Notes toward a history of art in ascendant and decadent capitalism

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Notes toward a history of art in ascendant and decadent capitalism
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Notes toward a history of art in ascendant and decadent capitalism. The discussion was initiated by Fred.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

shit for sale

Can't imagine why Shelley gets two mentions while Keats and Wordsworth get none! Is that a matter of opinion? I think not! The critic F.R.Leavis has more or less " proved" - in an almost scientific way, that's to say through close textual analysis and hermeneutics - that Shelley is very free and easy, that is to say careless, with words (the latter talent often mistaken for poetry).

And since when were Lawrence and Conrad IMPRESSIONISTS? And why no mention of Dickens: surely one of the greatest critics of the dirt, money and stupidity of 19th century capitalism and it's horrific effect on adults and children alike?

Glad Debussy made it though! And Flauberts vastly over-rated of course, specially by the French.

Maybe it's risky to mention actual names in your piece? Asking for trouble?

But loved the close. " But even smearing the cell walls with your own excrement is no longer enough, it seems, to avoid commodification and recuperation. In 1961 the Italian artist Manzoni produced a work consisting of 90 tins of his own shit. In 2007 Sotheby’s sold one for 124,000 euros." Well said. This sums up the bourgeoisie's free market but decomposing world to perfection. We eat our own shit.

Wow, this was really

Wow, this was really comprehesive! A couple of points of nuance: the presentation uses the phrase "reactionary" a couple time in a way that might be problematic. I am not sure we can describe the state captialist regiemes that emerged in the twentieth century as "reactionary" in the strictest sense. I get the point that is trying to be made, but on the artisitc level, these regiemes seem to have had a policy that was forwward-looking, rather than backward looking. They seem to have tried to take advantage of new developments in art in order to reinforce the cohesion of the state, rather than repress them. In short, there seems to have been a more or less conscious policy of recuperation rather than repression. This raises some very difficult questions about the nature of capitalist society in decadence. How is gains the "consent" of the exploited, etc--themes raised by the Freudo-Marxism, the Frankfurt School, etc. A more political question would be was fascism "reactionary"? I think there is a lot of debate on this.

Second, I think the judgement passes on post-modernism was a little harsh. I agree that as a cultural-political phenomenon it is in many ways a faulty reaction to Stalinism, but it does raise throny questions about the nature of "truth" and the possibility of "critique" that I don't think can be so easily shrugged off as reflections of bourgeois ideology in the wake of the failure of Stalinism. Its something we have to answer.

Thanks MH, Yes, I think your

Thanks MH,

Yes, I think your post hits on some of the key questions here. I hope the discussion is able to develop on them in a positive fashion. I don't know the precise agenda for the discussion, but perhaps one question that could be put forward is something to the effect of "What is the nature of post-modernism?" It would be really interesting to see where that discussion goes.

Regarding the distinction

Regarding the distinction between political and artistic criteria, I think the onset of decadence has more or less brought "quality" production of art, specially in literature and music to a standstill. (Im exaggerating of course!)
Take the novel in English. The great tradition of the English novel, as delineated by F.R.Leavis, ends with Lawrence. Has there been anything of tbe quality of Lawrence in the novel since his death in 1929 - clearly not. Even the Iris Murdochs, William Goldings, and other famous names of the fifties and sixties, were flashes in the pan and are rather passé now. They didn't have the staying power of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, or Dickens - a late addition to the tradition. So what was the power of the great novelists? Well, apart from their literary ability to "dramatize" their characters and bring them to a sort of living concreteness, it was what Leavis called their moral sense: they had a moral conviction of the worthwhileness of life, and dramatized life in their novels as something
to be taken seriously and with an ethical underpinning. They didn't in their novels "do dirt on life" in Lawrences memorable phrase, a phrase taken up by Leavis himself.

