Just don’t think about it

Benjamin Kunkel

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Marxism has thrived as a way of thinking about art and literature, especially at times – the 1920s or the 1990s – when Marxist economic and political thinking has gone into retreat. The headwaters of the stream lie in The German Ideology (1846), where it seems an oversight that Marx and Engels don’t name art and literature, as they do religion, metaphysics and morality, as ‘forms of consciousness’ to be stripped of their ‘semblance of independence’. A historical materialist aesthetics sees in art the distorted reflection of social relations past, present and emerging. The result has often been a somewhat paradoxical model of art-making, in which the deliberate creations of the artist passively transmit unsuspected historical meaning. So in a middlebrow survey like Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art (1951), Balzac could appear, in spite of his titanic energies and avowed royalism, as a cat’s-paw of historical progress, ‘a revolutionary writer without wanting to be’, whose ‘real sympathies make him an ally of rebels and nihilists’. And the Marxist emphasis on the basic passivity of the artist, as a sort of crossroads of historical traffic, could be greatest where the account of art was subtlest, as in Adorno.

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[*] I Live I See: Selected Poems by Vsevolod Nekrasov (Ugly Duckling, 576 pp., June, 978 1 933254 98 2).