“Art itself appears as part and force of the tradition which perpetuates that which is, and prevents the realization of that which can and ought to be.”
Herbert Marcuse was a study in consistency, even if it was a radical consistency; he helped define an aesthetic of dissent, and a form of critique that was valid within its own frame of reference, and remains surprisingly vital and fresh thirty years after his death; in spite of disagreements on his conclusions. He defended his revolutionary vision and commitments, and promoted Marxian theory and libertarian socialism to the end. In 1979 he published his last book entitled The Aesthetic Dimension, defending his belief in the emancipatory potential of “high culture”. He argued that within bourgeois art there exists powerful indictments of bourgeois society, and visions of emancipation. He saw great art and cultural revolution as necessarily bound to revolutionary politics.
”We witness not only the political but also, and primarily, the artistic attack on art in all its forms, on art as Form itself. The distance and dissociation of art from reality are denied, refused, and destroyed; if art is still anything at all, it must be real, part and parcel of life – but of a life which is itself the conscious negation of the established way of life, with all its institutions, with its entire material and intellectual culture, its entire immoral morality, its required and its clandestine behaviour, its work and its fun.”
He was the prophet of the New left, and an era’s prime advocate of violence. Herbert Marcuse’s specialty was Hegel and the more lugubrious nineteenth-century German philosophers. His books or manifestoes were ideological rally points for the New Left revolution that swept an affluent and bored Western world. The affluence may have waned, but the ennui and sense of disconnect is still haunting man. Marcuse’s manifestoes were heady stuff, for if they are to be taken literally, they are an exhortation to mass violence against the conciliators; against the whole structure of parliamentary democracy and what Marcuse regarded as the sham humanity of the welfare state, and against the whole notion of instinctual, chiefly sexual restraint as the foundation of civilized society.
”…but art by itself cannot under any circumstances change the social condition. And that is the necessary and essential powerlessness of art, that it cannot have an effective, direct impact on the praxis of change. I don’t know of any case in which you could say that art has changed the established society. Art can prepare such change. Art can contribute to it only via several negations and mediations, the most important being the change of consciousness and, especially, the change of perception. I think we can say that after the impressionists, after Cézanne especially, we see differently than we saw before. That you can say; further you cannot go.”
Since Marcuse, had never done personal violence to anyone in his life, and since he seemed to have practiced an admirable social restraint as devoted husband and father, it is not certain that he meant his doctrines to have been taken literally. But they had been. In May 1968 in Paris, students rioted under banners proclaiming ”Mao, Marx, et Marcuse!” In West Berlin he lectured to throngs led by Red Rudi Dutschke and other ”enrages” who assaulted the structure of self-complacent West German society.
Marcuse perceived, and correctly, that Western culture, in some of its decisive elements, was a post-technological one, a beast which authentic art will always provoke and irritate; its most advanced images and positions surviving their absorption into administered comforts and stimuli with an ability to haunt the consciousness with the possibility of their rebirth in the consummation of technical progress. Real art expressing a free and conscious alienation from the established forms of life with which literature and the arts opposed these forms even where they adorned them.
Marcuse felt that this essential gap between the arts and the order of the day, kept open in the artistic alienation, is progressively c
ng by the advancing technological society. And with its closing, the Great Refusal is in turn refused; the .other dimension” is absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs. The works of alienation are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psychoanalyzes the prevailing state of affairs.
Thus, all art become commercials that either sell, comfort, or excite.Marcuse asserted that such assimilation is historically premature; it establishes cultural equality while preserving domination. Marcuse saw Society eliminating the prerogatives and privileges of feudal, aristocratic culture together with its content. The fact that the transcending truths of the fine arts, the aesthetics of life and thought, were accessible only to the few wealthy and educated was the fault of a repressive society. But, and most importantly, this fault is not corrected by paperbacks, general education, i-tunes,Kindle readers,and slackening of the dress code. These cultural privileges expressed a form of ”injustice of freedom”, the contradiction between ideology and reality, the separation of intellectual from material productivity; but they also provided a protected realm in which the tabooed truths could survive in abstract integrity – remote from the society which suppressed them.
Thus, to Marcuse, artistic alienation has become as functional as the architecture of the new theaters and concert halls in which it is performed. And here too, the rational and the evil are inseparable. Unquestionably the new architecture is better, ie., more beautiful and more practical than the monstrosities of the Victorian era. But it is also more “integrated”. The cultural center is becoming a fitting part of the shopping center, or municipal center, or government center. Domination has its own aesthetics, and democratic domination has its democratic aesthetics. It is good that almost everyone can now have the fine arts at his fingertips, by just hitting a key on the computer, or by just stepping into a mass merchandise outlet. In this diffusion, however, they become cogs in a culture-machine which remakes their content. The aesthetic of violence,as well, could become subject to the stratification and segmentation:
Somewhat oddly, Marcuse excepted the university as a fit arena for violent confrontation, but his doctrines, literally applied, helped spark the student upheaval at Columbia University and on other campuses across the country in the late 1960′s. A disciple, Martin Peretz, put it this way: ” Tolerance, according to Marcuse, as practiced in liberal society, is tolerance of all who play by the rules of the game. it is also tolerance of the game itself, although the game’s rules exclude the wretched and hungry, although in fact the rules are precisely what sustain their wretchedness and hunger… the landless and the indentured, the hopeless and the damned have violence done to them all their lives… And when they take to arms in revolt against the conditions of their existence, it is perhaps in furious revenge but as well to break the cycle of violence that has oppressed them… And so Marcuse implores tolerance for such revolutionary violence, asking us not to equate the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressor”.
