Pergamon Altar, Pergamos, Turkey, c. 165-56 BC. Marble. Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Where the ‘ideology’ fits into the equation
There are different Marxist views within Marxism itself, especially when it comes to artwork analysis.
Karl Marx came to England in 1848. Him and Friedrich Engels in their “Communist Manifesto” called on workers to overthrow capitalism that had the means of production in the hands of a few.
Marxists generally agree that society progresses through stages: slavery to capitalism, ending in communism. In the book “Das Kapital” each stage is a result of new techniques.
Exploitation of the working class would eventually mean an uprising leading to a socialist revolution. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 forced many into a reassessment of Marxist legacy, questioning his economic prophecy!
Marxist interpretations in art are loosely based on his economic vision – and taken his name – have since emerged along the lines of class structure analysis, ideologies and multi-causal explanations for the developmental process of art in history; and, as a way of thinking philosophically, rather than the brutal truth as it unfolded.
Marxism has become hugely important to scholarship in many other academic disciplines as well as art history.
‘Class’ always springs out as a keyword in Marxism, hence, the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, thus it reverberates through the art world too and provides a comparison.
While the bourgeoisie owned the means of production, it was the proletariat who only owned their own labor. However, critics have pointed out it isn’t as simple as this; TJ Clark for instance, said the new production techniques bring new classes and hybrids and this is forever continuing and changing into the future.
Nevertheless, the class system is still at the heart of the art world to a lesser or greater degree, and Marxism will always be part of the class system, thus suggesting it is somehow connected to that problem of explaining change in the history of art.
‘Ideology’ springs out as another essential keyword relating to Marxism, and this word – ideology – has been put to good use in a great many ways.
Marx saw all societies as class societies based on one or more ruling classes. False consciousness and inequalities of power, meant people often believed their interests were the same as those that oppressed them.
Marx identifies ideology with the division of labor. Mental and manual.
The first ideologists were priests who supposedly had ideas like they were an independent existence; but ideas are always connected to those who produce them.
By submitting to a social order people adopt ideas of their class and promote their interests more effectively. But if the idea producers are the ideologists, why would these ideas be in the interest of another class, if people produce ideas in pursuit of their own interests?
Marxism represents a science of society but the dividing line between ideology and science isn’t easy to find, hence this makes it even more difficult to sense where art ideology fits into the equation.
Art plays a large part in the attitudes, beliefs, and values within society but it is not clear that art has a so-called ‘false consciousness’ and, something false that was believed to be true, may well not slot into ideology quite so comfortably.
But the image of Venus in Titian’s painting is unlikely to have meant to show how reality is meant to be, so there is all these things to grapple with when doing Marxist art history!
So if art is false consciousness it must be false in some less obvious way. Marxists have responded to this challenge in a number of different ways.
TJ Clark on ‘ideology’ said: “…………..ideology indicates bodies of knowledge in society…..constructs tied to attitudes and experience……..”
Clark goes on to say that ideology includes art as a quality of discourse or imagery and belief, but the boundaries are not clear. False consciousness is not the falsehood that we are familiar with when a belief fails to match reality. Clearly, false consciousness is ambiguous in meaning.
Ideology for Clark is a false consciousness because artists perhaps present themselves with disputable meanings or like they hardly have meaning at all.
Not every social art historian would see themselves as a neo-marxist, but Karl Marx himself appeared to allow art to play both roles: he referred to classical Greek art as representing aesthetic ideals and ideology, despite the social conditions that gave rise to it.
Art has a significance to be able to transcend the limits of the society that produced it. Thus, many Marxist writers saw art as a mode of expression that goes beyond historical determination.
Instead of merely being a piece of ideology, art retains a Utopian capacity. Theodor Adorno postulates art as a critical counterweight to alienated social labor. Adorno saw art not just as an expression of the society which produced it, but a a vision of human freedom.
This is done not by subject matter but the way formal characteristics are determined.
Art is a form of fulfilled labor that is absent from capitalism.
