Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left

By Craven, David | The Art Bulletin, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left


Craven, David, The Art Bulletin


ANDREW HEMINGWAY, ED. Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left London: Pluto Press, 2006. 276 pp.; 16 b/w ills. $45.00

Considerable attention is currendy being given in the United States to Naomi Klein's best-selling Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007). This fact in turn recalls a similar and equally revealing event from a few years ago in the United Kingdom. While conducting a poll in 1999 and 2000 to determine whom the British public considered the "greatest thinker of the last millennium," the BBC pollsters learned to their surprise that Karl Marx was "the people's choice for 'greatest thinker.'"1 These telling signals over the last decade and the dramatic leftward turn recently to various types of socialist policies by governments at crossroads throughout Latin America-from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay-make clear that a thoughtful reconsideration of Marxism in art history and visual studies would be a welcome contribution to contemporary debates within academe and beyond. After all, Marxism is not only a theory of history but also a history of that theory in very broad geopolitical terms, with contemporary consequences. Any discussion of Marxism's pertinence to a given field of study dius needs to be matched with some sense of its relation to larger historical forces on the international horizon, not just with national or regional debates.

Since a fairly dense thicket of misconceptions often encloses mainstream interpretations of Marxism, any book about the topic confronts a rather challenging task. Moreover, even for partisans on the left an unavoidable gap opens up between Marx and every Marxist effort to "complete" an incomplete mode of inquiry constantly subject to modification at each new historical juncture. In the end, Marx was a systematic thinker, but he left no system of thought. Nonetheless, diere has long been an irresistible temptation for many schools of Marxism-though certainly not all-to treat Marxism as a closed, teleological system (like that of the well-known travesty called "dialectical materialism," a term that Marx never used). Similarly, all of the key concepts used by Marx and Friedrich Engels were defined by them in at least three or four different and sometimes contradictory ways throughout their huge corpora of writing - whether one has in mind ideology and the state or class formations, the nature of human subjectivity, or the much debated base/structure model for political economy.2

It is also not unimportant that three-quarters of the writings of Marx remained unfinished and/or unpublished at his death. Aside from his concerted criticism of the capitalist mode of production, including his definitive analysis of commodity fetishism and commodity production, little else that he wrote about modern society exists in anything other than a fragmentary state, including even the provisional explication of his methodological approach, the "materialist conception of history"-or "historical materialism," as it came to be called. Vet, far from being an insurmountable impediment to grasping Marx's drought, this locus of indeterminacy at the center of his approach between, say, structural determinants that constrain us and any "voluntarist" efforts to reconfigure them has necessitated two things that are quite salutary on balance. First, this situation has called for a keen sense of self-criticism any time a half-theorized concept of Marx has been utilized in concrete historical terms, and, second, this point of irresolution at the center of Marx's position has triggered a healthy, virtually unrivaled richness within Marxist thought that continues to make it one of the major modern traditions for mounting a systemic critique. Thus, the theoretical "weaknesses" of Marx's writings as a sort of chef d'oeuvre incomplet have constituted both a daunting challenge to Marxists and a source of remarkable innovation by subsequent thinkers in relation to the historical developments they confronted. …

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