Socialism, Part Ten: Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part Four: Art

This is the conclusion of a series of previous posts on the subject.

In a previous post, I criticized Mr. Gindin’s claim that the expansion of educational services would involve scarcity and therefore would require external or extrinsic motivation of some sort. (Mr,. Gindin is (or was) head of the Toronto Labour Committee and former research director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) (now Unifor) union. See Socialism, Part Ten: Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part Three: Education.

Let us look at part of a previous quote from Mr. Gindin’s writing on socialism:

Furthermore, the calculation of scarcity can in particular not ignore leisure, with leisure representing the “realm of freedom.” Even if we produced enough of what we wanted, as long as some of that labor isn’t completely voluntary but instrumental, then effective scarcity of either labor time or the good/service remains. Workers may even like their jobs and see them as a source of creative expression and satisfaction, but as long as they’d periodically prefer to not show up or leave early, some further inducement is needed to offset the sacrifice of providing those labor hours. That inducement is a measure of the persistence of effective scarcity. And once scarcity is acknowledged as an inherent and essentially permanent frame in the restructuring of society, the question of structured incentives becomes paramount. This is not just a matter of motivating adequate hours of work, but of affecting its intensity and quality, and influencing where that work is best applied (i.e., determining society’s overall division of labor).

Mr. Gindin’s use of “scarcity” is meant to show that he is being realistic. However, just as Mr. Gindin does not criticize the particular form of education in modern society, he does not consider the limitations of the particular form of art in modern society. He writes the following:

Scarcity — the need to make choices between alternative uses of labor time and resources — is unlikely to end outside of utopian fantasies because popular demands, even when transformed into collective/socialist demands, are remarkably elastic: they can continue to grow. Think especially of … the expansion of art and of cultural spaces — all of which require labor time and generally also complementary material goods. That is, they demand choices.

Mr. Gindin seems to consider the “expansion of art and cultural spaces” in purely quantitative terms. The existing “art and cultural spaces” are supposed to be “expanded” rather than qualitatively transformed. Given the specific class nature of modern society dominated by a class of employers and the general class nature of human history after the agricultural revolution, the view that art and culture needs mere expansion rather than qualitative transformation reflects an impoverished view of the nature of socialist society. If socialist society is characterized by the abolition of classes, and classes involve exploitation and oppression, then the nature and development of art and culture should accordingly change qualitatively.

The issue can be approached from different angles. One issue is the question of the form of art (something which Mr. Gindin does not even adddress). John Dewey’s philosophy of art can aid us in understanding the limitations of Mr. Gindin’s characterization of “scarcity” and art in a socialist society.

Dewey points out that the form of modern art is isolated from common human experience. It is this isolated form itself that prevents a proper understanding of the nature of art as a refined development of common-sense human experience. From John Dewey (1934), Art as Experience , pages 3-4:

BY ONE of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally and physically. In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience.

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement. A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience. Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations. It is the business of those who are concerned with the theory of the earth, geographers and geologists, to make this fact evident in its various implications., The theorist who would deal philosophically with fine art has a like task to accomplish.

If one is willing to grant this position, even if only by way of temporary experiment, he will see that there follows a conclusion at first sight surprising. In order to understand the meaning of artistic products, we have to forget them for a time, to turn aside from them and have recourse to the ordinary forces and conditions of experience that we do not usually regard as esthetic. We must arrive at the theory of art by means of a detour. For theory is concerned with understanding, insight, not without exclamations of admiration, and stimulation of that emotional out burst often called appreciation. It is quite possible to enjoy flowers in their colored form and delicate fragrance without knowing any thing about plants theoretically. But if one sets out to understand the flowering of plants, he is committed to finding out something about the interactions of soil, air, water and sunlight that condition the growth of plants.

The isolation of art from ordinary human experience distorts an understanding of the nature of art. Such a distortion is like a mirror, in which we only see the reflection offered to us and not the background material (and social) conditions for the mirror to function as a mirror. From Thomas Nail (2020), Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism, page 149-150:

A mirror is something that reflects almost all the light that it receives within a certain limited frame. A mirror, however, also actively changes the light it receives and limits the range of light returned based on the limits of its frame. The danger of the mirror, as the myth of Narcissus reminds
us, is mistaking the mirror for nothing other than the image it reflects. The mirror is thus a tricky kind of object because it so easily conceals its own quality, use- value, or sensuous materiality: the frame, the tain (silver backing), as well as the agency of light itself. Narcissus dies because he mistakes the sensuous agency of nature (water, light, air) as nothing other than himself.

The isolation of art in a socialist society from the rest of human experience would proceed to break down as the power of the class of employers was superseded and as the objectified power of workers is abolished and the human life process comes under the workers’ and the diverse communities’ control.

Mr. Gindin simply ignores any qualitative transformation of art and culture and refers to the (quantitative) expansion of arts and culture–as if the integration of the domain of art with other domains of life would not in itself involve “an expansion of art and culture.” Mr. Gindin fails to see that the modern art form itself expresses oppressive conditions, where art is relegated to an isolated activity by a relative minority. He succumbs to the ideology of the mirror, seeing only the reflected form of the alienated art form as a permanent form that merely requires–“mechanical” elements rather than organic elements that grow from the common source of human daily life experience.

