Aesthetic Revolution

Society as a Work of Art

The End of Modernity's End?

The Strange Relation of Art and Politics

The Ambivalence of the Public Square

Creativity and its Afterlives

A Game of Appearances


Malcolm Miles

Aesthetic Revolution

[lecture given at Liverpool Hope University, 22 October 2014]

In 1978, a decade after the failure of revolt in Paris, as Europe and North America moved into a period of market-driven politics, Herbert Marcuse wrote, at the opening of The Aesthetic Dimension:
'In a situation where the miserable reality can be changed only through radical political praxis, the concern with aesthetics demands justification. It would be senseless to deny the element of despair inherent in this concern: the retreat into a world of fiction where existing conditions are changed and overcome only in the realm of the imagination. However, the purely ideological conception of art is being questioned with increasing intensity. It seems that art as art expresses a truth, an experience, a necessity which, although not in the domain of radical praxis, are nevertheless essential components of revolution. With this insight, the basic conception of Marxist aesthetics, that is its treatment of art as ideology, and the emphasis on the class character of art, become again the topic of critical re-examination.' 1
Two refusals are evident here: Socialist Realism; and the class character of art (or a specifically working-class culture) as Left writers such as André Gorz 2 (and Marcuse himself) argued that the working class was no longer a revolutionary force in a consumer society.
But Marcuse and Gorz remain aligned to utopia. Gorz the foresees abolition of work and rise of autonomous production. Echoing ideas from Ivan Illich, 3 Gorz writes:
'The right to autonomous production presupposes the right of access to tools and their conviviality. It is incompatible with private or public industrial, commercial or professional monopolies. It implies a contraction of commodity production and sale of labour power, and … extension of autonomous production based on voluntary cooperation, the exchange of services or personal activity. '4
The end of the working class is both their capture by consumerism and an imagined move to autonomous, need-based, shared, production. In these conditions, Marcuse proposes a turn to aesthetics. But the element of despair also reflects the spectres of the failure of the German Revolution of 1918-19 and the subsequent rise of fascism.
During 1919, however, the lines were drawn politically: on 15 February,1919, a Dada procession in Berlin, two days after Rosa Luxemburg’s murder by the Freikorps, took the route of another murdered Left leader Karl Liebknecht’s funeral, accompanied by a band playing traditional tunes such as Preussenlied (the Prussian national anthem, dating from a liberal-egalitarian period) while distributing a pamphlet, ‘Every Man his own Football’. 5
This is a footnote to art history now but was taken seriously then: soldiers were sent to watch the Dadaists when they proclaimed a Republik in 1919, reiterating that of the Free Socialist Republic of 1918. 6 One reason for relegation of such autonomous cultural production to invisibility is the avant-garde’s shift by the 1940s to a different kind of autonomy: the claim to freedom from codes of perception, as if from the hold of material values (while the Museum of Modern Art, New York aligned modern art to an international art market). In contrast, ‘Every Man his own Football’ used montage to, ‘to re-engineer the form’ to serve the ‘aims of the traditional social movement object of the pamphlet. … [It] disturbed the subject-position of its reception [to move] from a recognisable satirical genre to a tactical subversion of  the object’s social mediation …’ 7
Cultural production of this kind is interruptive, not oppositional, creating a momentary lapse of cognition when the imagination of alternative scenarios is possible. I return to this below. First, I want to outline how the condition within a radical alternative is conceptualised; look to the ambivalences of European avant-gardes, and an inherent difficulty in aesthetic theory, that art depicts suffering as the Beautiful.

