Political economy of modern art

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Modern art and Baudelaire

Faced with the conservative wave that rose on a European scale against the revolutionary movements of 1848, modern art, in Baudelaire's sense, emerged as a response derived from the radical cultural values ​​of the French Revolution. Hence the fundamental and paradigmatic meaning, according to Charles Baudelaire, of the “severe lessons of revolutionary painting” (“sevères leçons de la peinture révolutionnaire”) by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), to which the critic and poet equally attributed the origin “of romanticism, that expression of modern society” (“du romanticisme, cette expression de la société moderne”).[I] In this sense and meaning, modern art came in the wake of the fury of the common people and consisted of the symbolic eruption of independent craft masters and artisans, politicized and radicalized by the revolutionary process.


Therefore, talking about avant-garde art without more or less is simply succumbing to the formalist myth of art as autarchy, an isolated and self-referred phenomenon. In the colonial powers of the West or in the economies of the G-7 (it's almost the same thing) so-called avant-garde art did not operate properly as a vanguard – except during some brief revolutionary episodes in such countries – but rather in the rearguard.[ii] and as a resistance action. That is to say, it constituted a mode of critical and symbolic struggle against the process of serial devastation triggered by the advance of capitalist modernization.

Belle époque, formalism and modern art

In the field of arts, the project and critical accumulation envisioned by Charles Baudelaire suffered permanent crossfire from supporters of the doctrine of “pure visibility”, by Konrad Fiedler (1841-1895) and others. This constituted the nucleus of the formalist historiography of modern art and gained strong dissemination after the massacre of the Paris Commune (1871).

Thus, on an international scale, its acceptance and wide diffusion is due to the ready synchronization with capitalist modernization, therefore, with the growing colonization of life and the city, both transformed from top to bottom by the process of abstract exchange and reproduction of value.

As an aesthetic doctrine, the theory of pure visibility appeared organically associated, in France, with impressionism and post-impressionist symbolism. It was then combined with the values ​​of the “opticalist” ideology, or, as they said at the time, the “school of the eyes (école des yeux)”.[iii] We can, therefore, infer that formalism constituted an ideological current linked exclusively to some modernist tendencies, which, neglecting to intervene in the things of the world, contributed, with their thoughtlessness, to positive modernization. So, with such narrow bases and from a solely aesthetic perspective, how can we be able to encompass inequalities and contradictions of different national developments, each one dealing with specific and, in some way, its own forms of modern art?

totem and taboo

Another of the blind spots of the formalist argument – ​​whose principles assumed the idealistic and fetishistic hypothesis of the work of art as a being endowed with its own reason, completeness and self-sufficiency – resided in the taboo enshrining the conception of art as a precious good or value in itself. Formalism thus showed resistance (in the psychoanalytic sense) in assimilating the nullification of the value of the finished work. In short, it failed to reflect on the primacy, in much of modern art, of productive processes over results.

Production, modernization and expiry

“You have to be of your time (Il faut être de son temps)”,[iv] proposed a saying by Diderot (1713-1784). The priority to the era itself, translated into the modern artist's attention to ways of working, to the detriment of finished execution, responds to the general process of modernization inherent to the capitalist system of commodity production; This process established the transitional condition or fatal perishing of every form and social mode of relationship. See the emblematic passage from the Communist Manifesto about relationships and things previously considered solid, but which end up in one way or another shattered into thin air.[v]

Production, modernization and contemplation

Unfinished features, of haste in execution and summary modeling, including the simultaneous production of several works and the multiplication of variants of the same process, appeared as different ways of establishing the primacy of the production process over the final form. Objective: to anticipate or prevent (certainly in the peculiar field of art and its special regime of temporalities) the emptying, wear or perishing of products in general. However, the mode of incompleteness did not characterize a singular or exclusive content of so-called modern art, except for the acceleration that in the latter marked the fatigue of materials, modes and techniques.

In this sense, several of Giulio Carlo Argan's (1909-1992) studies strategically highlighted the importance of mannerism at the end of the XNUMXth century – as well as of non-finiti (unfinished) by Michelangelo (1475-1564), and also certain works by Venetian masters, contemporaries of the former. Such studies highlighted the initial moment of the symbolic primacy of the productive mode to the detriment of the value of perfection or the final form of the finished work.

