Art into life

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.

Continue reading

Small is Beautiful, but Big is Sublime

Kant, Le Corbusier, Koolhaas


Analytic of the Sublime

The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a totality.

— Immanuel Kant, 1793
Critique of Judgment

Bolshevism means big


It is a word (a magnificent one) and not a mere matter of party membership.

In 1928, I was called to Moscow to discuss the construction of the Tsentrosoiuz there. I was taken to the office of Mr. Lubinov (now the People’s Commissar, once mayor of Moscow, before that a peasant, and at this particular time President of the Tsentrosoiuz). There was an interpreter there. The President delivered himself of a long speech in which the word ‘bolshoi,’ always delivered with great force, recurred again and again. The interpreter passed on the substance of this speech to me as follows:

The construction of this palace [The Palace of the Soviets] must prove itself an outstanding event in Russian architectural history, a history that only began with the Revolution itself. It is essential that there should be a visible quality of bigness in all the aspects of its design, a bigness achieved not simply by means of physical dimensions, nor by emphasis, but by a judicious regard to proportions. It is essential that this non-military building, the biggest that has so far been envisaged by our regime, should constitute a model: strict expression of function and dignity. All our projects must come into the world under this sign: BIG, bolshoi…

I questioned the interpreter: “That word, ‘bolshoi,’ which Mr. Lubinov kept hammering out, what does it mean?”


“So, Bolshevism…?”

“Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.”

Up to then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.

— Le Corbusier, 1930
The Radiant City


The skyscrapers here are much too small.

— Le Corbusier arriving
in Manhattan, 1935 Continue reading

Hal Foster’s critical turn

There’s a good review by Jeffrey Petts over at the low-key online publication Marx and Philosophy of Hal Foster’s excellent The Art-Architecture Complex (2011). Currently I’m writing a double-review of Foster’s book along with another very good book, Gevork Hartoonian’s recent Architecture and Spectacle: A Critique (2013) for the LA Review of Books. Petts covers all the major points of Foster’s study with clarity and concision; I especially appreciate the way he elucidates the connection with Kenneth Frampton’s advocacy of “critical regionalism.” Indeed, the opposition between image and building, the visual and the tactile, the scenographic and the tectonic — frames the entire discussion. (Same goes for Hartoonian, incidentally).

But one thing I’m really grateful to Petts’ review for was its reference to criticisms Foster has recently leveled against the post-Marxist philosopher and aesthetic theorist Jacques Rancière. He cites an November 2013 review Foster wrote of Rancière’s Aisthesis, just translated into English by Zakir Paul and published by Verso. You can read that review in PDF form here. Rancière has been enthusiastically embraced by art critics and practitioners alike for too long. It’s high time that he be properly critiqued. And so below I am reproducing an article Foster wrote in December 2012 for The Brooklyn Rail on “post-critical” theory, focusing on Rancière and the French philosopher Bruno Latour. This represents Foster’s latest move away from his earlier promotion of aesthetic postmodernism in The Anti-Aesthetic (1981), a collection of essays he edited.


Hal Foster
Brooklyn Rail

Critical theory took a serious beating during the culture wars of the 1980s and the 1990s, and the 2000s were only worse. Under Bush the demand for affirmation was all but total, and today there is little space for critique even in the universities and the museums. Bullied by conservative commentators, most academics no longer stress the importance of critical thinking for an engaged citizenry, and, dependent on corporate sponsors, most curators no longer promote the critical debate once deemed essential to the public reception of advanced art. Indeed, the sheer out-of-date-ness of criticism in an art world that couldn’t care less seems evident enough. Yet what are the options on offer? Celebrating beauty? Affirming affect? Hoping for a “redistribution of the sensible”? Trusting in “the general intellect”? The post-critical condition is supposed to release us from our straightjackets (historical, theoretical, and political), yet for the most part it has abetted a relativism that has little to do with pluralism.

