August 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Among the perennial questions asked of socialists are some concerning the likely attitude to art in socialism. For example, how would Socialist society treat any artistic elite, and who would have access to famous works? Names like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are likely to figure in such questions.
The appreciation of works of art today can be tempered by what they would fetch in the sale room, at which time they take the form of commodities. The identity of the artist is then of greater moment than the aesthetic appeal of a work. If a painting is reassigned by specialists as being the work of a studio assistant its value can be totally undermined. Museums house interesting and beautiful works (and some to hurry past), not all of them on display. Or we can see pictures and antique furnishings displayed in the grand surroundings of some stately home, all serving as a reminder that ownership of ‘great’ works of art has long been the prerogative of the rich and powerful. It was for example no accident that the wealthy city states of Northern Italy were also influential artistic centres, and the setting for the Renaissance. In fact in all the regions where there was financial prosperity through trade, and “wealthy entrepreneurs to purchase”, important artists were to be found.
It was a time of expansion in trade and banking, including credit facilities. What Lisa Jardine refers to as the “dawning of a high culture of commodities” meant that those who prospered from their banking and trading activities, like the Medici family, were able to indulge in conspicuous consumption (Worldly Goods, p. 124). Art works were part of this display of wealth and position. Objects appear in paintings, including those with religious themes, which reflect the luxurious lifestyles of the patrons and their families. Both patrons and artists were inspired by the revival of interest in classical art and in science and learning.
Dignitaries from church and state commissioned buildings, sculpture and paintings from masters which were then designed in their workshops. Artists, painters and sculptors learned their trade in the workshops of an established master, often a goldsmith. Taken on as apprentices to provide cheap labour, or because they were paying for their tuition, they would begin with cleaning and preparation of materials and in due course progress to assisting with commissioned works. The master might leave his assistants to finish a work, or might finish a work that had been started by others. Artists could also attend at the workshops of other masters. It is likely that Leonardo da Vinci, as well as the workshop of Verrocchio, also attended at that of Antonio and Piero Pollaiuollo who “flayed cadavers to study the anatomy and function of the muscles” (Leonardo The Artist and the Man, Serge Bramly, p. 98). Piero was at the forefront in the use of sketching to capture aspects of the human figure. This peculiarly Florentine development in the use of drawing “was the basis for a new understanding of the human figure”. Leonardo benefited from the development and carried it forward, “in his hands it became a major tool of exploration of the human figure . . . and many other subjects” (Man and the Renaissance, Andrew Martindale, p.47).
Individual artists made ‘extraordinary imaginative leaps’, but genius did not just drop from the sky. Michelangelo may have had sudden inspiration about how to fulfil the commission in the Sistine Chapel, but as a youth he had served a three-year apprenticeship in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio before turning to the study of the great masters of the past, including Greek and Roman sculptors. His drawings reflect his considerable ability as a sculptor, as well as his study of human anatomy which, like that of Leonardo da Vinci, included the dissection of bodies. Once a breakthrough had been made, such as the working out of linear perspective or in the way materials could be used, it would be emulated by other artists and pupils. A clarification of some of the sources for the discoveries and inventions credited to Leonardo showed that he had “precursors and masters whose thoughts he pursued or revived” (Serge Bramly, Introduction, p.11)
If the Renaissance was a time of a flowering in the arts, what might we expect of the period following the establishment of common ownership and democratic control of the earth and its resources?
We do not claim perfection for a socialist world, only that it will be possible to first clear up the mess left by capitalism, and then to deal with new challenges as they arise by the unfettered application of human knowledge, imagination and ingenuity. Socialism is not just about providing for material needs, it is a whole life proposition. Consider the situation where all production is solely for use, with leisure and entertainment no longer industries, but simply activities necessary to human well-being; work and recreation not as now separate parts of life but viewed as an integrated whole. The need to be creative, to expend mental and physical energies, which is part of our identity as human beings, could be fulfilled by different aspects of work and leisure according to individual choice. People living in free association will be able to choose the kind of contribution they wish to make to the common good, undertaking study and training as necessary.
Clearly it would not do if too many chose to make an artistic contribution to the exclusion of the more practical occupations. But it is likely that relatively few would choose to undertake artistic work only. Socialism can only happen if the majority of the working class make the conscious decision to implement it; implicit in this decision is a willingness to co-operate in order to fulfil the totality of needs.
The idea of an elite in artistic achievement is in line with the ethos of capitalism that the inequality in society is there because human beings are unequal. We would not expect everyone to have identical aptitudes, tastes and skills, but where the social aim is human happiness individuals will be able to discover just what their abilities are and to realise their full potential as human beings. The way will be open for a far greater involvement in art, and for the blossoming of all kinds of talent, with the achievement of excellence perhaps being considered as normal. The idea of an elite could be turned on its head.
Still there will be some whose work in art and architecture, as in other fields, earn the extra esteem of the community. It is worth remembering that artists did not always attach great importance to individual recognition. Artists have not always put signatures on their work. The names of the masters responsible for the sculptures of Chartres, Strasbourg and Naumburg are not known. “No doubt they were appreciated in their time, but they gave the honour to the cathedral in which they worked” (The Story of Art, E. H. Grombrich, p. 205).
In former times it was the fashionable young men who made the Grand Tour, perhaps accompanied by a water colour artist, now many with more modest means are able to travel and see architectural wonders and gaze upon the vault in the Sistine Chapel, though it is probably from books and television programmes that many ‘great’ art works have become more familiar. Recognising that most people would see his Pearblossom Hwy (1986) in the form of a poster – the work is 10ft across – David Hockney printed 5,000 copies for an exhibition, taking great care with the production of the poster (That’s the way I see it, David Hockney, 1993, p. 115).
A world of common ownership will not make it more difficult to enjoy works of art. Museums could still have a useful role in this, and computer-generated copies could be made available. There will be no special kudos attached to the ‘possession’ of items. The idea of what constitutes great art can change through time, though some works continue to have an appeal long after the age which produced them. Those who live in a time when the sole purpose of art is to enrich life will be able to judge the art works produced in previous eras from an enhanced perspective.
The story of art, which is as old as Homo sapiens, will continue to unfold, and will no doubt include achievements which equal and even surpass those of the great artists of the past. Developments in the choice of materials, in styles of building, and in the choice of subject matter for sculpture and painting are for that future to discover. If problems concerning attitudes to art should arise they will be of a kind that a society of equals will be very capable of resolving.