[…] The distinction between the principle of a given style and the works actually produced in it is analogous to that between a philosophical or scientific system and the concrete discoveries made within the framework of that system. A principle or system which tends to deflect the artist or thinker from reality is unconditionally inferior to one which directs his energies towards objective truth. But one need only think of Hegel to realize that some of the greatest advances in human understanding have been made within the framework of a reactionary system of thought – or rather in spite of it. In other words, style ‘ft art, like system in philosophy or hypothesis in science, is historically conditioned, transitory and relative, but if we use the term in the wider sense of a period style (e.g. Greek, Gothic, etc)., there is not a single style in the history of art which has not produced some concrete advances towards the absolute. It is the task of scientific criticism to discover these concrete achievements of permanent significance within their relative and transitory shell.
If the history of art is examined from this point of view, it will be found that there is a continuous tradition of realism which started with the dawn of art (e.g. in the palaeolithic cave paintings) and which will survive to its end, for it reflects the productive intercourse between man and nature which is the basis of life. At that important phase in the development of society, when mental labour was divided from material labour, there emerged another, secondary tradition of spiritualistic, religious or idealistic art. This, too, is continuous until it will vanish with the final negation of the division of labour – i.e. in a Communist world. During this entire period of development, i.e. as long as society is divided into classes, the history of art is the history of the ceaseless struggle and mutual inter-penetration of these two traditions. At successive, though widely overlapping phases corresponding to specific stages in the development of society, both these traditions, and also the results of their interplay, assume the historical forms which we call the ‘Classical’, ‘Gothic’, ‘Baroque’, etc., styles. A Marxist history of art should describe, first, the struggle which is absolute between these two opposite and mutually exclusive trends, and secondly, their fleeting, conditional and relative union, as manifested in the different styles and in each work of art, and it should explain both these aspects of art in terms of the social processes which they reflect. Marxist criticism consists in discovering the specific weight within each style, each artist and each single work of those elements which reflect objective truth in powerful and convincing imagery. But it should always be remembered that, unlike science which reduces reality to a blue-print or formula, the images of art reveal reality in its infinite diversity and many-sided richness. And it is in its infinite diversity and many-sided richness that art, too, must be appreciated.
Realism, the attitude of the artist who strives to reflect some essential aspect of reality and to face the problems set by life, is from its very nature popular. It reflects the outlook of those men and women who produce the means of life. It is the only standard which can bring art back to the people today. For, as Lenin told Clara Zetkin: ‘it does not greatly matter what we ourselves think about art. Nor does it matter what art means to some hundreds or even thousands in a nation, like our own, of many millions. Art belongs to the people. Its roots should penetrate deeply into the very thick of the masses of the people. It should be comprehensible to these masses and loved by them. It should unite the emotions, the thoughts and the will of these masses and raise them to a higher level. It should awaken artists in these masses and foster their development.’ [On Lenin. Moscow, 1925]
Such an aim may well seem Utopian to the artist who is only too sadly aware of the havoc which a century and a half of unbridled commercialism has wrought with the aesthetic sensibility of our people. But instead of despairing, let him take heart from the words William Morris wrote in 1879, long before the signs could be discerned which herald a revival of popular art today:
‘But I will say at least, Courage! for things wonderful, unhoped-for, glorious have happened even in this short while I have been alive.
‘Yes, surely these times are wonderful and fruitful of change, which, as it wears and gathers new life even in its wearing, will one day bring better things for the toiling days of men, who, with freer hearts and clearer eyes, will once more gain the sense of outward beauty, and rejoice in it.
‘Meanwhile, if these hours be dark, as, indeed, in many ways they are, at least do not let us sit deedless, like fools and fine gentlemen, thinking the common toil not good enough for us, and beaten by the muddle; but rather let us work like good fellows trying by some dim candle-light to set our workshop ready against tomorrow’s daylight – that tomorrow, when the civilised world, no longer greedy, strifeful, and destructive, shall have a new art, a glorious art, made by the people and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.’ [The Art of the People, 1879]
Originally published as a pamphlet in the ‘Marxism Today’ series, under the title Marxism and Modem Art: an Approach to Social Realism, London 1943.