Containing the World
Peter Sloterdijk argues, in The World Interior of Capitalism, that the invention of the globe in the 1490s – as European ships were sailing to colonise the Americas – as a means to see the whole of the now-round Earth was the beginning of globalisation:
'Beginning with the Behaim Globe from Nurnberg, made in 1492 … and continuing up to NASA’s photograms of the earth and pictures taken from the space station Mir, the cosmological process of modernity is characterised by the changes of shape and refinements of the earth’s image in its diverse technical media. … Anyone who wished to attempt a portrait of the whole earth following the downfall of heaven stood … in the tradition of sublime cosmography. In order to implement the new procedures for providing a conception of the world, however, gravity had to be overcome no longer only in the imagination, but also technologically.' 8
People are contained or lost in boundless space: ‘The principle of the primacy of the outside provides the axiom for the human sciences. ’9 Externality becomes the norm of a perception, foundation of gazes which master the objects of their perception by seeming to be outside them:
'These new entrepreneurs from the pilot nations … are no longer rooted in their native country; they no longer float amid its voices and smells; they no longer obey … historical markers or magical poles of attraction. They have forgotten what enchanted springs were … and what curses lay upon twilight corners. For them, the poetics of the natal space is no longer decisive. … they have learned to carry out their projects in … the outermost and abstract place. … their location will be the map … [which] absorbs the land … .' 10
First, the world is disenchanted: this might be the loss of an imaginary realm where individuals merge into a social group in Nature; it could also mean the end of rule by a mysterious and implacable Fate, an inescapable finality which is a consciousness of mortality in the form of natural immortality, and recognition that natural forces are always indifferent.
Second, Adorno and Horkheimer argue in Dialectic of Enlightenment, that the world’s  disenchantment introduces knowledge as power-over other people and nature, from which emerges authority not as knowledge of a subject but as imposition.
Third, the singular chart absorbs experiential/material realities. This is the space of plans; Lefebvre calls it the representation of space, conceived space, ‘the dominant space of any society,’ over representational spaces, lived space, that of occupation, a dominated space, ‘where the imagination seeks to change and appropriate.’ 11
A key shift occurred in Sloterdijk’s meta-history with the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, housed in the Crystal Palace:
'The consequence of the age of European offensives was … the development and consolidation of the world system. This implies the interconnectedness of the global players on several levels: states, business enterprises, banks and stock exchanges, academic life, the art scene, the world of sport, prostitution, the drug trade, arms dealing, and so on. This repercussion-infested system … constitutes the final working level of countless routines …' 12
The quintessence of the new world-system where everything arrives at once was the Crystal Palace, erected in Hyde Park in 1850, opened on Mayday 1851, then re-sited to Sydenham Hill in 1854, destroyed in a fire in 1936. It introduced ‘a new aesthetics of immersion’ whence,
'… the principle of the interior overstepped a critical boundary … neither the middle- nor the upper-class home nor its projection onto the sphere of urban shopping arcades; rather, it began to endow the outside world as a whole with a magical immanence transfigured by luxury and cosmopolitanism. … converted into a large hothouse and an imperial culture museum, it revealed the timely tendency to make both nature and culture indoor affairs.' 13
Sloterdijk cites Dostoevsky, who had recently read Chernyshevsky’s novel, What Is To Be Done, 14  a title later borrowed by Lenin, and imagined a new kind of human who overcomes all technical issues to live communally in palaces of glass and metal. This resembles the Fourieristphalanstery, itself based on the Paris arcades of the 1820s-30s (later observed by Walter Benjamin in the 1920s). Sloterdijk notes one consequence: the integration of human rights and comfort:
