translated from the Russian and edited by David Riff
The Crisis of Ugliness: From Cubism to Pop Art
Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2019
153 pp, 28$ pb.
Reviewed by: Edward Lee-Six
This article reviews The Crisis of Ugliness, a polemic against modern art by Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983). The Soviet scholar and critic, best known for his collaboration with Georg Lukács, attempted to steer a middle course in Soviet aesthetic theory, between socialist realism and avant-gardism. The present review article sets out – as sympathetically as possible – the arguments of The Crisis of Ugliness, one of Lifshitz’s best known works, before offering some evaluative comments in the conclusion. Given that, by today’s standards Lifshitz says the unsayable (“What? Picasso not a great artist?!” we instinctively respond), it is at least interesting to hear him out and to try to understand the epistemology and conditions of possibility for an anti-modernist discourse.
One of the first cultural achievements of the Soviet Union was the founding in 1920 of the Moscow Vkhutemas: an art school and technical college in whose workshops thousands of students from varied social backgrounds studied the history of Western art alongside subjects such as woodwork and geometry. It was a crucible for the development of the early Soviet Union’s most daring experiments, such as constructivism and suprematism: indeed, Rodchenko and Malevich were members of the Vkhutemas teaching staff. And among the first generation of students at the post-revolutionary Vkhutemas was one Mikhail Aleksandrovich Lifshitz, a young man from a middling town north of the Sea of Azov. More than half a century later, this same Lifshitz was honoured by being elected to the USSR Academy of Arts. In the intervening years, Lifshitz had reacted against the modernist fashions of the Vkhutemas where he received his training; survived the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (he volunteered in the Red Army and fought his way out of an encircled position); escaped the Stalinist purges of the 1930s; and, in turn, also escaped the de-Stalinisation that began in the late 1950s. He had befriended and influenced the writer Andrei Platonov, the philosopher Evald Ilyenkov, and, most famously, Georg Lukács, Lifshitz’s colleague at the Marx-Engels Institute. With such a biographical parcours, Lifshitz can be described as the ultimate Soviet citizen, an embodiment of Soviet cultural and intellectual life. He was a witness to, or participant in, the pivotal moments of the USSR: the ebullience of the post-revolutionary years before Lenin’s death and the NEP; the purges; the Great Patriotic War; Glasnost. Everything but Perestroika. He is the USSR at its most cultured, innovative, and humane; and also at its most dogmatic and sectarian.
If Lifshitz is known today, it is for his critique of modernist art, which he considered to be incurably regressive. This is a position that he shared, mutatis mutandis, with Lukács: the two thinkers influenced one another in the development of an aesthetic theory suspicious of l’art pour l’art and the avant-gardes. Needless to say, the prestige of modernist art (including its precursors such as Flaubert, and its successors such as Beckett) is as robust now as ever. Meanwhile, even on the left, Soviet socialism is largely discredited. Lifshitz – Picasso’s antagonist and Stalin’s defender – could hardly seem less relevant, appealing, or useful to us now. Is there any reason to read Lifshitz, beyond a historical curiosity about the more recondite areas of aesthetic theory? The present article will attempt to present the recently published English translation of Lifshitz’s 1968 The Crisis of Ugliness: From Cubism to Pop Art as clearly and sympathetically as possible. The conclusion will then offer some evaluative thoughts on how Lifshitz’s legacy can be assessed in 2020, suggesting that it has at least the merit of challenging some of today’s received ideas and that there is scope for us to engage with it productively.
The Crisis of Ugliness consists of three principle chapters: ‘Myth and Reality: The Legend of Cubism’; ‘The Phenomenology of the Soup Can: The Quirks of Taste’; and ‘Why Am I Not a Modernist?’. (The original Russian edition also contains an essay by Lidiya Yakovlevna Reyngardt, ‘Modernism After the Second World War’, which is omitted from the new translation; in that original edition, but not in the translation, Reyngardt co-signs the first essay, too.) The chapters are really semi-independent essays which share a cause: the critique of non-realist visual art. Indeed, ‘ugliness’ translates безобразие, bezobrazie. The Russian word, as the translator David Riff explains, ‘has nuances that the English ugliness does not, connoting infantile, even carnivalesque foolishness’ (8). One could even go further: безобразие consists of the prefix без- (bez-), meaning without, and the word образ (obraz), meaning ‘form’, ‘image’, or ‘appearance’. In the context of Lifshitz’s polemic against cubist and abstract art, this morphology is pertinent and functions almost as a pun: abstraction (image-less-ness) is ugliness, the title hints.
