Art into life

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Marx once declared, critiquing Hegel, that the historical task confronting humanity was “to make the world philosophical.” Hegel had completed philosophy, effectively brought it to a close. Now all that was left was to make this philosophy real by transforming the world according to its dictates. As he put it:

It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it. (From a philosophical point of view, however, it is important to specify these aspects better, since from the specific manner of this turn we can reason back towards the immanent determination and the universal historic character of a philosophy. We see here, as it were, its curriculum vitae narrowed down to its subjective point.) But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It’s the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea. But this immediate realization of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with con­tradictions, and this its essence takes form in the appearance and imprints its seal upon it.

When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality, that is, it has become one aspect of the world which opposes another one. Its relationship to the world is that of reflection. Inspired by the urge to realize itself, it enters into tension against the other. The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, that its realization is also its loss, that what it struggles against on the outside is its own inner deficiency, that in the very struggle it falls precisely into those defects which it fights as defects in the opposite camp, and that it can only overcome these defects by falling into them. That which opposes it and that which it fights is always the same as itself, only with factors inverted.

Reflecting on these lines nearly a century later, in the aftermath of the stillborn October Revolution, Karl Korsch famously concluded that “[p]hilosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” In other words, it is vital not to cast philosophy unceremoniously aside simply because its time has passed. One must come to terms with it, and critically engage it, before doing away with it completely. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in many ways a sequel to Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,” thus begins with the sobering observation: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who corresponded for decades with Adorno, explained at the outset of his monumental work on Intellectual and Manual Labor, provided a clue as to what this might have meant:

[Work on the present study] began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno, and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter.

Korsch’s insight into this theme from the early thought of Karl Marx, reaffirmed subsequently by Adorno and his best followers, can be extended to encompass art and religion as well. For Hegel, of course, art and religion each provided — in their own, particular way — privileged access to the Absolute. Art reigned supreme in the ancient world, while religion dominated medieval thought (with its “great chain of being”). By the time Hegel was writing, however, these modes of apprehending the Absolute had been surpassed by philosophy, which rationally comprehended the Absolute Idea in its spiritual movement. Intuition and belief had been supplanted by knowledge. Science, or Wissenschaft, had been achieved.

Yet this achievement did not last long. After Hegel’s death, his successors — Left and Right, Young and Old — battled for possession of the master’s system. Only Marx succeeded in carrying it forward, precisely by realizing that philosophy itself must be overcome. The same may perhaps be said for those older forms of life which had the Absolute as their object, art and religion. Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, which read theology as secret anthropology, perhaps found its most revolutionary articulation in the writings of Bogdanov, Gorky, and Lunacharsky, who promoted a project of “God-building” [богостроиетльство]. Lenin rightly scolded them for their excessive, premature exuberance, but they were on the right track. Similarly, the avant-garde project of dissolving art into life, in hopes of bringing about the death of art, can be read as an effort to make the world artistic (“to make the world philosophical”). Or, better, to make the world a work of art.

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Accordingly, every man could be an artist, “a fisherman in the morning and a painter in the evening,” just as the young Marx had suspected. Lukács’ colleague, Mikhail Lifshitz, already expanded on this claim in his own excellent notes on Karl Marx’s Philosophy of Art (1931). To say nothing of Antonio Labriola’s analogous claim from his 1899 collection, Socialism and Philosophy:

In the society of the future, in which we live with our hopes, and still more with a good many illusions that are not always the fruit of a well balanced imagination, there will grow out of all proportion, until they are legion, the number of men who will be able to discourse with that divine joy in research and that heroic courage of truth which we admire in a Plato, a Bruno, a Galilei. There may also multiply infinitely the individuals who, like Diderot, shall be able to write profound and beguiling things such as Jacques le Fataliste, which we now imagine to be unsurpassed. In the society of the future, in which leisure, rationally increased for all, shall give to all the requirements of liberty, the means of culture, and the right to be lazy, this lucky discovery of our Lafargue, there will be on every street corner some genius wasting his time, like old master Socrates, by working busily at some task not paid for in money.

What follows, then, are a couple excerpts. First from Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1924), and after from Henri Lefebvre’s lecture on “Nature and Nature Conquered” (1959). Both of these, I like to think, corroborate my above claims. Moreover, I’m including illustrations from Vera Mukhina 1925 pamphlet Art into Life. Enjoy.

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Revolutionary and socialist art

Leon Trotsky
Literature and
Revolution
(1924)

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Communist life will not be formed blindly, like coral islands, but will be built consciously, will be tested by thought, will be directed and corrected. Life will cease to be elemental, and for this reason stagnant. Man, who will learn how to move rivers and mountains, how to build peoples’ palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic, will not only be able to add to his own life richness, brilliancy, and intensity, but also a dynamic quality of the highest degree. The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements. Life in the future will not be monotonous.

More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organization of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub-soil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man’s extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organs and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid, and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death.

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

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Nature and nature conquered

Henri Lefebvre
Intro to Modernity
(September 1959)

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Once the simplistic, scientistic, and positivist interpretations [of the Marxist project] have been abandoned — namely, the purely economic and purely sociological interpretations, according to which economic activity or the functioning of the social relations of production, made coherent by socialism, would be self-sufficient — two interpretations become possible. One gives priority to ethics, the other to aesthetics. According to the first, Communist society will gain control over nature (the physical, external world) and the productive forces, having first externalized the latter. This will facilitate the constitution of ethical relations between individuals and human groups. These relations will be based upon mutual recognition and the disappearance of the social mystery, and underpinned by complete equality between the surviving individuals and groups, as well as by the satisfying of basic or differentiated needs, including aspirations of an ethical character. At last man will appropriate the earth as a “general object.”

For the second interpretation, it is art which constitutes human power, and in its history we can see the beginnings of Communist society in embryo. In so far as it produces pleasure and joyfulness, art prefigures the possible relation between man and the world and between man and himself. It was always the highest form of creative work, towering above fragmented labor, knowledge and the trivial use of discourse and the sensory organs. If art, taken as a specialized activity, brought its own specific alienations, the supersession of art per se and its emergence into the entirety of life (into global praxis) would transform this life into complete physical fulfillment. Higher physical fulfillment as prefigured by art and generalized by the reintegration of art into life would be something loftier than the mere satisfaction of needs, even differentiated needs, throughout the course of history. The man of the future will enjoy the earth like a work of art.

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