Art as Form of Reality - Herbert Marcuse

 Art as Form of Reality - Herbert Marcuse

Marcuse discusses the traditional conservative role of art in society, artistic challenges to traditional art forms in the 1970s - and what role art might still play in a liberated society.

"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."

"Only if the vast capabilities of science and technology, of the scientific and artistic imagination direct the construction of a sensuous environment, only if the work world loses its alienating features and becomes a world of human relationships, only if productivity becomes creativity, are the roots of domination dried up in the individuals. No return to precapitalist, pre-industrial artisanship, but on the contrary, perfection of the new mutilated and distorted science and technology in the formation of the object world in accordance with “the laws of beauty.” And “beauty” here defines an ontological condition—not of an oeuvre d’art isolated from real existence…but that harmony between man and his world which would shape the form of society."
(Towards a Critical Theory of Society; p.138-139 - Marcuse, ed. Kellner.)


Art as Form of Reality
(Herbert Marcuse - 1972)

The thesis of the end of art has become a familiar slogan: radicals take it as a truism; they reject or 'suspend' art as part of bourgeois culture, just as they reject or suspend its literature or philosophy. This verdict extends easily to all theory, all intelligence (no matter how 'creative') that does not spark action and practice, that does not noticeably help to change the world, that does not - be it only for a short time - break through the universe of mental and physical pollution in which we live. Music does it, with song and dance: the music which activates the body; the songs which no longer sing but cry and shout. To measure the road travelled in the last thirty years, compare the 'traditional', classical tone and text of the songs of the Spanish Civil War with today's songs of protest and defiance. Or compare the 'classical' theatre of Brecht with the Living Theatre of today. 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.

A double reality has emerged (or re-emerged), that of those who say 'no', and that of those who say 'yes'. Those engaged in whatever artistic effort is still 'valid', refuse to say 'yes' to both reality and to art. Yet the refusal itself is also reality - very real are the young who have no more patience, who have, with their own bodies and minds, experienced the horrors and the oppressive comforts of the given reality; real are the ghettos and their spokesmen; real are the forces of liberation all over the globe, East and West; First, Second, and Third World's. But the meaning of this reality to those who experience it can no longer be communicated in the established language and images - in the available forms of expression, no matter how new, how radical they may be.

The Domain of Forms
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.

True, the commercialization of Art is not new, and not even of very recent date. It is as old as bourgeois society. The process gains momentum with the almost unlimited reproducibility of the work of art, by virtue of which the oeuvre becomes susceptible to imitation and repetition even in its finest and most sublime achievements. In his masterful analysis of this process, 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.

Yet, through all these changes, something remains identically the same: the oeuvre itself, to which all these modifications happen. The most 'updated' work of art is still the particular, unique work of art updated. What kind of entity is it which remains the identical 'substance' of all its modifications ?

It is not the 'plot': Sophocles' tragedy shares the `story' of Oedipus with many other literary exprcssions ; it is not the 'object' of a painting, which recurs innumerable times (as general category: portrait of a man sitting, standing; mountainous landscape, etc); it is not the stuff, the raw material of which the work is made. 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.

The material, stuff, and data of Art (words, sounds, lines and colours; but also thoughts emotions, images) are ordered, interrelated, defined and 'contained' in the oeuvre in such a manner that they consitute a structured whole - closed, in its external appearance, between the two covers of a book, in a frame, at a specific place; its presentation takes a specific time, before and after which is the other reality, daily life. In its effect on the recipient, the oeuvre itself may endure and recur; but it will remain, as recurrent, a self-contained whole, a mental or sensuous object clearly separated and distinct from (real) things. The laws or rules governing the organization of the elements in the oeuvre as a unified whole seem of infinite variety, but the classical aesthetic tradition has given them a common denominator: they are supposed to be guided by the idea of the beautiful.

This central idea of classical aesthetics invokes the sensibility as well as the rationality of man, Pleasure Principle and Reality Principle : the work of art is to appeal to the senses, to satisfy sensuous needs - but in a highly sublimated manner. Art is to have a reconciling, tranquillizing, and a cognitive function, to be beautiful and true. The beautiful was to lead to the truth: in the beautiful, a truth was supposed to appear that did not, and could not appear in any other form.

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.

The character of this aesthetic sublimation, essential to Art and inseparable from its history as part of affirmative culture, has found its perhaps most striking formulation in Kant's concept of interesseloses Wohlgefallen : delight, pleasure divorced from all interest, desire, inclination. The aesthetic object is, as it were, without a particular Subject, or rather without any relation to a Subject other than that of pure contemplation - pure eye, pure ear, pure mind. Only in this purification of ordinary experience and its objects, only in this transfiguration of reality emerges the aesthetic universe and the aesthetic object as pleasurable, beautiful and sublime. In other, and more brutal words: the precondition for Art is a radical looking into reality, and a looking away from it - a repression of its immediacy, and of the immediate response to it. It is the oeuvre itself which is, and which achieves this repression; and as aesthetic repression, it is 'satisfying', enjoyable. In this sense, Art is in itself a 'happy end'; despair becomes sublime; pain beautiful.