Cubism versus philistinism
The first essay begins by arguing that Cubism is a movement with a founding myth. According to Lifshitz’s polemical historicization, Cubism in its infancy faced stiff opposition from a philistine establishment, deeply wedded to a narrow orthodoxy, and set on ignoring or suppressing the subversive new art of the young Cubists. ‘Such a beginning’, writes Lifshitz, ‘predisposes us in Cubism’s favour’ (p. 23). This is partly because of a natural sympathy for the under-dog, bolstered for Lifshitz and many of his readers by a rather more politicised allegiance to oppressed revolutionaries against bourgeois elites. Moreover, it is a narrative which has an in-built, persuasive logic: today’s recognised masters were, only yesterday, shunned subversives. In other words, the cubists could remind their contemporaries that the impressionists, by then revered, were once reviled. Anyone rejecting the cubists, this reminder implied, was as foolish as those who once condemned impressionism, and by extension was failing to recognise tomorrow’s artistic heroes. This founding myth has been widely accepted in mainstream culture from its inception to the present. Thus, for example, the archetypal cubist revolutionary striving against the stubborn and philistine elites is very much the protagonist of Arté’s recent television documentary Picasso, Braque & Cie: La Révolution cubiste (2018).
Lifshitz points out the falseness of the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ logic. ‘The philistines of yesteryear may have shunned Rembrandt and Delacroix, but that hardly means everything they cast aside is as good as the art of those great masters’ (p. 23). The point remains pertinent to our attitudes to modern art, as the rise and recent decline of Émile Nolde’s paintings in Germany illustrates: because Nolde was un-recognised and marginalised by the Nazi régime, he was long mistaken for a model artist of resistance and martyrdom. Angela Merkel hung a Nolde painting in her office: until the artist’s fascist enthusiasms and obsequious courting of the Nazi elite made it clear that Nolde was perhaps not the model martyr the West had taken him to be (see Tooze 2019). Lifshitz’s verdict remains true: ‘Modern mythology in its contemporary phase also involves the personal drama of the artist as he clashes with a crowd of philistines, followers of conservative traditions’ (p. 24).
It is a mythology which continues to be applied to art and culture, well beyond cubism. Sometimes the emphasis falls on martyrdom, as with Nolde; sometimes it falls on the originality of the misunderstood artist, bolstered by the twenty-first century cant of ‘innovation’, one of the magic words of post-industrial capitalism. Emmanuel Macron’s promise at ‘France Digitale Day’ [sic] – ‘la France va prendre le tournant de la 5G parce que c’est le tournant de l’innovation’ [France will take the turn towards 5G, because it is the turn towards innovation] (cit. in Marisall 2020) – and the conventional enthusiasm about Picasso’s iconoclasm are two facets of the same ideology. The conjunction of modern art and techno-utopia is well illustrated by the recent example of David Hockney’s iPhone and iPad art stunts, which prompted a predictably superficial enthusiasm on the part of the bourgeois commentariat (see Grant 2010). For Lifshitz, this myth is a product of capitalist ideology, both in the way it betrays the impoverishment of bourgeois culture, and in the way it makes manifest capitalism’s need for ceaseless advance. Thus, on the one hand, he builds on the criticism of conservative French art historian André Chastel to suggest that ‘the legendary figure of the struggling innovator [is] a psychological compensation for people oppressed by the absence of genuine popular creativity’ (p. 26). On the other hand, he discerns in the excitement about ‘new’ art a form of capitalist radicalism or right-wing progressivism: ‘The abstract opposition between “old” and “new”, all the way to the deceitful demagogic utopia of the “new order”, is a presence in the ideological lexicon of our century’s regimes, be they Bonapartist or far worse’ (p. 29).
Lifshitz follows his sober take on ‘artist hagiography’ (p. 25) with some comments on the conditions under which the art in question is actually produced, pointing out that however subversive and scandalous, Cubism ‘soon came into fashion in high society in the aftermath of the First World War. Today, it is accepted without question’ (p. 28). This is partly due to the sponsors who backed the first cubists, well-connected art dealers (such as Ambroise Vollard for Picasso, for example) or middle-class investors with inherited wealth to spare, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, ‘Cubism’s main Minister of Finance’ (p. 30). These dealers were backed by rich business investors, who speculated on the rising value of art, which could be bought cheap because unrecognised before rising sharply in value with the Copernican turn of the movement’s breakthrough. The dynamic of an ever-advancing frontier of artistic innovation is perfectly suited to the business needs of an investor. ‘People think of this as an art movement, while actually there is movement on the market of painting’ (p. 31). The ‘dominant philistines adopted the spontaneous forces of revolt and even turned them into an area of capital investment, as one can see today’ (p. 39). According to Lifshitz not just the rise, but also the decline of the market for non-figurative art goes a long way to explaining the art itself.
