Art and art: definitions, descriptions, determinations

In order to make this argument, it is going to be necessary to advance provisionally a definition of art, but also to make some (admittedly sweeping) generalisations about the mainstream of Art practice. I have been using and will continue to use ‘art’ to denote art in general, and Art to denote this subset.

I would suggest that art is any product of labour whose primary function is its aesthetic work. This is a ‘pragmatist’ definition: it depends on the development of particular social relations arising between the art and those who receive it – that is, on it being received as ‘art’. A photograph of a sunset, for example, might be taken to measure the level of pollutants in the atmosphere, in which case it is a scientific document. The same photograph may then be put to some aesthetic work – it becomes art. It is in the nature of pragmatist definitions that they are relatively loose. How, after all, do you judge with scientific accuracy that the ‘aesthetic work’ of an artefact such as an advertisement is its primary function when its aesthetic work is precisely and inextricably bound up with its function to promote a particular commodity? The same is true of all the distinctions that I am going to make – the categories are not hard and fast, rather they are organised around ‘family resemblance’. In that sense pragmatist definition is not definition at all but rather description.

This ‘definition’ works on the highest level of abstraction: it works for all such aesthetic labour, regardless of its nature and in any society. But of course, art under capitalism takes on distinct forms, particularly in comparison to the art of previous societies. Walter Benjamin’s description of the status of l’art pour l’art in many ways matches the conditions of those practices we normally think of when we think of Art.

Because his round-about route through the emergence of what he calls ‘taste’ is likely to be of interest to most people working in the crafts, it is worth quoting at length:

Taste develops with the definite preponderance of commodity production over any other kind of production. As a consequence of the manufacture of products as commodities for the market, people become less and less aware of the conditions of their production – not only of the social conditions in the form of exploitation, but of the technical conditions as well. […] The commodity is bathed in a profane glow […] In the same measure as the expertness of a customer declines, the importance of his taste increases - both for him and for the manufacturer. For the consumer it has the value of a more or less elaborate masking of his lack of expertness. Its value to the manufacturer is a fresh stimulus to consumption which in some cases is satisfied at the expense of other requirements of consumption the manufacturer would find more costly to meet.

The doctrine of l’art pour l’art

and its corresponding practice for the first time give taste a dominant position in poetry. […] In l’art pour l’art the poet for the first time faces language the way the buyer faces the commodity on the open market. He has lost his familiarity with the process of its production to a particularly high degree. […] They have nothing to formulate with such urgency that it could determine the coining of their words. […] The poet of l’art pour l’art wanted to bring to language above all himself – with all the idiosyncrasies, nuances and imponderables of his nature. These elements are reflected in taste.

What is interesting about this is that it does not begin with the entry of poetry into the market as a consumer good, but with the poet’s relation to her medium of expression. For Benjamin, the poet has the same relationship with language as the flâneur has to the commodities on the market. The poet has no symbolic resources to draw on outside of her own frail and decentred subjectivity. Cast adrift, the poet has no need to worry about the “coining” of language because the final referent of her poem is simply the poem itself. The poet’s discriminating deployment of words – the display of the poet’s ‘taste’ in language – is its own end, just as in the artful selection of clothing.

How has the poet become such an egoist? Benjamin moves (rather too swiftly) from his high level of abstraction to a particular moment in French history:

the theory of l’art pour l’art assumed decisive importance around 1852, at a time when the bourgeoisie sought to take its ‘cause’ from the hands of the writers and the poets. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx recollects this moment, when ‘the extra-parliamentary masses of the bourgeoisie … through the brutal abuse of their own press’, called upon Napoleon ‘to destroy their speaking and writing segment, their politicians and literati, so that they might confidently pursue their private affairs under the protection of a strong and untrammelled government’. […] the cause of his own class has become so far removed from [the poet Mallarme] that the problem of a literature without an object becomes the centre of discussion. […] This, to be sure – and particularly in Mallarme – is the face of a coin whose other side is by no means insignificant. It furnishes evidence that the poet no longer undertakes to support any of the causes that are pursued by the class to which he belongs.1

The peculiar disconnect in Benjamin’s analysis – which is after all only a small addendum to his monograph on Baudelaire2 – should remind us that the relationship of the artist to class society is a shifting one. Compare the hostile attitude which Benjamin sees in the regime of Louis Bonaparte with the total administration of art under fascism and Stalinism.

Nevertheless, the aspects of bourgeoisie society which Benjamin indicates – the philistinism of the bourgeoisie, the creation of a market for objects of ‘taste’, the relative separation of the economic and the political spheres – to which I would add the shrinking of the official sphere of the state, especially in the realm of cultural patronage – and the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the capitalist class which is implicit in every Marxist analysis – do in fact tend to institute a divorce between the cultural producers and the capitalist class as a whole. It is just that the severity of the separation is not constant.

In terms of direct class relations, the professional artist is, in general, thus neither a worker nor a capitalist but a member of the petty-bourgeoisie whose cultural output is acquired by the ruling class via the mediation of the market. But the fact that Art can be commodified, is precisely the source of its relative freedom – or rather, the fact that it is possible to make a living selling art is the necessary condition for its existence because it is already freed from its direct links with the ruling class.3

This is clearly a double freedom: it disconnects the artist from the resources (technical and especially also symbolic) of her art production but it also frees art from the instrumental relations it had with previous ruling classes. As Benjamin indicates, this creates a situation in which Art can begin to peer back into itself – to acquire a formalism that appears to make Art about Art. This self-reflexivity should not be seen as mere navel gazing; Art’s relative separation from patronage it is also a space for genuine criticism. Or, as Terry Eagleton puts it, what art “gains in one direction, it loses in another”.4 Art for Eagleton “can now cease to be a mere lackey of political power, swearing fidelity only to its own laws” even if it is true that the “social conditions which allow this to happen – the autonomization of art – also” prevent this autotelic freedom from spilling into any other part of life.5

The hieratic spaces of the gallery is thus a kind of ghetto for aesthetic life in a world otherwise drained by alienation of art and autotelic activity in general. It is precisely the fact that capitalism has drained life itself of its art (at least for the vast majority of people) that conditions Art as a specialised and enclosed field.

1Walter Benjamin, “Addendum” Marxist Literary Theory: a reader. Eds. Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers: 1996 p. 82

2A fuller analysis is attempted but not completed in The Arcades Project.

3The division of labour between the producers of cultural objects and their interpreters (art critics) interacts with the ‘free’ competition of artworks on the market in important ways. The task of the interpreters, in effect, is to validate and valorise some artworks, while leaving aside others; they explain the artworks to their (predominantly ruling class) potential buyers, the better for them to collect and select those works which they find most flattering, useful or interesting.

4Terry Eagleton Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 352.

5Ibid. p. 367

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