Generally speaking, the bourgeoisie had little time for Leavis while he lived, regarding his criticism as elitist and as far too serious to be taken seriously. How is it possible, thinks the bourgeois, that some novels should be regarded as more serious than some other novels? After all, aren't they all just entertainment, and well...just novels. Just stories!And what time after all, does the bourgeoisie have for morality - isn't it a puritanical notion?. Isnt morality more to do with making sure people pay income tax or don't abandon their kids in pubs etc?

In 19th century Britain the novel was surely the great art form of the bourgeoisie. There was little in tbe way of either good music or great painting. So was it an awareness of the emerging working class and it's particular qualities that led George Eliot to write her account of an undoubtedly ethical working man in the novel Adam Bede? Was it an awareness of the duplicity and machiavellianism of the bourgeoisie that drew Conrad to the spheres of terrorism and revolution? Was it the critique and rejection of bourgeois ways of thought, and commoditized existence which he saw as anti-life, that led Lawrence to emphasize the spontaneity and sexuality of REAL life lying buried beneath the garbage of bourgeois morality and repression? Is this what Leavis found hidden in the great English novel, and led him to emphasize not merely it's ethical underpinnings - as if an unacknowledged proletarian mind-set was influencing the culture - but also it's great literary talent?

With the onset of decadence this marvelous vein of novel writing has dried up. The novel can't be serious anymore: it's all thrillers, pseudo academic nonsense, or automatized sex. Bourgeois writers don't see any future any more. Proletarian writers, writing for the bourgeois press, don't see any future either, only royalties.

I hope I haven't got horribly boring, but had to finally get this off my chest, like clotted phlegm, regardless of any readers' feelings. I hope it's relevant to the thread's topic though, but will leave music and decomposition for another day. Thank you comrades.

Hello MH. I don't think it's

Hello MH. I don't think it's possible for even the best art to go beyond the class limitations of the society within which it is produced. It can look to future possibilities, but how can it escape the environment which nurtures it? It can launch savage and searing attacks on the society in which it is nurtured, as did the best 19th century born novelists, but they're still writing under bourgeois rule, still have to get published and sell their wares, and conform to bourgeois and society's expectations of what a novel should be. So the novel is a bourgeois art form; possibly it's best form at least in Britain. What I was trying to say, using Leavis, is that the best novelists may have achieved their "best" because they were able, to an extent, to criticize bourgeois society from a point of view outside it. I suppose this would have to be a proletarian point of view, as this was the only viable alternative on offer, but this doesn't mean they produced a new proletarian art form, only a bourgeois novel from an occasionally proletarian viewpoint. Even Henry James, who really only writes about haute-bourgeois society, is seriously critical of their obsession with money, and their preparedness to use and abuse each other in their continual pursuit of pricey acquisitions - even of rich wives cf The Portrait of a Lady. From where does he get this moral viewpoint?

With regard to Joyce... I would go for your "all of the above" and regard him myself with feelings similar to those I hold for Schoenberg - with apologies to LL. It's the content of a novel or piece of music which matters, not its form. Those creators who put innovative form above content - in short modernists- are unlikely I think history shows, to come up with much of lasting significance for humanity, or much that is listenable or readable. But then I am a dogmatic bigot, and thanks MH for asking.

Scheonberg and content

Fred, I think it was me rather than LL who defended Schoenberg. I have not read Joyce so do not feel able to comment on his work. However, I would have to disagree that Schoenberg is all form and no content, but then one needs to define what is meant by content? The muscial content of his works is dense and rich, as for emotional content: I would suggest listening to Pierrot  Lunaire with a translation of words, or his opera Moses und Aron both of which are heavy with emotional content. Lunaire, in my opinion, is a fantastic expression of the dialectical relationship between form and content

'bourgeois art'?

I am with MH on this. Art springs from deep wells - large parts of the human being which are much more fundamental, much more ancient, than the rise of bourgeois society. The best art produced under the reign of the commodity is surely that which proceeds from these deep wells and connects with others equally deep, and is therefore only secondarily affected by the destructvie power of commodity relations. 

