Lukacs’s Marxist Aesthetics

Lukács, 1913

György Lukács’s views on aesthetics will be found in one of his two major mature works, The Specificity of the Aesthetic, the other one being Towards an Ontology of Social Being. They both constitute huge treatises. The Specificity of the Aesthetic extends to approximately 1800 pages, its purpose being to clarify the categories of Marxist aesthetics and the nature of the aesthetic phenomenon. It was to be followed by two further sequences – The Work of Art and Aesthetic Behavior and Art as a Social-Historical Phenomenon – with the second revolving around the problems of structure and technique of artistic work and the third with the historical dimension of art. Towards an Ontology of Social Being, a work of approximately 1450 pages, attempts to highlight the ontological foundations of social being in labor, exploring the relationships between nature and society as well as the historical structuring of the social. It was to be followed by an Ethics, which, like the two sequels of The Specificity of the Aesthetic, was never written. Nevertheless, in both works we find several hints on issues that Lukacs would deal with in the parts he was unable to realize.

The great value of Lukacs’s last two works and their enormous importance for the further development of Marxism has been underlined by serious Marxist experts. P. Vranicki characteristically maintains that The Specificity of the Aesthetic “must be included among the most important conquests of the culture of our times.”1  St. Morawski, for his part, summarizes Lukacs’s contribution to Marxist aesthetics in the following terms:

One of Lukacs’s great merits is that he showed there is a Marxist aesthetics. At the same time, he undertook several analyses of changes within the Marxist doctrine (e.g., Mehring, Lenin). There is no doubt that no Marxist theorist has broadened the circle of aesthetic questions or analyzed and systemized them more deeply than Lukacs. Those who say that Lukacs provides the first Marxist system of aesthetics are not mistaken. There is no problem which he has not placed in a new light; no aesthetic question on which he has not shown that Marxism has its roots in the best European tradition. Always extremely sensitive to our cultural heritage, Lukacs still never fails to point out the revolutionary philosophical and aesthetic changes wrought by Marx… Marxist aesthetics can only be developed by incorporating his achievements and by learning from his mistakes. Only in this way will it be able to attain new horizons.2

The Specificity of the Aesthetic does indeed include multi-dimensional, original and in-depth analyzes of aesthetic problems, which methodologically derive from the best traditions of the materialistic assimilation of the Hegelian dialectic by the classics. It promotes thus decisively the understanding of art as a special form of reflection of reality, illuminating its relation to other areas of human action and clarifying its aesthetic basis.

As has been adequately demonstrated in Marxist literature, Marx’s analysis of capitalism in Grundrisse and Capital is strongly based on the Hegelian logic of the concept, with its three moments of universality, particularity, and singularity.3  Marx starts with capital in general to develop the fundamental categories of capitalist economy (value, surplus value), which operate in the sphere of production. Only after that he refers to individual capitals and their competition as the specific form that determines the distribution of surplus value in its various parts. In his Aesthetics, Lukacs follows the same logical scheme in his analysis of the fundamental for the theory of realism concept of the type. A type, he argues, embodies the moment of particularity, as an intermediary between the moments of universality and singularity. In it, the individual is combined with the general, to the extent that the subjectivity of the hero is freed from purely random individual traits and elevated to the general condition of the age.

Lukacs extensively refers to the Marxist dialectic of the universal and the particular, but he argues that the case with art is different. The scientific study of a field, typically Marx’s analysis of capitalism, follows a course from the universal to the individual or vice versa. Although real capital is a specific thing, a particular, yet scientific knowledge oscillates between the two ends of the abstraction, the universal and the singular, with the general representing the decisive moment. In art, by contrast, and this has to do with its anthropomorphic character, it is particularity that represents the fundamental moment around which the other two are ordered:

The specificity of the aesthetic sphere is that particularity does not only mediate between generality and singularity, but also acts as an organizational center. This means that the reflection movement does not go, as in knowledge, from generality to singularity and then vice versa (or in the other sense), but that particularity, as center or middle point, is the point of departure and arrival; that is, these movements, on the one hand, run through the way from particularity to generality and return, and on the other hand, act as a link between particularity and singularity. It is not therefore a transverse movement between the two extreme categories, but a movement between the center and the periphery.4

