Lucien Goldmann – Class and Literature

Lucien Goldmann is a marxist theorist of the arts who argued that social class shapes the worldview of authors.

Lucien Goldmann is a Marxist theorist of the arts. He argued that great works of literature reflected the (sometimes contradictory) class positions of those who wrote them.

The Expression of Class WorldViews

In The Hidden God (1964) Goldmann developed a theory about the French writers Pascal and Racine.

He argued that the social class to which one belongs is the most important thing when it comes to the production of intellectual and creative works.

Humans in the ‘subject class’ need to spend most of their time devoted to physical survival while those in the ‘dominant class’ need to spend their time maintaining that dominance.

Class thus tends to be the most influential factor in shaping people’s world views and thus their creative and intellectual output!

Goldmann argued that most people only have a dim perception of class consciousness, but a few exceptional individuals are class conscious and able to express this clearly.

Pascal and Racine

Goldmann believed that Pascal and Racine were two such ‘exceptional individuals’ who were aware of their class consciousness, both of whom belonged to a social class which Goldman referred to as the ‘Noblesse de Robe’ in 17th century France.

The Noblesse de Robe consisted of legal and administrative professionals who were employed by the state, which was partially controlled by the monarchy.

These individuals thus had a conflicted worldview which partially reflected the authoritarian traditions of the monarchy but also the more rational ‘new bourgeoise’ worldview associated with their professions.

The contradiction between these two world views comes through in the tragedies that Pascal and Racine wrote, which tended to focus on how it was impossible to succeed in the rational world and to please God at the same time.

In the words of Goldmann the central theme of the Noblesse’s tragedies was:

“that everything that God demands is impossible in the eyes of the world, and that everything that is possible when we follow the rules of this world ceases to exist when the eye of God lights upon it”

Evaluation of Goldmann

On the positive side Lucien Goldmann’s analysis is more subtle than Berger’s who simply argues that art reflects ruling class ideology.

At least in Goldmann’s theory the authors are conscious actors expressing their own class consciousness.

Criticisms of Goldmann

  1. He may overemphasise the role of class in shaping the worldview of authors. For Feminist, for example, gender is more important in this, as is ethnicity and the experience (or lack of) of colonialism.
  2. Even if class is the prominent influencer of art, other factors such as gender probably play a role too!
  3. Goldmann assumes that a social class can possess a clear ideology, express that ideology and that there is one clear interpretation of this one ideology. Poststructuralists argue that there are multiple interpretations of multiple realities.

John Berger

John Berger was a marxist cultural thinker who argued that art reflects ruling class ideology.

John Berger was an artist, novelist, cultural thinker and art critic who developed a Marxist inspired theory of art.

His best known work is ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) in which he explored the ‘hidden ideologies’ in historical works of art.

Berger argued that art reflects the political and economic system in which it was produced and that “the art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class” (1)

Berger is an extremely influential Marxist critique of the arts who is also credited with introducing the concept of the Male Gaze to visual analysis.

John Berger in 2009

Berger: Art and Ruling Class Ideology

Oil painting was the dominant medium for painters between 1500 to 1900.

The ruling classes were more able to impose their view of the world through art simply because oil paintings were expensive and they had the money to commission them.

Berger argued that oil paintings had unique properties that made them especially suitable for portraying ruling class ideology during the Renaissance years and into modernity.

These were the years of emergence of Capitalism when acquiring private property and earning money through trade were becoming increasingly central to the world-view of the ruling class, and most oil paintings during 1500-1900 were concerned with depicting the accumulation of such wealth and property, reflecting the interests of the ruling classes during that period.

Oil paints were particularly suited to making what they depicted seem tangible, or ‘real’ because of the texture, depth and lustre of the medium.

The depiction of wealth in oil paintings changed as modernity developed.

Oil paintings had always portrayed items of value, but in early periods these items were usually linked to the glorifying God. However, as capitalism developed paintings focussed increasingly on portraying the wealth and power of the ruling class, effectively suggesting that money was more important than religion.

Another change was that older works portrayed wealth as a symbol of a fixed social or divine order, reflecting the traditional nature of religious power structures, while oil paintings during modernity portrayed wealth as something more dynamic and linked to the successes of the individuals who had acquired it.

Interestingly many of the works commissioned by the wealthy elites during modernity were of poor quality, or ‘hack work’ as Berger calls it.

This was because it was more important to the elites to have their art showing off their wealth in the way that they wanted rather than for them to have high quality works.

In short there were many more mediocre artists prepared to ‘paint to demand’ than there were excellent artists prepared to do so! So even here the market influences the quality of work that is produced.

The Portrayal of the Ruling Class in Art

Landscape paintings portrayed the property of the rich, and sometimes the property owners insisted on being in the landscapes themselves, to demonstrate that it was them who owned the land.