Depth Analysis

Alf wrote:

I am with MH on this. Art springs from deep wells - large parts of the human being which are much more fundamental, much more ancient, than the rise of bourgeois society. The best art produced under the reign of the commodity is surely that which proceeds from these deep wells and connects with others equally deep, and is therefore only secondarily affected by the destructvie power of commodity relations. 


Ah, the psychology of depth--something that is anathema to the post-modernists for whom their is nothing but appearance and simulacra!

the deep

Picasso said of the cave paintings that "this is art". This art has both literal and spiritual depth.

I think that many elements of this depth is captured in various expressions of art throughout civilisation and into bourgeois society.

I think that art forms can exist which contradict or don't express the mores of a ruling class and the prevailing economic system. It's in different circumstances of course but barbarian art appeared and developed from the Neolithic into slavery. The different art forms, particularly in Europe, sometimes have a science fiction quality. They are striking. It culminates in the warrior  barbarian art forms of La Tene and its different stages. I don't think that barbarian art has largely been bettered and, in some ways, I see the barbarians as the political ancestors of the working class.

I agree with MH about the

I agree with MH about the "emptying out of content" in decadence. I agree with Alf about art springing from deep wells. But I also wonder whether the water/art springing forth doesn't get muddied by decadence, or whether the springs don't risk clogging from the detritus of decomposition. I disagree with Scboenberg when he says 'how the music sounds doesn't matter" as in this quote from Adorno. "Webern had the dream that in time, their twelve-tone music would come to sound as natural as traditional music, but Schoenberg was more realistic.(31) He knew that its intellectuality and atonality would be intolerable to the masses of people who apprehended music sensuously; but he did not care, stating; " how the music sounds is not the point " (32)." So what exactly is the point?

I'm sure too that barbarian art had a lot going for it, as celebrated in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Picasso's own works. But now barbarianism has turned into barbarism: a totally different and unbearable thing. Whether the conniving bourgeoisie have been clever enough to remove any revolutionary content in art deliberately, as MH seems to suggest, Im not convinced. But artists feed off the society round them, don't they, so any artists worth their salt are sure to have noticed that decaying capitalist society has no content left other than decay, which doesn't lend itself much to celebration. (If there is any revolutionary content around in bourgeois society, isn't it confined at the moment to small communist groupings?) I agree with MH that the goals of art coincide with the interests of humanity. But are we not at a stage in the evolution of humanity, when those interests, in so far as they point to the future, are invisible to the majority of humanity at the present time, being only apparent to the tiny revolutionary minority. This could explain the great predicament for art and artists. Their patronage, as this has to be supplied by a vibrant society, has been cut off. For this society is all but dead. So where would they find their inspiration. Humanity's deep wells? But the present historical situation is completely new and (obviously!) not previously experienced by humanity. The proletariat can establish nothing lasting of itself within capitalism, unlike previous revolutionary classes. So the way forward, and intimations of what the future might hold, and what living in the new society could be like, are largely unknown. This doesn't provide much for a really creative and/or revolutionary artist to work on. Which might explain why there don't appear to be many around.

But not everyone will agree with this! Not those who don't see decadence; not those who think the crisis is really just a blip; not those who are so well adjusted as to find nothing wrong with bourgeois art as it is at the moment - or the art being produced under bourgeois decadence to put it another way (wasn't that the "belle epoch"?) - so we can only agree to disagree. And I don't think we're going to devise a common framework, though we could try.

In looking for some outside

In looking for some outside support for what I'm trying to say, I saw this in Gerard's compelling article on Decadence elsewhere on this site.

"For Marx, and for us, capital’s “progressive mission” can be gauged by the degree to which it contributes towards freeing man’s creative powers in a society where the measure of wealth is no longer labour time but free time. Capitalism constituted an unavoidable step towards this horizon, but its decadence is signalled precisely by the fact that this potential can now only be realised by abolishing the laws of capital."

I read the passage Fred

I read the passage Fred quotes, and I have to say I was a little confused by it. What does it mean that captial contributes,  " (...) in a society where the measure of wealth is no lonfer labour time by free time"? Does it mean to say that capital's progressive nature comes from its ability to create the material conditions for such a society to exist?