The realist writer can certainly emphasize more in one type the general or the individual, depending on the plot of the work, the development of a character, etc. The analysis of these moments and their composition in the particular, however, is not at all a sterile dialectical exercise or pedantry; on the contrary, it illuminates essential aspects. In Carpenter’s They Live, to limit ourselves to one example, Holly, if viewed from the standpoint of universality, embodies the American dream, the fulfillment which dominant values promise. As an individual, on the other hand, she is the rich human being, which in its spontaneous movement remains however directionless, passively adapting herself to the dominant impulses of the system; even if momentarily those who tend to overthrow it act on her, they do not change her internally. Her particularity, as a combination of these two moments, can only be the attitude she adopts at the end of the film, when she tries to prevent the hero from destroying the transmitter of the aliens with the words, “You cannot win”. The fact that Nada kills Holly and destroys the transmitter before being shot by aliens is the realistic climax of the film: on the one hand he gets rid of his illusions (expressed at the beginning of the movie in his own words, “I follow the rules and wait for my chance”); on the other hand, the great sacrifices the working class has to make in order to put an end to the system of exploitation are also clarified. The particular, as a concrete crystallization of individual and general impulses, is here the center for the realistic representation of the whole; any other outcome would mean a distortion of the real developmental trends.

The type represents thus the means of authentic (realistic) artistic creation, but there are two other important things in it: purpose and content. Its purpose is to achieve harmony through catharsis; its content, on the other hand, is mimesis, the peculiar artistic reflection of reality, without which art cannot accomplish its purpose.

Lukacs defines catharsis in accordance with Aristotle and Lessing, as “the transformation of passions into virtuous inclinations”. In this way art fulfills a defetishizing function, removing obstacles to practical action and making man receptive to the new. But while in Aristotle, catharsis refers mainly to tragedy and the feelings of fear and sympathy it mobilizes, Lukacs insists that it embraces all artistic realms. Even more: “The concept of catharsis is much broader. As with all major categories of aesthetics, we also find that catharsis has its primary origin is in life, not in art, to which it comes from life”.5  Catharsis, therefore, reflects the link of art with life, with human potentials and needs. In this connection, Lukacs refers to Hegel’s practically oriented aesthetics, in order to explore the historical genesis of the forms and types of artistic creation and to integrate aesthetical behavior into the totality of human activities.”6

Mimesis is the artistic representation of life in its particular expression that becomes the object of a work of art and is reproduced in it. Lukacs also uses the concepts of reflection and representation as equivalent with it. He also insists here that what is involved here is not a photographic representation, a snapshot, but a reproduction of the contradictory movement, of the correlation with the totality of the real:

Even those [arts] that reproduce the immediate objectivity of the external world with artistic immediacy do not originate –especially from the perspective of aesthetic realism– by a simple, much less photographic representation, but by the emergence of the coincidence of phenomenon and substance in the phenomenon that becomes thus both nearer and more distant from life… Even clearer is this relevance to the structure, to the nature of the content, presented by the particular totality of each work. Its realistic character is judged by how profoundly and aptly, how comprehensively and genuinely it is able to reproduce and raise the problems of the personal and historical moment of its creation from the perspective of their enduring importance to the evolution of humanity. 7

Lukacs extensively discusses the intellectual basis of mimesis, using the tools of Pavlovian psychology. According to Pavlov’s theory, man has two signal systems: Signal System 1 (the direct impressions of reality, this is also present in animals) and Signal System 2 (language, the signals of these first signals, words, generalizations, etc., this being specific to human beings). Lukacs interposes between them Signal System 1; i.e., imagination, which shares a number of common features with each one of the other two. The latter two systems emerge from work, in particular the need for humans to react effectively to new experiences, associating them with what is already known. Giving a more dialectical interpretation of the psychological response to Pavlovian stimuli, Lukacs emphasizes the crucial role of imagination in art and its inherent opposition to bourgeois ideological norms: bourgeois ideology tends to limit knowledge and communication to Signal System 1, emphasizing immediate, functional elements of behavior, while authentic art sheds light on its social bases, its motivation and its long-term effective directions.

Its character as a dialectical mimesis of reality lends a specific, objective content to the work of art. Lukacs rejects relativistic approaches, in the style of Adorno, according to which a multitude of interpretations of a work of art are possible, without any possibility or criteria of choice between them.8 A radical relativism and indeterminacy of this kind is typical of modernist tendencies; the realistic work of art, by contrast, brings to light the real connections, thereby leaving fewer ambiguities. This does not at all imply that different interpretations of a work cannot be offered or that content is given in a clear, unambiguous way; Lukacs criticizes naturalism and the panegyric Stalinist art for precisely this reason. In a realistic work of art ambiguity does have a place, but as a moment of a contradictory, transitional reality, which encompasses opposing aspects and possibilities; the latter, even if not fully clarified, come to a certain relation, the one towards which life itself is tending, and this allows us to distinguish between valid and false interpretations.

