the rich and powerful exploiters.” Carney, that is, like Abbas, separates race from class.
Among all the respondents Arsenjuk (along with Rockhill) is most comfortable with the basic Marxist framework, one that involves both partisanship and correctness: “the ability of political art to elucidate and to help us think what is in effect a universal condition of our lives … depends … on a commitment to a partisan … perspective” in order to get a “grasp of the totalizing nature of capitalist mediations themselves.” Arsenjuk sees how intention functions within this framework, but that is also the “most difficult concept” in the book. Arsenjuk points to what he sees as my use of two different accounts of intent: partisan and impersonal. The latter is a mistake. When I remark on the intentionality of the “impersonal system of capitalism,” I am pointing to Eisenstein’s intent in his treatment of An American Tragedy, that capitalism wants everyone to see the tragedies it generates as “impersonal,” not meant by anyone or anything. Arsenjuk’s mistake sets up a problem in his reading of my account of Eisenstein’s project. Arsenjuk asks the crucial question about Eisenstein’s automatism: “How may automatic flow give rise to form?” His answer diverges widely from my own. Arsenjuk points to a “cut,” a moment of “negativity” within the flux that begins to “equivocate,” thus allowing a “new form to take place.” These cuts, Arsenjuk insists, are impersonal events that are “fundamentally foreign to the structure of intentionality.” As Arsenjuk knows, Eisenstein took every effort to saturate his works with intentionality, to the degree that his admirers and critics (Bordwell, Tsivian, Thompson, and Tarkovsky) found the sheer density of his intent intolerable. For Arsenjuk, like Abbas and Carney, what ultimately matters is what the artist is not responsible for: the newness that appears the moment the artist disappears.
Arsenjuk rightly sees that Eisenstein reads Dreiser against the grain, as though the point of An American Tragedy is how the “capitalist social machinery [is] a wholly automatic system indifferent to questions of individual intention.” Dreiser is painstakingly equivocating about guilt and innocence, as though every judgement dissolves in the complexities of the stream of consciousness. Eisenstein will have none of it: Clyde is innocent; he did not intend to kill Roberta, but the capitalist judicial system is designed not to care, and Clyde is sentenced to die. As Arsenjuk rightly sees, my argument is that for Eisenstein it is necessary to risk miming “the capitalist structure of meaningless causality” as the only means “to defeat it.” (For Arsenjuk this is to fall behind my own point about the limits of mimesis and the necessity for “construction,” but there is an obvious sense in which Eisensteinian mimesis is deeply estranging.) Arsenjuk concludes by asking whether capitalism today requires something far different than the approaches I describe in the book (capital has become “indifferent to us in a manner far more radical and thorough than anything Brecht or Eisenstein were able to encounter”). This is a reasonable question, but whatever a contemporary Red aesthetic might look like, it will be grounded in an accurate picture of capital, and being accurate means refusing novelty or “negativity” as a value in itself.