The artistic presentation of the Crucifixion throughout the centuries is still the best example for this aesthetic transfiguration. Nietzsche saw in the Cross 'the most subterranean conspiracy of all times - a conspiracy against sanity, beauty, health, courage, spirit, nobility of the soul, a conspiracy against life itself' (The Antichrist 62). The Cross as aesthetic object denounces the repressive force in the beauty and spirit of Art: 'a conspiracy against life itself'.

Nietzsche's formula may well serve to elucidate the impetus and the scope of today's rebellion against Art as part and parcel of the affirmative bourgeois culture - a rebellion sparked by the now intolerable, brutal conflict between the potential and the actual, between the very real possibilities of liberation, and the indeed all but conspiratorial efforts, by the powers that be, to prevent this liberation. It seems that the aesthetic sublimation is approaching its historical limits, that the commitment of Art to the Ideal, to the beautiful and the sublime, and with it the 'holiday' function of Art, now offend the human condition. It also seems that the cognitive function of Art can no longer obey the harmonizing 'law of Beauty': the contradiction between form and content shatters the traditional Form of Art.

The Rebellion Against Art
The rebellion against the very Form of Art has a long history. At the height of classical aesthetics, it was an integral part of the Romanticist program; its first desperate outcry was Georg Buchner's indictment that all idealistic art displays a 'disgraceful contempt for humanity'. The protest continues in the renewed efforts to ' save' Art by destroying the familiar, dominating forms of perception, the familiar appearance of the object, the thing because it is part of a false, mutilated experience. The development of Art to non-objective art, minimal art, anti-art was a way towards the liberation of the Subject, preparing it for a new object-world instead of accepting and sublimating, beautifying the existing one, freeing mind and body for a new sensibility and sensitivity which can no longer tolerate a mutilated experience and a mutilated sensibility.

The next step is to 'living art' (a contradictio in adjecto?), Art in motion, as motion. In its own internal development, in its struggle against its own illusions, Art comes to join the struggle against the powers that be, mental and physical, the struggle against domination and repressionin other words, Art, by virtue of its own internal dynamic, is to become a political force. It refuses to be for the museum or mausoleum, for the exhibitions of a no longer existing aristocracy, for the holiday of the soul and the elevation of the masses - it wants to be real. Today, Art enters the forces of rebellion only as it is desublimated: a living Form which gives word and image and sound to the Unnameable, to the lie and its debunking, to the horror and to the Geist.

Living Art, anti-art in all its variety - is its aim self-defeating? All these frantic efforts to produce the absence of Form, to substitute the real for the aesthetic object, to ridicule oneself and the bourgeois customer - are they not so many activities of frustration, already part of the culture industry and the museum culture? I believe the aim of the 'new act' is self-defeating because it retains, and must retain no matter how minimally, the Form of Art as different from non-art, and it is the Art-Form itself which frustrates the intention to reduce or even anull this difference, to make Art 'real', 'living'.

Art cannot become reality, cannot realise itself without cancelling itself as Art in all its forms, even in its most destructive, most minimal, most 'living' forms. The gap which separates Art from reality, the essential otherness of Art, its 'illusory' character can be reduced only to the degree to which reality itself tends towards Art as reality's own Form, that is to say, in the course of a revolution, with the emergence of a free society. In this process, the artist would participate - as artist rather than as political activist, for the tradition of Art cannot be simply left behind or discarded; that which it has achieved, shown, and revealed in authentic forms, contains a truth beyond immediate realization or solution, perhaps beyond any realization and solution.

The antiart of today is condemned to remain Art, no matter how 'anti' it strives to be. Incapable of bridging the gap between Art and reality, of escaping from the fetters of the Art-Form, the rebellion against 'form' only succeeds in a loss of artistic quality; illusory destruction, illusory overcoming of alienation. The authentic oeuvres, the true avant-garde of our time, far from obscuring this distance, far from playing down alienation, enlarge it and harden their incompatibility with the given reality to an extent that defies any (behavioural) application. They fulfill in this way the cognitive function of Art (which is its inherent radical, 'political' function), that is, to name the Unnameable, to confront man with the dreams he betrays and the crimes he forgets. The greater the terrible conflict between that which is and that which can be, the more will the work of art be estranged from the immediacy of real life, thought and behaviour - even political thought and behaviour. I believe that the authentic avant-garde of today are not those who try desperately to produce the absence of Form and the union with real life, but rather those who do not recoil from the exigencies of Form, who find the new word, image, and sound which are capable of 'comprehending' reality as only Art can comprehend - and negate it. This authentic new Form has emerged in the work (already 'classic') of Schonberg, Berg, and Webern; of Kafka and Joyce; of Picasso; it continues today in such achievements as Stockhausen's Spirale, and Samuel Beckett's novels. They invalidate the notion of the 'end of art'.