The key position Lukacs attributes to mimesis stimulates a comparison with the way Plekhanov conceived the issue, all the more so as Plekhanov was in many ways his forerunner, posing in an elementary way many problems of Marxist aesthetics and philosophy worked out by Lukacs in his mature work. Plekhanov recognizes the importance of mimesis in social and particularly in artistic development, but he assesses ​​it as a fundamentally conservative principle. Imitation is involved in every creation and social attitude that aims to reproduce already known practices, patterns of behavior, etc. But, Plekhanov argues, in social practice there is another aspect, i.e., contradiction (conflict), which being active is the most vital as it pushes change forward. In a lengthy argument, he criticizes the bourgeois thinkers’ formulation of the issue:

Tarde, who has written a very interesting essay on the laws of imitation, regards it as the soul of society as it were. As he defines it, every social group is an aggregation of beings who partly imitate one another at the present time, and partly imitated one and the same model in the past. That imitation has played a very big part in the history of all our ideas, tastes, fashions and customs is beyond the slightest doubt. Its immense importance was already emphasized by the materialists of the last century: man consists entirely of imitation, Helvetius said. But it is just as little to be doubted that Tarde based his investigation of the laws of imitation on a false premise. When the restoration of the Stuarts in Britain temporarily re-established the rule of the old nobility, the latter, far from betraying the slightest tendency to imitate the extreme representatives of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, the Puritans, evinced a very strong inclination for habits and tastes that were the very opposite of the Puritan rules of life. The strict morals of the Puritans gave way to the most incredible licentiousness. It became good form to like, and to do, the very things the Puritans forbade. The Puritans were very religious; high society at the time of the Restoration flaunted its impiety. The Puritans persecuted the theater and literature; their downfall was the signal for a new and powerful infatuation for the theater and literature… In a word, what operated here was not imitation, but contradiction, which evidently is likewise rooted in the properties of human nature… We may consequently say that though man undoubtedly has a strong tendency to imitation, it manifests itself only in definite social relations… In other social relations the tendency to imitation vanishes and gives place to its opposite, which for the present I shall call the tendency to contradiction.9

One could think that Plekhanov’s view, with its emphasis on contradiction, is more radical than that of Lukacs. Yet this is not true. In fact, Plekhanov’s view is dualistic, involving two principles, imitation and contradiction, that operate independently of one another. No matter how he tries further to correct it, noting that contradiction distinguished the nobles’ attitude towards their enemies, while between them unity prevailed, based on the imitation of their more advanced representatives by others, we finally get a simplistic picture: within one class there is imitation, between classes conflict. This view erases the complexity of evolution, overlooking in particular the contradictions between different parts of a class, which are often not negligible. Lukacs’s conception of mimesis, by contrast, precisely because it relates to the imitation of processes or evolving situations, embodies contradiction: artistic mimesis involves both resemblance and contrast to the original.

Lukacs emphasizes this point with regard to music, citing the example of Pindar’s ode to the lamentation of Medusa’s sister Evryali. The mimesis of the lament in the melody of the flute is alike and at the same time different from the lament; otherwise one could not explain how while the lament expresses a feeling of pain, its melodic transmutation can provide comfort and even enjoyment. Between feeling and artistic representation, he notes, there is a “qualitative leap”; art transcends human daily life, so that “whatever is bad or unpleasant in life mimetically can offer joy.”10

With his historical presentation of the mimetic phenomenon Lukacs establishes further the “in itself” being of art. Primitive art was so closely associated with religion and magic that it could not yet be called mimetic. Mimesis emerges when art becomes independent; it establishes a distance between representation and reality that does not exist in magical ceremonies. At the same time, the ensuing independence of the various spheres (science, religion, art), even if all of them refer to the social and human relationship with the world, gives to each one its own special character. In the natural sciences, “dehumanization” is predominant, what is represented there is the material world abstracting as much as possible from man. Religion refers to the subjective world, eliminating the natural and shifting the first to a beyond. In art, too, the subjective world predominates, but without eliminating the link to reality.

Mimetic ways vary in every art, in literature, music, sculpture, painting, architecture, the applied arts. But in various kinds of an art the focus of mimesis shifts too; in literature, for example, epic focuses on individuality and drama on universality. However, Lukacs insists, mimesis is a universal principle of art; it allows for a unified treatment of the artistic and aesthetic phenomenon, without canceling its differentiations.