I totally agree jk, I find it

I totally agree jk, I find it confusing too, but only referenced it because (giving it the benefit of the doubt) I took it to mean that capitalism has become incapable of nourishing anything truly creative, which supports what I was trying to say. And I have been unhappily left yearning for some soupçon of support from whatever seemingly valid source. (And what more valid than an ICC article?)

'Messiaen's music is the kind

'Messiaen's music is the kind that sweeps impressionable young things off their feet.'

Hardly an "impressionable young thing" myself, and not even swept off my arthritic feet by Messiaen's music, yet the somewhat sneery tone of the Telegraph's comment makes me want to comment too. I have been listening a lot to certain Messiaen pieces recently, also to music by his "predecessor" Debussy, and while Debussy died in 1915 before the onset of decadence, Messiaen lived till the 1990's. And listening to his music it's clear that he was able largely to escape the stunning effect of the age in which he lived. (I know that sentence raises a lot of questions and is based on enormous assumptions, which I'm going to ignore for the sake
of making my point! )

Messiaen studied bird calls in detail (the bourgeoisie names such calls "bird song" but surely song is a human product only) and uses them a lot in his music, arranged for orchestral instruments and armies of tuned percussionists. The "calls" are interspersed with thunderous chords played without rhythm, more as great pulsating interjections, while the sonic booms of deep gongs are also called into play. As you listen you may be reminded of Indonesian gamelan gong groups, and possibly of the East in general. The eastern influence is also to be found in some of Debussy's orchestral pieces too.

But I think what both these composers managed somehow to do, was to find an escape from the historical tradition of western music, and the way it sounds and the forms it is presented in, and thus, in the case of Messiaen, more or less miss out on decadence altogether. In Debussy's case, his final piano works called Etudes, though seeming harmonious and "normal" enough, defy all emotional and logical expectations, while conducting you on a musical ride through previously unexplored territories of human experience and thought, where words like "happy" or "sad" no longer apply, and only words like "extraordinary", "strange", or "what's that?" or just plain "wow, how did that happen?" pass through the mind. These are not easy pieces to access, but have a lot of beauty inside. "Beauty" is not perhaps a word that fits Messiaen, he's just fascinating in the weirdest way, and after initial and could- be- prolonged bewilderment, once it is accepted that he sounds different, and that's
what he intends, and he isn't supposed to sound like anything that went before - maybe in pre-history, or ancient Greece? - in short, once you let go programmed expectations, you can listen for long periods and change or lose your mind in the music.

Debussy and Messiaen have totally changed our understanding of what music is. In doing this, and looking to learn from the East and directly from nature - and by nature I don't mean Beethoven's "happy thoughts on going into the country-side" as in his Pastoral symphony, where we get Beethoven's thoughts (so bourgeois, so romantic, so consoling) and not an attempt to understand and interpret nature herself through organized sound - Messiaen was able to avoid the major effects of decadence as it effected composers reliant on human emotion as the content of music. And, in doing this, he more or less proves the "decadence effect" for his contemporaries, who were content to drag along behind Beethoven and Brahms, in a way that Debussy didn't, thus paving the way for Messiaen. (Composers working within the serial 12 tone row school, merely remained fixed in the traditional approach turned inside out. With apologies to lovers of that school).

This is a very personal pronouncement, and is probably a bit dogmatic to boot. But I am no academic and probably self-taught too, from a bourgeois point of view. The Telegraph would doubtless think I've proved their case for them. But what do they know?

Alf wrote: Art springs from

Alf wrote:
Art springs from deep wells - large parts of the human being which are much more fundamental, much more ancient, than the rise of bourgeois society. The best art produced under the reign of the commodity is surely that which proceeds from these deep wells and connects with others equally deep, and is therefore only secondarily affected by the destructvie power of commodity relations.