How did we arrive at the point where critique is so broadly dismissed? Over the years most of the charges have concerned the positioning of the critic. First, there was a rejection of judgment, of the moral right presumed in critical evaluation. Then, there was a refusal of authority, of the political privilege that allows the critic to speak abstractly on behalf of others. Finally, there was skepticism about distance, about the cultural separation from the very conditions that the critic purports to examine. “Criticism is a matter of correct distancing,” Benjamin wrote in One-Way Street (1928). “It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society.” How much more urgent is this pressing today? Continue reading

The many deaths of art

Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz,
Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee

Image: The “tombstone” of Kazimir Malevich,
buried beneath The Black Square (1935)


Originally posted over at the Platypus Review. Last spring, in response to Paul Mason’s article “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?,” the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted an event on the “death of art.”[1] Speakers included Julieta Aranda who was represented by Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz, Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee. The discussion was moderated by Chris Mansour and was held at the New School in New York on February 23, 2013. Complete video of the event can be found online by clicking here. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Opening remarks

Anton Vidokle: These are Julieta Aranda’s opening remarks: It was with a strange sense of déjà vu that I accepted the invitation to attend yet another funeral for art. Of course I have heard about all the previous ones, but this is the first time I have been invited to attend one. As an artist it is hard to understand the compulsion to establish our sense of art history through the recurrent announcements of “the death or art.” Art seems to be constantly dying, but we never talk much about its birth. It must have been stubbornly reborn on countless occasions, since we are here again, trying to measure its vital signs. I tried to do a bit of a research into the many deaths of art — but I was quickly overwhelmed: In one way or another, we have been trying to put art in a coffin and nail it shut for the past 2,000 years.

In the 1980s — during the art market boom — there were plenty of death calls: the death of painting, the death of modernism, and also the death of postmodernism. Meanwhile, the New York art market was very much alive, fueled by the usual suspects: speculators, investors, real estate developers, social climbers, and so forth. Of course as with everything that is artificially inflated, there was an eventual market crash, and this crash had many casualties. Many galleries disappeared, and many artists’ careers dried out. But this wasn’t understood to be the death of art as it had been previously announced.

I am skeptical about the Peter and the Wolf announcements of an imminent death of art — this time in its “contemporary” incarnation. For me, it is more interesting to question the favorable disposition — almost a wish — that we have towards the demise of art. The death sentence on contemporary art comes not only because the current operative model for contemporary art is deficient. (Under the current model, meaning is often quickly emptied out from objects and images, and market artists are a renewable resource.) But this wish also comes partly because we want a new big thing, we want the new thing to come now, and we want to be the new thing while the market is booming. As Hito Steyerl, a German video artist and writer, points out in her Kracauer Lecture, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” “To declare something over or dead is a form of production, that purposefully kills off something in order to launch new commodities or attract attention.”[2] Continue reading

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square (1915)

The many deaths of art

IMAGE: Kazimir Malevich, The Black Square (1915)

A moderated panel discussion held by the Platypus Affiliated Society on Sat, 2.23.13 at the New School.

Video from the event

The “death of art” has been a recurring theme within aesthetic and philosophical discourse for over two centuries. At times, this “death” has been proclaimed as an accomplished fact; at others, artists themselves have taken the “death of art” as a goal to be accomplished. So while this widely perceived “death” is lamented by many as a loss, it is celebrated by others as a moment of life renewed. For them, art is all the better for having disburdened itself of the baggage of outmoded modernist ideologies. Insofar as the “death” of longstanding cultural traditions has in the past typically been understood to signal a deeper crisis in society at large, however, the meaning of death necessarily takes on a different aspect today — especially when the tradition in question is modernism, the so-called the “tradition of the new” (Harold Rosenberg). Because the notions of “death” and “crisis” appear to belong to the very edifice of modernity that has just been rejected, these too are are to be jettisoned as part of its conventional yoke. Modernity itself having become passé, even the notion of art’s “death” would seem to have died along with modernism.

We thus ask our panelists not merely whether art is at present “dead,” but also if traditions are even permitted the right to perish in conservative times. If some once held that the persistence of philosophy indicated the persistence of obsolete social conditions, does the persistence of art signal ongoing social conditions that ought to have long ago withered away? If so, what forms of political and artistic practice would be sufficient to realize art, and in what ways would realizing art signal something beyond art? Marx felt that the increasing worldliness of philosophy in his time — heralded by the culmination of philosophy in Hegel — demanded not only the end of philosophy, but also that the world itself become philosophical. If avant-garde movements once declared uncompromising war on art (Aleksei Gan) in order to tear down the barrier between art and life, would the end or overcoming of art not similarly require that the world itself become artistic? Continue reading