But as Utopian, it is socially unspecific and indirect, thus ideology’s social character is difficult to analyze.
Furthermore, orthodox Marxism which takes art to be determined by the economic conditions of society, gives a solution to the fundamental question about change that occupied art history from Hegel to Panofsky.
The changing means of production form the link between stages of society and the art which is produced in them is Marxism art history the way that the Absolute Idea is for Hegel.
Moreover, Marx understanding of labor as the vehicle for human self-realization resolves what we have called the hermeneutic problem: labor runs through history and connects the present with the past. It must undergo changes like art does.
It is the discussion of this complicated side to Marx and social history – directed at paintings – that enabled art history to break away from the systematic approach it was so used too, in the nineteenth-century!
Marxist Art History
Many of the Marxist art historians were forced into exile – which may have been a blessing in disguise because it brought their work to a larger audience.
After Friedrich Antal wrote “Florentine Painting and its Social Background” in exile in the UK, it was to become a classic example of Marxist art history.
Stalin and Hitler repressed the people. Antal studied stylistic changes in Florentine painting from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries, however, it wasn’t about the beauty of the past, but of the class struggle – the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy – long before Karl Marx ever lived!
Antal begins with the economic, social and political conditions of fourteenth / fifteenth century Florence. The economic causes of the rise of the bourgeoisie in Florence, followed by the superstructure of religion, philosophy, literature and then art reflecting that superstructure base; and Antal certainly empathized with this from his own experience.
1434 is the year Cosimo de Medici put an end to warring bourgeois factions and made himself ruler of a declining city.
Antal compares Gentile da Fabriano’s Madonna and child with angels painted around 1425 and Masaccio’s painting of the same subject from around 1426. Two pictures from the same time and place.
Gentile da Fabriano The Madonna and Child with Angels (1425). Egg tempera on wood, 139 x 83 cm. National Gallery, London
Masaccio, The Virgin and Child (1426). Egg tempera on wood, 134.8 x 73.5 cm. National Gallery, London
Antal notes that the first picture lacks the clarity, objectivity and austerity of the second: Fabriano has Mary as a lovely and gracious queen, enthroned in a court of heaven with richly ornamented robes; Masaccio’s figures are plasticy, while, Fabriano defines his by rhythmic undulating outlines.
In contrast to Gentile’s emphasis on decoration, rich materiality and ritualistic behavior, Masaccio (according to Antal) treats space and figures rationally following the rules of foreshortening in a textbook like manner.
This matter of fact conception presents the Madonna and infant Jesus like any mother and child, e.g. Jesus sucks his thumb in a way that most babies do!
How could two such widely differing pictures have been painted in the same time and place? It helps little he says to give a stylistic explanation describing one as late Gothic and the other as classical renaissance. It is exactly this difference which needs to be explained.
The age difference between the artists or them having different regional influences as many might think, will not give enough of the explanation required.
If influences don’t explain change then there must be some fundamental cause for historical appearances and change; for Hegel we know it to be the ‘spirit’ and for connoisseurs it was individual genius, for them formalists it was perception, and for Panofsky it was a rational mind!
Marxism suggests this fundamental cause is the economic structural base of society.
Ideology follows from the means of production which governs the art or the time, thus, the two different styles of Masaccio and Fabriano using the same theme at the same time, shows that societies are antagonistic, hostile and in opposition.
Fabriano has a ritualistic and courtly style expressing the endurance of the aristocracy, for instance; while, Masaccio is rational, natural and realistic reflecting the values of the powerful bourgeoisie.
Arnold Hauser provided an account from prehistoric times to the twentieth-century. He gave the economic and social structure underlying the appearance of styles including those of Gothic, Mannerist and Impressionist.
Hauser agreed with Antal saying courtly artistic taste in Fabriano and Domeico Venziano exist alongside the naturalism of Masaccio, thus he recognized the history of the fourteenth-century (according to Hauser) being the history of class struggle not only between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, but also between the bourgeoisie and the working classes.