But the triumphant beginnings of bourgeois society certainly changed music. Beethoven's 3rd symphony (the Eroica 1803) initially dedicated to Napoleon, marks a new start in music and the beginning of "romanticism" in music (it happened in poetry too cf. Wordsworth and Coleridge), and this new beginning really stems from the powers unleashed by the French Revolution. Blessed was it in that age to be alive, as Wordsworth said. Art may proceed from "deep wells" but what was emerging from the wells changed, for western music, in 1803. How is this change illustrated? By the sudden emergence into the music of personal feelings and emotions in an increasingly subjective manner. Listen to Haydn and Mozart: then listen to the Eroica.

The triumph of the bourgeoisie is expressed in music by the unleashing of emotions; not audibly present in a big way prior to Eroica. As well as surplus value, and their conquest of the world's markets, the other great achievement of the bourgeoisie must surely be the "discovery" of emotion, particularly in music. The emotional ride of the 19th century in musical terms - from Beethoven to Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky - is dramatic in its intensity. After the 1st world war, with the emergence of increasing economic contradictions, and with reductions in wealth, society loses confidence in itself as decadence takes it's social toll. The result? A gradual suppression of emotion; a change in the psychological attitude to emotion; as if its no longer desirable or suitable to be expressed; and music thus finds itself losing the very content which had fueled its 19th century fires.

Why was "emotion" - a certain particular kind of simple almost basic musical emotion - such a discovery for the bourgeoisie and it's musicians?And is it not a pity that it's gone? (It wouldn't be such a pity if only the bourgeoisie had gone with it.) Did it have to be suppressed in the 20th century to allow the bourgeoisie to be icily unemotional in the face of necessary war and cruelties; and to appear coldly and unemotionally "rational" as the perpetration of their insanities proceeds apace? And what will follow after Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and their portrayals of passion and sex, should the proletariat overthrow the bourgeoisie? Will we ever find out?


MH wrote: I think another

MH wrote:
I think another part of the answer is that it is not so much about the simple suppression of emotion as the complete separation of emotion from any progressive form or content, which reflects the impossibility of any meaningful reform of capitalist society - whereas Beethoven clearly passionately believed in the ultimate victory of freedom, liberty, joy, in the progressive capitalist society of the 19th century.... There's no shortage of emotion in the art of decadence, it just tends to be a howl of anguish, nihilism etc.

I agree. Emotion is not so much suppressed as " separated" from life in decaying society; detached, as in schizophrenia, and expressed in war and violence, now the bourgeoisie's favored replacements for progress and reform. There may be no shortage of emotion in decadent society - anger, resentment, hatred, fear, horror and so on - but this is not traditionally the stuff of art, and if presented in musical terms might well produce material of an unlistenable kind. Also when you talk about "the art of decadence" I wonder what exactly you have in mind? Where is it? Would Picasso's " Guernica" count? Would Shostakovich's "Stalingrad" symphony be it?

But this is getting all too complicated for me to handle now, so I'll cease. But thank you for your comment MH. And what is really needed here now is a questioning comment of the kind jk is so good at, so Im hoping and so on.

Red Hughs
A huge and fascinating

A huge and fascinating topic:

Regarding the distinction between political and artistic criteria, I think the onset of decadence has more or less brought "quality" production of art, specially in literature and music to a standstill. (Im exaggerating of course!)

Well, I would strong suspect that there hasn't been a decrease in raw technical skill but certainly what is recognized as high art has become nearly self-referential, having little to do with either skill or beauty and everything to do with referencing other high art in a particular way.

How bad art has become ranges from medium to medium and whether you are discussing high or low versions of the art.

Vaneigem, among many others I'm sure, talked about how art became a separate social sphere with the rise of bourgeois. Art, Science, philosophy and so-forth could call have a certain autonomy rather than being part of society organized by unitary myth.

The main distinction would be that an artisan is someone who is highly skilled. An artist is not simply highly skilled but also is someone engaging in bourgeois civil society's ongoing dialog. Exactly how an artist does this again would vary from medium to medium and era to era. Except at the limit of today's garbage high-art, the artist is naturally also a bridge between the beautiful and the socially meaningful. And, as the article notes, artists have related to the advance of the means of production since the means of production include means of representation.

