A short reflection on the meaning of marxism to this year’s Venice Biennale

Having just returned from Venice to see the 56th Biennale I found it interesting to note that so little media coverage of the event has adequately discussed its central theme of engaging with Marx’s Capital. Yet this inability is symptomatic of the way in which the mainstream media commentariat have often lacked the ability to understand, appreciate and make useful judgements about those aspects of contemporary culture which are involved, often quite profoundly, with the legacy of Marx.

Perry Anderson has explained how after World War 2, the British establishment closed ranks against the perceived threat of marxism. One of the key moves was to ensure that the pole positions of the key academic disciplines were occupied by anti-marxists. The relevant disciplines at the leading institutions were entrusted to former Central and Eastern European émigrés, such as Karl Popper, Ernst Gombrich, Ernest Gellner (“I always knew that those beliefs were rubbish’’) and Isaiah Berlin, all of whom were critical of marxism. This ensured that at the head of each discipline at each prestigious institution was a gatekeeper unsympathetic to Marx and marxism. Thus the tone of the academic establishment was established. No matter how brilliant a marxist scholar might be, there was little hope of a post at a top British University and no marxist scholar could expect to be taken very seriously. Instead, marxist intellectuals began to find posts at the much less prestigious polytechnics which in time became the ‘new universities’.

Some were cranks, some were bores, a few were flakes or fanatics, but others were genuinely brilliant, as scholars and teachers. I had experience of this when I went to the University of East London to study Cultural Studies, which I naively mistook for a degree in the humanities. My teachers all turned out to be marxists (my father once told me that he knew the moment when he could tell that my grandfather, a die hard capitalist, was going senile was when Dad told him that there was a lot of marxism on my university course and my grandfather, himself a Central European immigrant, replied ‘ah yes, the marxists, they’ve done a lot for this country’).

My lecturers were an extremely varied, heterodox, sometimes heretical bunch with at least two fantastic teachers and several notable scholars. There was a cult of excellence among many marxist scholars, who felt that they had to be better than non-marxists if they were to succeed. Many studied extremely hard and acquired an unrivalled grasp of their field. This is particularly evident in the marxist history group which produced many of the greatest historians of the era such as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, C.L.R. James and Raphael Samuel.

As the post-war generation of anti-marxists began to retire, the political climate began to thaw at the established universities and a number of marxist scholars were recruited to the most prestigious universities (although many remained marginalized there). The downside of this story is that far too many bright and privileged people studied at the top universities in this country during a time when marxism was barely mentioned. Many of these people went on to take top jobs in the establishment, particularly politics and the media. Their grasp of marxism is often poor to non-existent. So the quality of commentary that we get in the media on economics and contemporary cultural developments often fails to get the point. Does this Marx-shaped hole in the mainstream media’s understanding really matter in the field of contemporary art and curating?

Take the 56th Biennale in Venice. To a large extent it is the fruit of the so-called ‘long march through the institutions’ by means of which marxists hoped to gain a prominent and influential voice in society. The Biennale’s relation to marxism in its classical form is ambiguous. Any sensitive reading of it would need to take account of fraught debates within marxism. The show is most accurately positioned within the strain of post-marxism, better known as cultural studies which some regard as a development out of marxism and others regard as a fundamental betrayal of its most basic principles (lazy and/or ignorant journalists don’t bother to note this schism at all). Certainly, the show is a posthumous triumph for Stuart Hall, who first came to public notice through his articles in Marxism Today, which advocated a relatively liberal and pluralistic renewal of Marx’s project through art, culture and everyday life. Hall laid great stress on campaigning for better representation for blacks, gays and women. Many mainstream liberal institutions co-opted this drive although Hall’s vision was harder edged than liberal multiculturalism suggested. It also linked cultural inequality with economic inequality in a much more assertive fashion.

Hall’s brand of marxism was branded as heretical and unacceptable to more conventional marxists and many of them found its ability to make accommodations with aspects of present day capitalism profoundly un-marxist. Cultural studies also clashed with another leading brand of marxism, the Frankfurt School, distinguished initially by its profound cultural pessimism. However, cultural studies was extremely influential and many credit (or blame) it for bringing New Labour into the world. It also had a profound influence on the development of contemporary art.

