The political aesthetics of realism
Daniel Fairfax: Towards a political aesthetics of the cinema / Gene Ray: Dialectical Realism: On Brecht, Adorno and the Problem of Representing Contemporary Capitalism / Kerstin Stakemeier: On Realism in Art
Towards a political aesthetics of the cinemaby Daniel Fairfax
This paper will look at various currents of Marxist film theory in order to suggest a framework within which a new film aesthetics can be constructed in the context of the putative ‘death of cinema’ and the proliferation of electronic media. In particular, the aesthetics of Georg Lukacs will be utilised in conjunction with the writings dominant in the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma in the immediate post-68 environment, as well as more recent trends in French post-Deleuzian film theory, and films such as those by Straub/Huillet, Godard and Kluge. The paper will argue, in line with the Cahiers tradition, for the primacy of formal considerations when evaluating the ‘revolutionary’ content of a film, and will link this to Lukacs’ concept of critical realism in literature, which can perhaps best be seen as being complementary in nature with, rather than adversarial towards, the theory and practice of Brecht.
Dialectical Realism: On Brecht, Adorno and the Problem of Representing Contemporary Capitalismby Gene Ray
One legacy of postmodernist interrogations of representation is the persisting impression that global capitalism exceeds our capacity to grasp and know it. It's just too complex, heterogeneous and dynamic to know and depict, at least in any complete, certain and exhaustive sense. And because we can't know it, this line of argument goes, we can't fight it strategically. We can't attack or destroy it. At most, we can resist it. And thereby, of course, the revolutionary aim of a passage to classless society is surrendered. The postmodernist call for a "plurality of resistances" ended by naturalizing capitalism all over again. Nevertheless, some artists do try to represent contemporary capitalism. From the photographic essays of Allan Sekula and the mapping projects of Bureau d'études and Josh On/Futurefarmers, to the reflective, real-time social ecology of Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, dissenting artists are trying to produce helpful and critical maps, depictions and models. And how should the results be evaluated? In a period in which organized struggles against capitalist power are weak and uncoordinated, when not absent altogether, what remains relevant from the old Marxist debates on art? Reviewing Brecht's attempts to develop a flexible theory of realism together with Adorno's later critiques of Brecht's work, I try to salvage some principles of "dialectical realism" that could still be of use in making and thinking about art today.
On Realism in Artby Kerstin Stakemeier
Still today, artistic Realism evokes associations positioned somewhere between bourgeois self-realization and Stalinist self-renunciation. Not so seldomly it aspires the post of being the most modernist of all modernist artistic positions, being perceived either as plain naturalism or as obeyant affirmism. But neither was Gustave Courbet, who invented the term to position himself against naturalist painters like Millet, perceived as a naturalist in his own times, nor did figures of Socialist Realism like Alexandr Deineka perceive their Realism as a simple figuration of the Stalinist pretension of Socialism in one country.
The often brutally limited misrecognition of Realist approaches in art is, to a large extend, owed, to Realism’s close connection to the political revolutions of the 19th and 20t century. Even though Gustave Courbet is largely art historically recorgnized, this only seldomly relates his artistic praxis to his political one ‘ Courbet was not in favour of the bourgeois revolution of 1848 ‘ which he despised, just like Karl Marx, for its aristocratic longings, but he was a minister in the Socialist Paris Commune of 1871. Even more, the 1948 revolution marked the starting point of Courbet’s Realism, which ended, when he saw reality, becoming ‘real’ ‘ in the Paris Commune. Today Courbet’s Realism is, never the less, art-historically labelled ‘bourgeois realism’, because to mark him as ‘socialist’ would bring him far too close to the second historical appearance of Realism in painting ‘ that of Socialist Realism. The latter had, above anything else, an important if not central role in the re-initiation of the Western Modernist tradition after the Second World War. Speaking more of the Stalinist party line than of the artists actually producing under that paradigm, Soviet Realism was instantly equated with national socialist cultural productions and founded the basis for an ideological construction which dominated the 1940s, 50s and even most of the 60s: abstraction = freedom / figuration = totalitarianism. This prejudice is still reproduced to an incredible extend - which results in that it is not the Cold War ideology about Realism (or the Abstraction which was stamped as its counterpart) which is renounced but its judgements are repeated, only that now the painters of Socialist realism are presented as helpless victims of the Soviet State - the American art historian Christina Kiaer even goes so far to say that Socialist Realism was in fact ‘forced labour’. As those painters were actually victimized under the Stalinist regime to double this victimization in again disposessing them of their production does not exactly help. And their practice is a vivid example of anti-bourgeois art as, as Karl Radek formulated at the infamous Writers Congress in 1934, socialist Realism is not to depict merely objective reality, but to depict reality in its revolutionary development. It was about formulating an explicitely tendencious perspective, which was not much immersed in artistic qualities as such but in their capacitiy to formulate a tendency. So, to criticize modernist historiography would rather mean to re-interpret such movements within artistic production, much more than to simply condemn them as being identical with the modernist predjudice, which wiped them out the first time. In my paper I want to look at historical as well as contemporary formations of Realism in artistic production and ask for what Realism signified in a Socialist context and what could it possibly mean in a Capitalist one.