Marxism and Art History after the Fall of Communism

By Hemingway, Andrew | Art Journal, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Marxism and Art History after the Fall of Communism


Hemingway, Andrew, Art Journal


The reassessment of Marxism is yet again on the agenda of intellectual debate. Each major twentieth-century crisis has prompted a reconsideration of what remains the most productive theory of bourgeois society, often with fruitful results. But this time around, the nature of the crisis occasioned by the collapse of Soviet Communism gives a truly funereal tone to the deliberations. And yet Marxist categories continue to pervade historical discourse, even if their original force seems to have been lost. Thus many progressive cultural historians continue to invoke the category of "bourgeois society," although in their usage the term seems evacuated of any notion of class struggle. (Partly, we may assume, because the very idea of a collective political subject has become so alien.) Within art history the big question of Marxism's status as a theory of social and historical change remains largely unaddressed. But this is the big question, for without Marxism, or some development from it, art history is likely to operate without any articulate theory of history at all. In this essay I examine recent developments in Marxist theories of class and the state, and consider their implications for art history of the modern period.

"Bourgeois society" has become one of those familiar terms that make up the lexicon of received ideas for those who practice the social history of art in its various forms. In order to explain this almost ubiquitous invocation, it is necessary to recall the role of New Left Marxism in the development of the so-called New Art History. The fact that the term now crops up regularly in undergraduate essays seems less an indication of a critical class consciousness among the student population than of the social history of art's status as a popular (or simply unavoidable) dish on the academic menu. There should be no doubt that the discipline has benefited from the concern with theoretical issues and a related broadening of its parameters over the last twenty years, but no one can pretend that engagement with such issues still entails the kind of political commitments it once did. This is not just a case of the dilution of radical ideas through diffusion and popularization; it has to be explained more concretely by the breakdown of New Left politics and fashion trends in that ideological region encapsulated by the term "theory."

The current marginalization of Marxist analysis more generally is doubtless connected with the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries and the dramatic rightward shift in the political climate of the United States and Western Europe since the 1970s. However, the so-called crisis of Marxism goes back much further, and has its roots (depending on one's perspective) in the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution to provide the catalyst for a general uprising of the proletariat in the industrialized nations, or, in the long-term problems of social democracy.l That is to say, it also has to be seen in relation to the failures of historical materialism to account for the resilience of capitalism, the nonappearance in the West of a revolutionary proletariat committed to the ideals of human emancipation, and the repressive character of those societies in which there was, at least formally, collective ownership of the means of production.

Among British and North American academics, it appears as if Marxism has been remaindered at a theoretical level by poststructuralism. While initially it seemed to some that New Left critique could assimilate the ideas of several thinkers customarily covered by this term and still remain committed to a form of Marxism (usually the Althusserian variety), it quickly became clear that this was not the case. Of the big three poststructuralist thinkers, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan offer nothing that can easily be incorporated into general theories of history or society, and Derrida's work has been widely understood to license a cognitive relativism quite antithetical to the scientific aspirations of Marxism. …

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