Several of Hall’s protégées are represented in prominent ways in the Biennale, not least of all Isaac Julien, whose Kapital is an event in which leading artists and thinkers read from Marx’s Das Kapital, embellishing it with their own commentary. Also present are names like Mark Nash, Coco Fusco and John Akomfrah, all of whom owe a considerable debt to Hall. On the day of Hall’s death, this is what the artist and cultural critic Coco Fusco wrote on her Facebook page:

Stuart Hall, brilliant cultural theorist, teacher, activist, stellar public intellectual, foundational thinker of the New Left and postcolonial studies, passed away today at 82. My heart is broken, as he was in so many ways, an intellectual father figure for my generation. His amazing work, and his gentle and inspirational mentoring brought an entire intellectual field into being. Anything good I have ever written is the result of what I learned from him. I was fortunate to have enjoyed wonderful discussions with him during many a cultural event in the past 30 years and to have benefitted from the support he showered upon black artists and scholars around the world. RIP, beloved Stuart.

A good example of how the arts and media establishment appears incapable of doing justice to marxism or cultural studies is the Daily Telegraph’s review of the current Venice Biennale by Alastair Sooke. Sooke went to Westminster public school, studied English Literature at Christ Church Oxford and went on to do an MA in Art History at the Courtauld. He also has a Facebook page dedicated to him by fans called ‘Alistair Sooke: Sex God’. Sadly, none of these things qualify him to have an informed opinion about the Biennale and his review misses the point repeatedly. A pretty face, a top job at a British newspaper, a TV career and an elite education all before the age of 35 may get one so far but they are little substitute for real understanding when it comes to reviewing contemporary art with a marxist orientation.

Several things are wrong with Sooke’s two star review of the show, which he says is “pessimistic and joyless”. The first is that the writer fails to note how the show has moved from token inclusion of women and non-Western artists to a position of equality. Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian curator of this year’s show, has shown us what a truly global Venice Biennale should look like with contributors from Africa, Latin America and Asia taking an equal footing with Western artists. Enwezor has also addressed the gender imbalance of the art world with over 50% of the artists on show being female. This is the kind of achievement which would have been regarded as impossibly utopian not so long ago, so the politics of utopia (and the hopes for a more inclusive culture through political struggle embodied in Stuart Hall’s brand of identity politics) are very much the other side of the grim and fearful images.

Sooke lambasts the show for its concentration of the kinds of depressing problems that we can see on the news any day of the week. Yet a key insight of marxism is that the world is presented to us as it is with the circular logic that “it is what it is because it is. Now stop asking questions and feel sad about what’s bad and feel happy about what’s good!”

In the empirical world, we are presented with facts but no real analysis and no concrete political solutions. Cultural studies asks us to analyse discrete ‘facts’ about the world as part of an interconnected global system with specific regimes of capital accumulation and their attendant ideologies at the centre and colonialism, gender inequality and war as symptoms of the shadow side of capitalism. Unlike the daily news it suggests that through political action we can achieve positive change. This, I think, is Enwezor’s aim in curating the show this way.

A reviewer may not agree with such an analysis or may find it overly simplistic or mechanistic. As a matter of fact, I do find it a bit simplistic and mechanistic at times but that’s because I think it’s sometimes underdeveloped and lacking detail, not because I think it’s entirely false.

To read the show as simply ‘depressing’, as Sooke does, is mystifying. The show is full of variety. It may be dark and doomy in places but in others it’s vibrant, playful, naughty, imaginative and often very funny (I laughed out loud at several of the exhibits in the Spanish pavilion, which were rather jolly and very camp).

To complain, as Sooke does, that the viewer will be disappointed because they will expect a ‘sparkling fantasy of spun-sugar palazzos floating on a turquoise lagoon’ just sounds shallow and silly. To suggest that even die hard communists would be turned off hearing Marx’s Capital read aloud today is also daft and sounds badly out of touch (after the 2007, many bookshops reported that Marxist and socialist classics had entered their non-fiction top tens – Marx is big with young people again).

In taking on the global politics of inequality, war, racism and sexism, the art world has been much criticized for its hypocrisy and naivete. Sooke thinks it’s a ‘bit rich’ (pun intended) that such a bloated and cash rich field as contemporary art should be pointing the finger at capitalism. Yet Marx was nothing if not ironic in his understanding of capitalism and saw it as made up of a series of constitutive contradictions. Thanks to the neo-liberal revolution, market forces penetrate every sphere of human activity so that there is no untainted place from which to speak (‘it’s hard to be a good man in hell’ as the novelist William Boyd once said).