   Julieta Aranda | Gregg Horowitz
Paul Mattick | Yates Mckee

65 W 11th St.
Wollman Hall (5th fl)
New School

February 23, 2013

Please register on our official event page
Join the event on Facebook

The “death of art” has been a recurring theme within aesthetic and philosophical discourse for over two centuries. At times, this “death” has been proclaimed as an accomplished fact; at others, artists themselves have taken the “death of art” as a goal to be accomplished. So while this widely perceived “death” is lamented by many as a loss, it is celebrated by others as a moment of life renewed. For them, art is all the better for having disburdened itself of the baggage of outmoded modernist ideologies. Insofar as the “death” of longstanding cultural traditions has in the past typically been understood to signal a deeper crisis in society at large, however, the meaning of death necessarily takes on a different aspect today — especially when the tradition in question is modernism, the so-called the “tradition of the new” (Rosenberg). Because the very ideas of “death” and “crisis” appear to belong to the edifice of modernity that has been rejected, these too are are to be jettisoned as part of its conventional yoke. Modernity itself having become passé, even the notion of art’s “death” seems to have died along with modernism.

We thus ask our panelists not merely whether art is at present “dead,” but also if traditions are even permitted the right to perish in conservative times. If some once held that the persistence of philosophy indicated the persistence of obsolete social conditions, does the persistence of art signal ongoing social conditions that ought to have long ago withered away? If so, what forms of political and artistic practice would be sufficient to realize art, and in what ways would realizing art signal something beyond art? Marx felt that the increasing worldliness of philosophy in his time (heralded by the culmination of philosophy in Hegel) demanded not only the end of philosophy, but also that the world itself become philosophical. If avant-garde movements once declared uncompromising war on art in order to tear down the barrier between art and life, would the end or overcoming of art not similarly require that the world itself become artistic?

The Many Deaths of Art event poster

Continue reading

The significance of art for the #Occupy movement

Here’s the panel organized by Chris Mansour of the Platypus Affiliated Society on “The Significance of Art in the #Occupy Movement,” on which I spoke with Maria Byck and Noah Fischer at the Left Forum.  Karen Archey, Pam’s old friend and roommate from Chicago, was originally supposed to be on the panel as well — and I would have paid good money to see her go at it with Noah (after their much-publicized feud in the media) — but she ended up getting a paying gig in London while the Left Forum was going on.

Some of the audience questions were great, especially on the communicability of art in the service of politics, the ideological function of art (i.e., as performance piece, as agitprop, as a beautiful object), the viability of art in an administered vs. a stateless society, and the problematic formulation of a “return to realism.”  Thanks to everyone who came out, either as audience members or as panelists.

Below is the text of my opening remarks.

Luigi Russolo – “Rivolta” (1911)

Of Guilds and Musea: An Inquiry into the Historical and Political Dimensions of Art in #OWS

Early in the first chapter of his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx observes that

just as [men] seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.  Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.

It is thus perhaps to be expected that during our present moment of political upheaval, we should look to the struggles of a bygone age for guidance.  What distinguishes this crisis from the other great outpourings of popular unrest witnessed over the last few centuries, however, is the rather jumbled and confused manner in which the past is being reappropriated.  The detritus of dead epochs is dug up for all to see, whereupon it is hastily sifted through in search of anything that might admit of creative reuse.  Recycled revolutionary catchphrases appear hoisted above the scattered throngs of protestors.  Placards demanding “All power to the General Assemblies!” are held up beside banners reading “The Oakland Commune.”  Some signs advise us to “Be realistic — demand the impossible,” while others inform us that “Another world is possible.”  Slogans of more recent coinage can also be seen: “People before profit!” and “We are the 99%!” Sewn together from disparate sources in the history of the Left, #Occupy almost seems to represent a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of the radical imagination.  Here might lie the unconscious motivation behind the highly publicized “zombie march” that took place in those early days of #OWS, even if the marchers understood themselves as portraying the brainless dupes of corporate greed.  At this point, however, the ahistorical residue of postmodern consciousness takes its revenge on history: the past becomes pastiche. Continue reading

“Trotsky’s Theory of Art” (from the Platypus Review #37)

Kazimir Malevich's "Suprematism with Eight Rectangles" (1915)

by Bret Schneider

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011


At its Third Annual Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between April 29-May 1, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Art, Culture, and Politics: Marxist Approaches.” Platypus members Omair Hussain, Lucy Parker, Pac Pobric, and Bret Schneider sought to address “What might the problems of aesthetics and culture have to do with the political project of the self-education of the Left?” What follows are Bret Schneider’s opening remarks.

