The thesis of the end of art has become a familiar slogan: radicals take it as a truism; they reject or ‘suspend’ art as part of bourgeois culture, just as they reject or suspend its literature or philosophy. This verdict extends easily to all theory, all intelligence (no matter how ‘creative’) that does not spark action and practice, that does not noticeably help to change the world, that does not—be it only for a short time—break through the universe of mental and physical pollution in which we live. Music does it, with song and dance: the music which activates the body; the songs which no longer sing but cry and shout. To measure the road travelled in the last thirty years, compare the ‘traditional’, classical tone and text of the songs of the Spanish Civil War with today’s songs of protest and defiance. Or compare the ‘classical’ theatre of Brecht with the Living Theatre of today. We witness not only the political but also, and primarily, the artistic attack on art in all its forms, on art as Form itself. The distance and dissociation of art from reality are denied, refused, and destroyed; if art if still anything at all, it must be real, part and parcel of life—but of a life which is itself the conscious
A double reality has emerged (or re-emerged), that of those who say ‘no’, and that of those who say ‘yes’. Those engaged in whatever artistic effort is still ‘valid’, refuse to say ‘yes’ to both reality and to art. Yet the refusal itself is also reality—very real are the young who have no more patience, who have, with their own bodies and minds, experienced the horrors and the oppressive comforts of the given reality; real are the ghettos and their spokesmen; real are the forces of liberation all over the globe, East and West; First, Second, and Third World’s. But the meaning of this reality to those who experience it can no longer be communicated in the established language and images—in the available forms of expression, no matter how new, how radical they may be.
What is at stake is the vision, the experience of a reality that is so fundamentally different, so antagonistic to the prevailing reality that any communication through the established means seems to reduce this difference, to vitiate this experience. This irreconcilability with the very medium of communication also extends to the forms of art themselves, to Art as Form. footnote1 From the position of today’s rebellion and refusal, Art itself appears as part and force of the tradition which perpetuates that which is, and prevents the realization of that which can and ought to be. Art does so precisely inasmuch as it is Form, because the artistic Form (no matter how anti-art it strives to be) arrests that which is in motion, gives it limit and frame and place in the prevailing universe of experience and aspirations, gives it a value in this universe, makes it an object among others. This means that, in this universe, the work of art, as well as of anti-art, becomes exchange value, commodity: and it is precisely the Commodity Form, as the form of reality, which is the target of today’s rebellion.
True, the commercialization of Art is not new, and not even of very recent date. It is as old as bourgeois society. The process gains momentum with the almost unlimited reproducibility of the work of art, by virtue of which the oeuvre becomes susceptible to imitation and repetition even in its finest and most sublime achievements. In his masterful analysis of this process, Walter Benjamin has shown that there is one thing which militates against all reproduction, namely, the ‘aura’ of the oeuvre, the unique historical situation in which the work of art is created, into which it speaks, and which defines its function and meaning. As soon as the oeuvre leaves its own historical moment, which is unrepeatable and unredeemable, its ‘original’ truth is falsified, or (more cautiously) modified: it acquires a different meaning, responding (affirmatively or negatively) to the different historical situation. Owing
Yet, through all these changes, something remains identically the same: the oeuvre itself, to which all these modifications happen. The most ‘updated’ work of art is still the particular, unique work of art updated. What kind of entity is it which remains the identical ‘substance’ of all its modifications?
It is not the ‘plot’: Sophocles’ tragedy shares the ‘story’ of Oedipus with many other literary expressions; it is not the ‘object’ of a painting, which recurs innumerable times (as general category: portrait of a man sitting, standing; mountainous landscape, etc); it is not the stuff, the raw material of which the work is made. What constitutes the unique and enduring identity of an oeuvre, and what makes a work into a work of art—this entity is the Form. By virtue of the Form, and the Form alone, the content achieves that uniqueness which makes it the content of one particular work of art and of no other. The way in which the story is told; the structure and selectiveness of verse and prose; that which is not said, not represented and yet present; the interrelations of lines and colours and points—these are some aspects of the Form which removes, dissociates, alienates the oeuvre from the given reality and makes it enter into its own reality: the realm of forms.
The realm of forms: it is an historical reality, an irreversible sequence of styles, subjects, techniques, rules—each inseparably related to its society, and repeatable only as imitation. However, in all their almost infinite diversity, they are but variations of the one Form which distinguishes Art from any other product of human activity. Ever since Art left the magical stage, ever since it ceased to be ‘practical’, to be one ‘technique’ among others—that is to say, ever since it became a separate branch of the social division of labour, it assumed a Form of its own, common to all arts.