Art in modern capitalist society would undergo a qualitative change–it would be freed of the exploitative and oppressive conditions that give rise to it as something separate and divorced from everyday living and working. From Piotr Hoffmann (1982), The Anatomy of Idealism: Passivity and Activity in Kant, Hegel and Marx, page 98:

In effect, since human labor is guided by conception and imagination, the Marxian “architect” from Capital is always capable of embodying in the material an original vision of things; he can tear
the veil of banality and commonplace which stifles the potential of our sensibility. Needless to say, according to Marx this aesthetic potential of human senses must be stifled and repressed under the prevailing conditions of commodity production and of alienation of labor in general. 54 But it is the same conditions – the increasing sophistication of the labor-process – which both create the new potential of human senses and needs and repress its emerging claims and requirements. Indeed the whole process of labor, such as we know it in its past and present form, has that double, paradoxical function: at the same time that it creates those new and higher qualities of human life it also represses them by creating a mode of human intercourse which prevents their realization. “Certainly, labor obtains its measure from outside, through the aim to be attained and the obstacles to be overcome in attaining it. But [ …] this overcoming of obstacles is in itself a liberating activity [ …] the external aims become stripped of the semblance of merely external natural urgencies, and become posited as aims which the individual himself posits – hence as self-realization,
objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely, labor. ” It is in Grundrisse, not in Pans Manuscnpts, that Marx writes these words. His intention couldn’t be clearer: labor is not only a response to need and dependency upon external objects, but a truly creative
and (as Marx put it) “liberating” process through which man gives a higher form to his life-activity, a form where his senses, needs and tastes become refined and stripped of their crude utilitarian functions.

In societies before the emergence of capitalism, art was not as divorced from daily life as it is now. Art forms were closely related to utility and daily living, with art expressing more, initially, an assumed magical function related to survival than some sort of separate form expressing emotion and aesthetic refinement. From Arnold Hauser (1951), The Social History of Art, Volume 1: From Prehistoric Times to the Middle Ages, page 3:

When the Palaeolithic artist painted an animal on the rock, he produced a real animal. For him the world of fiction and pictures, the sphere of art and mere imitation, was not yet a special province of its own, different and separate from empirical reality; he did not as yet confront the two different spheres, but saw in one the direct, undifferentiated continuation of the other. He will have had the same attitude to art as Lévy- Bruhl’s Sioux Red Indian, who said of a research worker whom he saw preparing sketches: ‘I know that this man has put many of our bisons into his book. I was there when he did it, and since then we have had no bisons.’ The conception of this sphere of art as a direct continuation of ordinary reality never disappears completely despite the later predominance of a conception of art as something opposed to reality.

Later on, emotional expression and aesthetic concerns emerged with the development of agriculture. Here art and aesthetics (the appreciation of art from the side of consumption) now became somewhat divorced from daily life–with the emergence of class society. Religious rite took the place of magic. However, even then the degree of separation of art from daily life characteristic of modern capitalist society, with art appearing to be a separate realm from the realm of human life and its self-reproduction, was much less. In feudal society, for example, production and consumption were not as separated since they were still closely linked to daily life and utility. Page 93:

‘Urban economy’ in the sense of Buecher’s theory of economic stages signifies, in contrast to the earlier production for own use, a production for the customer, that is, of goods that are not consumed in, the economic unit in which they are produced. It is distinguished from the following stage of ‘national economy’ in that exchange of goods still takes the ‘direct’ form—i.e. the goods go direct from the producing to the consuming unit, production as a rule not being for stock or the free market, but to the direct order of definite customers personally acquainted with the producer. We are thus at the first stage of the separation of production from consumption, but still far removed from the completely abstract method of modern production by which goods have to pass through a whole series of hands before they reach the consumer. This difference of principle between the medieval ‘town economy’ and the modern ‘national economy’ still remains, even when we pass from Buecher’s ‘ideal type’ of town economy to the actual historical facts; for although pure production to order never existed by itself, the relationship between the tradesman and consumer in the Middle Ages was far closer than nowadays; the producer was not yet faced with a completely unknown and indefinite market as he was later. These characteristics of the ‘urban’ way of production showed themselves in medieval art in a greater independence of the artist, on the one hand, as compared with the artist of Romanesque times, but, on the other hand, in a complete absence of that modern
phenomenon, the unappreciated artist working in a total vacuum of estrangement from the public and remoteness from actuality.

The abolition of classes in a socialist society, undoubtedly, would revolutionize the relation between art and daily life–just as the agricultural revolution and the emergence of class societies also revolutionized the relation between art and daily life. The abolition of classes would mean that even in work relations there would be the possibility of expressing ourselves without exploitation and oppression preventing us from doing so. The relation between freedom and necessity would change accordingly. There would be a qualitative change in the nature of art as it became integrated into the daily lives of individuals–but this time on a higher, more refined plane than earlier.

Mr. Gindin, though, just sees “an expansion of art”–undoubtedly in purely quantitative terms. He has an impoverished view of the nature of a socialist society and the relation between freedom and necessity in a socialist society.

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