THIS ESSAY IS SIMPLY TITLED “Trotsky’s Theory of Art.” The title may sound banal, but it is actually quite bizarre. For it is not self-evident why Trotsky would devote such time in 1924, in the midst of social revolution, to the history and prospects of Russian literature. Problematizing the unproblematized expanse of contemporary art production through Leon Trotsky’s writings on art may initially appear counterintuitive as well. Though he is well-known for his journalistic exploits, as an integral leader of the Bolshevik revolution, as a ceaseless proponent of Marxism and Leninism, and as the “last man standing” from the Second International, an art critic Trotsky was not, and so his central book, Literature and Revolution, appears as an odd duck (or a platypus, perhaps!). Nevertheless, Literature and Revolution scintillates with original artistic revelations and even a new theory of art, and one gets the impression that such unprecedented clarity, and even an unrivaled comprehensive perspective on the diverse art of his moment, is the artifact of, and only of, the ebullience of a new world in the making that now appears petrified. That is, the way art was framed was revolutionized—or in the state of revolutionizing itself—in various ways through Literature and Revolution. If, as Gregg Horowitz said in a recent discussion on contemporary critical theory, we are standing in the way of history, if we are blocking the passage of a new world articulated long ago, then it might behoove us to investigate the original stakes of this historical venture and use it as a foil for the confounded present. These stakes included a new culture and a new art as only one of its elements, but such a new culture was clearly an integral concern for Leon Trotsky.

Literature and Revolution is a theory of history parallel to Trotsky’s 1906 Results and Prospects. In Results and Prospects, Trotsky assesses the 19th century bourgeois revolutions, and what unfulfilled latencies seemed to lead to their redemption by a socialist revolution (in 1905, but foreshadowing 1917). Trotsky’s examination was not merely a “cause and effect” study, but a living theory of how the revolution also changed the meaning of history and in what ways. I will not get into Results and Prospects here, but Literature and Revolution is a similar exegesis of bourgeois art, what its implications were for the self-determining constitution of a new culture, and how the new demands of revolution changed the way traditional art forms are and might come to be perceived. In this sense,Literature and Revolution is an artifact of a political becoming, the postulating of a new culture beyond class, as acategory, not a reality attained by Bolshevik revolution, or to be identified with itA decade earlier, Georg Lukács wrote a Hegelian study on the novel, articulating the novel as distinct from pre-modern literature by way of its being a form in flux, a self-constituting form in the process of its own transformation; in other words the novel is the paramount modern literary form specifically because it is a social problem, not a social solution, in a similar sense to how reification is a new problem to be resolved, and with something new to be gained by resolving it. This means framing political and artistic forms as problems, though: problems of tradition, how to depart from it, of the newfound contradictions between the individual and society, the new as the old in distress, as only some examples.Form in flux, open to new possibilities, co-developed with the new subject or the new human, as Trotsky framed it, is also why Benjamin later opened his “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” essay with a new theory of the receiver: “Baudelaire envisaged readers to whom the reading of lyric poetry would present difficulties.” By the time Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution, the modern becoming—a departure away from everything about the old world, but one that redeems it through abstract relationships with it—which Lukács articulated in the novel form had become such an inescapable problem that new, dynamic forms, unseen and unprecedented, were unanimously called for by social revolution, which sought to problematize this autonomy of art to pursue new, self-determining courses. Thus, Trotsky’s letter to Partisan Review in 1938 concerns overcoming the old world’s ideology of too easilyrectifying art and politics, instead of understanding the newfound open possibility of each as a problem:

Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its laws—even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself.

Trotsky echoes—or prefigures, or both—Walter Benjamin’s idea that art can only have the correct political “tendency” if it has aesthetic “quality,” an idea that would later influence Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory, in the sense that what Adorno later identified as the incomprehensibility of art is the precondition for greater reflection and a more adequate social reality (I will get into this a bit later). Every moment of Trotsky’s theory argues the autonomy of art, recently freed, and not constricted by political “reality.” In a sense, Trotsky is the first non-philistine, because he is arguing against a newfound possibility of philistinism, depending on which way international politics will go. In other words, there is an analogy to be drawn between Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism?” insofar as Trotsky seems to be asking, “aesthetics or philistinism?” But what does this mean?