The theory of Cubism
Alongside its genesis myth, Cubism rests on a theory of art. Indeed, Cubism was theorised from the first: Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger published the seminal Du Cubisme in 1912, the same year as André Salmon’s La Jeune Peinture Française; in 1913, Apollinaire published his anthology, Les Peintres Cubistes (p. 33). The creators and the theorists of Cubism were contemporaries, often friends and colleagues. This, for Lifshitz, is part of a wider tendency in modern art towards the cerebral and the coldly theoretical: ‘the art of modernity,’ writes Lifshitz, ‘is gradually overtaken by reflection and abstract thinking, so that the line between art history and artistic practice becomes all too fine. And this really is the case, if we remember the role declarations and manifestos play in so-called modern art’ (p. 37). Not only then, is modern art characterised by a heavy and innate theoretical apparatus, it flirts with theoretical reflexivity in the works themselves.
What, then, is the theory of cubism? Its primary target is the claim made by realist art to represent objective reality and sense perception truthfully. For cubism, a two-dimensional, realist representation of an object is a betrayal of three-dimensionality and of the irreducible idiosyncrasy of individual perception. Against this, the cubists set themselves the task of representing the world in its multi-facetted fullness, without erasing the mediation of each individual’s – and each artist’s – way of seeing. What Lifshitz calls ‘the visual principle’ (p. 54), that is that paintings should look more or less like what they represent, is thus abandoned.
To renege on this principle, Lifshitz argues, is to withdraw into subjectivity, so that the artist’s only possible raw materials are ‘vacuous personal experience and morbidly fantastic concoctions’ (p. 53). Each individual becomes the measure of the outside world – as G.V. Plekhanov had argued before Lifshitz; more on this below – but this new aesthetic is elevated from subjectivism to theory and false objectivity, and combined with geometric rules and systems. The resultant cocktail is contradictory: on the one hand, ‘the hyperbolic activity of a strong will’, on the other hand, the subordination of ‘everything alive to the cold geometry of abstract form’. It is this contradiction that Lifshitz compares to the ideology of fascism throughout the book. For him, individualist revolt and conservative reaction are dialectically related:
the dominance of pure individualism […] easily turns into its own opposite. Moribund subjectivity’s complete self-denial favours the flattest system of patriarchal, antiquated ideas of heavy-handed discipline and everything the Germans call Zucht. The veneration of blood and soil, blind obedience and petit-bourgeois routine now gain the appearance of intellectual depth and become the last refuge of decadents in disguise. (p. 54)
It is not that Lifshitz is unaware of Picasso’s left-wing political sympathies or that he is a defender of high classicism. Rather, he sees modern art’s tendency towards abstraction and fascist reaction as two facets of the same decadence.
The decay of modernism: Pop Art
Lifshitz’s second chapter about Pop Art is the continuation of his chapter on Cubism, but it is a dialectical continuation. In other words, while Pop Art follows Cubism on the descending staircase of modernist art, taking its principles to a new extreme (‘the morbid desire to go beyond the boundaries of art’, p. 107) it is also the reversal or the contradiction of Cubism. Cubism refused the mimetic or ‘visual’ principle that art should resemble material reality. Having first represented reality in a distorted form, gradually reality became less and less recognisable: one sees, for instance, but the shadow of a woman in Picasso’s Standing Female Nude (1910). In this sense, Cubism cleared the way for abstraction. Pop Art, by contrast, is the tautology of realistic reality: ‘real objects now took the place of depicted ones’ (p. 110); a soup can becomes a work of art. Before the term ‘Pop Art’ was coined, Richard Huelsenbeck called it ‘factualism’ (cit. p. 111). From this perspective, Cubism is a step towards abstraction, and Pop Art a reaction against abstraction, preferring unmediated reality. Equally, however, as art becomes more abstract, so the materiality of the paint comes to the fore: daubs of paint do not represent; they are simply... paint. Pop is thus the continuation as well as the negation of abstraction. Lifshitz argues:
