Marcuse and Art as Subversion

12 June 2017

Herbert Marcuse has a similar perspective on art to the quote I shared in the previous post, except framed in very different, very intense, context. The previous concept was that art was essentially linked to life, understanding of life and involved clarification and interpretation. It reminded me of a chapter in Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man where he writes about art and culture. Nearly every page of the entire book could be mulled over for quite some time, but I will just share this one particular piece.

One-Dimensional Man was written in 1964 and is a critical look at the effects of an industrialized and technological society, and Marcuse in this particular chapter shows the effects in relation to culture, art, and literature. What art once was, it no longer is. It’s previous position had been transformed and consumed by this new way of life. It’s essence was, as Zettl said in the previous post, to clarify and interpret existence, and for Marcuse it was this but even more—a subversion of the dominant society. Zettl pointed to an essential relation art has to life, and Marcuse gives it a more specific definition.

Marcuse speaks of art as being essentially a critical tool of negation, a subversive force that shows the world for what it is. It speaks truth through its content, showing the reality that we live in through vivid and intensified forms. It’s not just art for arts sake, for beauty’s sake, or for whatever might come of it, but it’s art that speaks truth, and evokes new possibilities because it shows what is not, what is lacking, and what could be. To see new possibilities you must be able to label things as they are, to see what can be different. And this is what art, or art, literature, and culture, as he explains, lost with technological advancements. Marcuse’s stance brings a more pertinent depth to the concept of art that I very much appreciate, and it stuck with me.

Prior to the advent of this cultural reconciliation, literature and art were essentially alienation, sustaining and protecting the contradiction—the unhappy consciousness of the divided world, the defeated possibilities, the hopes unfulfilled, and the promises betrayed. They were a rational, cognitive force, revealing a dimension of man and nature which was repressed and repelled in reality. Their truth was in the illusion evoked, in the insistence on creating a world in which the terror of life was called up and suspended—mastered by recognition. This is the miracle of the chef-d'oevre; it is the tragedy, sustained to the last, and the end of tragedy—its impossible solution. To live one’s love and hatred, to live that which one is means defeat, resignation, and death. The crimes of society, the hell that man has made for man become unconquerable cosmic forces. The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oevre as form: beauty as the “promesse de bonheur.” In the form of the oevre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order. Herbert Marcuse / One Dimensional Man

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