The new Marxist art history

In 1905, Lenin is reported to have said, after spending an evening with the library of an artistically inclined comrade, “What a fascinating field is the history of art. How much work there is in it for a Marxist!” That Marxism, in one form or another, has left its mark on how the history of art is taught in universities today is undisputed. Concern for how changing systems of patronage and notions of artistic labor have affected what art looks like or how it is defined has become part of the standard art historical narrative, as have terms familiar to Marxists such as “commodity fetishism” and “reification”. 

Yet the future of anything like a Marxist art history proper remains uncertain, as departmental budgets are slashed and emerging social art historians struggle to find their way in an increasingly corporatized academic environment averse to the humanities. True renewal will require building closer ties between scholarship and political practice within and outside the lecture hall.

This was how an earlier generation of art historians brought their political commitments into the field, as Warren Carter explains in his introductory essay to the important new collection ReNew Marxist Art History. Radicalized by the struggles of the 1960s, they were incited to explore topics with explicit social and political implications, seeking to overturn a stodgy discipline beholden to outdated methods and questionable tastes. Studies of how artworks are able to bolster or even undermine ruling ideologies, for example, were part of a broader search for methods of establishing, as Carter writes, “some productive relationship between the subject of art history and the broader social upheavals of the moment.”

Unfortunately, these links between art history and various currents within the revolutionary and New Left were all but severed by the defeats of the 1980s. The rise of alternative, at times antagonistic, intellectual trends likewise called into question some of the fundamental concepts employed by these historians (e.g., class). Such challenges need not have been viewed as opposed to Marxist art history; closer attention to specific gender and race dynamics within the history of art, for instance, could have led to a much richer and more expansive understanding of Marxist art history (as indeed it has in the work of art historians who have investigated these topics). 

However, a widespread misconception that a Marxist worldview had become a hindrance to progressive scholarship took hold by the early 1990s, and most of the valuable insights developed by the ’60s generation became so many individual tools, divorced from any comprehensive perspective or collective project. The subsequent admixture of methods, theories and terms derived from Critical Theory, left-communist currents, semiotics and poststructuralist writings has had the paradoxical effect of providing much art history today with a “radical” sheen that belies the absence of its earlier oppositional élan. 

Given this state of affairs, ReNew Marxist Art History represents a welcome rejoinder to the idea that art historians working within an explicit Marxist tradition have nothing more to contribute. The twenty-eight essays in the volume, comprising a wide range of subject matter from American landscape painting of the mid-nineteenth century to Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s contemporary public sculptures, clearly prove that they are very relevant indeed. 

A couple of examples illustrate the book’s attempt to show how Marxism can deepen our understanding of art. Steve Edwards, art historian at the Open University in London, defends the documentary function of photography in his piece on the works of the early London photographer John Thompson. He argues that the self-reflexive artistry discernable in his 1877–78 images of London street life reflect a petty-bourgeois anxiety more than conscious aesthetic play. In contrast to recent trends in scholarship, Edwards contends that the precarious social standing of early photographers, whose professional status teetered between that of skilled tradesman and artist, impacted the look and subject matter of their images.

In a similar vein, the late art historian Frances Stracey seeks to overturn assumptions of recent art history in her essay on the Situationist International. The Situationists are typically presented as an all-male revolutionary club, led by the charismatic theorist Guy Debord, whose journal, scattered at times with images of bikini-clad models appropriated from commercial publications, has been criticized for perpetuating harmful stereotypes and ignoring women’s oppression. 

According to Stracey, such criticism overlooks the key contributions made by the few women who belonged to the revolutionary group, most notably Debord’s wife Michèle Bernstein, who selected many of the journal’s images and whose waged labor kept the group afloat. Culled from the pages of magazines like Elle and Marie Claire, Stracey maintains that Bernstein’s appropriation of images featuring seminude and provocatively dressed women spoke to the specific historical context—changing conceptions of femininity post–World War II, the rise of American-style advertising in France—and implicitly demonstrated how “[i]mages of women became the central site for the alienating machinations of the spectacle,” the group’s term for postwar capitalist rule. 

Stracey is quite clear about the limits of the Situationists’ gender politics, seeing their particular redeployment of sexualized mass-produced imagery as very much a product of its time, but concludes that the search for a nongendered revolutionary subjectivity, even among its female members, was as much a factor as any ingrained sexism within the group. The revival of interest in the Situational International in recent years makes Stracey’s investigation of the group’s ambiguous and sometimes problematic relationship to feminism all the more intriguing.

As a whole the collection demonstrates how Marxism can contribute to art-historical scholarship as something more than just a vocabulary of key words and phrases. Readers hoping for a conclusive definition of “Marxist art history” will, however, be disappointed. Working across chronological boundaries and with a variety of artistic mediums, the various authors controvert the prevailing notion that adherence to a Marxist-oriented art history adversely constricts one’s point of view or leads to predetermined answers. 

The diversity of views presented is the collection’s great strength. Some contributors discuss historical formulations of a “Marxist aesthetics” and how such formulations have guided artists and critics alike; others focus more on the imbrication of certain works or oeuvres with shifting sociopolitical contexts and changing modes of artistic practice. The volume is an indispensable reference for those interested in Marxist approaches to art history—and a testament to the influence of art historian Andrew Hemingway, professor emeritus at University College London, to whom the collection is dedicated. 

Both as a writer and editor Hemingway has arguably done more than any other scholar in keeping Marxist art history alive. His Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left (2006) presents eight concise introductions to Marxist art historians belonging to the “old left” who set the parameters the post-WWII generation would follow and/or modify. Equally important is Hemingway’s Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956 (2002), which not only serves as a model for what Marxist art history can be in the hands of a skilled and committed scholar, but also captures the difficult political terrain artists aligned with the Communist Party in this country navigated to secure a partisan, working-class audience and maintain social relevance for their artwork.

ReNew Marxist Art History can play a small role in the much larger project of rejuvenating art history and reconnecting it to the political debates of our own time, insofar as it will better enable readers to see how the contexts that give meaning to works of art, past and present, are not static, but instead politically and socially contested. Coming to terms with the underlying material dynamics of this ongoing contestation over what art is, who it is for, and what, if anything, it might do is an important first step towards countering the twined ideas that haunt contemporary debates: that art belongs to the rich, and that the history of art has nothing to offer political activists. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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