The most recent abstract painting yearns so for a confluence with crude matter and the spontaneous forces of nature that create optical effects without human help; it has come so far beyond the limits of figuration to the purely objective world that pioneers of the ‘new reality’ like Warhol have nothing left but to step across an almost non-existent boundary. (p. 130)
The evolution from Cubism to Pop Art via abstraction thus follows an aesthetic and ideological logic. It cannot, however, be explained without the catalyst of economic factors. Lifshitz links the soaring fortunes of Pop Art to a crash in the market for abstract art in 1962. Abstract art, which had once seemed like a well-oiled business enterprise and clever capital investment, had its confidence shaken. By 1963, the prices of abstract art in France had fallen 40% (p. 110). In the same breath, its aesthetic and cultural prestige came into question: one journalist opined that ‘abstract form is no longer innovative in art’, and that ‘non-objective’ painting was in decline. For Lifshitz, this is ‘a very striking example of capital’s dominance over all areas of human activity’ (p. 114-15). Inevitably, the cultural and the economic eventually are aligned: Paris, though no longer an economically dominant world centre, had remained a global cultural capital. With the triumph of Pop Art, we see New York claiming a cultural pre-eminence to match its economic hegemony. A certain amount of political hustling plays mid-wife to this economic ‘law’: Rauschenberg’s first prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale cannot be explained, Lifshitz points out, without the militant and chauvinistic support of the US Embassy. Writing at the end of the 60s, Lifshitz reflects:
The roles were reversed. By now, there is something academic about even the most aggressive forms of abstraction, such as ‘gestural painting’ or ‘action painting’, that is, the formless drips, lines, and mysterious dots of Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, or Georges Mathieu, while the leaders of abstract painting consider themselves to be the last classics. Their piteous laments remind the world of the death of art under the pressure of Pop from America. (p. 109)
The stage is set for Pop Art’s huge commercial success (it is typical that a New York businessman now chose James Rosenquist’s F-111 1965 Pop Art colossus as the investment of choice) and international prestige (in the teeth of fierce criticism from Paris and the defenders of abstraction and modernism). But what were the conditions in America which determined Pop Art’s emergence and success?
Three inter-related factors come to the fore. The first is the increase in the place of retail in the American economy. Lifshitz points out: ‘In the USA, employment in the retail sector grew 30 times faster than in production between 1952 and 1962’ (p. 117). Retail is selling to many individual customers, customers who are ‘end-users’: it is directly dependent on the supply chain and on demand. An economy which is driven to a significant extent by retail is, therefore, one in which the creation of demand is of primary importance. Capitalist commodity production does not (contrary to its own myth) inflect supply to meet demand: it creates demand for goods which powerful producers want to market. The weapon for the creation of demand is advertising: this is the second factor Lifshitz identifies as at the root of Pop Art.
Modern advertising – as it came to exist in the second half of the twentieth-century, mobilising the gamut of psychoanalytic manipulation and multi-million dollar campaigns, under the guiding influence of the Freudian pioneer of ‘public relations’, Edward Bernaeys (see Adam Curtis’s 2002 documentary, The Century of the Self) – holds the key to Pop Art. The products advertised are not exclusively luxury commodities, but also simple goods of everyday life: a soup can, for example. Extravagant publicity can be devoted to marketing the most humble objects. Lifshitz remarks:
The Emperors knew that “bread and circuses” are what the throng really needs. In contemporary imperialist states dominated by production for the sake of profit, there is no difference between these two elements. (p. 118)
With product placement and TV advertising, consumption blends into entertainment: panem is circenses. It is at this intersection of inflated consumerism and debased culture that a movement in which a soup can is a work of art can be born.
Simultaneously, consumption becomes ever more abstract and arbitrary. How can one choose between one brand of canned soup and another? Advertising’s role is to force a decision in this competitive and arbitrary panorama: the attack on objectivity is the third force that emerges from Lifshitz’s analysis.