Another lazy criticism is to assume that all marxists want to destroy capitalism and live in a communist utopia. I don’t actually know any cultural studies marxists who think or say this. A great many thinkers influenced by Marx have accepted that we now live in a capitalist world and are focused, for now at least, on what possibilities for change exist within that world. Many are interested in different variants of capitalism and new forms of political engagement.

The concept of revolution is also evolving. Slow and non-violent change can be revolutionary in its accumulated impact. As I am constantly reminding people who tell me that there will never be a revolution, we are living through one now: the neo-liberal revolution started by Thatcher, Reagan and others. Thatcher’s own autobiography recalls her early years with the phrase ‘there was a revolution to be made but too few revolutionaries’.

Marxism has long had an affiliation with art and culture. While one strain of marxism has concentrated on economics and politics, the other, derived from 18th century Romanticism, has laid great stress on the way in which capitalism can drain passion, eccentricity and personal creative expression out of life with brutal efficiency. Not content with making drudges out of us in the workplace, life under capitalism encourages us all to be the bean counters of our own personal time efficiency and cost effectiveness in our private lives (on the back of the Metro newspaper today, I see an advertisement for a watch which offers to monitor your bodily functions in order to improve ‘fitness and efficiency’).

Art and culture were seen by the romantics who were influenced by Marx as essential supplements to the dull drudgery of labour under capitalism. Even Adam Smith believed that the state should compensate the worker for the decline in quality of life caused by labour specialization by providing extensive leisure and cultural facilities. Here again, however, there was a schism between those (like William Morris) who saw art and culture as a means of inculcating the desire for a revolutionary consciousness and those who simply thought it would be rather nice for people to have a little creative outlet. Instead of personal expression for all, what we have today is the spectacle, in which we are invited to sit and look on in awe at someone else (a distant ‘superstar’) expressing themselves creatively on a screen.

Marx is often regarded by the establishment as naive, (dangerously) wrong and idealistic. In fact, he could be an astute and perspicacious observer of the actual (rather than theoretical workings) of the economy. This is one of the reasons why, after the crash of 2007, marxist economists were able to say ‘I told you so’ while mainstream economists just sat around in a daze and said ‘this isn’t supposed to happen’.

There is every reason to return to Marx’s work critically and not treat it as a series of sacred texts. Michael Storper at the London School of Economics makes two pertinent criticisms of Marx’s legacy. The first is that marxists have developed a theory of capitalism as a closed, rather than an open system, thereby failing to understand, and account for, its surprising adaptability. Secondly, he argues that the theoretical legacy of Marx has for the most part led to too much concern with overarching theoretical generalizations which have rendered it too abstract to be of much use. Storper notes the way that Marxism has given rise to various kinds of postmodern identity politics (of the kind that typically subtend the Biennale) and questions the political value of this development.

The memory of the horrors perpetrated in the name of Marx in Russia and other Eastern bloc countries has blackened the reputation of marxism for many. Yet it is undeniable that laissez faire capitalism has unleashed many destructive and awful forces too. Let’s not forget that Yeltsin’s drive to Thatcherite privatization crashed the economy and brought some of the worst misery to ordinary Russians in living memory. As Jeremy Deller reminded us at the last Venice Biennale in 2013, the untrammeled rule of gangsters and oligarchs (which remains in place today) was bankrolled not by corrupt communism but by the new capitalism. ‘Many of today’s Russian oligarchs’, wrote Justinian Jampol in the Biennale exhibition catalogue, ‘assembled their wealth as a result of gaming the system and leveraging individual shares from factory workers, amassing controlling shares of the formerly state-run conglomerates.’

Whether positively or negatively, Marx deserves to be taken more seriously today, it’s a shame that so many of our current commentariat are so poorly equipped to do so. That’s because the best place to learn about political economy and contemporary culture for many years was at a ‘second rate’ former Poly, not the kind of elite Russell Group university where most of our media commentators were educated. Similarly, it is not the dismal science of economics which will bring that knowledge to life but something closer to the field of contemporary art which is currently buzzing with energy and ideas about the subject.

Nick Haeffner

Nick Haeffner is convenor of Critical and Contextual Studies at the CASS Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design. He also teaches on the MA Curating the Contemporary. He studied Cultural Studies at the University of East London and Critical Theory at the University of Sussex. He used to make psychedelic music but now writes, takes photographs and tries not to get discouraged by the state of the world.

Images Courtesy of Nick Haeffner

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