Berger uses the example of Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough (circa 1748 to 9). In this landscape painting the husband and wife are in the foreground and Berger argues that their ‘proprietary attitude to what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expression’.

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough

Other still-life paintings during modernity portrayed expensive furnishings in houses and tables laden with exotic foods as symbols of wealth. Animals were also featured, but not animals in the wild, rather domesticated livestock with a rare pedigree, so that their monetary value was clear.

The Portrayal of the Lower classes in Art

Paintings representing the lower classes were also popular among the ruling classes.

A common theme in portrayals of the lower classes was that of the common people being drunk and debauched in taverns which suggested they were immoral, feckless and lazy.

Such portrayals served to foster a kind of ‘myth of meritocracy’ – the idea that the poor were to blame for their own poverty because they preferred to drink and party rather than to work hard, while it was the hardworking who prospered and thus deserved their wealth.

And of course it was the ruling classes who saw themselves as hard working and deserving the wealth displayed in their own paintings of themselves.

NB – it’s worth noting the following difference:

  • the ruling classes controlled what went into the paintings of themselves that they commissioned.
  • the working classes had no control over this – artists drew them without any input from them.

Some artists break free of Ruling Class Ideology

While most works of art reflect ruling class ideology, Berger accepts that some artists break free from such ideological constraints.

One example of someone who did this is the artist Rembrandt.

Berger points to an early painting of Rembrandts: Self-Portrait with Saskia (circa 1635) in which Rembrandt is painting within ‘ruling class ideology’ – the painting depicts himself showing off his wife as a form of property, a symbol of this own wealth and success.

However, 30 years later when he produces ‘self-portrait of an old man’ (circa 1664) in this painting he just sitting on his own in a sombre and reflective mood with no symbols of wealth depicted.

In Berger’s interpretation of Rembrandt’s journey he has undergone a struggle over the course of his life to throw off the shackles of ruling class ideology and succeeded in producing a piece of art that is more authentic.

Evaluation of Berger’s theory of art

John Berger’s work has been extremely influential, with Ways of Seeing being described as ‘revolutionary‘.

Berger’s work has become a standard edition to cultural studies and history of art courses the world over and he is responsible for encouraging students and anyone else who reads his work to think critically about the role of power and money in influencing art and culture.

Even if you you do not entirely agree with Berger’s analysis, at the very least you should appreciate the fact that he is encouraging us to ask critical questions about the processes which lie behind the production of art.

It is possible that his analysis isn’t that systematic and thus alternative interpretations maybe just as valid. For example do the expressions of the Andrews really demonstrate that they own the land in the background…? Does Rembrandt’s old man portrait really show that he’s been through a life-time of personal struggle to break free from ruling class ideology, or is he just showing that he’s ‘old and sad’…?

Even though Berger devoted some time to how women are portrayed as being owned and controlled by men in Ways of Seeing he has been criticised for not giving female analysts more of a central role in discussing this.

Sources/ find out more

Brtannica: John Berger

This post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn(2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

John Beger image.

Mr and Mrs Andrews

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This material is primarily relevant to those studying the Culture and Identity option within A-level Sociology.

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$450 million for a Painting – WTF..?

So, you’re a multi-billionaire, you have $450 million kicking about, but your’re bored of all the usual gaudy bling bullshit…

 

This poll was inspired by today’s news that Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, painting sold for $400m at auction today, with a grand total of $450 million once Christie’s auction house had added on its $50 million commission.

expensive painting
Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Masterpiece’

Now we may never actually know who bought this painting, but assuming it’s an individual (although  it may have been bought by a company or conglomerate), this raises the question of how much wealth you must have to be able to spend this much money on a painting!

Surly we must be looking at someone worth over $10 billion, so probably someone from the top 100 or so wealthiest people, possibly one of these from Forbe’s rich list, given that it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to risk more than 5% of their TNW on one investment, unless they really LOVE renaissance art or of course.

Anyway, whoever the anonymous buyer is, all mega-purchases like this do for me is remind of the existence of the global super-rich – that handful of billionaires that make up the top 0.00001% of the world’s population – domains like Christie’s auction house are their’s, and purchases of items in the several millions of dollars a regular occurrence.

This event is just a painful reminder of how much of a toss the global elite don’t give about global poverty. Between them, those present at that auction house yesterday could have transformed the lives of so many. NB I know it’s not THAT simple – money for development often gets misspent, it has unintended consequences etc etc… so I am being a bit idealistic, all I’m trying to do here is get some perspective on the enormous sum spent on that painting.

Here’s one calculation that does just that…

  • According to calculations by Oxfam, £250 000 is the sum required to provide clean drinking water to 16 800 people in Ethiopia.
  • $450 000 000/ £275 000 = 1636.36 rec
  • 1636.36 * 16 800 = 27 490, 848 people.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really not comfortable with the co-existence of global problems such as lack of access to clean water and a global Eloi jet setting around the world buying high status items at luxury auction houses.

 

 

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