The goal is to make the consumer believe in the miraculous qualities of one of the 279 brands of washing powder on sale. Of course, the consumer isn’t so stupid as to believe this good news with utter naïveté, but then again, he doesn’t have to. Influenced by all the collateral conditions grinding up any remaining belief in objective truth, denizens of “era of consumption” have already reached of level of doublethink where the existence of anything good is taken as a matter of pure convention. (p. 117)
Pop Art rushes into the breach opened by this attack on objectivity, on the notion that the objects of our sensory perception can be meaningfully ranked and differentiated. Lifshitz quotes Roy Lichtenstein: ‘Why do you think a hill or a tree is more beautiful than a gas pump?’ Capitalism’s indifference to the ‘real content’ (p. 115) or use value of the commodity, replaced by the rat race of marketing, makes possible an art form whose preferred subjects and material are the chaff of Western consumerism. How then do we know when Pop Art is art, and not merely the worthless materials of everyday banality? Convention, Lifshitz answers, is the deciding factor. Advertising hinges on the imposition of normativity: for Pop Art, too, it is an agreement amongst the cognoscenti that is required for the doors of an art gallery to open to a ‘readymade’. Thus, behind Pop Art’s populist accessibility lurks a dependency on elitist convention:
If you consider a soup can or a water faucet an artwork because the artist set these objects apart from their ‘usual context’, thus endowing them with new meaning, it should be completely clear that the proportion of convention in such works is far greater than in any other object ever known as painting or sculpture. After all, the crux of the matter is the act of separation, which must be recognised by the initiated. Neither the soup can’s substance nor its outer appearance have changed in the least. (p. 120)
The ‘mix of financial speculation, advertising, and coercion characteristic of everyday life in the epoch of imperialism’ (p. 121) converge in an attack on thought which leaves the consumer (of art or of commodities) dazed. The barrage of advertising and the commodity glut produce an experience of numbed exhaustion in the Western consumer. This final condition completes the appeal of Pop Art: for Lifshitz, the very inanimate muteness of the objects which constitute pop art is desirable. There is a perceived – but false – excess of consciousness, so that we see in a dumb box of Brillo pads a longed-for quietus. Lifshitz reminds us of Andy Warhol’s rhetorical question: ‘I’d like to be a soup-can, wouldn’t you?’ (p. 122). If Pop Art finds most dumb objects appealing because of their very muteness, then this is to be understood as a capitulation and retreat in the face of a reality which is intolerable:
If you cannot reach the desired degree of freedom, you have to kill the need for consciousness and debase the mirror reflecting such an abominable world, putting an end to any difference between consciousness and its object. Hence, the strange idea of replacing objects pictured on canvas with real objects and the most senseless ones at that. Figuration is cancelled as unneeded and secondary. (p. 126)
Ultimately, Lifshitz sees Pop Art (and Cubism before it) as a form of art which – though extensively theorised – is against thought. It registers that thought has become unbearable for those living under twentieth-century capitalism: reflexivity is crippling, as it is for Meyrink’s centipede who can no longer walk once it stops to think about what its 35th leg is doing (p. 123). An ‘overdeveloped intellect’ is blamed for the loss of touch with any vital principle and we reach towards the ‘utopia of a happy new barbarism’ in which ‘reactionary mythmaking’ is mobilised to stir up hatred against the intelligentsia (p. 123). It is this reaction against thought which ultimately convinces Lifshitz of the terrifying kinship between the evolution of twentieth century art away from figuration and a reactionary politics which ranges from fascism to the liberalism of the propertied classes.
Modernism and Fascism
The third chapter, ‘Why am I not a Modernist?’ (a play on Bertrand Russel’s 1927 essay ‘Why I am not a Christian’) clarifies and emphasises the link that Lifshitz posits between modernism and fascism. Lifshitz stresses that he does not think that Picasso was a fascist: ‘Of course not’ (p. 135). Equally, he recognises that there is no direct connection between modernist art and fascist violence: ‘Of course there isn’t’ (p. 137). But he is nevertheless determined to oppose modernism en bloc.
What do modernism and fascism have in common, then? Lifshitz underlines the following points: a cult of vitality; a disgusted rejection of modern civilization; distrust of the masses and their cultural aspirations; paired with a faith in the superman (an aesthetic leader for the modernists; a political leader for the fascists) (p. 136-37). The fundamental premise is the renunciation of reality in favour of enthusiastic fervour. The congregations who worship at the shrine of modernism may be intellectuals and artists, rather than peasant masses, the cult of modern art is no less an ersatz religion, with all its attendant irrationality: as Lifshitz writes in a letter, ‘Modernism is a religion for the unbelieving (and sometimes believing) intellectuals of the twentieth century’ (to V. Dostal, Lifshitz 2011, p. 40, cit. and trans. in Pavlov 2012, p. 191). Lifshitz describes a statement by Picasso (an apology for myth-making and enthusiasm, irrespective of truth), as:
the renunciation of realistic pictures, which Picasso sees as an empty illusion, that is, deception, and the affirmation of wilful fiction, designed to spark enthusiasm, that is, the conscious deception of mythmaking (p. 142).
Even Lifshitz’s detractors will have to recognise the presence of these elements in modern art, including the art of the committed leftists such as Picasso. Furthermore, Lifshitz reminds us that, despite the artists who inhabited the contradiction of a left-wing political commitment, combined with a modernist aesthetic commitment, many – if not most – modernists were sympathetic to or actively involved in the most reactionary political movements: Lifshitz cites Marinetti as an example, but the list could be extended to Dalí, Pound, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and so on.