'The construction of the Crystal Palace can only be followed by the crystallization of circumstances as a whole … the intention to generalize boredom normatively and prevent the re-irruption of history into the post-historical world; furthering and protecting benevolent ossification would be the goal of all future state power. … its psychosocial signature tune is the atmosphere of departure, its basic key optimism. Everything in the post-historical world must actually be geared towards the future, as it offers the only promise that can be made unconditionally to an association of consumers: that comfort and convenience will never stop flowing and growing. Thus the concept of human rights is inseparable from the great departure into comfort, in that the freedoms those rights entail prepare the self-fulfilment of the consumer.' 15
For Benjamin, the shiny world of the luxury bazaar concealed a realm of exploitation while incidental things seen in curiosity shops could evoke latent utopian memories. Yet Sloterdijk reads Benjamin as charting with ‘the vengeful joy of the melancholic,’ or evidence ‘that the world has gone wrong. ’16 Rather, the Crystal Palace introduces a mode of enclosure which no-one need leave. Capitalism goes beyond the relations of production: ‘… placing the entire working life, wish life and expressive life of the people it affected within the immanence of spending power.’ 17 Marcuse had argued similarly in One-Dimensional Man 18that consumer culture was all-pervasive, limiting the human capacity to see outside a life of ease produced as a means to profit rather than well-being or commonwealth.
After the failure of revolt in May, 1968 Marcuse argues that radical change requires a revolutionary consciousness which is produced like a biological drive by the evident contradictions of the affluent society. He saw a beginning in psychedelia: ‘Awareness of a need for such a revolution in perception, for a new sensorium, is perhaps the kernel of truth in the psychedelic search’ 19 but reminds his audience at the Dialectics of Liberation Congress at the Roundhouse, London in July 1968, ‘I am very happy to see so many flowers here and that is why I want to reind you that flowers … have no power whatsoever, other than the power of men and women who protect them and take care of them against aggression and destruction.’ 20 Marcuse was aware of the difficulty: the new consciousness required revolutionary conditions in which to arise; he also argued that a free society required a qualitative not quantitative difference, while human needs are, ‘permeated with the exigencies of profit and exploitation’ so that ‘standardised fun … commercialised beauty’ smother the alternative of a freedom without exploitation, and an end to the normalised introjection of capitalist values, introducing a stage,
'… where the people cannot reject the system of domination without rejecting themselves, their own repressive instinctual needs and values. We would have to conclude that liberation would mean subversion against the will and against the prevailing interests of the great majority of people. In this false identification of social and individual needs … lie the limits of democratic persuasion and evolution. On the overcoming of these limits depends the establishment of [real] democracy.' 21
Returning to Sloterdijk, he coincidentally echoes sociologist Conrad Lodziak’s more recent argument, coincidentally echoing Marcuse, that consumerism produces new human needs (or wants experienced as new needs) to compensate for the alienation and exhaustion of toil. 22 Consumers’ agency is limited to the choices offered within consumerism as 'a form of active passivity.' 23 This is the context for an appropriation of a need for freedom within market appearances, a realm of shining invitations and shiny, steel and glass corporate towers as exclusionary as the mall is all-containing: ‘In the ideology of consumerism, … choices reflect the interpretive freedom of the individual … harnessed to the project of creating a self-identity.' 24
Perhaps the Millennium Dome was the most recent equivalent of the Crystal Palace, offering narrative services from which visitors could construct national stories. The Dome, too, was presented as a triumph of public-private partnership funding, even though much of the cost came from the National Lottery (the public’s money). But the Teflon-coated tent contained everything, Cool Britannia as the whole world. It simply failed to say what the narrative was (because there was no longer a story to tell).