First, this can be illustrated by the very attentive historical and formal criticism of “pre-revolutionary” bourgeois literature: a newly constructed tradition that can be constructively negated (foreshadowing Greenberg’s description of art as its “further entrenchment in the area of its competence,” as well as Adorno’s exhaustive ideas of “tradition”). This is where Trotsky contributes something absolutely new to the theory of art, and here does the previously unthinkable for Marxists: He promotes (and does not condemn) the art of the peasantry. This is not to say that he promotes the politics of the peasantry, but makes a significant distinction between art and the political sentiments contained in it. In other words, he defends the art over the artist. An idea emerges here of “the fellow traveler” of the proletarian socialist revolution, not equivalent to it, but parallel with it. Politics and art grasp each other indirectly for perhaps the first time, and the sheer inescapability of the revolution allows room for autonomous expressions of them that provide multiple, new, and dynamic perspectives that allow them to be seen more holistically, unobstructed by ideology. Regarding young peasant poets, Trotsky says,

It is as if they feel for the first time that art has its own rights….Why do we relegate them to being “fellow-travellers” of ours? Because they are bound up with the Revolution, because this tie is still very unformed, because they are so very young, and because nothing definite can be said about their tomorrow….As if an artist ever could be “without a tendency,” without a definite relation to social life, even though unformulated or unexpressed in political terms.

Trotsky reconstructs Kliuev’s literary peasant world in order to illuminate, from an alternate angle of different subjectivity, the dynamism of the revolution. The way Trotsky speaks of Kliuev’s world is as a “tinsel fairyland,” and that a modern person cannot live in such an environment.” Kliuev’s world is a mesmerizing individual dreamworld, a bucolic, slowly rotating mobile of glistening objects. Kliuev’s peasant world is portrayed as somewhat womb-like, a narcotic experience whose apparent individual peace is also a foreboding of social awakening.

Through delimiting the autonomous formalism of art Trotsky is able to construct an adequate image of cultural and political prospects previously unseen. Would Trotsky have been able to glean, concretely even, that the peasant world was in the process of withering away without literary investigation? Almost certainly. This raises the question of why it is necessary to retain multiple perspectives. Simply put, the achievement of multiple perspectives is an index of the crawling out of instrumental analyses. The exhaustive portrait of the individual peasant dreamworld throws into relief the radically different set of objects and subjects emerging in modern experience—the telephone, the train, the bustling development of metropolises, and the subjective openness of possibility, for example—in order to understand the world in flux more consciously. Similarly to the way Lukacs thought that the short story would take grip of the transient world—or rather the way that he took seriously the novel’s “half art” as a real expression of transforming social conditions—Trotsky perceived that social conditions exerted an influence on the form of Russian literature, demanding études, or sketches. It is easy to see how new cultural forms and mediums like radio, television and so forth would soon come to pass, as continual transformations required to meet the needs of a “modern person”, or a “new human” that needs art less and less, in accord with a society whose emancipated subjects are no longer bound to the continued suffering that is art’s raison d’être.

What Trotsky sees in the literary works of the “fellow travelers” is an openness of perspective that they participate in, but are not the wholly constituting expression of, because their seemingly complete and self-subsistent worlds, what Adorno would later call their hermetically sealed quality, are open to a new form of criticism that sees them as “dissonant” with society but not outside of it. Art has a newfound ability to be dissonant with and therefore critical of the social totality. It is nowhere implied that even the most reviling or “anti-Marxist” principles should be foreclosed by Marxist critique, but rather diagnosed to provide a portrait of social conditions at their most dynamic and heterogeneous. Even Kliuev’s occasional anti-Leninism is a welcome critique for Trotsky. Art is not only not exempt from this, but is exemplary in its problematic symptomology. Regarding another young writer’s confrontation with a new openness, Trotsky said, “One can take man, not only social, but even psycho-physical man and approach him from different angles—from above, from below, from the side, or walk all around him.” That he pathetically “steals up to him from below,” evident through the literary form, shows that the old world fosters inadequate cliche assumptions of a “human nature” that need not exist. The autonomy to perceive humans from different angles artistically—which means a “formalist” problem—is a freedom opened up by political conditions, and one that implies the “new humans” Trotsky called for without even needing to enforce explicit ideology upon the art:

Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover, the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry. But to create it, the poet himself must feel the world in a new way.

“Feeling the world in a new way” has resonance with us today as an intellectual idea specifically because it seems stifled. But the new feelings are, again, tied to the radically incomplete world in flux.

Pilnyak has no theme because of his fear of being episodic….Pilnyak wants to show present-day life in its relations and in its movement and he grasps at it in this way and in that, making parallel and perpendicular cross-cuts in different places, because it is nowhere the same as it was. The themes, more truly the themepossibilities, which cross his stories, are only samples of life taken at random, and life, let us note, is now much fuller of subject matter than ever before.