And what about the artwork itself? Is there such a difference between the experiments of the modernists, surrealists, and the avant-garde, and the academic classicism which found favour under the Third Reich? Lifshitz points out that ‘there was plenty of ordinary modernist posturing in the Third Reich’s official art’ (p.140). Meanwhile, we find a petit-bourgeois amateurism in Le Douanier Rousseau, and an academic fastidiousness in Surrealism’s hyper-real rendering of detail (p. 140). Here, Lifshitz is clearly mindful also of соцреализм, ‘sotzrealizm’, the social realism, which came to dominate official Soviet art from the late thirties to the post-Stalin period: he imagines the archetypal modernist as the ‘right-hand-man of Yezhov or Beria’ (successive directors of the NKVD under Stalin) (p. 140). In both ideology and in execution, the leaden régime realism of the Third Reich (or of the darkest years of Stalinism) and the fantastical inventions of the modernists are interdependent phenomena. The most pathetic of these reactionary artist figures is, of course, Hitler himself, the ultimate failed painter (p. 139).
Conclusion: Lifshitz then and now
What is the current state of scholarship and publishing on Mikhail Lifshitz in general? He made his first major contributions as an editor, meticulously organising a ground-breaking collection of extracts of Marx’s and Engels’s writing on art (in two volumes, Moscow, 1933), followed by Lenin’s writing on culture and the arts (Moscow, 1938). Although these books are out of print, they can be found without too much difficulty as PDFs, in libraries, or bought second-hand online. In the eighties, Lifshitz’s collected works were published in Moscow in three volumes. In the last decade, the study of Lifshitz’s thought has been given a major boost by the publication of his correspondence with Lukács (Moscow, 2011). If Lifshitz is known for anything it is for being Lukács’s colleague and primary interlocutor at the Marx-Engels Institute during the Hungarian’s Moscow years (1930-45) and they remained friends and correspondents until Lukács’s death in the seventies. This publication confirms that the two thinkers influenced one another reciprocally: it would be wrong to think of Lifshitz as Lukács’s disciple. The volume of correspondence with Lukács is accompanied by another volume of letters from Lifshitz to his colleagues, Arslanov and Mikhailov, and to his Czech translator, Dostal (Moscow, 2011).
The situation in English, unfortunately, is less promising. There is an English version of Lifshitz’s early anthology of Marx and Engels on art, under the title The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx. This was published in the same year as the original (but there is a more recent edition from Pluto Press, London, 1973). Between 1938 and David Riff’s translation last year, no complete work by Mikhail Lifshitz appeared in English translation to my knowledge. One can only hope that the translation of The Crisis of Ugliness is symptomatic of a rekindling. In this connection, two recent academic articles are noteworthy: Evgeni V. Pavlov’s 2012 review of Lifshitz’s correspondence and Pavel Khazanov’s 2018 article on Lifshitz and Andrei Platonov. Both constitute valuable guidance to those interested in Lifshitz and the present article is much indebted to them.
How could Lifshitz’s critique of modernism be evaluated today? Three main counters seem available. First, much of what Lifshitz has to say is not a critique of modernism, but of its reception. This is a potent demystifier when opposed to the pieties of liberal cultural waffle. But it is soon disarmed when faced with a materialist appreciation of modernism (say, the essays of Sergei Eisenstein), or simply with the classics of modernist aesthetic theory (for example, the young Beckett’s essay on James Joyce, or Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading). We may need Lifshitz against the inanities of how modernism has been commercialised in the West, but there is more to modernism than that.
Lifshitz has a case against, not just modernism’s reception, but against modernism per se. This is the second issue. What is the substance of Lifshitz’s prosecution? Essentially, that modernism abandons the visual principle and so abandons reality. But this ‘and so’ is open to the charge of non sequitur. Surely, we might counter, the idea that paintings should look like what they represent is an impoverished and reductive notion of how a painting might relate to reality. Is any non-realist painting therefore inwardly turned and invested in the artist’s own morbid fantasies? A reader of Lifshitz could be forgiven for thinking so… But a work of art could be invested in reality in other ways than literal resemblance – at the level of affect, feeling, tone, intention. And how does Lifshitz’s denunciation of modernism-as-abstraction square with modes of creativity which are necessarily non-representative: music, for example? Are Stravinsky or Weinberg any further from reality than Bach? Clearly, there is a strong case to be made against art that has abandoned the terrain of reality and social life in order to plunge into an onanistic ego-centrism. But the synonymity of abstraction and ego-centrism is naïve and clumsy.
