Between Discipline and Practice

Warren Carter, Barnaby Haran & Frederic J. Schwartz (eds.), ReNew Marxist Art History

Art / Books, 520pp, £45.00, ISBN 9781908970114

reviewed by Tom Hastings

ReNew Marxist Art History comprises a collection of new essays by scholars at work in the expanded field of Art History. Its title presents the reader with a body of writing and a choice. Either one traces a specific way of thinking about art’s relation to history and criticism from its base in Marx, through the development of a ‘School’ during the Interwar period, to its fragmentation under the energetic promise of the New Left and total subsumption under explosive currents of strong theory, till finally its critical imperative re-emerges post-2008, or one pays attention to the word ‘ReNew’ and looks forward.

This book is worth reading closely precisely because it foregoes a programmatic rehearsal of Marx’s famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Instead this injunction to the reader – that she work to ‘renew’ a commitment to Marxist Art History – is threaded through a complex aggregate of writing that connects lots of ground (some familiar, some untrodden). And the book’s three editors – Warren Carter, Barnaby Haran and Frederic J. Schwartz – have certainly risen to the title’s double mission.

At the same time, this collection is noticeable for what it leaves out: namely, a feminist appreciation of Marxist thought. And in the opening Preface, the editors confess to ‘a lack of texts from beyond the Anglo-American and German art-historical communities.’ ‘There are reasons for this,’ they proffer. Given that class does not curtail discussion of difference, and that a historian actively produces the field of objects to be discussed, one might have expected more than an apology. Indeed, one question I had prior to reading these essays, was how might a properly Marxist Art History sustain an idea of ‘totality’ moving into the trans-globalised art world of the 21st century?

But as noted, this book is valuable because it disables the stretch of transhistorical categories in favour of the minor textual detail. The form one finds here militates against the heroic demystification of the Fredric Jamesons of this world by sticking fast to what the object might yield up on its own terms. It is because a ‘sensuous practice’ (to use a Marxian term interrogated by one contributor, Stewart Martin) arises through reading that, as the editors declare: ‘we are confident that these perspectives, and others, will be represented – and that Marxism will look quite different – the next time someone attempts a project such as the one we have undertaken in the pages that follow.’ In other words, ReNew Marxist Art History is an open invitation.

Four parts order the book’s distinctly post-Ivy League contributions around the poles of theory-in-practice; landscape; Modernism and finally, a ‘New World Order’. This editorial configuration is undergirded by familiar thematics, such as the German Expressionist debates of the 1930s; Romantic anti-Capitalism; Adorno and the status of autonomy; Zhdanovist Social Realism and its reception in America. Furthermore, the collection is dedicated to the Marxist art historian Andrew Hemingway, whose scholarly appreciation of the history of the field, and in particular the politics of Interwar American realism, provides a rich seam to much of the exploratory work on offer. (Indeed, he appears to have supervised the theses of a contingent of the book’s 27 contributors.)

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Below is a list of material objects and people, of cultural treasure and detritus pulled from the book’s pages: the itinerants who worked Clapham Common; the unveiling of Tajik women; 1920s Viennese slang (to ‘play with the Jew’ meant to masturbate, where ‘Jew’ means ‘clitoris’); the longshoremen of New York City’s docks; the Abusif détournement of ‘bikini babes’ in the magazines of The SI; Turbine Hall, Tate Modern; ornamental blue foliage; the Nazi Party’s official feuilleton, The People’s Observer (Völkischer Beobachter); Chto Delat (or, What is to be done?); the tyrannical will of Moby Dick’s Ahab; the calaveras (skulls) of the Arroyo pamphlets; Grub Street party politics; The Tiller Girls and Boogie-Woogie.

The question now, is not 'How do these things fit together?' (They don’t – and the reader is not hunting for a heritage.) If anything, the reader is after a methodological praxis that will enable her, as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’. Histories capable of tracking this impulse are those, which, localising theory to the point of description, effectively bring a delimited network of social relations to light through time spent digging in the archive. Conversely, those accounts that pretend recognition for ‘the way it really was’ (Benjamin quoting Ranke) tend to uproot whole scenes of making: suspending them under the aegis of a theoretical assertion that momentarily hypostatises and grows hard, before fizzling out in the mind of the reader: a ‘vulgar’ Marxism.

As an example of the former, Brian Foss presents a close iconographical reading of the figure of the windmill as it appears in the work of Canadian painter Homer Ransford Watson (1855-1936), who shared formal concerns with the Hudson School. The rise of steam-based technology and the concomitant deskilling of workers find its expression here. Geographical proxy is an editorial tactic that spins its web elsewhere too, connecting Otto Dix to the Bauhaus School, William Morris to Walter Pater and the Paris Commune to the Situationist International.

The Fourth International’s global nexus finds its analogue in those discussions that deal with form’s capacity to erode art history’s basic antinomy of aesthetic autonomy and social embeddedness. For instance, Alex Potts compares the work of two committed European painters, Asger Jorn (1914-1973) and Renato Guttuso (1912-1987), who respectively represent the camps of informel painterly abstraction and figurative realism. Writing at the level of ‘the artist’s immersion in the materiality of artistic process’, Potts convincingly demonstrates how between both ‘politically engaged realisms… [there] may be a shared understanding of a less than clear-cut boundary between consciously motivated action and the blind workings of inhuman forces and impulses.’ The Anarcho-Marxist politics of class transformation are given an 'allover' treatment that is not just wishful thinking because it is rooted in a materialist framework. It is this kind of critical writing that gives rise to an image of what Marxist Art History might look like, or do – staked on the borderland between discipline and practice.

Similarly, Gail Day’s reappraisal of Lukács’ concept of totality in the light of recent ‘critical realism’ – Allan Sekula’s documentaries; Hito Steyerl; the output of activist-art groups like the Radek Community, Chto Delat and Freee – presents the possibility of a new turn. Day demonstrates how contemporary service workers are prone to discard Lukács in favour of the more formalistically pliable Brecht, while retaining the former’s concept of reification. This critical position is first shown to emanate from the kind of easy reading, or ‘immediacy’ of recognition that Lukács was working against. Next, and in the contrapuntal wake of Alex Pott’s immersive register, Day gives us a strong idea of how ‘totality’ is still conceivable post-2008:

Moreover, as Lukács later insists in ‘Realism in the Balance’, the ways in which totality appears to us are contradictory: when capitalism is relatively stable, it is experienced partially and yet people assume it to be ‘total’; conversely, in the midst of crises, when the totality asserts itself, it seems as if the whole had disintegrated. Totality appears simultaneously as fragment and whole, but does so disjointedly and unevenly.

If anything, this characterisation of totality as ‘unified-and-fragmentary’ makes sense of what feels most pressing about the best writing in this volume. Working from the ground up, the histories that stick are those that implicate the reader’s present by eradicating the precedent of historically sanctioned names (such as Habermas’ much lauded, often abused ‘Ideal Bourgeois Public Sphere’). Take this with the collection’s late turn to investigative journalism, viz. Chin-tao Wu’s indictment of the Tate Modern – Who contributed, and how much, towards the cost of producing [Doris] Salcedo’s work? – and the reader has what amounts to a critical task.