Della Volpe’s Critique of Taste (1960) represented the first attempt in Italy at what its author describes as ‘a systematic exposition of a historical-materialist aesthetic’.footnote1 Previous Italian Marxist aesthetics had been sketchy and, apart from a very few cases, compromised with the idealist aesthetics of Croce or Gentile, despite intentions and claims to the contrary. Gramsci’s notes on literature, although a more problematical case, also fall into this category. Gramsci posed an entirely fresh set of questions about art, in particular about the distribution and readership of literature and about the function of literary intellectuals in the national culture, but he continually slid back into a Crocean perspective when he dealt with aesthetics as a distinct sphere of inquiry.footnote2 Della Volpe’s early work on aesthetics, predating his active interest in Marxism in the 1940’s, both opposed and was influenced by Croce and Gentile, and Critique of Taste itself shows some traces of Croce’s system in its rejection of differences between literary genres and in its general empirical approach. Yet Della Volpe made a significant break with the dominant tradition of literary criticism in Italy, and to grasp his
Many of the critics prominent on the post-war literary scene had been liberals nurtured in Croce’s aesthetics and, as Luigi Russo remarked in 1942, those others who opposed Croce ‘still have to pass through Croce’s thought, and delaying the experiment is an illusory escapism’.footnote3 If they gravitated to the political left at the end of the war, these critics attempted to shear off the more overtly idealist elements in Croce’s system: the distinction between the history of poetry and history proper, the conception of art as disinterested and opposed to the practical. However, the historicism of the dominant Marxist tradition, Labriola–Croce–Gramsci–Togliatti, in fact facilitated a graft between their old and their new presuppositions. They now conceived of works of literature as historically determined but they also regarded them as expressions of the spirit. They talked of them as expressions, not as texts, because the literary text had been seen by Croce as the shadow of a substance, the material trace left by an ideal intuitive-expressive act. Witness the Socialist critic Giuseppe Petronio outlining a ‘social aesthetics’ able to mediate between the extremes of ‘individualist’ and ‘determinist’ aesthetics. Social aesthetics will seize the dialectical connection between subject and object in its view of ‘a man operating freely yet conditioned by his environment’ and of the work of art as ‘the expression of a society and at the same time of an individual, bound to reality and yet original, unforeseen and unpredictable’.footnote4
These critics tried to construct a bridge across Croce’s distinction between history and the work of art by using the notion of the ‘poetic’. The term in this specific usage referred simply to an artist’s conscious system of ideas.footnote5 In the work of one Communist critic, Carlo Salinari (but his case is exemplary), the poetic was effectively identified with the authorial ideology. The act of criticism became focused on the poetic, showing how it was generated by historical conditions and in turn generated a poem. To criticize a writer’s poetic, it was sufficient to point out its class basis and compare it with a more advanced ideology rooted in the consciousness of the historically privileged class
The keynote of this trend in criticism was precisely its progressivist conception of realism. History was seen as a process whose protagonists gradually acquired a consciousness of their own actions. Each cut made by the critic into history would therefore reveal a slice of its progress. Realism, wrote Salinari, ‘seizes the direction in which things are moving’.footnote7 This view of realism complemented the progressivism of Togliatti’s Marxism: the idea of providential historical development and the view that socialism could grow within capitalism. It was also one of the main obstacles to the influence of Lukács as literary critic in Italy during the 1950’s. Valentino Gerratana for instance, while accepting Lukács’s critique of formalism in art, opposed him for not considering naturalistic tendencies as part of the struggle for a new realism.footnote8 Similarly, the provocative formulas of Gramsci’s notebook entries on literature—the struggle for a new culture and national-popular literature—became adapted to the needs of a pci cultural policy which encouraged the formation of organic writer-intellectuals producing a progressive national literature (neo-realism) with a correct ‘ideological axis’.footnote9
In this critical theory, then, aesthetics and the text were displaced from the centre of the picture and poetic language or poetic style was consequently treated as a kind of embellishment, refractory to the theory’s historical and ideological concerns. Petronio, in two articles published in Societ` in 1958–9, attacked stylistic criticism on the grounds that it paid undue attention to the language of texts at the expense of their historical content.footnote10 He employed Gramsci’s slogan of a
The aesthetic method of Critique of Taste is a variant of the method of logical analysis outlined in Logica come scienza positiva (1950). There Della Volpe claimed to fight a theoretical battle on two fronts. He opposed the idealist science of pure concepts, which negated matter by subsuming it and he opposed the empiricist rejection of epistemology, of a scientific organization and understanding of the real. The method in logic consisted of linking the general concept to the particular datum, reason to matter. It involved the key notion of the determinate abstraction.
In Chiave della dialettica storica (1964) Della Volpe explains how the determinate abstraction works in Marx’s treatment of labour productivity. Unlike the classical political economists, who had seen the productivity of labour as historically invariable, Marx relates the abstraction ‘productive labour’ to determinate modes of production. He thereby shows that the creation of surplus value is specific to the capitalist mode. With reference to this, Della Volpe speaks of the ‘methodological need to ground every theory (in this case, economic theory) in a historical-dialectical analysis ( . . . ) and to articulate it in