Furthermore, reading Lifshitz after Adorno and Jameson it is possible to turn his argument on its head. The modernist artist is too shocked by the barbarity of the contemporary world to be able to represent it as a coherent totality and retreats into a fragmented and disturbed inner life? Good! The worse the better, for it is precisely through such attitudes that we can grasp the experience of alienation and reification, of a monadic and isolated social life, of an exhausted popular creativity. In other words, it is precisely through everything that Lifshitz attacks in modernist art that we can grasp – and therefore oppose – what it means to live under twentieth- and twenty-first century Western capitalism. Lifshitz seems aware of this in his critique of Plekhanov, but he stops short of applying it to his own argument.
Third, and finally, the terms and stakes Lifshitz’s polemic have dated. Whatever we make of his conviction that modernist art is of a kidney with fascism, this claim has a different force and urgency made from the 1930s to the 1960s by a veteran of the Great Patriotic War than it does today. Despite the recent and irresponsible resurgence on the left of the term ‘fascism’ to denounce right-wing populism, fascism is no longer a relevant force in politics or culture. Meanwhile, Lifshitz wrote in a conjuncture which was – at least at the level of the USSR – in some senses revolutionary. That is, he – along with Lukács – was writing in the context of the forging of a revolutionary culture that would be worthy of the новый советский человек (novy sovetsky chelovek), the New Soviet Human. That time has passed, and the idea of attacking the great achievements of modernism in order to found a New Human on a higher plan of consciousness seems silly or utopian.
Bearing all that in mind, what sobre points can be made to give weight and relevance to Lifshitz’s thought? Certainly, Lifshitz’s contributions to aesthetic theory in the Soviet Union were significant. The mere fact of publishing The Crisis of Ugliness, complete with its illustrations, popularised previously unknown modern art behind the iron curtain. In general, he can be thought of as one of the passeurs of Western culture to the other side of the iron curtain. Simultaneously, much of his work, including The Crisis of Ugliness, is a subtle but recognisable critique of Stalinism. More specifically, his ideas engage dynamically and thoughtfully with the early Russian Marxist, G.V. Plekhanov. Plekhanov, the ‘father of Russian Marxism’, as he is sometimes called, had already attacked cubism from a Marxist perspective as ‘ugliness cubed’. It would be a mistake to dismiss Plekhanov’s critique high-handedly, but there is no denying that it is, in some respects, crude. Lifshitz’s pages on Plekhanov (pp. 48-70) move his predecessor’s ideas up to the next level of the spiral. What Plekhanov failed to understand, Lifshitz shows, is the dialectical relation between inwardly turned subjectivism and a false objectivity which together form the contradiction of modernism’s ‘ideological chiaroscuro’ (pp. 55-56). Put differently, Plekhanov did not register the utopian element in Cubism, the desire to flee from this world and to create a new one, with its own rules, its own geometry, in art. This utopian flight, Lifshitz shows, is in turn the product of a modern bourgeois consciousness, ‘in constant conflict with itself’ (pp. 60).
As well as trying to renew early Soviet theory, Lifshitz navigated a delicate course through the troubled waters of Stalinism and spent his life struggling to balance criticism of and contribution to the USSR. In the Soviet Union, cultural production was subject to the same rules as industrial production: it was to follow a five-year plan and contribute to the creation of national wealth and the defence of socialism against Western aggression. Lifshitz was closely involved with this project of cultural production and was not afraid to get his hands dirty opposing a work which didn’t follow ‘the line’. Equally, however, he was tenaciously and courageously critical of bureaucratisation and the Stalinist version of state socialism, without lapsing into pro-Western dissidence. In aesthetic matters, he steered between the formalist experiments of early Soviet culture, on the one hand (Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, and so on), and Stalinist social-realism, on the other. Instead, Lifshitz – with Lukács – advocated a reappropriation of bourgeois high realism for socialist ends. There can be no doubt that, with hindsight, this third way seems richer and wiser than Mayakovsky’s showing-off or Zhdanov’s party art.
Meanwhile, in the West (and not just in the mainstream media), the norm is a contempt for and ignorance of Soviet culture and intellectual life. The usual narrative is one of the misunderstood artist (Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn often in the starring roles), oppressed by the leaden machinery of state dogma. ‘But the Bolsheviks had little interest in either the avant-garde or art free from state control’, sighs one article (Pinkham 2017), while another sneers at ‘the absurd and horrifying improbability of Bolshevik culture’ (Clark 2017). That the Bolshevik revolution was a huge and unique unfurling of popular creativity is a truth with which we have lost touch. There is all too little sense either of the lively and complex intellectual and cultural debates – undoubtedly richer between 1917 and 1991 than at any other point in Russian history – or of the fact that some Soviet ideas about art, including a suspicious attitude towards the avant-gardes, were not irrational and philistine dogmatism, but in many respects open-minded, creative, and progressive.