Since the withdrawal from opposition with the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, and Courbet’s imprisonment, avant-gardes adopted an ambivalent trajectory. There were coded messages in Impressionist painting; Pissarro’s images of agrarian life were as utopian as Seurat’s images of all classes taking their ease on a Holy Monday by the Seine. But the avant-gardes were ambivalent in its relation to radical social change.
Raymond Williams writes of the parade celebrating Strindberg’s 63rd (last) birthday in Stockholm in January, 1912, headed by the Stockholm Workers’ Commune bearing torches and banners:
'No moment better illustrates the contradictory character of the politics of what is now … called the Modernist movement or the avant-garde … Thirty years earlier, presenting himself, rhetorically, as the “son of a servant”, Strindberg had declared that in a time of social eruption he would side with those who came, weapon in hand, from below.
… Again, from 1909, he had returned to the radical themes of his youth, attacking the aristocracy, the rich, militarism and the conservative literary establishment.' 25
But Strindberg also wrote of being engaged in a revolution against himself, 26 which aligns him to the great artistic withdrawal of the 1880s-90s.
Williams notes three phases of the avant-garde, from groups seeking to preserve their art from the system by organising non-juried exhibitions like the Independent Salon; formalisation of such departures in more organised forms in the Secessions in Munich, Berlin and Vienna; and ‘oppositional formations’ which attacked bourgeois values via culture. 27 Williams also notes that the Italian Futirists had published their manifesto (in a Paris newspaper in 1909, Le Figaro) in the years immediately before Strindberg’s birthday parade; Boccioni’s painting, The City Rises denotes a radical Futurism grounded in urban conditions and the rise of the working class. Or not: the Futurists, while anti-bourgeois and culturally anti-conservative, saw war as a purifier of humanity, and were aggressively nationalistic. In the 1920s, those who survived the war tended to sympathise with the fascist movement (which revived fantasies of Roman triumphs and grand designs to rule the whole world). This may undermine the concept of an avant-garde, and underline the ambivalent and at times incoherent politics of modernism; yet a more careful cultural history might adapt Williams’ model in a longer timeframe.
A first phase, from 1848 to 1871, unambiguously uses Realist images to represent the people with a dignity previously reserved for elites. After 1871, radical ideas go underground and artists and writers begin to form their own, autonomous formations outside the control by establishments, taking responsibility for their futures within the dominant society, a co-present alternative as well as a means of economic survival. With Dada in 1916, disgust at the nation-state and the bourgeois values which led to the war took the form of anti-art: an undermining of bourgeois institutions as a way to interrupt bourgeois society. But Marcuse comments, citing the Bolshevik Revolution, that art ‘remains alien to the revolutionary praxis by virtue of the artist’s commitment to Form: Form as art’s own reality …’ 28 This fuses art’s withdrawal, denoted by Form, with its continuing radical project, and emphasises the necessary indirect relation of art and revolution, as a revolution within Form:
Form is the achievement of the artistic perception which breaks the unconscious and false automatism, the unquestioned familiarity which operates in every practice, including the revolutionary practice – an automatism of immediate experience, but a socially engineered experience which militates against the liberation of sensibility. The artistic perception is supposed to shatter this immediacy which … is a historical product: the medium of experience imposed by the established society but coagulating into a self-sufficient, closed, automatic system. 29
Art, then, in one way becomes an apparatus of an imposed order of perception; and, in another, radical way, retains a capacity to break such codes: the means by which radical, critical art interrupts and potentially fractures the repression of liberation.
Marcuse continues:
'Since then, the eruption of anti-art in art has manifested itself in many familiar forms: destruction of syntax, fragmentation of words and sentences, explosive use of ordinary language, [musical] compositions without score, sonatas for anything. And yet, this entire de-formation is Form: anti-art has remained art, supplied, purchased and contemplated as art.
The wild revolt of art has remained a short-lived shock, quickly absorbed into the art gallery, within four walls, in the concert hall, by the market, adjoining the plazas and lobbies of the prospering business establishments. Transforming the intent of art is self-defeating – a self-defeat built into the very structure of art. No matter how affirmative, how realistic … [art] is unreal precisely inasmuch as it is art: the novel is not a newspaper story, the still life not alive, and even in pop art the real tin can is not in the supermarket. The very Form of art contradicts the effort to do away with the segregation of the productive imagination into the first reality.' 30
I must leave it there except to say that Marcuse evolves an aesthetic theory in which art’s aesthetic dimension enables it to be radically other to the dominant society and its systems. Beauty, that is, is not-routine but a momentary interruption, a convulsive liberation.

