Friday, February 11, 2011

Matthew Arnold and "The German Ideology"

Today I wanted to turn my thoughts to Marcel Duchamp and Dada, but to do so effectively, I need to develop a fair amount of background. In my last post, I tried to briefly juxtapose contemporary theories of “the anti-aesthetic” with a quote from Marcel Duchamp, all within the alleged frame of Kant's critical examination of aesthetic judgement.

I wasn't prepared to explore what Kant wrote because, well, Kant is Kant - his work is difficult to follow, but it is also foundational to the modern understanding of aesthetic judgement as a cognitive phenomenon relevant to art. To understand the “force” behind current aesthetic norms and values, it is important to understand the role played by Kant in a much larger discourse that pre-dates his own involvement and takes some interesting turns as it further develops in later years.

Why does any of this matter when discussing poetry? For many poets, it probably doesn’t. For someone like me, it might just be a fascination that stems from a serious consideration of what other people value in poetry as opposed to what they dismiss. We frequently say (perhaps rightly so) that it all boils down to issues of “taste,” but where does taste come from? Is it socially developed (and institutionally maintained) or is it something which is inherent and related to human sensual experience?

Historically, distinctions have been established by which “art” (and everything that falls under its jurisdiction) is valued in ways different than other, more utilitarian artifacts produced by Western societies. The motivating force behind this special sense of aesthetic value is generally regarded as a higher (more noble) attribute of human aspiration encompassed by the historical derivation of the word "culture." Hence the term "high art" and the cultural value it signifies concerning our appreciation thereof.

To relate "culture" to “aesthetics” in a vaguely historical manner (via the suspect relevance of citing the first thing that pops into my mind) I'll turn to Matthew Arnold and his collection of essays, Culture and Anarchy (1869). I’ll then compare Arnold’s thought to the thought of Marx and Engels, as developed in The German Ideology (written in1846, published in 1932). The challenge I present to myself, in so doing, is to accomplish this comparison in a relatively brief fashion. But the point of the comparison is to examine an ideological divide relevant to the emergence of Dada and the attempted dissolution of aesthetic norms as a determining force in art.

Matthew Arnold (distinguished poet, critic, and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University), writing from the perspective of a distinct era and locale (Victorian England) saw "culture," (i.e. the cultivated appreciation of fine arts, literature, philosophy, etc.) as a practical means toward achieving a classless society in which all participants have been emancipated from baser manifestations of self-interested human existence. In the process of elaborating this idealization, he presents what can only be described as a highly-biased caricature of existing class structures and the problematic attitudes endemic to persons of each class. In this fashion, he develops the case for cultural enrichment as a solution to serious problems evident in the world around him.

It’s worth noting that Arnold’s use of the term "anarchism" in the title of this book refers specifically to the manner in which identifiable segments of the English working class (in his terminology, "the populace," i.e. the most ignoble of his three class-based characterizations) were actively working to achieve a measure of economic justice and political clout. Which is to say, he didn’t think very highly of uppity laborers and their brazen protests. Here’s an example of his “analysis”:

“… raw and half-developed, [the populace] has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now issuing from its hiding-place to assert an Englishman's heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes … marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes …”

Despite reserving the brunt of his disdain for activist workers, his characterizations of the aristocracy (i.e."barbarians") and the bourgeoisie (i.e. "philistines") are only marginally better, presenting generalized character traits in a less than favorable manner. The reason Arnold developed these caricatures was to demonstrate that class-based attitudes were the source of social unrest in Victorian England. Which is to say, social dissent (and the threat of anarchy) was on the verge of upsetting civil society, and Arnold somehow failed to identify economic injustice as a cause for this turmoil.

The source of the problem, he surmised, was a serious lack of “culture” in the population as a whole. And if this was the cause, then the solution was to instigate a mass-immersion of England’s population into a refined world of cultural and aesthetic appreciation, i.e. “sweetness and light.” Today, we would probably call this a liberal arts education, and anyone who has been on the receiving end of this might consider Arnold’s social analysis to be na├»ve at best. But we continue to value a liberal arts education and despair at what appears to be its current decline - there are many good reasons for this. For one, it is oftentimes the first place in which we encounter the actual writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels take a distinctly different view of the supposedly pure source of aesthetic and intellectual enlightenment. They also view social unrest as a necessary derivation from imposed material (i.e. economic) relations. Marx was as much a social activist as he was a philosopher. A foreign-born resident of London, he actively organized workers in a revolt against power while simultaneously working to analyze existing paradigms of social and economic reality. Engels, for his part, financially supported Marx and his family throughout this struggle.

Similar to Arnold's formulation of class-dependent character traits at the root of social unrest, Marx and Engels asserted that "the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production". But where Arnold glosses over institutionalized forms of economic inequality, Marx and Engels focus on the ideological structure that maintains class relations as the determining factor in the historical development of intellectual and aesthetic values. Not surprisingly, Engels was unable to find a publisher for their book.

Like Arnold, Marx and Engels sought a better world, but they also examined the imposed economic conditions that pre-ordain an individual's ability to participate in "culture" and concluded that the ideological roots of these conditions were thoroughly entangled, via economic privilege and interest, with the cultural ideals of high art and philosophy. In other words, relevant to my own thesis, the historical development of aesthetic ideals (and their philosophical support) are inseparable from ideology in general. Or, as Marx would say, inseparable from the social relations of material production.

Concerning "culture," Marx and Engels viewed the established criteria and accomplishment of art, literature, philosophy, etc., as being derived from the perspective of a politically and economically dominant leisure class to whom was afforded the opportunity to create and patronize art, literature, philosophy, etc. In other words, what is valued as “high culture” is primarily, in this view, the reflection of a powerful (and influential) segment of human society that is unselfconsciously concerned, first and foremost, with itself and with the maintenance (and celebration) of its material conditions. Which also means, keeping everyone else in line, as the following quote elucidates:

The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationship which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

From this perspective, art and its related aesthetic criteria - which further relate to “high culture” - are historically derived from the ideological structure of class relations. From which I might conclude (in a slightly more apolitical sense) that aesthetic ideals are socially determined and not intrinsic to any universal quality found in art. In other words, aesthetic criteria are open to debate - if ideological conditions so allow.

But seriously, what does this have to do with discernible qualities of art and poetry? Well, we all presumably know that there is such a thing as aesthetic “quality” developed by “craft” when it comes to producing art, but how do we understand art which purposefully violates dominant norms of aesthetic criteria, even denying these norms as a definitive quality inherent to art? Is it still art, and, if so, why? And does this apply to poetry too?

All this finally leads me back to Dada. But unfortunately I’m sick of writing.

More later.


  1. Thanks for this cogent account of Arnold and Marx, and their context.

  2. You have no idea how welcome you are. Thank you anonyomous commenter!

  3. thank you for this, it has helped a bit

  4. Thank you very much Jim, i have learned a lot reading several of your articles. you have my vote for president!!!... that's a compliment =P

  5. Thanks! But I'll pass on the president thing ;)