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Liberating Modern Art

Paul Mattick, Art In Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics (Routledge, 2003)

According to Marx, the insidiousness of ideology rests in the way it presents deeply prescriptive class interests in the guise of nature and ordinary experience. Thinking which makes use of the concept of ideology in a critical spirit is at its most illuminating when it addresses, not the tautological bastions of political power and repression, but rather our deeper habits of judgement and taste: ideology is not transmitted through abstract, monolithic institutions, but through the texture of what Edmund Husserl called our "life world." Subtly argued and gracefully erudite, Paul Mattick’s Art In Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics is neither a work of art criticism nor of aesthetics, but is rather an intellectual and social history of concepts central to the emergence of modern art and aesthetics.

Art has not always envisaged itself as autonomous, as a free act of the imagination independent of worldly interests; that was an invention of 18th century aesthetics. In "Art and Money," one of the pivotal essays in Art In Its Time, Mattick traces the ideological opposition between art and commerce and art and luxury, through pointed readings of passages in the writings of Hume, Reynolds, Diderot, Rousseau, and Schiller. Here one finds Rousseau’s warnings on the ways in which money leads to the corruption of morals and taste, Diderot lamenting the mix of social classes, Reynolds inveighing against the vulgar subjects painted by Dutch painters, Kant insisting that only those things should be called art which are produced "through freedom, i.e. through a power of choice that bases its acts on reason." Art is a high, refined, essentially inward pursuit, an expression of the purity and freedom of the spirit, and should be kept apart from both the filth of the marketplace and the decadent perfume of the boudoir. Mattick is surely right to underscore the ironies inherent in this naively sentimental vision of art, for at the very moment in the 18th century when artists were liberated from the suffocating patronage system, they became dependent upon the alienated whims of the capitalist market. The deftly orchestrated readings of Burke, Kant, and Schiller in "Beautiful and Sublime" provide a complement to "Art and Money," for here beauty is associated with passive, luxuriant effeminacy, the sublime is a singularly male assertion of nobility and transcendence, and both are entwined in the maintenance of gender and class distinctions.

Art In Its Time is at its most potent and even controversial when Mattick directs his razor-sharp critical attention on the aesthetic theories and fantasies of modernist and post-modernist art, arguing that artistic and critical styles that have often imagined themselves radical in fact rely upon the essentially reactionary 18th century ideology of art. In "The Andy Warhol of Philosophy and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol," for example, Mattick forcefully argues that both Arthur Danto’s claim that Warhol’s "Brillo Boxes" serve to transfigure commonplace objects into the realm of art, and Thomas Crow’s insistence that the "Gold Marilyn Monroe" images constitute critiques of the fetishization of glamour and fame, rest upon a discredited opposition between high art and mass culture. In "Avant-garde in Fashion," Mattick suggests that T.J. Clark’s influential reading of Pollock’s drip paintings as an attempt to represent as yet uncolonized realms of experience, underestimates the extent to which even the most inventive visual art is absorbed into the dominant structures of capitalist society. "A painting, even if made in an effort to live and produce in a way at radical odds with modern society," Mattick writes, "lives on in independence of the of its maker’s—or any particular viewer’s— intentions."

Although Mattick’s arguments are nuanced in detail, and his observations are invariably illuminating; his implicit use of concepts like "historical origin" and "social context" are rigid in ways that occlude the concrete subjectivity of both the makers and beholders of works of art. The modern ideology of art as developed by thinkers like Diderot, Hume, and Kant may have indulged in a narrow understanding of art’s disinterestedness and freedom, but they were also working with a familiar concept whose boundaries have always been flexible. As both Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg pointed out, the concerns of earlier art works, and the responses they appear to demand, are clearly recognizable (if sometimes difficult to reconstruct) from a modernist standpoint. Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes and Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece were among many other things fashioned to evoke awe, serenity, exultation, and even fear, all experiences— aesthetic, religious, private— these works still profoundly give rise to. Similarly, while the idea that Mondrian’s or Pollock’s paintings could directly contribute to social revolution is a touching and absurd illusion, the fact that such works were and continue to be exhibited in elitist institutions does not diminish their potentially transformative impact. Consciousness surely is circumscribed by history and society, but the manner in which art or anything else reverberates in consciousness is complex, unpredictable, and does not fall into clean historical categories.

Art In Its Time’s final chapter, "Classless Taste," written in memoriam to the late French thinker Pierre Bourdieu, is an apt speculative coda to the themes which form the core of the book. Mattick concurs with Bourdieu’s view that taste is "a constituent of class, a possession that helps give a person his or her social position." Taste in clothing, art, and wines are all products of elite forms of education and upbringing and comprise part of what it means to be a member of the dominant class: class is part of the basic phenomenology of one’s experience of the world. This may indeed be true of the concept of "high art" as it has evolved since the 18th century, yet the notion of "taste" and even of "aesthetic attitude" are considerably more pliable. Hume, for example, acknowledged that refined taste is cultivated through education, but he understood that taste is also and perhaps more importantly the capacity to discern excellence in a variety of fields and forms, such as craft and industry. That modern painters, sculptors, architects, and composers have all been inspired by "lower" regional idioms like Haida totem poles, rural American houses and furniture, the Mississippi delta blues, and even 1960s L.A. car culture need not be understood a condescending aesthetic slumming, but rather as an acknowledgement of the specifically aesthetic power and excellence of those forms. There were great Haida totem pole makers, and great bluesmen, and great car refurbishers, and if that is true, then there is a substantive notion of aesthetic judgement and taste at play which, although it asserts distinctions, is outside a centralized notion of class.

Nonetheless, in the encompassing, globalized form commodity capitalism has taken in the west in the early 21st century, even the most marginal cultural phenomena are absorbed into the mainstream of ideology. With that in mind, Mattick’s speculations on the possibility of classless taste after the abolition of commodity production are important. In such an era "…cultural capital would no longer function as a means for generating class distinction. The meaning of taste would change fundamentally once the experience of actually altering society removed the appearance of naturalness from today’s cultural categories." Liberating art from class would, Mattick suggests, remove the inflated social pressure placed upon it; making art, viewing art, thinking about art, could then take place in a state of freedom. Art would just be art. Perhaps only in a post-revolutionary world could the ideals of the 18th century be realized.


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2003

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