Art and Aesthetics on the Left
— an interview with Andrew Hemingway
ANDREW HEMINGWAY IS an art historian and Professor Emeritus at University College London. His books include Artists on the Left. American Artists and the Communist Movement 1926-1956 (Yale University Press, 2002) and The Mysticism of Money: Precisionist Painting and Machine Age America (Periscope Publishing, 2013). Alan Wald’s discussion of Artists on the Left is online at https://solidarity-us.org/site/node/267.
Against the Current: What drew you to the subject of U.S. artists on the Left? Was this an area that you were able to pursue as a university student?
Andrew Hemingway: As a university student in the late 1960s and early 1970s I had no real opportunity to study 20th-century art. That was partly down to the vagaries of my own academic route, but also because such art was relatively little studied in British universities back then. I got interested in pre-1940 U.S. art because of Milton Brown’s exhibition The Modern Spirit: American Painting 1908-1935, which was shown at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1977. This was really an exhibition of his ground-breaking book American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression (1955).
I found the show fascinating, and it intrigued me that so much interesting art had so little coverage in the mainstream narrative of 20th-century artistic developments. In fact Brown was a Marxist and had published an important essay on Painting of the French Revolution with the Marxist Critics Group in 1938. But although I knew of the essay — I hadn’t read it — I don’t think I made the connection at the time.
I became interested in the Left’s influence when I began teaching New Deal art in the context of an American Studies program at Ealing College of Higher Education (now the University of West London) in the early 1980s. The history of American art pre-1940 and the history of the U.S. Left both seemed unjustly neglected topics and politically pertinent topics too.
ATC: What were some of the biggest surprises that your research showed?
AH: Two things I’ll mention especially. First, the idea that American moderns were backward — endlessly coat-tailing more advanced and radical European tendencies — did not stand up. That was really a Cold War myth that functioned to emphasize the specialness of Abstract Expressionism at the moment when the U.S. finally took over the leadership of the Modern Art race — conveniently, and not coincidentally, at the same moment as the U.S. state aspired to leadership as a global hegemon politically.
The American moderns, it turned out, moved pretty much in sync with their European counterparts even if their achievements were less imposing with some notable exceptions. Second, the idea — which then had widespread adherence — that there was a straightforward correlation between advanced modernism and the anti-Stalinist left in the 1940s fell flat when one discovered that such major modernists as Stuart Davis, Ad Reinhardt, and David Smith had aligned themselves with the Communist Party — and in the case of the two latter continued to do so after the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
That was the spark that prompted me to write Artists on the Left. Namely, what were the actual relations between artists and the Communist movement?
ATC: As someone whose career was mainly in England, do you see important differences between the U.S. and British traditions of the artistic Left?
AH: Socialism is in principle an internationalizing tendency. But that isn’t to deny that its historical diversity has been determined partly by distinctive national or regional cultural and artistic traditions, as well by individual features of socio-economic and political development within different nation states. So while there are broad similarities between British and U.S. art on the left, particularly after the Soviet Union assumed the status of guide to the international Communist movement — the John Reed Clubs and American Artists’ Congress in the United States find their counterpart in the British Artists’ International Association (1933-53) — I think that particular national figures have an exemplary status for artists working in the American and British contexts. Walt Whitman and William Morris respectively would be examples.
American leftist artists were able to draw on what they perceived as a native tradition of realist painting, meaning particularly the Ashcan School, but also, more distantly, the work of Eakins. Some British artists liked to think in terms of a native tradition of satirical realism that originated with Hogarth. I don’t think these are big differences — and they are in some degree mythical — but they could help to give artists a feeling of cultural rootedness that shouldn’t be dismissed merely as a regressive nationalism.
ATC: To what degree can the work of these leftwing artists be treated apart from its political content?
AH: I count the notion of aesthetic autonomy — although as Marxists we have to say “relative autonomy” — as one of the great discoveries of the Enlightenment. I think a concern with philosophical aesthetics is central to the Marxist notion of human self-emancipation, or at least to the kinds of Marxism I care about.
All art is political in some way or other. But that doesn’t get us very far. It is of course possible — and often necessary — to evaluate some kinds of images and texts for their political instrumentality. But that is not to make an aesthetic judgment about them. To make an aesthetic judgment is to make a different kind of claim, one that concerns their formal and cognitive values in a much more profound and complex sense. I think the writings of Adorno provide the best guide as to how to do this, although my judgments are not the same as his in many instances. But I am with Kant on this matter in that I think when we make an aesthetic claim we are always suitors for the agreement of others.
I should be clear that when I talk about aesthetic judgments I am not talking about judgments of taste, some immediate apprehension of like or dislike. Like Adorno I regard that as mere culinary hedonism. I am talking about something cognitive. But the sense of formal relations in an artwork and the ideas they embody, and the complex emotions they can give rise to, is not something amenable to disproof according to logic or the protocols of the natural sciences. It is a unique kind of experience to which the eighteenth century first gave a name.
I should say that I regard much of the art I discuss in Artists on the Left as of little aesthetic value. But this does not mean it should be excluded from the historical record and understanding it helps us to better understand some of the work we might value more highly.
ATC: What aspects of this experience of U.S. artists on the Left do you feel are most relevant to cultural workers today? What current areas of radical culture do you find exciting or hopeful?
AH: I think the most important example the communist cultural movement left us was that of the value of collective work — although of course I’m not recommending the Stalinist model of political organization. Or the Leninist one for that matter. The claims that American artists tried to make on the state in the 1930s are also relevant — the attempt to initiate public debate about what it would mean to have a democratic culture that was not grounded in the illusory freedoms of the market.
But the conditions under which workers in the visual arts operate these days have been transformed by the boom in the contemporary art market, the interrelated desire of corporations, the ultra-rich and nation states (or regional and city governments) to be associated with contemporary art, and the resulting transformation of many museums into institutions of mass entertainment.
These developments — together with art’s own internal logic — mean that the traditional media of painting and sculpture have become increasingly “residual” forms, and much contemporary art neither requires nor wants the kind of “contemplative immersion” I associate with aesthetic experience. The confusion between aesthetic experience and entertainment that has resulted is poisonous.
This does not mean that no art is being produced that prompts a complex aesthetic response — some contemporary photographic work clearly does, and so does plenty of contemporary cinema and even some cable TV drama. But as Marxists we have to acknowledge that artists do not make art in conditions of their own choosing.
I would see the most hopeful signs in contemporary art practice as represented by activist interventions such as the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition. These do not seek an aesthetic effect of the kind I’ve been defending, but they are adapted to contemporary conditions as well as being politically on the ball. They are what the times demand.
That isn’t to say that work in the traditional media won’t surprise us and shake us into a sustained engagement with individual pieces. I love it when it does. But maybe that’s just a sign of the fact that I’m part of a “residual” phenomenon.
July-August 2015, ATC 177