‘The Dialectics of Art’ by John Molyneux reviewed by Sean Ledwith

The Dialectics of Art

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2020. 300 pp., $24 pb
ISBN 9781642591316

Reviewed by Sean Ledwith

About the reviewer

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History at York College. He is also a regular contributor to the …


In his introduction to The Dialectics of Art, John Molyneux presciently notes: ‘the even more rapidly changing material world of economics, politics and nature, means that my reflections at the end of the book on the present situation of art and its immediate prospects may already be out of date by the time they are published’ (xv). Like the rest of us, the author was unaware at that point that the greatest calamity of most of our lifetimes was around the corner. The Covid lockdowns of the past two years have provided unwanted reminders of the value of art for human beings. For long swathes of time, we have been deprived of the opportunity to visit galleries, concert halls, cinemas and other venues of cultural production. The consequent impoverishment of our daily existence has felt palpable to millions.

At the same time, however, many have found much needed psychological comfort in the face of the pandemic from the greater access to culture provided by the internet and smartphones. The whole panoply of Western art, literature and music is available at our fingertips in a way previous generations could never have dreamed of. This is a suitable conjuncture, therefore, for a Marxist re-examination of both the function of art and culture in capitalist society and how it might play a role in the transition to socialism. Even though The Dialectics of Art was written before the pandemic, Molyneux still provides valuable contributions to a discussion of Marxist aesthetics in the era of what may turn out to be even greater capitalist catastrophes. The suggestions he makes regarding the status of art are not always convincing, but his explications of individual artists such as Rubens, Picasso and Pollock are as insightful as anything else available on the left. Most of the analysis here is focused on painting but a lot of Molyneux’s theoretical reflections are equally applicable to a wider definition of art that might include architecture, film, music and other mediums.

Molyneux is a refreshingly clear and fluent writer who thankfully avoids a lot of the over-academic and obscure terminology that bedevils the output of other Marxist theoreticians on art such as Adorno or Horkheimer. This book is written with less emphasis on resolving theoretical disputes in the seminar room and more on the role culture can play in activating and articulating political struggle. The author frequently refers to the scale of the crisis that capitalism is inflicting on us and the urgency of the task of constructing a more sane social order: ‘Until that is achieved, art will take its place in the quest and fight for human freedom, if not on the front line – which will be occupied by the masses in struggle in the workplaces, the streets and on the barricades – then as an important ally and essential supplier of spiritual nourishment, as necessary, in its own way, as boots and medicine’ (238).

Over the last year or so, we have witnessed powerful examples of Molyneux’s point that art is often integral to battles between the elite and the masses. The graffiti portrait of George Floyd painted on a Minneapolis wall became the visual detonator of the global Black Lives Matter movement. The latter also sparked a febrile debate about the relevance of statues of historical figures in our towns and cities, one of the most familiar and previously unquestioned forms of art in our daily lives. For a reader unacquainted with how historical materialism approaches questions of art, Molyneux’s book makes an accessible and lively overview.

There are, however, some anomalous features to the book. One is the curiously conservative nature of subjects covered. The author wears his revolutionary heart on his sleeve so it is odd he is so traditional in his choice of subjects. Most of the artists discussed are shibboleths of the establishment canon; that is to say, largely Western, white men such as Michelangelo, Rubens, Picasso and Pollock. It seems incongruous that in this era of globalised capitalism, a Marxist account of art would sideline the importance of Chinese, African or Latin American contributions. Molyneux does acknowledge this limitation but it does slightly undermine the implied claim of the title to provide an all-encompassing perspective. There is one chapter on a Palestinian photographer, Yasser Alwan, but its inclusion unfortunately creates an impression of tokenism. There is also some inconsistency in the length of some sections. Artists such as Michelangelo and Picasso are favoured with substantive analyses that are worthy of their subjects. Other figures such as Warhol and Francis Bacon, however, barely receive a few pages, which can leave the reader frustrated that intriguing lines of thought are set up but then not fully explored.