Second, we in the West have good reason to be dissatisfied with our current conceptual arsenal for understanding art in ideological and political terms. For a long time, bourgeois criticism had given up doing so at all: l’art pour l’art was the alpha and omega of literary criticism and art history, producing a narrative internal to the medium itself, as one formal innovation leads to the next in a predictable sequence of ‘ground-breaking’ artistic ‘revolutions’, autonomous from material conditions and social life, but for a few notable ‘events’, such as the First World War. This tradition of idealist and superficially contextualist criticism has more recently found a moralising edge: works of art, and especially artists, are judged on the ethical correctness of their opinions and whether a pantheon of cardboard cut-out identities have been duly represented. Meanwhile, a work of art can tick all the boxes of this moral inquisition and still contrive to be offensively reactionary, as the recent example of the stridently ‘woke’ yet flagrantly racist novel, American Dirt, amply illustrates. The propertied classes rush to prop up this moralising, subjectivist, and emotive idealism – from which any mention of the working class, exploitation, or capitalism has been expunged – hoping to gain from this pious posturing some veneer of moral legitimacy. It is difficult to imagine a paradigm in which works of art are more clumsily or counter-productively ‘politicised’. In such a conjuncture, Lifshitz’s project of a materialist aesthetic critique may not be as out-dated as all that.
Belbachir Sabrina and Raphaël Godechot 2018. ‘Sous Prétexte d’Innovation’, Monde Diplomatique, October, 18-19
Clark, T.J. 2017. ‘Reinstall the footlights’, London Review of Books, 39.22 (16 November)
Cummins, Jeanine 2020. American Dirt (New York: Flatiron)
Curtis, Adam, dir. 2002. The Century of the Self (BBC Four) [television documentary]
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Lifshitz, Mikhail 1957. К. Маркс и Ф. Энгельс об Искусстве [K. Marks i F. Engel’s ob Iskusstve, K. Marx and F. Engels on Art], two volumes (Moscow: Государственное Издательство Искусство [Gosudarstvennoye Izdatel’stvo Iskusstvo, State Art Publishing House])
– 1938. Ленин о культуре и искусстве [Lenin o kul’turye i iskusstvye, Lenin on Culture and the Arts] (Moscow: Государственное Издательство Изобразительных Искусств [Gosudarstvennoye Izdatel’stvo Izobrazitel’nykh Iskusstv, State Publishing House of Fine Arts])
– 2011. Письма В. Досталу, В. Арсланову, М. Микайлову [Pis’ma V. Dostalu, V. Arslanovu, M. Mikhaïlovu, Lettеrs to V. Dostal, V. Arslanov, M. Mikhailov] (Moscow: Grundrisse)
– and Georg Lukács 2011. Переписка [Perepiska, Correspondence] (Moscow: Grundrisse)
– 1973. The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx, trans. Ralph B. Winn (London: Pluto)
Marissal, Pierric 2020. ‘“Macron peut dire ce qu’il veut, il est le fossoyeur d’Alcatel”‘, L’Humanité, 16 September
Pavlov, Evgeni V. 2012. ‘Review Article: Perepiska [Letters], Mikhail Lifschitz and Gy.rgy Luk.cs, Moscow: Grundrisse, 2011; Pisma V. Dostalu, V. Arslanovu, M. Mikhailovu [Letters to V. Dostal, V. Arslanov, M. Mikhailov], Mikhail Lifschitz, Moscow: Grundrisse, 2011’, Historical Materialism, 20.4, 187-98
Pinkham, Sophie 2017. ‘When were you thinking of shooting yourself?’, London Review of Books, 39.4 (16 February)
Plekhanov, G.V., 1953, Art and Social Life, trans. Arthur Rothstein (London: Lawrence and Wishart)
Ramade, Frédéric dir. 2018, Picasso, Braque & Cie: La Révolution cubiste, ARTÉ [television documentary]
Tooze, Adam 2019. ‘To the Bitter End’, London Review of Books, 41.23 (5 December)
This article is indebted to Pavel G. Abushkin, who offered helpful guidance on Lifshitz’s place in Soviet culture. All errors, however, are mine.
Edward Lee-Six is Lecteur d’anglais at the École normale supérieure, Paris.