Max Raphael and a Marxist perspective on art (Part 1)

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Max Raphael and a Marxist perspective on art (Part 1)
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Max Raphael and a Marxist perspective on art (Part 1). The discussion was initiated by Fred.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

I find Max Raphael's views on

I find Max Raphael's views on art, as I try to understand them reading baboon's interesting piece, confusing and annoying. 

Annoying because I get the impression that Raphael, who claimed Marxist lineage,  limits the use of the word "art" to mean only paintings.Though I know he also refers to Greek Art which actually doesn't consist so much of paintings as it does of architecture (the Parthenon)  exquisite sculptures  and searing psychological dramas. But references by various writers including Raphael to the "eternal charm" of what the Greeks did really limits itself to the stuff on the Acropolis  and little else.  (As far as I can make out that is. And I will confess to having read nothing by Max Raphael but rely solely  on baboon!) 


So Raphael spent a couple of days studying Picasso's "Guernica" from all angles. So what?  You can spend weeks listening to Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony so packed is it with ideas and emotions. But it strikes me that to limit the concept "art" to painting alone - which I know the bourgeoisie at large tend to do - is a big mistake and certainly not Marxist at all.  For surely  Marxism always goes for the wider grasp,   opening out to be as inclusive as reason permits.  The  bourgeoisie of course is not intending  to be Marxist anyway. Grand exhibitions of paintings in special art galleries, which Raphael called 'mausoleums', are what the bourgeoisie like - for the masses that is. The purchase of an original painting at an auction  is what the bourgeois fancies for himself and his collection, and for his bank balance too if all goes well.  But if it wasn't for these splendid art gallery mausoleums,  paintings of quality would not be available for the eyes of workers at all. And as it is this which is generally what gets to be dished up and labelled "art" then we should be grateful for crumbs from the master's table. 

But what about music, drama, the novel, sculpture  and architecture to state only the most obvious of human creative efforts? Why wasn't Raphael curious about them too?  Wouldn't a Marxist be curious about all human efforts at artistic creation, and the relationship between them and their relationship to the economy of the society which produced them? I would think so. Vision and looking at things may be what we humans do mostly, and life without eyes, and thus access to books and the Internet would  be dreadful; but vision is not our only sensual input or, dare I say, necessarily and always the most important. Just the most obvious. 

But to return for a moment to the Acropolis and specially the Parthenon.  So sublime; so wonderful; so balanced. The Parthenon floats high above the dust of Athens on its ethereal plateau like a heavenly dream.  And that of course is what it is. It's a dream.  It's exquisite proportions and balance, it's masterful form, contain and express all the idealism and harmony which Greek society itself was unable to attain given its basis in slavery.

But  if you want to get a glimpse artistically of what Greek society was really like, and their more down-to-earth attempts at understanding themselves, you  would do well to attend an old Greek drama  at one of the amphitheatres. For here, in dramatic form, a real breakthrough is being made for an understanding of the psychological forces at play within human society, particularly within societies based on exploitation, and especially Greek society as it evolved gradually beyond the ancient  myths  

Internet wrote:
Ancient Greeks took their entertainment very seriously and used drama as a way of investigating the world they lived in, and what it meant to be human. 

Tragedy dealt with the big themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between men and gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant he has been. Then, as he slowly realizes his error, the world crumbles around him. The three great playwrights of tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. 

Aristotle argued that tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering. He called this experience 'catharsis'.

I quote this because I can't understand why a Marxist critic of culture such as Max Raphael should fall so easily for the obvious charms of the Parthenon but generally devote his attention to the merely visual treats of the painter's art and limit himself to paintings in general. Given that he was alive at the end of the 19th century, so rich in its quality and varieties of artistic expression, how did he manage not to notice it all, is this not  a failure for Marxism?  Why was it left to Henry James to make a beginning on literary criticism, with a searing critique of Dickens'  "Our Mutual Friend"? Was Max Raphael not open to literature, music, the arts and crafts movement, aestheticism and the rest? 


