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Art, Aesthetics and the Left

The Liberation of Sensibility


 “Marxist aesthetics has yet to ask: What are the qualities of art which transcend the specific social content and form and give art its universality?”

—Herbert Marcuse

Is there any role for classic-humanist literature in the moral/spiritual outlook of 21st century socialists?  There certainly was for the leading 19th century socialist: Karl Marx constantly reread and studied such authors as Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Balzac, and his writings are sprinkled with forceful quotations ranging from Homer to Jonathan Swift.  His successors also drew upon classic authors—such as Rousseau and Tolstoy—for inspiration and moral enlightenment.  And it was only after reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, recalled the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, that he became a socialist.

Yet after several decades of post-Marxist and post-modernist interpretation, my question must seem absurdly quaint.  Such literary art is now almost automatically dismissed as Eurocentric, elitist, and sexist.  Indeed, deconstructionist literary critics have sought to ignore the actual literary artists entirely, analyzing the “texts” solely as archaeological artifacts of bygone structures of inequality and power.

Writing in the mid-20th century, radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse sought a fusion of Marxist and Freudian theory.  As an authoritative scholar on 19th century German philosophy, he was able to draw upon the tradition of German Romantic humanism, which had emerged in opposition to the bourgeois-utilitarian, capitalist worldview.  The Romantic emphasis on subjectivity and an aesthetic ethos reclaimed purely experiential values and their human roots in nature.  Thus Marcuse could never entirely accept the Marxist dogma of “infrastructural determinism”—that “material conditions [always] determine consciousness” (i.e., cultural belief-systems, artistic creations, etc.).  In its liberating power, art could not be dismissed—as orthodox Marxists did—as merely part of an ideological superstructure rationalizing the existing material relations (infrastructure).

In a final work The Aesthetic Dimension (1978), Marcuse critiqued Marxist orthodoxy for de-valuing the non-material dimensions of human experience, the individual’s inner life of complex emotional contemplations—for dismissing subjectivity itself as a “bourgeois” phenomenon (based on privacy, introspection, leisure, etc.).  Referring to the “liberating subjectivity” of aesthetic experience, Marcuse wrote that the individual “steps out of the network of…exchange values, withdraws from the reality of bourgeois society, and enters another dimension of existence.”  Such a withdrawal—in which an inner life is cultivated in opposition to the “false consciousness” of market-dictated values—allows for an alternate sensibility which “can be either regressive or emancipatory.”  “The truth of art,” he wrote, “lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality (i.e., of those who established it) to define what is real.”

Whereas the social-class milieu depicted in classic literature may be dated—say, medieval English kingdoms (Shakespeare) or Russian serfdom (Gogol)—the characters depicted transcend it insofar as they struggle against unjust conditions, asserting their human aspirations as against trans-historical obstacles such as cruelty, racism, sexism, de-humanizing enslavement, alienating wage-labor–and ubiquitous hypocrisy.  Pathbreaking classics of literature and drama often shattered accepted illusions and revealed “repressed dimensions of reality.”  (Authors such as Dickens, Frederick Douglass, Ibsen, Steinbeck, Gorky, Arthur Miller—just to name a few.)  As such, they have awakened countless millions of people from despairing acceptance of the status quo, offering vivid insight into the universal struggle for full humanization—which Marx and Engels called “the free development of each [as] the condition for the free development of all.”

Why should Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony be peremptorily dismissed as “elitist”?  Or Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”—with its profoundly expressive depiction of compassionate humanism?  Or any of the great novels of Dostoevsky?  Because of their supposed irrelevance to the real needs of “ordinary people”?  But Marcuse, besides expanding this definition of “need,” came to reject mass-stereotypes about “the people,” as apart from unique, actual persons: the “need for radical change must be rooted in the subjectivity of individuals themselves.”  Thus, revolutionary transformation, Marcuse finally concluded, begins not only with real class-consciousness but also with the subjective growth of aesthetic and experiential values which fundamentally challenge the dominance of what may now be termed a techno-economic Weltanschauung.

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).

NOTE: All cited quotations from: Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.