Moments of Liberation
In Paris in May 1968, student protestors used a phrase of Lefebvre’s as a slogan on the wall:
Lefebvre was not pleased to see his writing reduced in this way, and had fallen out with the Situationists. Of course, the paving material –cobbles – could also be used to throw at the police, as it had been thrown at soldiers in revolutions in 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871. But the period of popular revolution is over. It has been replaced by a period of single-issue campaigns and urban occupations – from anti-roads protest to Occupy – which do not aim to change the government, or present an alternative manifesto, but enact alternative values. In Liverpool, the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home renews radical traditions in response to new agendas.
Lefebvre’s idea becomes reality: to be present among others of like intention is potentially transformative; a new society is acted out, not historically beyond but within the old. Change is transposed from the dimension of time, where it was pressed into a trajectory in Idealism as the new dawn never dawned and the golden tomorrow remained a dream, and the avant-garde maintained the old power-relation by leading the people to it, to co-presence in space.
But what of Modernism, or, for that matter, of Socialism? Art historian Tim Clark regards Modernism as a ruin, sprawling and incomprehensible to today’s spectator; This, he explains in Farewell to an Idea, is because the conditions foreseen by Modernism have arrived, so that art conceived as en route to these conditions cannot be read as it was when made. Modernity, he argues, means, ‘contingency’, a dimension of permanent change and relativity.
It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors [or mysterious Fate] and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future … This process goes along with a great emptying and sanitization of the imagination. Without ancestor worship, meaning is in short supply – meaning here meaning agreed-on and instituted forms of value and understanding, implicit orders, stories and images in which a culture crystallises its sense of the struggler with the realm of necessity and the reality of pain and death. The phrase Max weber borrowed from Schiller, “the disenchantment of the world”, still seems to me to sum up this side of modernity best. 31
But I want to consider another message in this large, deeply felt as well as researched book: Modernism came to an end at the same time that state socialism ended with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Socialism, in Clark’s terms (above) is a parallel struggle to that of modernity and Modernism, the pursuit of a projected future, and, in a utopian way, of a future which is qualitatively and indisputably better for a majority of people than the past it is to replace. Clark writes, ‘clearly something of socialism and modernism has died … If they died together, does that mean that in some sense they lived together, in century-long co-dependency?’ 32 He defines socialism (drawing on a Christian-Socialist source) as,
'… the political, economic and social emancipation of the whole people … by the establishment of a democratic commonwealth in which the community shall own the land and capital collectively and use them for the good of all.' 33
Clark points out that in the Jacobin period in Paris, as in War Communism in 1917-1920, produced horrors as well as having a progressive programme; he also says that socialism entailed a false dualism of idealism and materialism – the two philosophical ideas which Marx sought to integrate in dialectic materialism – and between, ‘the last exacerbation of individuality and its magical disappearance into pure practice or avant-garde collectivity.’ 34 But he adds that perhaps socialism was what occupied the ground between such polarities.
If Sloterdijk reads Benjamin as melancholic (above, Clark goes further: ‘Friends reading parts of this book in advance said they found it melancholic. I have tried to correct that as far as possible, which in the circumstances may not be very far,’ 35 Marcuse, similarly, wrote of a despair at the miserable reality (above) as justification for aesthetics. Finally, I want to move to Jacques Rancière, who expresses a remarkably similar thought, again drawing on his reading of Schiller (who says that to be fully human is to play):
We could reformulate this thought as follows:  there exists a specific sensory experience that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community, namely the aesthetic. There are different ways of coming to terms with this statement and its promise. It might be said that they virtually define aesthetic illusion as a device serving merely to mask the reality that aesthetic judgement is structured by class domination. … Conversely, it might be said that the statement and the promise were only too true, that we have experienced the reality of that art of living and of that play as much in totalitarian attempts at making the community into a work of art as in the everyday aestheticized life of a liberal society and its commercial entertainment. … We are dealing … with the efficacy of a plot, one that reframes the division of the forms of our experience. 36
The passage is typical of Rancière’s writing, advancing a proposition at the same time as withdrawing it (or tracking back from it), constructing an axis between polarities on which the work of theory is done. Asking how aesthetics leads to both ‘a pure world of art’ which is necessarily set apart from ordinary living, and to ‘the tradition of avant-garde radicalism’ and the aestheticization of life, he argues, ‘the aesthetic experience is effective inasmuch as it is the experience of that and. ’37 This, ‘grounds the autonomy of art, to the extent that it connects it to the hope of changing life’, while Schiller’s concept, Spieltrieb, play-drive, reconstructs ‘both the edifice of art and the edifice of life,’ 38 One of the objects of such reconstruction is what Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible, or the structure of codes, such as perception, which are historically specific and selective, in the interests of elites, but become normalised and as if naturalised, to dominate and repress departures from their strictures. In this context, the idea of dissensus is antagonistic to consensus as the seemingly seamless and unavoidable norm, the state of affairs to which there is no alternative.
Art, in this regard, interrupts, stretches, and fractures the apprehension of the norm. The gap, as sensibility (and perhaps as sensuousness) 39, enables a momentary lapse into what might be a latent utopian memory in Benjamin’s terms (or Ernst Bloch’s 40) or might simply be a moment of liberation from routine, in Lefebvre’s terms, which is as transformative as it is ephemeral.