A final point though. According to the quote above,  Aristotle has made us aware that there "can be nobility in suffering". This then makes the working class, or the class of slaves in Ancient Greece, the noblest classes of all. Catharsis purged their petty concerns and worries.  But it didn't purge the ruling class, merely helped perpetuate their rule.  

The only catharsis we want today is that which stems from class consciousness. 

on art, and i know this is a

they should have a delete post function... sorry

apologies to Boxer and baboon

Oh heck what can I say? Reading my post above again I find I have referred to baboon as if he was the author of the piece about Max Raphael, when in fact the writer is Boxer. 

i don't know how this happened. But can I apologise to both  Boxer and baboon for my foolish mistake? I am sorry! 

No apology necessary Fred, I

No apology necessary Fred, I am in fact one and the same person. The piece on Max Raphael was written by myself and I use the appelation "Boxer" when I have coordinated an article with the ICC. I think it important to maintain that distinction although I am suffering from an identity crisis. So it's my fault and the article above should have had my signature. My apologies.

As myself I will respond to your criticisms soon.


If a sub-atomic particle can exist in two places at once, why can't I?

If a

baboon wrote:
If a sub-atomic particle can exist in two places at once, why can't I?

The exquisite perfection of this paradox leaves me speechless.  But what would Boxer say? 

'Existence' or 'Knowledge of existence'?

baboon wrote:

If a sub-atomic particle can exist in two places at once, why can't I?

If one thinks that 'a sub-atomic particle can exist in two places at once', then one can.

The debate ends up becoming a philosophical debate about what we humans mean by 'exist'.

As Brian Cox said recently in The Guardian, physicists are 'plumbers', and most physicists are out of their depth when discussing philosophy. Even Einstein struggled.

On the other hand, though, for Communists employing Marx's idealism-materialism, which refuses to de-couple 'consciousness and being', 'subject-object', 'mind-matter', theory and practice', the issue of 'exist' can't be separated from social production of knowledge.

The bourgeois 'common-sense' view of 'positivist' science, still dominant in our society even though discreditted by Einstein's relativity, that 'out there' can be 'known' outside of 'social consciousness', is at the root of the issue.

Marx's concept of a Mode of Production helps to show us that different societies and classes will answer the question of 'exist' differently.

There isn't a single, universally true, ahistorical, asocial, TRUTH which mirrors 'out there'.

If one wants to study 'sub-atomic particles', then one must know and expose one's political ideology.

Physicists refuse to do this, and so remain trapped in bourgeois science, like 'materialism' or 'physicalism'.

[later edit]Science is Art

Science is art

It's funny that you should say "science is art" LBird because I have been thinking myself that Marx was an artist as well as a communist revolutionary. Thus it would be possible to regard the following works of his as artistic outpourings of a political kind. I had in mind: The Communist Manifesto; Theses on Feuerbach; A Critique of Political Economy and The Critique of the Gotha Programme. 

What makes me think these works are outpourings of an artistic nature is their aphoristic brevity of expression. They can be compared to the maxims of Montesquieu or the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld . (I've probably spelled the names of these  French authors wrong and apologise.) It's as if Marx was writing not as someone struggling to clarify his ideas and his science, but as a person who already knew in his heart of hearts and intuitively what he had to say, and some works more or less wrote themselves. (NB. I know nothing of the German in which these works  originally appeared and that might undermine what I am trying to say.) Geometric theorems and scientific laws (they may not actually be "laws" LBird, you're quite right) present themselves  with a similar precision and brevity.

When we come to the critique of the Gotha programme Marx attacks the words of the text in a manner similar to that in which F.R.Leavis years later scrutinised the text of certain poems. In the case of Marx  this is literary and political criticism of the highest order, and serves brilliantly to expose the confused, mixed-up and contradictory thought of the authors - in this case social democrats - who wrote  the work and who thought they were doing so well, and furthering working class political emancipation with every word they coughed up.  Of course they weren't, and Marx proved this via his close textual analysis. In the process of which he was driven to produce his famous statement on what communism is. Another profound aphorism in its own right. The result though  of other people's carelessness of thought and imprecision and scant regard for the meaning their ill-considered  words conveyed. 