As the industrious middle class developed to a class living a life of courtly leisure, so art changed accordingly.
The monumental naturalism of Masaccio, with its anti Gothic simplicity and its emphasis on the clarification of spatial relationships and proportions; the richness of genre in the art of Gozzoli; and the psychological sensibility of Botticelli; represent three different stages in the historical development of the middle class as it rises from frugal circumstances to the level of a real money aristocracy.
Hauser has been known to acknowledge arts capacity to develop independently of social and economic circumstances as well. In 1958 he declared the need to reconcile historical materialist analysis with independent dynamism of art and appreciation of individuality.
Such independent development, however – he still felt – never departs very far from the line determined by the underlying economic reality!
While styles may linger on after the class which they serve has ceased to exist, artistic forms cannot be independently revolutionary.
Orthodox Marxist art historians believe changes are a response to fundamental economic and social changes. Hauser suggested that Gustave Courbet is the prime exponent of anti bourgeois naturalism, yet with Courbet’s proletarian outlook the political force should not be exaggerated which of course was in 1850 with Burial of Ornans.
Bring on the neo Marxist viewpoint.
Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1872). Oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm. Musée Marmottan
Impressionism came about in late nineteenth-century Paris originating from Monet’s painting of almost the same name Impression, Sunrise
This wonderful painting and others in the genre typically had relatively small, thin, yet visible qualities about them that were accentuating the passage of time almost including a form of movement.
These details were crucial; hence, there are unusual visible angles and this has since weaved its way into other arts too; Impressionist Music and Impressionist Literature, for instance.
Violating all the rules in this new period, the Impressionist movement freely brushed its many colours that began to take precedence over linearity and contours, thus they painted realistic scenes of modern life; these artists often painted outdoors which was new and unusual because still life painting was traditionally done in the studio, as were portraits and landscapes oddly enough.
The Impressionist style was different. The Impressionists could capture the transient effects of sunlight by painting “en plein air” to give an overall effect, rather than concentrating on details. They used pure, unmixed, colour with short brush strokes to give an intense vibration, and because they were outside this meant the revolutionary tubes of paint had to be invented which changed things again; it was very different dealing with the elements as you can imagine new skills were definitely involved because this wasn’t sunny old Italy any more!
Impressionism became a precursor of Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, though the first exhibitions in the Salon gained mixed reviews with Cezanne, Renoir and Monet defecting from group exhibitions.
Monet and Degas invited Mary Cassatt to display her work in the 1879 exhibition while Pissarro was the only artist to show at all of the eight Impressionist exhibitions.
Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec all began to develop different perspectives for the use of colour, pattern, form and line derived from these Impressionists and their work became known as post-Impressionism.
Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant) was Claude Monet’s masterpiece which gave rise to the Impressionist movement even though we say that Edourd Manet was the father of impressionism!
1872, Sunrise is of Le Havre in France. It is a harbour using very loose brush strokes, thus it was impressive and Monet even said that landscape has an instantaneous impression. Sunrise was stolen in 1985 from the Musee Marmottan Monet and not seen for five years.
The Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris houses over three hundred Impressionist paintings. It was originally a hunting lodge which was bequeathed to the French Academy in 1934, thus in 1966, Michel Monet left his fathers collection to the museum and created the world’s largest gallery of Monet paintings. The curator built a special exhibition centre for Monet’s collection inspired by the hall and designed for the Water Lilies which allows viewing from close up and afar – the most notable piece in the museum is of course Impression, Sunrise.
When stolen, five masked gunmen burst in during daylight hours and pinched nine paintings including Impression, Sunrise. A Renoir and a Morisot were among the stolen items as well, collectively valued at tens of millions of dollars. The man responsible was a Yakuza gangster who met an art syndicate in a French prison where he spent time for trafficking heroin. When his house was raided the police found stolen paintings from the museum encircled in a magazine, plus other missing artworks from previous heists. This led to the discovery of the missing Sunrise in a small villa in Corsica.