Thus, in personal terms, Herbert Marcuse, the social philosopher may be an enigma. But as an advocate of liberating social action against the living hell he contended that advanced industrial civilization made for ”One Dimensional Man”, by his fruits shall ye know him. Indeed, the personal antipathy that Marcuse apparently felt for violence and sexual license, in contrast with his literally interpreted doctrines, might be considered to give evidence of that very separation of thought from feeling, of language from intention, that he contended is the mark of modern alienated man.
”What is at stake is the vision, the experience of a reality that is so fundamentally different, so antagonistic to the prevailing reality that any communication through the established means seems to reduce this difference, to vitiate this experience. This irreconcilability with the very medium of communication also extends to the forms of art themselves, to Art as Form.(1) From the position of today’s rebellion and refusal, Art itself appears as part and force of the tradition which perpetuates that which is, and prevents the realization of that which can and ought to be. Art does so precisely inasmuch as it is Form, because the artistic Form (no matter how anti-art it strives to be) arrests that which is in motion, gives it limit and frame and place in the prevailing universe of experience and aspirations, gives it a value in this universe, makes it an object among others. This means that, in this universe, the work of art, as well as of anti-art, becomes exchange value, commodity: and it is precisely the Commodity Form, as the form of reality, which is the target of today’s rebellion.” ( Marcuse )
In thought, Marcuse was an eclectic; the prophet of a not wholly reconciled system that seeks to unite Hegelian idealism, the early visionary Marx, and, paradoxically again, the doctrines of that profound social pessimist, Sigmund Freud. Of the three strands in Marcuse’s thinking, the Hegelian is likely to hold the least attraction for his disciples today. Marcuse’s early book, ”Reason and Revolution” , a study of Hegel and his transformation at the hands of Feuerbach, Marx, and other lesser figures like Lorenz von Stein, went to multiple printings, though its hard to believe anyone could make much of his meanderings on quasi-divine history and dialectical rhythms of history. ”Reason and Revolution” is surely one of the great unread best-sellers of all time:
”In his REASON AND REVOLUTION (1941), Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse, also like Dunayevskaya, stresses the revolutionary character of Hegel’s dialectic, especially the concept of negativity: “Hegel’s philosophy is indeed what the subsequent reaction termed it, a negative philosophy. It is originally motivated by the conviction that the given facts that appear to common sense as the positive index of truth are in reality the negation of truth, so that truth can only be established by their destruction. The driving force of the dialectical method lies in this critical conviction. Dialectic in its entirety is linked to the conception that all forms of being are permeated by an essential negativity, and that this negativity determines their content and movement. The dialectic represents the counterthrust to any form of positivism”.
”Walter Benjamin has shown that there is one thing which militates against all reproduction, namely, the ‘aura’ of the oeuvre, the unique historical situation in which the work of art is created, into which it speaks, and which defines its function and meaning. As soon as the oeuvre leaves its own historical moment, which is unrepeatable eor negatively) to the different historical situation. Owing to new instruments and techniques, to new forms of perception and thought, the original oeuvre may now be interpreted, instrumented, ‘translated’, and thus become richer, more complex, refined, fuller of meaning. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is no longer what it was to the artist and his audience and public.”
The real core of Marcuse’s politically oriented, or proselytizing, work was Marxian, and to a lesser degree Freudian in its derivation, but Marcuse was no classical Marxist and no classical Freudian either. If anything, he can be credited with being original. His central message consists in a short book, ”One Dimensional Man” ; the concluding chapters of ”Eros and Civilization” , a brief essay, ”Repressive Tolerance” , and a short tract entitled ”An Essay on Liberation”. He was hardly a prolific writer; his only other major work was a study of the Soviet Union whose burden may be summarized as stating that authoritarian Soviet society is ”no better” than the democratic totalitarianism of the so-called free west.
”I have at the beginning of The Aesthetic Dimension outlined what social determination of art I think does indeed prevail: it is, essentially, the material, the tradition, the historical horizon under which the writer, the artist, has to work. He cannot ignore it. He lives in a continuum of tradition even when he breaks it. This social determination affects any work of art. But, as I said, it does not constitute its substance.” ( Marcuse )
Q. To be more specific about this criticism of The Aesthetic Dimension, it is that you have made the aesthetic a transcendental category.
A. That is not the case, because I think I use the term transhistorical. Transhistorical means transcending every and any particular stage of the historical process, but not transcending the historical process as a whole. That should be evident, because we cannot think of anything under the sun that could transcend the historical process as a whole. Everything is in history, even nature.