1 Marcuse, H., The Aesthetic Dimension, Boston, Beacon Press, 1978, p. 1

2 Gorz, A., Farewell to the Working Class, [1980] London, Pluto, 1982

3 Illich, I., Tools for Conviviality, [1973] London, Marion Boyars, 1990;  The Right to Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies, [1978] London, Marion Boyars, 1996

4 Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, p. 5

5 Grindon, ‘Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work’, p. 91

6 Grindon, ‘Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work’, p. 92

7 Grindon, ‘Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work’, pp. 93-94

8 Sloterdijk, P., In the World Interior of Capital [2005] Cambridge, Polity, 2013, pp. 21-22

9 Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p. 23

10 Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p. 28

11 Lefebvre, H., The Production of Space [1974] Oxford, Blackwell, 1991, pp. 38-39

12 Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p. 156

13 Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p. 170

14 Chernyshevsky, N., What is To Be Done?, [1863] London, Virago, 1982

15 Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p. 171

16 Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p. 174

17 Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p. 176

18 Marcuse, H., One-Dimensional Man, Boston, Beacon Press, 1964

19 Marcuse, H., An Essay on Liberation, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969, p. 44

20 Marcuse, H., ‘Liberation from the Affluent Society’, in Cooper, D., ed., The Dialectics of Liberation, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968, p. 175

21 Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, p. 26

22 Lodziak, C., The Myth of Consumerism, London, Pluto, 2002

23 Lodziak, The Myth of Consumerism, p. 68, citing Gorz, A., Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-based Society, Cambridge, Polity, 1999

24 Lodziak, The Myth of Consumerism,  p. 74

25 Williams, R., The Politics of the Avant-Garde, London Verso, 1989, p. 49

26 Lagercrantz, O., August Strindberg, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1984, p. 122, cited in Williams, Politics of the Avant-Garde, p. 50

27 Williams, Politics of the Avant-Garde, p. 50

28 Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, p. 45

29 Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, p. 46

30 Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, p. 48

31 Clark, T., Farewell to an Idea, New Haven (CT), Yale, 1999, p. 7

32 Clark, T., Farewell to an Idea, p. 8

33 Clark, T., Farewell to an Idea, pp. 8-9, citing  ‘Platform of the Church Socialist League’, [1906] in Jones, P. d’A., The Christian Socialist Revival 1877-1914, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 241

34 Clark, T., Farewell to an Idea, p. 9

35 Clark, T., Farewell to an Idea, p. 13

36 Rancière , J., Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, London, Continuum, 2010, p. 115

37 Rancière, Dissensus, p. 116

38 ibid

39 Marx, K., ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ V, [1845] Marx and Engels: Selected Works, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1968, p. 29

40 Bloch, E., The Principle of Hope [1959] Cambridge (MA), MIT, 1996, 3 volumes