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A Marxist Reading List: Art and Literary Theory

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Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny, Endurance, and the Role of the Artist by John Berger (Vintage International 1969; 1997)

What is ‘revolutionary art’? For Berger, art “makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from justice at last”. In this beautifully written book, Berger draws on the life of the Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny in order to unearth the meaning of revolutionary art, and shows how Neizvestny transcended the personal or aesthetic realms in his quest discover the social role of art – that which is truly revolutionary.

The Last Resistance by Jacqueline Rose (Verso 2007; 2017)

Rose uses psychoanalysis and literature as forms of resistance in The Last Resistance, a meditation on writing. Various pivotal political moments, in particular the Israel-Palestine conflict, enable a discussion of writing’s power to transform our political lives. From the work of her sister, Gillian Rose, to Simone de Beauvoir, Edward Said, W. G. Sebald and David Grossman, Rose explores the unfolding of catastrophic world events and offers some literary solace. In her own words, “even in the darkest of dark times, we have the right to expect some ‘illumination’.”

Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory by Michele Wallace (Verso 1990; 2016)

Widely regarded as a landmark in the history of black feminism, Invisibility Blues is an exploration of the black American experience in which Wallace discusses a wide range of cultural events. From the silver screen portrayal of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi Burning and in Clint Eastwood’s Bird to her essay ‘Reading 1968: The Great American Whitewash’, Wallace’s account of the retrospective whitening of the revolutionary world event collectively known as ‘1968’ – and her attempt to make a correction restoring the recognition of black participation, Wallace challenges deeply entrenched assumptions with scholarly flair. She considers the legacy of legacy of such figures as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker; her title essay ‘Invisibility Blues’ is a meditation on the intersection of media and multiculturalism in the 80s, addressing the tensions between gender, race and society with literary virtuosity.

Aesthetics and Politics by Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and Georg Lukács, with an afterword by Fredric Jameson (Verso, 1977; 2006)

Compiling the key texts of the great cultural Marxist controversies, and covering swathes of literary and artistic ground – from modernism to realism to expressionist drama – this collection offers a vital and interlinked debate between some of the most important scholars of twentieth-century intellectual thought.

Aesthetic Theory by Theodor Adorno (Bloomsbury, 1970; 2013)

Adorno scrutinizes beauty and the sublime in art, and considers art’s increasing social responsibilities in the face of its own expanded autonomy. He argues that the truth-content of art does truly exist within the art object – and not in the eye of the beholder – and that this content can be found amidst the dialectical interactions emerging internally from the work, and also from wider societal events. Adorno dedicated Aesthetic Theory to Samuel Beckett, who is praised throughout.

Return of the Real: Art and Theory at the End of the Century by Hal Foster (MIT Press, 1996)

In Return of the Real, critic, historian and editor of the enormously influential October journal, Foster considers the development of art and theory since 1960 and the ever-improving reoccurrence of the avant-garde. Providing a seminal account of the avant-garde in art, Foster argues that the avant-garde returns to us over and over again from the future, and that it is reinvigorated by innovative present-day practices.

Literature and Revolution by Leon Trotsky (Haymarket 1923; 2005)

How does art affect our understanding of the world? In this classic work about Marxism and art Trotsky contributes to the literary debates that were emerging during the early years of the Soviet Union, offering his response to the cultural problems that were raised by the Russian Revolution. Following the proletarian uprising, Trotsky wrote that "[t]his class cannot begin the construction of a new culture without absorbing and assimilating the elements of the old cultures" – presenting an argument for cultural recognition and empowerment that retains its potency today.  

Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination by Annette Kuhn (Verso, 1995; 2002)

Kuhn writes in the introduction of Family Secrets that the book’s primary objective “is to unravel the connections between memory, its traces, and the stories we tell about the past, especially – though not exclusively – about the past of living memory.” Using images and memories as a starting point for this memory work, Kuhn considers images from both the ‘private’ realm (family photographs) and ‘public’ realm (films, news photographs, painting) in order to explore a network of associations that extends far beyond the personal. In Family Secrets Kuhn offers a contribution towards how memory works at a cultural level and more generally how it impacts theories of culture, and, most importantly, the book works as a toolkit for the reader’s own memory work.

Against Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag (Penguin Classics 1966; 2009)

In this brilliant collection of essays Sontag discusses topics as varied as the intersection between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms; what ‘style’ might be; the spiritual, transcendental nature of art (and how this is being forgotten due to an intellectual preoccupation with notions of ‘form’ and ‘content’); and her famous essay ‘Notes on Camp’.  Arguing against the institutionalisation of interpretation and the oppressive theoretical constraints that are necessarily put in place by such a reading, Sontag famously writes, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” This is an appeal to a freer engagement with art – one that can be practiced at a sensorial level, and beyond an analytical interpretation to discover hidden truths.

Karl Marx and World Literature by S. S. Prawer (Verso 1976; 2011)

"Very few men," said Bakunin, "have read as much, and, it may be added, have read as intelligently, as M. Marx." S. S. Prawer's highly influential work explores how the world of imaginative literature—poems, novels, plays—infused and shaped Marx's writings, from his unpublished correspondence, to his pamphlets and major works. In exploring Marx's use of literary texts, from Aeschylus to Balzac, and the central role of art and literature in the development of his critical vision, Karl Marx and World Literature is a forensic masterpiece of critical analysis.

Formalism and Marxism by Tony Bennett (Routledge 1979; 2003)

In the decade following the 1917 Russian Revolution the Russian Formalist movement expanded, with scholars such as Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky and Yury Tynyanov advancing a literary theory in which a work of literature’s form – how a work conveys something – is as much a part of the work’s content as what the work conveys. In Formalism and Marxism Bennett argues that the Formalists' concerns provided the basis for a radically historical approach to the study of literature, but points out that Marxist criticism adversely runs the risk of becoming overly entangled with the concerns of traditional aesthetics. Bennett then makes a forceful argument for a serious and sympathetic reassessment of the Formalists’ own historical approach in order that Marxist critics might find their way back on to the terrain of politics, where they belong.

Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship by Claire Bishop (Verso, 2012)

Artificial Hells is the first historical and theoretical account of participatory art, in which Bishop questions whether or not a social art practice can be considered ultimately political. Throughout the twentieth-century, developments in social art have produced interventions, walks and performances that can be recognised in the work of many various groups – from the Futurists and Dadaists to the Situationist International and Russian Constructivists. Bishop argues that whilst these movements raise crucial questions concerning ‘collective’ versus ‘individual’ authorship – often blurring the boundaries between art and life – current social practices frequently overlook the ethical complications of using people as an artistic medium. In this book Bishop is calling for a less prescriptive approach to politics and art whilst advancing a bolder and more compelling attitude.

Criticism and Truth by Roland Barthes (Bloomsbury 1966; 2007)

Against Raymond Picard’s ‘old criticism’ that is primarily concerned with formal and linguistic philology (which itself was a critique of Barthes’ book On Racine), and in his inimitable style, Barthes here presents an argument for a form of artistic criticism that allows for a 'truth' of writing, and for the gaps between criticism, reading and writing to dissolve: "To read is to desire the work, to want to be the work, to refuse to echo the work using any discourse other than that of the work."