Q. Historically, would you say that the aesthetic appears as a dimension as a result or consequence of the Enlightenment, or what marks for Hegel the emergence of self-consciousness? Secondly, would you say that as capitalism ceases to be a progressive force in history that the aesthetic dimension becomes less accessible because late capitalism cannot tolerate its critical potential . . .
A. May I interrupt you: it cannot “tolerate”? I think we have seen today that there seems to be hardly anything that capitalist society cannot tolerate. It incorporated and accepted the most radical and avant-garde forms of art and literature. You can buy them in the drug store. But I think that this does not affect or detract from the quality and truth of these “accepted” works of art. Let’s take an example from the visual arts: a statue by Barlach, or the artistic value and truth of a statue by Rodin. It is in no way reduced or falsified if you put that statue, as happens today, in the lobby of a bank or in the lobby of the offices of a big corporation. What has changed is the receptivity of the consumer, not the work of art itself. James Joyce remains James Joyce; whether you can buy him at the drug store makes no difference. A Beethoven quartet remains what it is even if it’s played over the radio while you are doing the dishes.
Q. Doesn’t that last example speak more of the historically affirmative nature of art that survives today as opposed to the negative: that this society is still able to appreciate a certain kind of labor that is not being reproduced by this society?
A. You say this society: as a whole? Or only certain groups? The majority of the population has always been excluded from this relation to art, due to the separation between intellectual and material production to which art necessarily succumbs.
Additional quotes from Marcuse:
”What constitutes the unique and enduring identity of an oeuvre, and what makes a work into a work of art – this entity is the Form. By virtue of the Form, and the Form alone, the content achieves that uniqueness which makes it the content of one particular work of art and of no other. The way in which the story is told; the structure and selectiveness of verse and prose; that which is not said, not represented and yet present; the interrelations of lines and colours and points – these are some aspects of the Form which removes, dissociates, alienates the oeuvre from the given reality and makes it enter into its own reality : the realm of forms.
The realm of forms : it is an historical reality, an irreversible sequence of styles, subjects, techniques, rules – each inseparably related to its society, and repeatable only as imitation. However, in all their almost infinite diversity, they are but variations of the one Form which distinguishes Art from any other product of human activity. Ever since Art left the magical stage, ever since it ceased to be ‘practical’, to be one ‘technique’ among others – that is to say, ever since it became a separate branch of the social division of labour, it assumed a Form of its own, common to all arts.
This Form corresponded to the new function of Art in society: to provide the ‘holiday’, the elevation, the break in the terrible routine of life – to present something ‘higher’, ‘deeper’, perhaps ‘truer’ and better, satisfying needs not satisfied in daily work and fun, and therefore pleasurable. (I am speaking of the social, the ‘objective’ historical function of Art; I am not speaking of what Art is to the artist, not of his intentions and goals, which are of a very different order.) In other, more brutal words: Art is not (or not supposed to be) a use value to be consumed in the course of the daily performances of men; its utility is of a transcendent kind, utility for the soul or the mind which does not enter the normal behaviour of men and does not really change it – except for precisely that short period of elevation, the cultured holiday: in church, in the museum, the concert hall, the theatre, before the monuments and ruins of the great past. After the break, real life continues: business usual.
With these features, Art becomes a force in the (given) society, but not of the (given) society. Produced in and for the established reality, providing it with the beautiful and the sublime, elevation and pleasure, Art also dissociates itself from this reality and confronts it with another one: the beautiful and the sublime, the pleasure and the truth that Art presents are not merely those obtaining in the actual society. No matter how much Art may be determined, shaped, directed by prevailing values, standards of taste and behaviour, limits of experience, it is always more and other than beautification and sublimation, recreation and validation of that which is. Even the most realistic oeuvre constructs a reality of its own: its men and women, its objects, its landscape, its music reveal what remains unsaid, unseen, unheard in everyday life. Art is ‘alienating’.
As part of the established culture, Art is affirmative, sustaining this culture; as alienation from the established reality, Art is a negating force. The history of Art can be understood as the harmonization of this antagonism.”
Harmonization of the beautiful and the true – what was supposed to make up the essential unity of the work of art has turned out to be an increasingly impossible unification of opposites, for the true has appeared as increasingly incompatible with the beautiful. Life, the human condition has militated increasingly against the sublimation of reality in the Form of Art.
This sublimation is not primarily (and perhaps not at all!) a process in the psyche of the artist but rather an ontological condition, pertaining to the Form of Art itself. It necessitates an organization of the material into the unity and enduring stability of the oeuvre, and this organization ‘succumbs’ as it were to the idea of the Beautiful. It is as if this idea would impose itself upon the material through the creative energy of the artist (though by no means as his conscious intention). The result is most evident in those works which are the uncompromisingly ‘direct’ accusation of reality. The artist indicts – but the indictment anaesthetizes the terror. Thus, the brutality, stupidity, horror of war are all there in the work of Goya, but as ‘pictures’, they are caught up in the dynamic of aesthetic transfiguration – they can be admired, side by side with the glorious portraits of the king who presided over the horror. The Form contradicts the content, and triumphs over the content: at the price of its anaesthetization. The immediate, unsublimated (physiological and psychological) response: vomiting, cry, fury, gives way to the aesthetic experience: the germane response to the work of art.