Life in Revolution is camp life. Personal life, institutions, methods, ideas, sentiments, everything is unusual, temporary, transitional, recognizing its temporariness and expressing this everywhere, even in names. Hence the difficulty of an artistic approach. The transitory and the episodic have in them an element of the accidental and the accidental bears the stamp of insignificance. The Revolution, taken episodically, appears quite insignificant. Where Is the Revolution, then? Here lies the difficulty. Only he will overcome it who fully understands and feels the inner meaning of this episodic character and who will reveal the historic axis of crystallization that lies behind it.

Art played a role in determining social totality by articulating the incompleteness of it. In Theory of the Novel, Lukacs describes art as always saying, “‘And yet!’ to life. The creation of forms is the most profound confirmation of a dissonance.” Such a framework—endemic to Lukacs’ theory of the novel and Trotsky’s theory of the fellow traveler, notwithstanding Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory—brings up a vast number of questions for the contemporary, and also forces some all too easy associations. Contemporary artworks are often framed not as the problem, but the solution—or at least there is not a clearly defined dissonance between an artwork and the society it expresses.

This is enough to warrant the question of whether or not what passes itself off as art today could even be called so, but I will leave that to the side. In contemporary artworks we are faced with similar formal problems to those that Trotsky faced. For instance, if Trotsky was critical of the many nefarious endeavors to create a permanent proletarian culture (e.g., artists enlisting in the Proletkult) because the proletariat was a transitional phase to a much broader human freedom yet to be determined, but certainly one beyond the primitive class divisions of “proletariat” and “bourgeois,” what then can be said about the “radical” art activism of today that seeks to ally itself with a vague “working class” that is increasingly depoliticized? Is this alliance doomed to an eternal struggle? Moreover, Trotsky noticed that such political “commitments” were not without their compromising effects on the aesthetic experience and consequently the transformation of subjectivity. In order to “be pals with socialism and with the Revolution,” Mayakovsky had to rely on antiquated cliché truisms that were backwards of modern life and articulated retrogression from Mayakovsky’s earlier, more progressive imagery (using skulls as ashtrays is an amusing example of retrogressive imagery). Trotsky also saw this wanting to be “pals” with the people, or a “mass base” without distinction, as a return to the bourgeois intelligentsia in the 19th century, who,

deprived of a cultural environment, sought support in the lower strata of society and tried to prove to the “people” that it was thinking only of them, living only for them and that it loved them “terribly.” And just as the populists who went to the people were ready to do without clean linen and without a comb and without a toothbrush, so the intelligentsia was ready to sacrifice the “subtleties” of form in its art, in order to give the most direct and spontaneous expression to the sufferings and hopes of the oppressed.

That is, such an appeal to the “people” disregards the “splintering” or dissonant pluralism that Trotsky saw as endemic to the most significant successes of the Left over the course of its history.

As another example, in much new “experimental” music we hear the sounds of Kliuev’s “tinsel fairyland,” the subtle droning of vintage synth gear, a nostalgia for a private world. The “music” is like a narcotic, a therapeutic substance applied to the subject to cure what ails it. Electronic music might have once been counted amongst those modern things, an artifact of a dynamic mutability, but one that is stillborn in a state of endless, almost unsustainable decay. One is reminded again of Trotsky’s description of Kliuev, when we look at much recent album artwork. For example:

A wheat and honey paradise: a singing bird on the carved wing of the house and a sun shining in jasper and diamonds. Not without hesitation does Kliuev admit into his peasant paradise the radio and magnetism and electricity.

In new experimental music a social torpor is embellished and sublimated into an ornate sort of poverty. What does it mean that the bourgeois individual experience of art is still naturally occurring today, without its being formulated as the progressive crisis of its own withering away?

One could go on with new art forms hearkening back to the past, re-digesting those bourgeois, bohemian tropes that fail to die, in the futuristic aspects of new net art for example (Trotsky considered Futurism to be retrograde bohemianism), or the return to painting, and so on. But what does this all amount to? Art wants to pass, it wants to finally die—it is not mere eccentricity that great artists once believed they were making the last artwork. If art finally died, this would signal that the “untransfigured suffering of man” over the ages would finally be transfigured into something else. Simply pronouncing art dead, or irrelevant to the everyday is not enough to warrant its demise, as if it were so simple to eradicate the suffering of man. The culture industry—with its ceaseless thrusting of art in our faces—is the penance for failing to achieve socialism, but also the petrified reminder of its possibility. In this sense, art and culture are not the solution to, but rather the problem of, our own suffering, and the crystallization of this problem also implies redemption. Does it not seem that, contrary to this, we want to preserve art, to restore the world through art, and wasn’t this specifically a crucial element of fascism, or less dramatically, conservatism? In an era of where there are no historical tasks or clearly defined problems, any proposed solution is a false reconciliation. In Adorno’s words, “that the world which, as Baudelaire wrote, has lost its fragrance and then since its color, could have them restored by art strikes only the artless as possible.”

