The topic of art and revolution deserves a much better book than John Molyneux’s The Dialectics of Art. This critical review explains why.

John Molyneux: The Dialectics of ArtEvery so often a writer influenced by Marx publishes a work of great importance, not only to the left but to all; a work that inspires others to follow them and explore the new territory they have opened up; a work that is so original and persuasive that even non-Marxists recognise its value. In the field of the arts, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) spring to mind.
Unfortunately, Marx has inspired far more works that are full of pomposity, self-promotion and naked idiocy. Such works leave you wincing at the thought that they will fall into the hands of people seriously committed to their subject matter, because of the damage they will do to the credibility of Marx’s ideas. It is in this pile of regrettable books that John Molyneux’s The Dialectics of Art belongs.

John Molyneux is a political activist whose knowledge of Marxist dialectics derives from decades of service as a mid-tier apparatchik in the British SWP (Socialist Workers Party). That party has a longstanding weakness when it comes to dialectics, the understanding of which they borrow from the highbrow-Leninism of György Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness (Lukács being “one of the greatest Marxist revolutionaries”, according to Molyneux, without any supporting evidence whatsoever). As is clear from the equally forgettable SWP primer in dialectics, The Algebra of Revolution, by John Rees (1998), their idea of dialectics is one in which it applies properly only to the working class as it leaps forward to revolutionary consciousness, and to the masterful strategies and schemes (such as why it’s a cunning idea to form an alliance with George Galloway) of the leaders of the working-class movement before then. 
This rot has been dealt with by Franklin Rosemont and David Schanoes for the Chicago Surrealists. In line with this clunky tradition, despite the title of the book, Molyneux’s references to dialectics rarely go any deeper here than the ‘on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand’-type of formulation.

What is missing in this book is any sense of rebellion

The ‘big’ idea in this book is that art is based on unalienated labour. For anyone reading the book who is acquainted with Marx’s writings, hearing this idea will inspire in you the kind of incredulity Ricky Gervais evinces when Karl Pilkington has one of his brainwaves.

Conor Kostick and John MOlyneux as Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington

I’d like you to imagine me as Ricky Gervais / Conor Kostick talking to Karl Pilkington / John Molyneux, complete with the little gasps of ‘Oh God’ as I laugh so hard I can’t catch my breath:

Conor: Art is unalienated labour?

John: That’s right. As I say on page twenty, “art is work produced by unalienated human labour.” Tracey Emin’s  Why I Never Became a Dancer or the monologue at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses are manifestly affirmations of our humanity. Marx says that in alienated labour, “man does not affirm, but denies himself”. So these masterworks of art can’t be the result of alienated labour since they are affirmative.

Conor: Laughing. Emin and Joyce… in the same sentence. Hang on, hang on… So you think there are people in the modern world who are not alienated? Despite Marx’s observations about how even the bourgeoise have no control over the world they dominate? Despite how everything, such as the buildings of the cities we walk through, represents our estrangement as a species from our own creations? Yet there are people producing art who are free from alienation? That, in fact, this is what makes their work art, this emancipation from an alienated world?

John: Look, don’t laugh. I’m serious. And I address these questions on page thirty-two of my book. Of course many artists have exhibited signs of actually being highly alienated individuals: Richard Dadd, Arthur Rimbaud, Andy Warhol, Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac, for instance. But in their act of creation, their labour, they are acting voluntarily and therefore expressing themselves. To argue otherwise would mean that changing the world becomes impossible. Marx himself would never have been able to write Capital.

Conor: Wait? You’re dragging Marx into this? So it’s not just artists who can avoid alienation? Are there other types of people performing unalienated work in your sense?

John: Well, revolutionary activists, obviously.

Conor: Laughing hard. Can you see what you just did there? You split the world into a few who are creative because their activity consists of unalienated labour and the rest of us. Unalienated labour. Don’t you think that’s a rather elitist theory for a supposed Marxist?