 Is this what hermeneutics is: the drawing out of the meaning hidden behind words possibly carelessly chosen though not necessarily so?  Leavis  does this with Shelley's Skylark poem, which he shows is actually vacuous  and nonsensical despite its popularity,  which is driven by the torrential flow of the words Shelley uncritically presents, and which verbal torrent sweeping them thoughtlessly along, passes with many unthinking and uncritical connoisseurs of verse for the pinnacle of artistic and poetic thought. 

Consumption is production. Production is consumption. Marvellous stuff. 

Pollock's particles

The separation, by the rising bourgeois class, of 'consciousness' from 'being' (which reflected their interest in separating 'politics' from 'property', and thus preventing, at philosophical source, the very possibility of conscious democratic control of production) is mirrored in their separation of 'art' and 'science'.

Thus, universities separate 'physics' from 'sociology', which can't be done.

The bourgeoisie pretends that it has neutral method, which gives them 'the view from nowhere', an asocial, ahistorical method that can employed by individuals (especially 'special individuals', the elite, expert academics) outside of their social thinking and political ideology, and that this essentially individualistic method produces 'The Truth'.

But for us revolutionary Communists, 'truth' is always historical and social, and is thus subject to our proletarian democratic controls.

Science is a social artform. We create our knowledge of the external world. Physics is an art, not 'eternal truth'.


Response to Fred on art I’m

Response to Fred on art


I’m sorry that it wasn’t clear in the necessarily short summation,but Max Raphael defends the idea that architecture is “sovereign” within and above the various expressions of the domain of art. The central question of his task and the central question of the summary is, following Marx, around that of the “eternal nature of Greek art” and why, when its economic structure has long gone, do we still find pleasure in its art and that includes all of Greek art, particularly architecture.  Greek art has produced very little painting but as you say, there are many aspects of it, including architecture. In Raphael’s texts these go well beyond the limits that Fred indicates. For Fred, Raphael limits himself to painting, or “limits himself to the Acropolis and little else” but this is an incorrect view which underestimates Raphael’s contribution and I will attempt to explain.


In the section on Proudhon (all quotes are from Raphael’s “Proudhon, Marx, Picasso”) Raphael criticises Proudhon’s position on the development of architecture taking some time to put forward a marxist analysis against the anarchist idealism of Proudhon in his explanation of this art form. Of architecture, Raphael says that the Reformation had the effect of “the demoting of architecture from its sovereign place among the arts”. In the section on Marx, Raphael, examining the relation of art to mythology, looks at various Greek temples and what their construction tells us about the ritualistic aspects of Greek mythology on their architecture. While Christian churches could be enlarged, altered or changed into various styles, the Grecian temples remained intact and autonomous. And this was particularly relevant to the intrinsic nature of Greek mythology and its rituals.


Just before talking about the importance of folk poetry in relation to a marxist theory of art, Max Raphael demonstrates his materialist credentials in comparing the inherent anarchy of capitalism, from its very early stages, to the disorder that is demonstrated in the plastic arts:

“Whereas architecture, painting and sculpture during the Middle Ages formed an ordered whole with the various parts conditioning each other under the guidance of architecture, this unity no longer exists today; the parts have become to such a point independent of each other that they have in effect lost all functional capacity (as sculpture has for instance) or have fallen into open contradiction with the very essence of art (for instance, art as private property)” (p. 99). Raphael poses the question that there can be a development of art in general regardless of the individual development or not of individual works from a great genius say, or through the development of economic conditions or through a mixture of both. Talking about the balance/imbalance of the development of art Raphael puts forwards some points:

“Point 2. The first task would consist in establishing the differentiations and integrations with which ‘art’ – which is an abstraction – manifests itself empirically within the course of the history of art. Distinctions among the visual arts (architecture, sculpture, painting), the auditive arts (pure music, speech), the epic dramatic and lyrical arts, and the tragic, comic and grotesque arts, etc., depend on the various points of view adopted, and thus permit the most varied interrelationships. The Homeric poems were not just epics, nor were the Greek dramas just dramas, but tragedies, comedies, etc.” (p. 100).