Beyond the Established Division of Labour
In contrast, the 'living art', and especially the 'living theatre' of today does away with the Form of estrangement: in eliminating the distance between the actors, the audience, and the 'outside', it establishes a familiarity and identification with the actors and their message which quickly draws the negation, the rebellion into the daily universe - as an enjoyable and understandable element of this universe. The participation of the audience is spurious and the result of previous arrangements; the change in consciousness and behaviour is itself part of the play - illusion is strengthened rather than destroyed.

There is a phrase of Marx: 'these petrified [social] conditions must be forced to dance by singing to them their own melody.' Dance will bring the dead world to life and make it a human world. But today, 'their own melody' seems no longer communicable except in forms of extreme estrangement and dissociation from all immediacy - in the most conscious and deliberate forms of Art.

I believe that 'living art', the 'realization' of Art can only be the event of a qualitatively different society in which a new type of men and women, no longer the subject or object of exploitation, can develop in their life and work the vision of the suppressed aesthetic possibilities of men and things - aesthetic not as to the specific property of certain objects (the objet d'art) but as forms and modes of existence corresponding to the reason and sensibility of free individuals, what Marx called 'the sensuous appropriation of the world'. The realization of Art, the 'new art' is conceivable only as the process of constructing the universe of a free society - in other words : Art as Form of reality.

Art as Form of Reality: it is impossible to ward off the horribie associations provoked by this notion, such as gigantic programmes of beautification, artistic corporation offices, aesthetic factories, industrial parks. These associations belong to the practice of repression. Art as Form of reality means, not the beautification of the given, but the construction of an entirely different and opposed reality. The aesthetic vision is part of the revolution; it is a vision of Marx: 'the animal constructs (formiert) only according to need; man forms also in accordance with the laws of beauty.'

It is impossible to concretize Art as Form of reality: it would then be creativity, a creation in the material as well as intellectual sense, a juncture of technique and the arts in the total reconstruction of the environment, a juncture of town and country, industry and nature after all have been freed from the horrors of commercial exploitation and beautification, so that Art can no longer serve as a stimulus of business. Evidently, the very possibility of creating such an environment depends on the total transformation of the existing society: a new mode and new goals of production, a new type of human being as producer, the end of role-playing, of the established social division of labour, of work and pleasure.

Would such realization of Art imply the 'invalidation' of the traditional arts ? In other words, would it imply the 'atrophy' of the capability to understand and enjoy them, atrophy of the intellectual faculty and the sensuous organs to experience the arts of the past? I suggest a negative answer. Art is transcendent in a sense which distinguishes and divorces it from any 'daily' reality we can possibly envisage. No matter how free, society will be inflicted with necessity - the necessity of labour, of the fight against death and disease, of scarcity. Thus, the arts will retain forms of expression germane to them - and only to them: of a beauty and truth antagonistic to those of reality. There is, even in the most 'impossible' verses of the traditional drama, even in the most impossible opera arias and duets, some element of rebellion which is still 'valid'. There is in them some faithfulness to one's passions, some 'freedom of expression' in defiance of common sense, language, and behaviour which indicts and contradicts the established ways of life. It is by virtue of this 'otherness' that the Beautiful in the traditional arts would retain its truth. And this otherness could not and would not be cancelled by the social development. On the contrary: what would be cancelled is the opposite, namely, the false, conformist and comfortable reception (and creation!) of Art, its spurious integration with the Establishment, its harmonization and sublimation of repressive conditions. Then, perhaps for the first time, men could enjoy the infinite sorrow of Beethoven and Mahler because it is overcome and preserved in the reality of freedom. Perhaps for the first time men would see with the eyes of Corot, of Cezanne, of Monet because the perception of these artists has helped to form this reality.


Originally published in New Left Review, no. 74, 1972.

1) I shall use Art (capitalized) as including not only the visual arts but also literature and music. I shall use the term Form (capitalized) to that which defines Art as Art, that is to say, as essentially (ontologically) different not only from (everyday) reality but also from such other manifestations of intellectual culture as science and philosophy.

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Red Marriott
Jul 22 2009 00:05


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