John: Huffing. Not at all. I’m not saying that all unalienated labour produces great art. There has always been any amount of mediocre art, but it is still art. As I put it, “there is Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, and then there are the lads kicking a ball around in my local park, but they are all playing football, just as there is Garry Kasparov or Magnus Carlsen along with myself and others worse than me, all of whom play chess. It is the category I’m concerned with here, not the quality.”

Marx’s theory of alienation and its relevance

Suppose someone declared a great advance in science: a discovery that builds on the work of Newton and deepens it. Let this scientist have as their big idea that while the law of gravity still holds generally, it does not apply to chairs and tables. These chairs and tables appear to behave in a fashion that is similar to other objects but they have kosticas, and that makes them special.

Now, such a new approach wouldn’t represent a deepening of our knowledge but it would throw us all into confusion. As a result of this new idea, we haven’t gained a more sophisticated theory of gravity, instead we’ve lost everything we gained from Newton, Einstein and more recent scientists. We can’t now aspire towards a better theory of gravity because the whole discipline has suddenly become arbitrary: why chairs and tables? What about sofas? What is wrong with fold-up stools? Or a chair that was only partly made then thrown away? Or an upturned crate acting as a table?

In the absence of a testable experiment for kosticas or, indeed, any evidence at all that chairs and tables are behaving differently to other objects, we would be right to reject this new theory. In fact, if people expressed a certain amount of contempt for the author of this nonsense, they could be forgiven for doing so.

This scenario parallels Molyneux’s ‘discovery’ in respect to art, which, if taken seriously, would collapse any power Marx’s theory of alienation has for understanding the world.

Here’s the argument in Molyneux’s own words:

“In capitalist society, the labour of the overwhelming majority of people—especially, but not only, working-class people—might be thought in many respects to more closely resemble that of a bee than an architect. By contrast, creativity, which Marx ascribes to all labour, appears to be the province of a small minority, primarily artists.”

In support of a distinction between alienated and creative labour, Molyneux writes:

 “Marx says of alienated labour that it is shunned as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion. This is not true of ‘creative’ labour: Michelangelo, Titian, Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Picasso and many other artists went on working right up to their deaths and long after any economic compulsion disappeared.”

And he continues:

“Viewing this historically, as we should, we can say that ‘art’ as a social category (in the sense we are talking about and are attempting to define) emerges to cover a variety of distinct and diverse activities—painting, sculpture, poetry, novel writing, composing music, playwriting and so on—in tension with and opposition to the to the growth of waged, alienated labour with the rise of capitalism. As the bulk of production, especially the manufacture of goods, becomes subsumed under wage labour and the rule of capital, so humanity, or rather some humans and overwhelmingly humans from a relatively class position, carve out a sphere of productionartnot performed by alienated labour.”

Not only is this the equivalent to saying there are exceptions to the theory of gravity, it also is like saying that the theory of gravity only applies from a few hundred years ago. Modern humans have been on this planet for about a hundred thousand years. Yet by Molyneux’s definition only with the rise of capitalism—a brief flicker of our species’ timeline—has there been art in its proper sense.

Aware of this chronological problem with his theory, Molyneux offers two defences. Firstly, art before capitalism wasn’t what we would call art:

“It is clear that the modern use of the word ‘art’ to denote a specific sphere of activities and objects, comprising painting, music, literature and so on, distinct from other non-artistic activities and objects, did not apply to many or most of those periods or cultures.” Second, “the concept of art, as it is widely used today and as I want to define it did not exist before the bourgeois era.”

Denying Aristotle wrote about art undermines any theory of art and revolution
Any theory of art that doesn’t allow for the recognition of art pre-1300 CE is ridiculous. Nothing more need be said on that first point. On the second, let’s consider Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle had a conception of art formulated c.335 BCE, which Molyneux does not want to allow as being at all like the concept of art he wants to address. Yet Aristotle discusses, among other arts, figure painting, where he says that “Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life.”