In this sense, Giulio Carlo Argan's criticism was strategically located against the current, opposing the usual appreciation for the cult of perfection and mastery, usually prevalent in Italian historiography. Cult of virtuosity that, earlier, in Renaissance classicism and due to the prestige of Plotinus' metaphysics (ca. 204-270), was exalted as proof of supreme knowledge based on the completeness of the Neoplatonic system. In summary, given the new symbolic status acquired by the so-called mannerist artistic praxis and related feelings, Argan detected signs of nascent competition between productive modes and schemes (by the way, Brecht [1898-1956], before Giulio Carlo Argan, had already highlighted similar elements when elaborating the historical context of The Life of Galileo (Leben des Galilei) [1937-39]).

In connection with the poetic and critical valorization of the production process – in the face of that of contemplation –, Giulio Carlo Argan's studies in L'Europa delle Capitali (1964)[vi] as in other essays, they highlighted the planned and openly “interested” character of visual production (urban and architectural as well as artistic) from the XNUMXth century onwards, that is, in concomitance with the expansion of the colonial and mercantile process. Thus, such studies carried out the critical deconstruction of aesthetic discourse, understood as a discipline or science of “contemplation of beauty”, revealing, and for good reason, its ideological content.

In short, such studies mapped and revealed the clearly mercantile strategy of fetishizing the product's qualities; a tendency that had and continues to have a retrograde guideline – in the field of art as well as in others – of consolidating, independently of work issues, the criteria of contemplation or exclusive consideration of form (that is, in the end – of currency – , to sum it all up in one word).

Hegemonic narrative and first counter-hegemonic measures

For an effective examination of the material production of art and the construction of a critical system that is related to it, it is certainly necessary not to neglect the confrontation with judgments and premises of the formalist historiographical current and the doctrine of “pure visibility”, interspersed with it. Both aesthetic doctrine and historiography, orbiting postures of contemplation, elaborated the hegemonic narrative of modern art.

The formalist visual doctrine, originally of Germanic expression, took root in the culturalist field, in turn, delimited by positivist neo-Kantianism and supported by historical bases established during the process of national unification and constitution of the German empire. Gaining ground in France after the massacre of the Commune (1871), the formalist current then gained support within the London Bloomsbury group (matrix of Roger Fry's critical doctrine [1866-1934]), and established itself in other countries. In this way, it also consolidated itself as the main doctrine of Anglo-American museology – guiding the acquisition of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, by Fry, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, by Alfred Barr Jr. (1902-81 ), disciple, one might say, of the latter.

In short, considered in the broader context that surrounded its international diffusion process, the formalist doctrine belongs, keeping its methodical and refined specificity, to the triumph of industrialization and to the culture of the so-called belle époque. Heir, in some way, to the counter-revolution of 1848, the current, also called “pure visibility”, witnesses, unscathed and without blinking, the bloody annihilation of the Commune, in 1871, as well as the global expansion of imperialism.

It is clear that in the field of modern art, in addition to formalist positivism, significant and innovative research in the sense of the social history of art appeared, as well as counter-narratives undertaken by non-formalist scholars (such as, in addition to those of Giulio Carlo Argan, Pierre Francastel ( 1900-70) and Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) or, more recently, de Guilbaut (1943), Timothy J. Clark (1943), Michael Leja (1951), Pepe Karmel (1955), as well as several other historians mainly Anglo-Americans); or even, before these, the narratives, with liberal historicist components, of historians belonging to the iconological or Warburgian matrix – in this case, more prone due to their origin to studies of ancient or pre-modern art (the postmodern version of this current , will be returned).

However, whatever their merits and even when exerting influence, the different alternatives to formalistic narration have not managed to objectively overcome the status of specific studies, about this or that author. In this way, they never gained systemic vigor, capable of putting at risk the formalist hegemony – which remained accepted as the true lingua franca in the international sphere of art circulation,[vii] until the advent of postmodern eclecticism.