This society, of course, employs a vast army of functional artists; web designers, photographers, industrial designers, studio musicians, television actors, etc. This group produces something like art since they must relate to this society's ongoing trends even in a much degraded format.

On the subject of popular music, Elijah Wald's "How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll" is a fascinating discussion of the evolution of popular music in the twentieth century. Among other things, he describe how jazz as art, as the "brilliant" creation of individual artists, could only come about through the technology of music recording which allowed improvisations to be captured and sold - and which moreover, allowed the very social relations involved in music to shift to focus on individual idiosyncrasies rather than shared processes (for both good and ill, of course).

And I wish could write whole essay but this fragment will have to do for now...










musical strait jackets

From about 1750 to 1900, to make that a convenient stop, sonata form dominated the musical scene, allowing composers from Haydn through Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and many others, to produce a wealth of wonderful music of unprecedented glory. We might say that this was an artistic achievement in music, by the bourgeoisie, equivalent too that of the Renaissance in painting and sculpture. And much of this treasure house of sound was based on, or stemmed from, the invention and development of sonata form.

Simply put sonata form consists in an Exposition, a Development section and a Recapitulation. The Exposition introduces two contrasting themes. In the Development which follows these themes are put through their paces via a journey through a variety of keys, and harmonic or rhythmic challenges, sometimes rugged and challenging, sometimes ecstatic or sweet, to emerge eventually into the Recapitulation more or less as they were at the start of the movement during their introduction in the Exposition. It is possible that a listener may be expected to have a different understanding or response to the themes, having followed their journey in the Development section. But not necessarily so.

I think it may be significant, may be a product of bourgeois philosophy, that despite the initial, musically daring introduction of two contrasting themes, a movement in sonata form (which applies equally to this form used symphonically) ends up back where it started with a simple Recapitulation. There is no Resolution here at all; no new material hinted at as a real development or out-growth of the original thematic material, no new musical direction indicated, nothing open-ended, or problematic, just a very definite and final closure. Perfection has, at least theoretically, been attained. There is nowhere else to go, the work is complete.

Now it may seem silly to complain about this when the form has produced such splendors as Mozart's 40th or Beethoven's Eroica, how is it possible to find complaint with them? Well of course there is no complaint about them. But what I am trying to suggest is that the bourgeoisie, in the shape of much of it's greatest symphonic music, has engendered or incorporated within this music, and its form, the basic limitations of its own way of life, which rests on the economic limitations of the bourgeoisie's own political economy.

In essence, sonata form is a strait jacket imposing definite limitations on where a composer working within it's limits can take his or her thoughts. It doesn't wish to permit or encourage the emergence of new ideas, once the music is underway, and it leads only to a Recapitulation of the old material in place of anything approaching a resolution or a movement forward to new ideas. Is this not the plight of the bourgeoisie writ musically? But what music it has made!

Red Hughes

Red Hughes wrote: artisan is someone who is highly skilled. An artist is not simply highly skilled but also is someone engaging in bourgeois civil society's ongoing dialog. Exactly how an artist does this again would vary from medium to medium and era to era. Except at the limit of today's garbage high-art, the artist is naturally also a bridge between the beautiful and the socially meaningful. And, as the article notes, artists have related to the advance of the means of production since the means of production include means of representation.

Hi Red. I wish you would elaborate a bt more on this. Do you think an artisan is more honest than an artist, because the artisan (working class?) doesn't get involved with all the bourgeois claptrap, and " civil society's ongoing dialogue" - in short, the bourgeoisie's self-serving ideology? And then, who is the decider in what can be seen as " socially meaningful"; the artist, or bourgeois society itself?

I love the expression "garbage high-art", but am strenuously resisting the idea that the Beatles destroyed rock and roll, because I've never really seen them as just rock and rollers, more an expression of the sudden emergence of the working class in England, as a class with something to say, and a potential force for change. But did they not change from being musical artisans to musical artists?