To deny that Aristotle is discussing art at this point suits Molyneux’s goal of restricting art to post-1300, but it does considerable damage to our understanding of the past. If anyone took Molyneux’s ideas seriously (that art emerges only in opposition to alienated labour) they’d have to revise all the thousands of texts on the different arts from ancient and medieval Europe, the Middle East, China, etc. and distort them in an horrific Orwellian fashion to shoe-horn them into his theory. This reinterpretation of art not only undermines our understanding of pre-modern art but also the workings of pre-modern society as such. Just as our scientist with the new theory of gravity wrecks centuries of science, our Marxist with the new theory of art wrecks Marxism.

Does resistance to Capitalism come from unalienated labour?

Molyneux is proud of the originality of his big idea: “to the best of my knowledge, the precise definition of art presented here has not been advanced previously”. (Footnote: “except by myself in John Molyneux, ‘The legitimacy of modern art’, International Socialism 80, 1998”, naturally). Over the twenty-plus years he’s been advocating for this definition of art as unalienated labour, it seems that someone has pointed out some of the obvious problems with it, because Molyneux does address some unnamed critics who seem to have pointed out that alienation is not limited to those whose labour is being exploited, that it is all-pervasive in modern society.

Molyneux replies that such a view of alienation:

“… negates the possibility of resistance and revolutionary work, either theoretical or practical. If there is not a qualitative difference between the labour of writing Capital and hack journalistic work, or between organising a strike (maintaining picket is hard work) and work performed for and under the control of a boss, if Marx was not really in control of the content of Capital and the pickets are not voluntarily and purposefully organizing the picket line but are still more or less completely dominated by alienation in this work, then changing the world becomes impossible. And if Marx determined and controlled the writing of Capital, why should the same not apply to James Joyce writing Ulysses or Pablo Picasso painting Guernica or John Coltrane composing or playing A Love Supreme?”

We were all potential H-Bombs

Molyneux divides the world into those dominated by the alienation of their labour and those (including John Molyneux the activist and writer) who can escape it in the course of their activism and writing. But to say that alienation is a feature of the whole of capitalist society is not to say it is impossible to transform it. The possibility of transformation is everywhere and in everyone and not just in those engaged in non-exploitative activities.

One of my first jobs was in the Case International tractor factory, Doncaster. No one there was Karl Marx but all of us, even the Tory voters and those whose major concerns did not appear to extend beyond football, were far more resistant to the drudgery of the factory process than you’d imagine from Molyneux’s picture of the labour process. There were those who owned motorbikes who would smuggle in parts in order to plate them with chrome, using the factory’s time and equipment to do so; there were those who read on their own in their lunch break and daydreamed the afternoon away; there were those who quietly shoved a tool worth over a million under a tarpaulin to avoid being caught out in a mistaken bit of paperwork; there were those wished for the days when the production line would stop on the pretext that the workers needed cold orange juice; there were those who cared for a row of dying pot plants on a dusty windowsill; there were even those who took evident pride in the massive tractors that rolled off the end of the production line. All of those people were in me too. We were all potential H bombs.

You would not ever see a strike or sizable protest unless a capacity to resist existed everywhere and in everyone, not just in those who Molyneux defines as performing creative work.

Capitalism alienates the whole of humanity from society

The ancient Babylonians created a religion that allowed for a ‘substitute’ king to be put in place to accept the consequences of a bad celestial omen. At the end of a hundred days, this ‘king’ (and his consort) would be killed so that the real king could resume his role, the disaster having struck down the substitute. Similarly, if a member of the royal family were sick, they might be swapped in their beds for an animal or even a person, who was then killed so the disease would be deceived into leaving the real sufferer.

Having evolved this religion and its rules, a canon of theological texts became set in stone—literally fired in clay—and a priestly class sustained their values. This was a religion before which the populace bowed, even when instructed to provide a relative as a sacrifice for the royals.

Yet we shouldn’t believe that the religion was all-pervasive. There were alternate texts. There were priests who offered different interpretations of the canon. There were political factions who formed conspiracies around the substitute king, with the goal of overthrowing the ‘real’ king. And there were very many other religions competing for the loyalty of the population. Every class society creates unjust rules that its members are supposed to adhere to, rules that are not just implemented by force but which dominate the minds of the citizens, and yet there has never been a single person who is so utterly dominated by these inhuman values that they are simply drones.