Briefly, but by the way, let us note that the revivalism that brings – in line with post-modern taste – the device of Aby Warburg's (1866-1929) Mnemic Atlas – celebrated in exhibition cults during the course of several recent mega-exhibitions ( Madrid, 2011; Berlin, 2020, etc.) and whose base vector has multiplied, in one way or another, globally – it is not surprising, but rather it responds to the times.

In effect, the iconic vogue that we experience today, of rising tide or laissez-faire of images – contemporary with financial hypertrophy –, in fact, intensified what was and remains fundamental in the accumulative and eclectic system, conceived by Warburg. Thus, with the aim of establishing a vast cartography of images, the demarcation of loans, debts and derivations, verified in the course of the image trade, is always based on a supposed autonomy of iconological meanings, that is, on the excision of the image before its socio-historical context.

This fundamental blindness – regarding the constitutive and objective ties that unite signs and perceptual, cognitive, imaginary and many other relationships, with the historical and social conflicts in which they were constituted – is not a casual fact, but a methodical one. Enjoying a circulation similar to that of currency (certified as autonomous in relation to wealth-producing work), the images, thus collected, adapt to hoarding practices. Therefore, it is not fortuitous, but rather logical, that such a device is in vogue in the current cycle, the apogee of widespread financialization or what Karl Marx called “fictitious capital”.

In conclusion, bourgeois hegemony is clear in the historiography and criticism of the arts, no less than in the sphere of finance. Underestimating it is naivety. The formalist ascendancy, immediately hybridized by the Warburgian vogue, still persists in France and the United States through neostructuralist revivals of Germanic formalism. The resulting eclectic composition finds great acceptance in the United States and its areas of influence (just see the acceptance of the liberal New York magazine October, in ateliers and art schools).

Therefore, to radically and effectively reopen the discussion on the process of formation of modernism, it is essential to review in detail the theses that constituted the main pillars of the formalist systematization of modern art, namely: the fundamental chapter on Eduard Manet (1832 -1883), whose work was considered by the opticalist doctrine as the origin of modern painting and precursor of impressionism; the symbolist theses or those derived from this movement, regarding Cézanne (1839-1906), taken as the “classical” paradigm of modernism and the cornerstone of abstraction; and, correlatively, cubism, as a fundamentally abstract and non-realistic style. Certainly, all of this being linked to the situation and the correlation of forces that preceded the outbreak of the First World War, the historical course decisively altered the context of origin, revealing the inanity of all revivalist, timeless or normative discourse regarding the modern.

The critical dismantling of the formalist historiographical system must also include, as a culmination, the review of a decisive topic in the history of the rise of North American art: the formation and development of the New York School. It is crucial, in this sense, to question the central premise of the North American formalist narrative, which places this movement as a corollary of the so-called fundamental postulates of modern art.

Now, such a conception (idealist and nationalist) of the development of North American painting does not find any confirmation in the facts, nor in the conception and historical testimony of the artists themselves. The axis of the North American formalist narrative, despite culturalist claims, has its origins exclusively in the sphere of circulation: art galleries, critics linked to them and technical teams from museums – both under the influence of collectors and patrons. private.

Within the scope of North American historiography itself, rigorously documented research and studies by researchers such as Serge Guilbaut, Michael Leja, David Craven, Robert Storr, Pepe Karmel, Jeffrey Weiss and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, among others, have placed the phenomenon, beyond the legends and clichés, demonstrating the inanity of Greenberg's version of the rise of New York painting. This version, however, continues to be privileged for circulation and market purposes.


To construct a counter-discourse, it is absolutely impossible to deny the decisive importance of the work of the New York movement. Nor is it a question of just widening the spectrum of authors and works, as multiculturalism demands. But it is important to critically reopen the interpretation of the pantheon and canon built by formalism, in order to reinsert such works in historical situations, contexts and critical clashes that surrounded their creation. In other words, it is crucial, as much as revealing the concreteness of the original conflicts, to reveal the dimension of class maneuvers and the extraction of symbolic added value from formalist interpretative operations.