We might today treat Trotsky with the critical method which Trotsky treated bourgeois art, except that this task seems impossible. The salience of Trotsky’s critique today—that we can so easily view the same problems as he did in apparently “new” art—is not the solution, but the problem. The continual indigestion of culture is a problem that needs to be problematized—no simple solutions can present themselves today without also seeing history as a problem. In other words, without historical consciousness that articulates the social situation of art, we are all relegated to philistinism, nostalgic for a moment where all possibilities didn’t seem foreclosed, or predetermined the way they do today. Perhaps now more than ever, art works yearn to be recognized as distinct from the political or social ideas that underlie them—that is, we should not condemn the nostalgia of new age experimental music for example, or the vulgar politics of social art, but formulate them as incomprehensible aesthetic problems that constantly reintroduce social redemption without exactly fulfilling it.

Contemporary art’s biggest and perhaps only problem is that it doesn’t formulate itself as a problem, but instead endeavors to devise quick-fix solutions. This is evident in everything from Fried and Greenberg’s criticism of “literal” art, to relational aesthetics, to the social turn that endeavors to make ‘concrete‘ interventions in the world, as if even the most rhetorical things are without effect. Ultimately this implies a distance so alienated that there seems no connection to the world we live in whatsoever. This is counterposed to a would-be “revolutionary art,” insofar as Trotsky (as quoted above) saw it as impossible for any form of art, no matter how depoliticized, to be somehow illuminative of a seemingly inevitable political becoming. Trotsky understood the forms of both peasant literature and futurism as illuminated by a concept of history that was no longer intact, but fragmentary. As mentioned earlier, Trotsky thought the idea that a work of art could ever be without a political or social tendency—or that some were more “social” than others—was absurd. It is no longer self-evident, as it once was, that all objects, art or otherwise, are shaped by social conditions in such a way that they imply society’s (as we understand it) exhaustion and deserve critical attention. Bourgeois art was withering away and seemed to be yielding to something else.

But without a concept of history—that is, the construction of historical problems—viewers are reduced to philistines, and artists are reduced to dilettantes, grappling for whatever is available, and this is not limited to art, but every other cultural object in the world (I think that Shana Moulton’s videos of subjective interactions with the abstract, everyday objects not limited to art, but nonetheless arty, captures this reified desperation quite well). In this light it is easy to frame the return to the avant-garde art styles—e.g. geometric abstraction, Ab-Ex, or Dada—as something almost wholly inartistic, and reducible to other kitschy objects utilized for the decoration of one’s apparent individuality. It is possibility that is longed for in ever more quixotic ways, and “avant-garde” style is the compromise when it can’t be grasped as a historical problem. This, of course, is kitsch.