This raises the question about the content of mimesis in each specific art and especially in arts without a direct reference to the real world. The representation of the real is evident in literature, painting, sculpture, but what does music represent? Lukacs replies that music represents the feelings and inner life of man. This may seem inconsistent with his general definition of mimesis, but he himself argues that these feelings are not purely subjective but typical feelings and mental states of people at a given stage of social development which are mobilized by external determinations. Of course, music can be combined with singing, as in opera, where its connection to social reality becomes explicit. However, its distinctive feature is melody and its particular stamp as an art is revealed there, not in the accompanying verses of a song. In this context, music is a double imitation or an imitation of imitation; an imitation of the inner human world which in turn imitates the outside world. The typical is detected in the degree of universality of emotions it mobilizes, the moment of the particular lies in its ability to elevate the individual feeling into the general feeling of the times.11

Some theorists such as St. Morawski argue that the introduction of psychological-intellectual elements into the process of mimesis destroys its meaning: “Mimesis,” he writes, “is supposed to concern the relation of art to a directly given outside reality. In the arguments focusing on music and architecture, however, the accent moves to psychological or psycho-social attitudes. If one were to posit the expression of definite psychic or psycho-social states as a constitutive element of mimesis, then the concept would be so altered that Lukacs’ entire thesis would become a truism. It would become an elastic statement – such as that art is always dependent on reality.12

It would indeed be arbitrary to argue that the artist directly expresses in mimesis the mental states caused by his experiences, the causes of his inspiration, and so on. Artistic creation does not revolve around the artist’s feelings, but around the source of those feelings, being an appropriation of the inner nature of the thing attracting his interest and attention. This does not negate the fact that the mental states he experiences, which are not self-existent but include pre-existing class, value, etc., determinations, act on the mode of appropriation and are thus incorporated into the artistic result. In this sense, Lukacs insists, mimesis cannot be separated from the artist’s inner process and the work of art is the unity of the two.13

In the part on cinema, while criticizing Benjamin, Lukacs offers some interesting insights into the relationship between cinema and theater. Benjamin had argued that cinema is an art form devoid of the aura of “unique character”, since the public does not come into direct contact with the actors as in theater, thereby narrowing its aesthetic impact. Lukacs accuses him of romantic anti-capitalism here, arguing that cinema actually opens wider aesthetic fields than theater does. While in theater the outside world is reduced to a scenery, in cinema we have a representation of the whole of life: both the actions of the protagonists and the social space in which they unfold are actively present, allowing a deeper exploration of their interrelations. With that in mind, Lukacs also traces in cinema a “double mimesis”, as in music, the difference being that in the latter we have a vertical, while in cinema a horizontal process of abstraction (instead of a chain external-internal-doubly internal, one form the external to the internal and to the concrete).14

The universality of cinema is also highlighted in another connection, that of the representational medium. Most arts mobilize a particular human sense in their own distinctive imitation process, vision, hearing, language, and so on. They thus abstract a particular aspect of the heterogeneity of life, which they mimic from a definite viewpoint, a situation Lukacs describes by introducing the notion of a homogeneous medium. In cinema, however, we do not have a homogeneous medium: what is represented is the heterogeneity of life itself in all its aspects. This does not mean that mimesis ceases to exist or that we have a mere return to the raw heterogeneity of direct experience. Heterogeneity is reproduced here from a specific point of view, stressing and highlighting certain specific aspects of it. In its presentation of the the outside and the inner world a movie inevitably selects, condenses and enhances some of its elements, creating a specific atmosphere that establishes its own unique homogeneity.15

Consequently, the broad popularity of cinema is not a sign of aesthetic deterioration. On the contrary, it is closely linked to its potential of expanding the representational field to the extent of becoming an authentic, great folk art. Of course, Lukacs points out that this potential is realized in comparatively few films that deeply touch the public, like the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Chaplin.16

In the last parts of The Specificity of the Aesthetic, Lukacs discusses the separation of art and religion. Religion, he argues, is dominated by an individualistic perspective, the purpose of the religious person being his salvation as an individual; art, like science, elevates the individual to the general. Therefore, “in its objective intent, art is as hostile to religion as science is”. This is not to say that Lukacs excludes from the realm of authentic art religious works such as the Renaissance paintings or Bach’s Passions, but he argues that these are in fact secular works, even if under a religious cloak. Of course there is a religious art proper in which the allegorical, symbolic element plays a key role. It represents a lower level of artistic assimilation of reality, the origin of which Lukacs traces in the ornamental mode of representation, dominated by abstract structural elements such as rhythm, symmetry and proportion. Their absence of meaningful content creates a gap between reality and religious representation, which is covered by the allegorical invocation of the transcendent.17