Contrary to such historiography, the path of investigation practiced along the path of Argan's reflection and criticism - that is, that of realism as the main guiding thread of modern art - chose to try to distinguish successively in the works of Manet, Monet (1840- 1926), Cézanne, Van Gogh (1853-90), Braque (1882-1963) and Picasso (1881-1973) different productive practices and critical modes. Therefore, the leitmotiv of the investigation consisted, in short, one might say, in the updating of realism as a way of exposing the manufacture of art and its processes.[viii]

However, the decisive experiences of modern art were constituted not only in terms of a reflection on the productive process itself, but also in an antithetical way to the destructive process and the related standardization caused by capitalist modernization (in a way analogous to what the Russian avant-garde sought to do in the face of the regime's option for State capitalism and the Bonapartist verticalization that affected the October Revolution).

Such was the dialectic proposed by Charles Baudelaire under different names (romanticism and Satanism, heroism and epic, etc.), but always postulated as antitheses to the bourgeois order. It was against this order that he returned the attack (before June 48), and fired with a unique sarcasm on the occasion of the Salon of 1846: “To the bourgeoisie. You are the majority – number and intelligence –, so you have strength – which is justice. Some scholars, others owners; – a bright day will come when scholars will be owners, and owners, scholars. Then your power will be complete, and no one will protest against it. Waiting for such supreme harmony…”[ix]

*Luiz Renato Martins He is a professor and advisor for the PPG in Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/HMBS). [https://amzn.to/46E7tud]

First part of the chapter. 13, “Political economy of modern art I”, from the original version (in Portuguese) of the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Other Essais, edition and introduction by François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset, Paris, editions Amsterdam (2024, first semester, proc. FAPESP 18/ 26469-9). I would like to thank Gustavo Motta for his work on reviewing the original.


[I] Cf. C. BAUDELAIRE, “Le Musée classique du Bazar Bonne Nouvelle”, in idem,Complete Oeuvres, text, text and annotation by C. Pichois, vol. II, Paris, Pléiade/ Gallimard, 2002, p. 409.

[ii] The term “rearguard art” is due to the criticism of Mário Pedrosa (1900-81), applied by him in a slightly different sense, but not contrary to that used here. See M. PEDROSA, “Variations without theme or the art of rearguard”, in M. PEDROSA, Arts Policy/ Mário Pedrosa: Selected Texts I, Otília Arantes (org. and presentation), São Paulo, Edusp, 1995, pp. 341-7.

[iii] Linked to the appearance of the Impressionists, the name derives from an observation, not without irony, by the critic Marc de Montifaud (pseudonym of Marie-Amélie Chartroule de Montifaud, 1845-1912): «If this small group could form a school, it would be -I would call it the “school of the eyes (school of yeux)” (Marc de Montifaud, «Exposition du boulevard des Capucines», L'Artiste, 1er May 1874, pp. 307-313). The epithet takes up, on its own, the comment made by the critic Armand Silvestre regarding the Impressionists: “Special eyes are necessary for that precision in the relationships of tones, which constitutes their honor and merit” (Armand Silvestre, «Chronique des Beaux -Arts», L'Opinion nationale, 22 April 1874). On the other hand, the mistake regarding Manet – which consists in seeing him as the first of the Impressionists – dates back to the next generation. At its origins lies the study of the German critic and historian Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935), author of Manet und der Impressionismus [Manet and impressionism] (1897-8), later taken up by the same author in his influential study of modern art, focusing mainly on French art (Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst: Ein Beitrag zur modernen Ästhetik [History of the development of modern art: a contribution to modern aesthetics], 3 vol., Stuttgart, 1904). Meier-Graefe, simultaneously trader and representative in Paris of some German art galleries, he was undoubtedly the first historian to have applied narratively the theory of “pure visibility”, by Konrad Fiedler (a hybrid of an aesthete of neo-Kantian extraction and a collector). In New York, the North American art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) later resumed it, under the name «opticalism (opticalism)", Meier-Graefe's ideas, as well as that of a painting whose strengths would be optical according to the paradigms associated with the appearance of the Impressionists. In effect, the ongoing process, during the so-called belle époque, was that of the divorce, based on neo-Kantian premises, between painting and its semantic tradition. Now, Manet in life, much closer to Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Émile Zola (1849-1902) than to the Impressionists – never underestimated, unlike the latter, the semantic dimension and the power of social and historical intervention of painting. On “opticalism” and the revival of the impressionist paradigm, thanks to Greenberg’s criticism, see Michael Fried, Manet's modernism or, the face of painting in the 1860s (Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 18-19 and also notes 51-54, pp. 462-463.

