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Poetic Thinking 2016 | April 19, 2019

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Marx on Art in Different Epochs

Andrew McLeod

Marx has come up a few times in passing during this seminar, but I was led to recall a specific passage from the Grundrisse during our last class, in which we found ourselves discussing works of literature spanning two millennia. In this passage, Marx discusses the seeming impossibility of writing epic poetry today that could have the same impact that Homer had in his time. If this is true (as it seems to be to me), it must hold further implications for how we approach these non-contemporaneous texts (descriptively, not prescriptively). Do we hold these authors to a different (neither better nor worse) standard? Or do they actually hold some artistic power that has the same potential to enchant us today as it did their contemporaries? Or perhaps the more productive question might be: in what ways do we hold these old works to the same standards as more recent ones? Phrased in this way, it seems relevant to observe that the potential for Poetic Thinking is projected (or encountered, etc.) by the artist or reader/observer at the time of their communion with the artwork in question. Thus, it seems to be a criteria that we find artwork from all cultural epochs capable of satisfying, thereby furnishing us with one way of understanding why these artworks remain potent today.

And here’s the full passage from Marx:

In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure as it were, of its organization. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare. It is even recognized that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of the arts, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society. The difficulty consists only in the general formulation of these contradictions. As soon as they have been specified, they are already clarified.

Let us take e.g. the relation of Greek art and then of Shakespeare to the present time. It is well known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art but also its foundation. Is the view of nature and of social relations on which the Greek imagination and hence Greek [mythology] is based possible with self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Crédit Mobilier? All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery over them. What becomes of Fama alongside Printing House Square? Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, i.e. nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination. This is its material. Not any mythology whatever, i.e. not an arbitrarily chosen unconsciously artistic reworking of nature (here meaning everything objective, hence including society). Egyptian mythology could never have been the foundation or the womb of Greek art. But, in any case, a mythology. Hence, in no way a social development which excludes all mythological, all mythologizing relations to nature; which therefore demands of the artist an imagination not dependent on mythology.

From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?

But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return.


  1. Pensiero Liquido

    “certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development.”

    This reminds me of Lukacs text on the origin of the novel.
    I really appreciated that piece and it resonate with your quotation of Marx.
    Moreover, under the lines of that piece emerges the questions of the different standards, of understanding the product of a world that is not our world.

    I think it is very difficult to point exactly at how we relate to art forms from different epochs and different spaces.
    Are you suggesting that “poetic thinking” could be the key?
    That it could constitute a human-invariant (rather than, culture-invariant) way to relate creatively to ourselves and the world around us?
    In a way, the possibility of discussing Ovid, Rilke, Barthes and Phillips all together suggests something on these lines…

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