  1. P. Vranicki, History of Marxism, Odysseas Editions, Athens 1976, vol. ΙΙ, p. 208. []
  2. St. Morawski, “Mimesis – Lukacs’ universal principle”, Science and Society, 32 (1), 1968, p. 27, 38. []
  3. See, e.g., F. Moseley, “The Universal and the Particulars in Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Capital”, Universality refers to what is common in a group of objects, phenomena, etc., ignoring their differences. Singularity refers to the individual, taken separately from like and non-like phenomena or objects. Particularity is the concrete, the individual as a moment of the whole. For a discussion of the corresponding method of quantum mechanics in relation to microcosmic phenomena. See the chapter on R. Feynman in Chr. Kefalis, The Great Natural Scientists, Topos Editions, Athens 2015, p. 129 ff. []
  4. G. Lukacs, La Peculiaridad de lo Estético, Editiones Grisalbo, Barcelona 1967, vol. 3, p. 213. []
  5. G. Lukacs, ibid, vol. 2, p. 500. []
  6. For a comprehensive discussion of this relationship see G. Oldrini, “Lukacs’s aesthetics in the light of its relation to Hegel’s aesthetics,” in Georg Lukacs. Interpretive Approaches, Alexandria Editions, Athens 2006, p. 295-328. []
  7. G. Lukacs, Aesthetics of Music (the chapter on music of The Specificity of the Aesthetic), Topos Editions, Athens 2018, p. 129. There is no need to explain how far away is this formulation from the narrow-minded Stalinist notions of “socialist realism”. []
  8. In this spirit, e.g., Adorno, responding without stating it explicitly, to Balzac’s appreciation of Lukacs as a realist, presents an interpretation of Balzac as the delusional inventor of a semi-paranoid system of social relations. For Adorno’s argument, see P. U. Hohendahl, “The theory of the novel and the concept of realism in Lukacs and Adorno”, in Georg Lukacs Reconsidered, Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics, Continuum, London 2011, p. 79-80. []
  9. G. Plekhanov, “Unaddressed Letters,” in Selected Philosophical Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1981, vol. V, p. 274-275. []
  10. G. Lukacs, Aesthetics of Music, p. 13-15. []
  11. For the above, see G. Lukacs, Aesthetics of Music, especially p. 49 ff., 77 ff., 97 ff. []
  12. St. Morawski, ibid, p. 36. []
  13. Lukacs explicitly emphasizes this in one of his polemics against Brecht, who downplayed the role of psychological elements in artistic creation: “The content of a work of art –however intellectual– does not just consist in such a relationship to things in themselves, even though this may form an essential aspect of the work as a totality. It entails also a personal response to the factual complex it reflects and from which it is inseparable. Whether that response be one of tragic shock, optimistic acceptance or ironical criticism, etc., carries as much weight as the thought content itself. Nor does such a response abolish the work’s objectivity; it merely gives it new emphasis. What counts is the importance of both the content and the response it elicits for the development of mankind and the way in which both can become the property of humanity” (G. Lukacs, “On  Bertolt Brecht” ). []
  14. J. Kelemen adequately analyses these connections: «It might not be accidental (and even supports the affinity of film and music) that terms of musical theory seem to be the most adequate to present montage structures of modern film art… An affinity of music and film has also been supported by the fact that music also constitutes a double reflection and its first level is not desanthropomorphic, either” (J. Kelemen, The Rationalism of Georg Lukacs, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2014, p. 130). []
  15. As Kelemen also notes, «atmosphere has constituted a central term of film aesthetics. Extending the concept of Georg Lukacs we may discover in atmospheric unity a functional analogy with the homogeneous medium characterizing other forms of art and expressions” (J. Kelemen, ibid, p. 130). []
  16. See G. Lukacs, La Peculiaridad de lo Estético, vol. 4, p. 178-179, 189-190, etc. []
  17. For a more detailed exposition of the above points, see G. Parkinson, Georg Lukacs, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1977, p. 140-142. []
Christos Kefalis is a Greek Marxist, editor of the journal Marxist Thought. The present contribution is part of a chapter of his essay “Lukacs’s course to Marx”. It appears as an introductory essay to a collection of Lukacs’s articles of the 1920ies, “Georg Lukacs. Texts of the 1920 Decade”, recently published by Topos Editions, Athens 2019. Read other articles by Christos.