From the March 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
Art Historians apply their knowledge of the lives of great men from the past; kings, artists, sculptors, writers and so on, and assess the worth of past ages on the basis of work done during the period. Socialists have a better approach. They apply the materialist conception of history. Only the social and economic environment explains how man acquires certain aesthetic tastes and conceptions. Above the level of barbarism, that environment is determined as much by the mechanics of the class struggle as by nature, while the majority of the population—slaves, serfs and the like— have remained passive for long periods. So we may say that the ruling ideas of any age, are the ideas of the ruling class of the time. The history of art is one continuous proof of this statement.
EGYPT. What’s left after an empire lasting 3000 years? Little more than the tombs and monuments of the pharaohs. The size of the pyramids makes them the epitome of slave-state architecture. Long since looted of their wealth, but inside there are the frescoes: the paintings on the walls—all with one subject. The dead pharaoh. The compositions are all about his life; how many slaves, wives, subjects he had. The battles he won with his armies. There are even illustrations of his favourite sports, hawking and fishing. Strikingly, the pharaoh is always portrayed larger than his subjects. Women smaller than men. Slaves a different colour altogether. All of this gives one a picture of the social hierarchy in Ancient Egypt. It was a neo-romantic civilization. The dead were worshipped.
More, the pharaoh was expected to rise from the dead. The pictures are, therefore, subordinated to the one end of informing him, when he woke up, of his past history, his greatness and the shape his body should reassume out of his embalmed tissue. This is the key to an understanding of Egyptian life-painting. All the figures are portrayed in one general pose, displaying the most typical views of their separate limbs. Heads in profile, to show the cranial curve, facial features, chin and neck. Torso and hips in a front view, showing the triangulation between the shoulders and waist and the shape of the pelvic bone. Both arms extended left and right, one palm outermost, the other innermost. The legs were both in profile, each foot pointing the same way, showing the inside and outside of foot, leg and knee. No painting survives from Egypt which did not assume this form. Therefore the ideas and needs of the ruling class, determined the artist’s and the public’s conception of beauty.
CLASSICAL GREECE. Athens was one of the first places in Europe where the old system of tribal councils gave way to government by the city-state. The social structure for them was: - patrician, plebian, slave. History for them ran from the battle of the Gods and the Titans, to the interlocking of heavenly spheres. From the Heraclitean fire to the eternal flux and slow change. The ruling class needed to promote this idea of harmony; their civilization was top-heavy with slaves. Twenty slaves for every free man! And great restrictions on employment for poor freemen. The art and architecture of the time was the ruling class’s propaganda against social unrest.
Have a look at the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Notice how geometrically harmonic are the bodies of these heroic men and women. The sculptor built up the proportion of his figures from one basic dimension: the distance between the elbow and the wrist. The perfect man or woman was one whose body, when stood with feet that much apart, formed a series of equilateral triangles. Most humans are not good enough to model for a Greek statue. Neither were the Greeks! It was just a false theory, a ruling idea imposed upon nature. This is how you account for the ridiculously small heads on the statues by Praxiteles; the continuous line between their foreheads and noses: there was a secondary system of triangulation for the face as well!
ROME. Much that is true of Greece applies to Rome also. This can be illustrated from one Roman building: the Pantheon. The temple of all the gods. The Roman empire had continuous trouble on its borders. The marauding tribes of well-organized barbarians had to be placated. One way of doing this was to find a place in your temple for a statue of the enemy’s god, then invite the enemy chief to Rome to worship it. The Greek temple plan wasn’t much good for this. The barbarian shrines were a circle of tree-trunks with a conical thatch, an altar in the centre and a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. So the Romans built their enormous Pantheon on just these lines.
From within it is a ring of pillars supporting a celestory, with blind niches holding statues of the minor gods; below and between the pillars, are the shrines of the major gods. In the centre was an altar, while, the roof was a spherical web of arches. An arch needs a keystone to hold it up. But the Romans calculated that if they cross-vaulted arches to build up a dome, they could take out the large centre-stone and the whole structure would stand confined by its own stress. The building would then be lit directly from above. It worked. The barbarians were duly impressed and the Roman civilization lasted for another 350 years. This form of Architecture was admired as much for its political usefulness to the ruling class, as for anything else. Beauty, once again, born out of expediency.
MEDIEVAL EUROPE. The Cathedral Church. Here the decorative artist, architect and sculptor had but one patron—the church. The basis of Catholicism is mystery. No revealed religion can stand up to open enquiry. So the huge gothic churches they built had to be full of mystery. The large congregation was shut off from the sacrament by a tall choir-screen. Daylight had to be the tinted light of a religious vision. The wall hardly exists in a gothic church; just holes between piers and arches—all filled with lead - framed painted glass. The statuary carved on these piers and arches shows how closely art is connected with the ruling class’s ideas. Despite the tradition of free-standing statues from Greece and Rome; these are completely tied to the structure of the church and reflect the artist’s dependence. They are slim vertical figures and are mirrored in the dress of the time; with its tall hats and slender costumes, perhaps for people who went through narrow pointed doorways. Architecture and fashion for the ruling class were connected for the first time.
CAPITALISM. The Industrial Revolution. Once the first stage of the movement towards enclosing the land was completed in the 18th century and great capital accumulation had enriched the aristocracy; they began to improve their lands, have their parks landscaped and country palaces built. In literature this period sees the beginning of the romantic revival. In art the sudden renewal of landscape painting, by Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and others. The popular conception of a good landscape painting still survives.
Among civilized people the technique of production more rarely shows direct influence upon art. This fact, to the superficial observer a contradiction to the materialist conception of history, in reality, when considered in the profound manner of a sociologist gives it brilliant support.
We can now develop upon this conclusion to Plechanov’s essay Materialism and Art. He wrote this at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps he was too close to the machine-made decorations of the time to see that they would be known as art. Some of the wrought-iron stair bannisters of the period were very beautiful. The Eiffel Tower and the early iron bridges were new ideas in three-dimensional form. The difficulty with even the best industrial products under capitalism, is that they are built for profit. Who has ever looked at one of the latest engineering “triumphs” and not felt that it could have been improved with a little more art and a little less profit? wasted sentiment, of course; capitalism will not work that way. But sometimes, by chance, it makes half-art.
The best example of techniques of production influencing art is that of the painter Seurat and “pointilism”. This style being a reflection of camera technology and research into the nature of light and colour, which produced the chemical pigments needed for the fast-dyeing of fibres. All the colours of the rainbow produce white light. Seurat found that by clustering a multitude of points of pure colour he could suggest lightness or darkness more after the manner of nature.
Since Plechanov’s time we have seen prefabricated “component art”, “chrome-plated art”, “collage”, and art formed from ready-made industrial products—all perfect examples of how the business of capitalism is beautified by art. Civilization remains the attempt on the part of the ruling class to impose order and permanence upon the wealth they possess.
What will be the conception of beauty under Socialism? Without a ruling class, will we have a unified art? It will be socialized, not civilized art. Human life shows infinite variety and for the first time, the people in an industrialized world will create an art which is a reflection of their own lives. We can’t use life under capitalism as a guide to Socialism. A few tribal peoples hold to conceptions of beauty which are attractive to people dissatisfied with capitalism, but that is not the answer.
Socialism will produce something other than the vicarious satisfactions of capitalism. Fewer people will want passively to look at works of art; many will want to create socially. One can imagine artists, artisans and craftsmen swarming over large-scale projects; but instead of being slaves toiling over pyramids, they will be free men and women creating their own kinds of beauty by their own conceiving.
B. K. McNeeney