In the section on Picasso, Raphael sees the degeneration of architecture in relation to the possibilities contained within art and, as he constantly explains, with its relationships with the economic base, with other forms of art within the domain and with other ideologies: “The era of free-enterprise capitalism witnessed the lowest point to which traditional art had ever fallen. Architecture displayed a hitherto inconceivable eclectic mixture of different forms of past styles; these served as pompous facades without any relation whatever to the basic building plans which themselves were no longer adequate to the epoch’s needs. The conception of the monumental had degenerated to such a point that mural paintings were executed in the studio, on canvasses which were later fixed to the walls. The art academies served as transmitters of only the most colourless formulas, for nothing remained of the body of traditional craftsmanship. Despite the emasculation of art, both the instruction of art and leadership in the organisation of exhibitions remained in the firm grasp of the academicians” (p. 119).


And finally, from “The Demands of Art”: “We have said that art leads us from the work to the process of creation. This reversion, outside the theory of art, will eventually generate universal doubt about the world as given, the natural as well as the social. Instead of accepting things as they are, of taking them for granted, we learn, thanks to art, to measure them by the standard of perfection. The greater the gulf between the ideal and the real, the more inescapable is the question: Why is the existing world the way it is? How has the world come to be the way it is? De omnibus rebus dubitandum est! Quid certum? We must doubt all things! What is certain? (Descartes). It is the nature of the creative mind to dissolve seemingly solid things and to transform the world as it is into a world in process of becoming and creating. This is how we are liberated from the multiplicity of things and come to realize what it is that all conditional things ultimately possess in common. Thus, instead of being creatures isolated among other isolated creatures we become part of the power that creates all things.”

I don’t understand a lot of Raphael’s analysis but I know that his approach to the question of art was Universal and historical and it is an example of the beating heart of scientific rigour.


P.S: On being “grateful” to the bourgeoisie for allowing us to see some art works – I don’t know about that. Both private and publicly-owned “works of art” are funded, one way or another from an inflated price that is paid for by the working class, elements of whom, if they can get to see them, are asked to pay again. Nothing to be grateful about there.

More on museums from Raphael:

“Capitalism is characterised by individual creation in private studies, the products of which are sold on a free market where speculative interests and an avidity for new sensations prevail. Capitalism is also characterised by trade in art objects, now become personal possessions, and by the museum system, i.e. by a strict separation between the privately owned and publicly owned mortuaries in which works of art are embalmed; there is also the confused, vague connection between idealism and business” (p. 86).

Thanks baboon

Thanks for the detailed reply baboon. and all the trouble you take to get things right. But on this occasion both you  and Max  Raphael leave me with nothing to say. Though I do now wonder why you didn't include the information in your post above in your original article, which would have benefitted greatly with some filling out and wouldn't then have been so misleading, promoting an aged innocent like me to jump in and make a fool of himself. 


To editor.  Can I correct a mistake I made in my Post 9 above however? When I refer to Montesquieu in that post, with reference to aphorisms and the like, I actually meant Montaigne of course. Sorry about that.

I could have made that

I could have made that clearer Fred. But in the meantime have a look at Chartres cathedral, which Raphael says, with particular reference to its Synagogue, is an example of the revival of Greek art. Within the cathedral is a labyrinth, which is not unusual for temples, examples of which go back to the pre-Stonehenge neolithic site of Newgrange on the Bend in the Boyne. What is unusual, for a Christian church, is that at the centre of the labyrinth was a bronze plaque showing Theseus killing the Minataur while Adriane holds the thread to show him the way home.

Raphael reckons that that this turn to Classicism represented the aspirations of the early bourgeoisie growing within Feudalism and the revival was met with a reaction from the Catholic Church which itelf then went on to revive elements of classical antiquity.