Art and revolution is a dynamic that existed long before capitalism

Our current society appears more rational than that of the Babylonians, but in many important ways it is less so. If people from three thousand years ago were shown the way we allow so much food to go to waste, for example, when there is hunger among millions, they would be incredulous. We would have to explain it away as our sacrifice to Mammon. Our rule of commerce—that you have to pay to import food, even if that means burying unsold foodstuffs while starvation and malnutrition are rampant—is far less humane than the rule about the substitute king. At least the Babylonian gods allowed for the distribution of food reserves during times of crisis.

This is the wider sense in which we live in a system whose values as well as its economy are founded upon a deep alienation of people from the world we have created.

In John Molyneux’s model, capitalism creates alienation in a very narrow way: only during the period of time and in the place in which people work. And as a result, for him, there are unalienated people who are not selling their labour-power to an employer. This division between the two provides Molyneux with the basis for separating the sublime artists of genius from the multitude: the Ronaldo from the kid in the park, the Kasparov from the player in the local chess club. Also, the revolutionary activist from the worker.

Art and revolution: finding the boundaries of art

My objection to Molyneux’s idea has already been stated: it undermines a Marxist understanding of alienation and history and, ironically, of art, throwing these subjects into a muddle. I have a powerful secondary objection too. If you were prepared to engage seriously with the scientist who revised the theory of gravity to say that it did not apply to tables and chairs, you would quickly get into a discussion about what, exactly, was a chair and a table. In the same way, let us suppose that Molyneux is correct: that unalienated labour is the key concept for defining art. Then immediately, we’d want to apply that insight to help determine what is art and what isn’t.

Is filmmaking art? When so many of those involved in making a film are exploited workers? Is music art? When the production and distribution of music requires non-creative labour? Sculpture requires someone to quarry the stone and ship it to the sculptor and other people to have made tools. Painting needs paint, canvas and brushes, produced by workers under conditions of exploitation. How does the requirement that art be creative, unalienated labour help us decide that a certain activity is art?

It turns out that the fine artists that Molyneux appreciates via his method are exactly the same ones he was introduced to at his elite school

Molyneux answers that there is a proportion of art to non-art in these intermediate cases. Apparently, Amy Winehouse produced art, while the Monkees did not. The latter being essentially work for hire, that is, engaged in alienated labour. But it is really impossible to disentangle the practice of the arts from the market and define true art as free from economic considerations. Stravinsky often was hired for ballets, commissioned for orchestras etc. So does that mean Molyneux would put him in the non-art category? Of course not. It turns out that Molyneux’s distinction between alienated and non-alienated labour is immeasurable. Instead of providing us with a tool to identify art via the quality of the artists’ labour, attempting to apply the theory quickly brings us to an arbitrary judgement of the extent to which someone is being creative.

The result of his definition is that Molyneux can pick and choose between musicians he likes and those he doesn’t, claiming some for creative labour (e.g. Leonard Cohen, Shane MacGowan) and dismissing others (Take That, Westlife). Similarly in literature, the works of Marquez and Neruda are art, but those of the writers of Mills and Boon romance books are not. Some chairs are really proper chairs, with arms and plush trimmings, these chairs have kosticas and are superb, others only look like chairs but they are actually rubbish.

It turns out that the fine artists that Molyneux appreciates via his method are exactly the same ones he was introduced to at his elite Westminster City school by his art master. As a result of his journey to Marxism… nothing has changed in the identification of great art. The only difference between Molyneux and a non-Marxist writer on art is that the same artists as are traditionally fêted are now described as in exactly the same way, but with the additional thought that they embody unalienated labour. Where he can, this leads Molyneux to claim the canon of great artists for the left as critics of capitalism, albeit often unconscious ones.

Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, used to have a formulaic reviews page: a film, book, recording, exhibition, etc. was good insofar as it affected the audience to join a revolutionary party. And the artist, if possible, was shown to be an advocate of the outlook of the SWP, with the tone of the reviews more fawning the more successful the artist and the more the chance the artist might be persuaded to share a platform or sign a campaign statement. Molyneux’s approach is hardly any more sophisticated and this is shown, above all, in the section on Tracey Emin.

Tracey Emin has by far the most references in Molyneux’s book. Whereas William Blake, a truly revolutionary poet and artist, has just a passing reference, Emin appears throughout. Reproducing an essay on Emin that he wrote in 2005, Molyneux says that “broadly speaking she is on the left. She did work for Ken Livingston’s mayoral campaign. She is anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-war. My colleague Milly Thompson, formerly of the BANK collective, who knows the London art scene says that in that world Emin is known as a ‘committed socialist”. This commitment, if it ever really existed, lasted until Emin declared her support for the Tory government (the best that has ever existed) and the royal family. A note, therefore, supplied by Molyneux, is added to the end of his essay to suppose that success, wealth and celebrity must have brought about her evolution to being a conservative. 

The mistake here isn’t one of a failure to understand Emin’s politics, it is a disconnect between Molyneux and any spirit of rebellion, let alone revolution. His choice of artists to write about is as thoroughly conformist as his theory is deeply elitist. We have essays on Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso, Royal Academy of the Arts events, Tracey Emin, Pollock, Warhol, Bacon, Rubens… and just one outsider to the establishment, Yasser Alwan.

I’m confident that anyone seriously engaged in the arts or seeking to understand art will ignore this book. No one will be inspired by it. No one will build upon this theory that art is unalienated labour because it is worse than useless. But the book does achieve something important for small circles of socialists in Ireland: Molyneux (as his tone, despite his self-deprecating comments, shows) would really rather enjoy being a guru figure to younger socialists. This book, unless you bother to read it properly and think about the ideas in it, appears to contain philosophical sophistication (it throws in a reference to Wittgenstein to help there) and an engagement with the history of art. It might therefore work to create a superficially positive impression about the erudition and importance to the left of John Molyneux.

In the end, though, I believe this book will achieve the exact opposite: it will strip away any illusions in the value of his politics. By committing his idea that revolutionary activism is unalienated labour to paper, we see the outlines of the figure who wholeheartedly took the side of the Disputes Committee in the notorious SWP rape allegation case of 2013. How can the accused or his friends who found no case to answer be guilty? They have decades of creative activity behind them. They don’t experience alienation in their work. They cannot be biased. They cannot be rapists, or rape apologists.

In this book we find sentences like, “art, in its many forms, is a kind of spiritual health food which contributes to the development of the human personality, especially among working-class people – that is, when they can overcome the numerous economic, social and psychological barriers to accessing it.”

What staggering condescension. The guru’s personality has been spiritually enriched by art and he’d like to share his insights with the downtrodden. What’s missing in this book is any sense of rebellion. Surrealism, which lacks an entry in the index, really deserves a full chapter in its conscious efforts to harness art to revolution: —a chapter not framed by the idea that art comes to the working-class from the outside, to lift our impoverished spirits. It was the working class that poured into the Surrealist exhibition in London in 1938 (evoking the scenes of workers who rallied to Darwin’s idea of evolution when Thomas Henry Huxley presented them in 1859).

The Blindboy podcast is art

Art is constantly being created within working-class communities and what’s more, art to match any figure who, like Emin or Hirst, for market reasons, gets foisted on the public as though exceptional. When, for example, Blindboy improvises music while gaming on Twitch, relying on the crowd-sourced support of thousands of followers, he’ll never get recognition as an artist by the academy or the major media outlets (though his is very consciously an art project). He most certainly wouldn’t be recognised as an artist by Molyneux, but he is one all the same. And Blindboy is just one tiny bubble in a vast sea of art being created by millions of people from working-class communities.

Working-class and revolutionary artists might well usefully pick up Berger or Adorno. If they have the misfortune to find Molyneux’s book, however, they will ignore it. Because the core message to such artists is to forget what they are doing and bow down before the true creatives: the soulful genius, the unalienated expert.