In the contemporary state of affairs, where life is a series of arbitrary events without meaning or problematic substance, “fellow travelers” are perhaps reduced to particles in the arbitrariness of natural law. One can’t simply propose that “contemporary art is about this” notion, or is “embodied by that” reality, nor can one find revolutionary qualities in a certain style over another, as we are left without models or a concept of history to shape experience. For example, on the one hand, “art” and “politics” do not only fail to travel side by side, urging each other forward, but we can’t even find an apt metaphor for such traveling in Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road, whose characters aimlessly wander the scorched earth, carrying some vague human torch for future generations that may not exist, going “further along a dreary road,” occasionally bumping paths and sharing what precious scraps of humanity remain, as if it ever did. Rather, both contemporary “art” and “politics” might each be akin to the nameless, free-floating subject in Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, who resembles a lawn ornament more than a human with anything that might be called agency: it is able to freely reminisce about past events that may, or may not have happened—no one really knows for certain—but is ultimately static, congealed into an object, ashen with the soot of forgetfulness and plagued by its never-has-been-ness, trying to reminisce, “but images of this kind the will cannot revive without doing them violence.” One can say that there are no fellow travelers, not even travelers: “art” and “politics” today are lawn ornaments, helpless, kitschy novelties that are permitted continued existence only because they provide a source of petty entertainment to some alien and unknowable authority who finds them amusing in their harmlessness. Sharing a lawn, the contemporary Left and contemporary art believe they have finally found common ground. For instance, at two recent panel discussions hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on the theme of art and activism, many panelists unanimously agreed that the propagandistic poster is a paradigm of art. With this idea they browbeat the audience into believing that this is the highest achievement of artistic form. Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with them is hardly the point. The problem is the regulation of aesthetic forms, naturalized without the criticism that Trotsky perceived as constitutive of the new world. Trotsky—like Benjamin, Adorno, and Greenberg—never foreclosed the endlessly open possibilities of any aesthetic form. As Adorno would later argue in “Commitment,” there are no rules, no formulae for artistic experimentation; certain artworks may be “exemplary, but not a model.” Although Trotsky had deep and well-justified political qualms with the peasantry as much as with Futurism, he was constantly open, and even endeavored to further open the possible directions that their art might take. He criticized at length, taking the work more seriously than the artists often took their own work, and he ends many sections of Literature and Revolution with, “we must wish them luck” even when he disagreed. Trotsky thought, and hoped, that art would “plough the field in all directions.” We have to wonder what the prospects for this are like today. In some ways, there is no “ploughing in all directions,” but rather ploughing in a provincial expanse that rarely leaves the circumference of one’s own arm-length, constrainedinstead of liberated by a politics filled with “reality principles,” and “lived-world” abstractions that Adorno once criticized. Indeed, it is specifically “directionality” that is lacking, and so, helplessly, art contemplatively turns its critical shafts inwards—the confusion of autonomous art for a depoliticized “art for art’s sake” illustrates this. Ultimately, in the meandering reminiscences of one’s own inner fantasia, one must occasionally pass into the recognition of this contemplation—the question is whether or not this recognition can then be constructed, or if the possibility of life will pass us by.

Or, perhaps, on the other hand, it may be the case that contemporary art production ploughs too much, works overzealously, ploughing aimlessly, taking the new and autonomous freedom of art as natural law. It may be that political ideology and social criticism cannot penetrate art as the constrained suffering of humans’ failure to move forward, consequently becoming more mute. | P

. J.M. Bernstein, Lydia Goehr, Gregg Horowitz, and Chris Cutrone, “The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today,”Platypus Review 31 (January 2011), available online at <>.

. Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 155.

. Leon Trotsky, “Art and politics in our epoch,” Partisan Review 1938. Available online at <>.

. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005 [1924]), 70–71. Available online at <>.

. Ibid., 68.

. Ibid., 74.

. Ibid., 143–144.

. Ibid., 77–78. Italics added.

. Ibid., 76.

. Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1920]), 72.

. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 133.

. Ibid., 143.

. Ibid., 67.

. Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Continuum, 2004 [1958]), 41–42.

. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: Continuum 2004), 50.

. Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 109.

. Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” in Selected Writings, Howard W. Jennings et al., vol. 2, 1927-1930, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 237.

Adolf Behne’s The Modern Functional Building (1926)



The Original Cover to Behne’s Book, Featuring El Lissitzky’s “Cloudprop”



Man’s primordial reason for building is to protect himself against the cold, against animals, against enemies.  He is driven by necessity: he would not build were it not for definite, compelling, urgent purposes.  His early buildings are purely functional in character; they are in their nature essentially tools.

But when we study the earliest stages of human culture, we find that the instinctive joys of play cannot be separated from practical matters.  Primitive man is not strictly utilitarian.  He demonstrates his instinct for play even in his tools, which he makes smooth and beautiful beyond the demands of strict necessity, painting them or decorating them with ornaments.

The tool called “house” is no exception to this.

From the very beginning the house has been as much a toy as a tool.  It is difficult to say how long a balance was maintained between the two poles.

In the course of history we only rarely find such a balance.

The play instinct led to interest in form.  Without that instinct it would be impossible to understand why the tool called “house” must look good and be a certain shape.  Thus our play instinct established certain laws of form, although they are subject to change from time to time.

The laws of form did change periodically.  But if laws of form were unquestionably the secondary element in the origin of all building, they became the stronger, stricter, more rigid principle in the history of human building — stronger, stricter, and more rigid than mere fulfillment of utilitarian function.  Formal considerations outweighed considerations of purpose.

Thus a return to purpose is always revolutionary in its effect.  Forms that have become tyrannical are discarded in order to create — from the recollection of the original function, from as neutral a condition as possible — a rejuvenated, living, breathing form.

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