The most contentious section of The Dialectics of Art is the opening chapter on the foundational question of ‘What is Art?’ Molyneux proposes a definition that this form of human activity is best comprehended as a form of unalienated labour: ‘As the bulk of production, especially the manufacture of goods, becomes subsumed under wage labour and the rule of capital, so humanity, or rather some humans and overwhelmingly humans from a relatively privileged class position, carve out a sphere of production-art-not performed by alienated labour’ (20). One of the problems with this position is it removes art from the totality of the relations of capitalist production. Molyneux argues that the greatest artists, such as those discussed in the book, possess a degree of creative energy that enables them to somehow resist the compelling power of alienation that frames the existence of virtually all other forms of human labour. This falls back on a conservative notion that an ineffable and transhistorical form of genius is what marks out the creations of the likes of Raphael, Rembrandt and Cezanne. Perhaps it would be more in line with materialist principles to argue great art offers inspired glimpses of what an unalienated existence would look and feel like in a classless society.

The best chapters of Molyneux’s book are the ones where he provides incisive analyses of how earlier waves of class struggle and political turbulence have affected the art of some of the masters of the Western canon. His discussions of how biography, socio-historical context and technical innovations have overlapped in specific cases to produce visual masterpieces are exemplary in terms of Marxist art criticism. Molyneux makes good use of Trotsky’s neglected writings on aesthetics to develop stimulating overviews of iconic figures such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Hirst, which do not resort to crass and deterministic correlations between art and politics.

The author’s methodology of artistic evaluation is explicitly guided by the great Russian revolutionary’s finely tuned balancing of individual brilliance and sociological relevance. This is the dialectical interplay of forces implied in the book’s title. Molyneux cites Trotsky’s words on the crucial importance of avoiding readings of paintings that reduce them to mere expressions of class ideology: ‘Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its own laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself’ (30).

Molyneux situates Michelangelo, for example, at the turn of sixteenth century when the disparate republics of the Italian peninsula were stumbling towards a cohesive nation-state that would have accelerated the emergence of Europe’s first capitalist state. Powerful and recalcitrant opposition in the forms of the Vatican and the Medici dynasty, however, stalled Italy’s path towards modernity and left the country economically and politically marooned between feudalism and capitalism. The revolutionary humanism on display in Michelangelo’s defining works such as the statues of David and Moses and the Sistine Chapel sublimely express the ultimately thwarted emancipatory impulse that characterised the Cinquecento: ‘Michelangelo expressed, more than any other artist, the hope and the dream of the Renaissance and the despair and misery of the betrayal and rushing of that dream’ (95).

Much of Michelangelo’s art and sculpture, of course, was created in the service of the reactionary forces of the era such as bankers and popes. Other creations, however, were commissioned by progressive currents such as the Florentine republic. The artist found himself being pulled in different directions at different times by competing historical forces. Molyneux usefully highlights how only a Marxist methodology that is alert to the ebb and flow of class struggle can explain this apparent inconsistency in the artistic output of an individual.

Molyneux likewise seeks to make a case for one of the most controversial living British artists being a conduit for the vicissitudes of social and political development. Tracy Emin’s standout artefacts such as ‘My Bed’ and ‘Everyone I Ever Slept With’ have brought her adulation and notoriety in equal measure. Although Emin has not associated herself with a revolutionary current in the same way Michelangelo did at times in his life, Molyneux wants to defend her status as an artist of historical significance: ‘the experiences represented in Emin’s art are not just personal experiences but are common to a wide layer of young women growing up in this time, in this society. […] By making these experiences into art (which is different from just exposing or confessing them), Emin actually engages in a process of democratic sharing with her audience’ (156). Molyneux’s defence of Emin, originally written in 2005, resonates more credibly now with the emergence of fourth-wave feminism and the MeToo movement. A reason to be more sceptical regarding Emin’s status among the greats, perhaps, would be the question of durability. Michelangelo has clearly stood the test of time but will human beings still be discussing Emin in 500 years?

Molyneux rather apologetically adds a coda to this chapter, noting: ‘Tracy Emin’s political response to her success, wealth and celebrity led her to become a Tory’ (189). This unfortunate development does not, in itself, of course vitiate the author’s central claim that art represents unalienated labour – but it certainly makes it harder to sustain. Despite these inconsistencies in terms of argumentation and structure, The Dialectics of Art is a worthy application of Trotsky’s conviction that cultural enrichment ‘will still be needed when Marx’s Capital has been reduced to the status of a mere historical document’ (218).

18 August 2021

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