Marxist aesthetics has long since rejected the reductionism of those who sought to ‘explain’ art simply by reference to its supposed determination in the interests or ideology of particular social classes. The shift away from economism, from the unsatisfactory and intolerant division between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, has engendered a radical reconsideration of the text, or cultural artefact, itself. This text, according to many varieties of contemporary Marxist criticism, must be recognized as a signifying system with its own powers of production: the production of meaning. An empiricist sociology of art has been eclipsed, and the methods of textual criticism found amenable to a Marxist purpose. Yet for some this has merely been to impale materialist aesthetics firmly on the other horn of the old dilemma, and one not necessarily providing a better vantage point from which to view the world of art. A sociological approach was at least more promising than a reading of Marx that tends to overlook the contents of his arguments and focusses instead on his use of metaphor and metonymy in writing them down.

Terry Lovell’s Pictures of Reality and Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art steer somewhat different paths through this set of problems but, taken together, represent a decisive advance in the project of mapping out a more satisfactory materialist basis for the study of culture.footnote1 One reason for this is that we are enabled to see the ways in which a particular historical conception of art has mythologized its non-social character and exacerbated the very split underlying the analytical dilemma. Janet Wolff, whose theoretical innovativeness is somewhat belied by a measured tone of argument, locates the ideological separation of ‘art’ from ‘work’ in the post-Renaissance cult of individual genius and the emergence of the dealer-critic system from earlier forms of patronage. Wolff elaborates a well-substantiated challenge to the supposed distinction between art and work, and provides a systematic demystification of the creative process: ‘. . . artistic activity as a uniquely different kind of work, with a unique, indeed transcendent, product is a mistaken notion based on certain historical developments, and wrongly generalized and taken to be essential to the nature of art.’footnote2

Wolff and Lovell both argue for an approach to aesthetics that can attach weight to cultural consumption, or reception, as well as cultural production. There has often been a tendency to concentrate either on production (where the text is seen as the outcome of its social determinants at the moment of creation), or on consumption (where the status of the text is arbitrary and the emphasis lies on the multiplicity of meanings constructed upon it at different moments of reception). Terry Lovell argues in this context that the degree of penetration of capital into cultural production makes it appropriate to consider cultural production and consumption in terms of the categories used in Marxism to analyse capitalist commodity production in general. She suggests that cultural artefacts differ from other commodities in that they are not inevitably ‘used up’ in the process of consumption and that in order to deal with them we need to develop the category of non-material needs (‘wants of the fancy’ rather than of the stomach). The difficulty of identifying cultural production with its commodity forms in capitalism should not lead us to abandon analysis of the use-value of cultural artefacts but should lead us to a more adequate account of the social construction of non-material needs and the ways in which they may be satisfied. This in turn could lead to a more satisfactory account of aesthetic pleasure than that offered by psychoanalytic attempts to explore this question: ‘Cultural products are articulated structures of feeling and sensibility which derive from collective, shared experience as well as from individual desires and pleasures. The pleasure of the text stems at least in part from collective utopias, social wish fulfilment and social aspirations, and these are not simply the sublimated expression of more basic sexual desires.’footnote3

Janet Wolff approaches the question of consumption in a rather different way, through an insistence on the importance of reception as constitutive of the meaning of cultural products. Reviewing the literature on interpretation, hermeneutics and reception aesthetics she argues against the search for a ‘correct reading’ of texts (leave alone the author’s intended meaning), and suggests that we need to develop an understanding of the parameters within which meaning is constructed in the processes of reception. Such a theory of reading need not be unduly relativistic or voluntaristic, as will occur when questions of cultural production are altogether excluded, but would enable us to locate and explain the meaning of the text in a given social context. ‘The reader is guided by the structure of the text, which means the range of possible readings is not infinite. More importantly, the way in which the reader engages with the text and constructs meaning is a function of his or her place in ideology and in society. In other words, the role of the reader is creative, but at the same time situated.’footnote4

Although Wolff and Lovell differ in the ways in which the relationship between artistic production and consumption is construed, they share a commitment to exploration and explanation of this relationship as a key factor in the development of a theoretical perspective for cultural studies. In this respect it is no accident that these two authors are sociologists rather than renegade critics trained in film theory or fine art. Janet Wolff sees her project lying within the sociology of art, for which she finds Marxist sociology the most useful. Terry Lovell introduces her book by mourning a failure to deliver a Marxist sociology of art, which she attributes not only to the baneful influence of Althusserianism (a point I shall return to) but to a general tendency to separate mass culture (often crudely seen as a tool of bourgeois ideology) from ‘great’ or ‘authentic’ art which may be appropriated by the political avant-garde.

Both of these authors take up, and offer a re-casting of, a problem that has bedevilled Marxist aesthetics. It is an issue which, perhaps more than any other, has demonstrated the weakness of the ‘reflection’ approach and pointed in the direction of a more serious consideration of cultural artefacts as systems of signification with internal powers for the construction of meaning. It concerns political intervention and ideological struggle in the arena of culture. Those who have argued a social determinist interpretation of art have tended to opt for formulas which, in the reductiveness employed to explain artistic production, have excluded the possibility of revolutionary intervention, except by recourse to idealist notions of ‘great’ artists who are able to transcend the limitation of their historical situation. This tendency may appear as rampant individualism, in claims resting on the transcending powers of individual artists, or (and more influential in the history of Marxist aesthetics) in the idea that the possibilities for genuinely politically authentic art lie solely within objectively given historically progressive classes. The legacy of Luk£s has endowed us with two problematic questions here: (a) Does this approach offer any satisfactory account of individual creativity? The problem is encapsulated in Sartre’s remark, quoted again by Wolff: ‘Valéry is a petit bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it. But not every petit bourgeois intellectual is Valéry.’footnote5 (b) Where does a reductive explanation of artistic production leave us with regard to cultural politics? Does ‘progressiveness’ in art rest on the class interests of artists and are particular modes of artistic expression intrinsically more ‘progressive’ than others?

The debates between Luk£s and Brechtfootnote6 provide a salutary warning of the problems caused by extending a reductionist approach to cultural production to a theory of political intervention in art. Luk£s’s defence of aesthetic realism has justifiably been seen as the inevitable consequence of his view that cultural production should be analysed as the expression in ideology of historical class interests. Reflection theory, in its more sophisticated, as well as more vulgar, forms, has offered little in the way of an adequate theoretico-political basis for cultural struggle, and its failure to provide real purchase in this respect underlies much of the desire to topple this perspective from its earlier hegemonic status in Marxist aesthetics.