[iv] apud Giulio Carlo Argan, «Manet and Italian pittura», in From Hogarth to Picasso. L'Arte Moderna in Europe, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1983, p. 346.

[v] See Karl Marx and Frederick ENGELS, The Communist Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, Chicago, Haymarket, 2005, p. 44; The Communist Manifesto, trans. Maria Lucia Como, review André Carone, São Paulo, Paz e Terra, 1998, p. 14.

[vi] GC ARGAN, L'Europa delle Capitali/ 1600-1700, Milano, Skira Editores, 2004 [ed. br.: “The Europe of Capitals”, in idem, Image and Persuasion: Essays on the Baroque, org. Bruno Contardi, trans. Maurício Santana Dias, technical review and iconographic selection Lorenzo Mammì, São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2004, pp. 46-185].

[vii] Certainly, the critical and historiographical construction elaborated in the course of the constructivist-productivist debates, in the years following the October Revolution, constituted a vigorous counterpoint to the formalism of Germanic expression, hegemonic in the sphere of circulation and curation of large collections, private or not. Thus, the Russian revolutionary legacy, linked to the Left Front of the Arts (the LEF group [1923-1929]), left an invaluable collection of achievements, proposals and critical constructs, partially rescued in recent decades by detailed historiographical investigations (mostly in English). English), but to a large extent still to be discussed and explored, from the point of view of aesthetic reflection. However, within the framework of the long term and, even more so, in the face of the dark Stalinist Thermidor that stifled the October Revolution, the constructivist-productivist effort was liquidated, despite certain achievements remaining in the field of applied arts.

[viii] The notion of realism adopted by both Brecht and Argan is largely the same as that defined by Nikolai Tarabúkin (1889-1954) in 1923: “I use the concept of realism in the broadest sense, and I do not confuse it in any way with naturalism, which represents only one aspect of it – and, moreover, the most naive and most primitive aspect in terms of expression. Contemporary aesthetic consciousness has disconnected the notion of realism from the category of theme and transported it to the form of the work. The reproduction of reality is no longer the reason for realist efforts (as was the case for naturalists): on the contrary, reality is no longer, under any relationship whatsoever, the origin of the work. The artist constitutes his own reality in the forms of his art and conceives realism as the consciousness of the authentic object, autonomous as to its form and content” (“J'emploie le concept de realism au sens le plus large, et ne le confonds nullement avec le naturalisme qui n'en représente qu'un aspect – et de surcroît l'aspect le plus naïf et le plus primitif quant à l'expression. La conscience esthétique contemporaine arraché la notion de réalisme à la catégorie du sujet pour la transporter dans la forme de l'oeuvre. La copy de la réalité n'est plus motif à efforts réalistes (comme c´était le cas pour les naturalistes) : au contraire, la réalité cease d'être, sous quelque rapport que ce soit, à l'origine de l'oeuvre . The artist constitutes the forms of his art sa propre réalité et conçoit le réalisme comme conscience de l'object authentique, autonome quant à sa form et quant à son contenu) ». N. TARABOUKINE, “3. La voie du réalisme”, in idem, Le Dernier Tableau/ Du Chevalet à la Machine/ Pour une Théorie de la Peinture/ Écrits sur l'art et l'histoire de l'art à l'époque du constructivisme russe, presented to AB Nakov, trans. du russe par Michel Pétris et Andrei B. Nakov, Paris, editions Champ Libre, 1980, p. 36.

[ix] [«Aux Bourgeois/ Vous êtes la majorité, – nombre et intelligence ; – donc vous êtes la force, – qui est la justice. / Les uns savants, les autres proprietaires; – un jour radieux viendra où les savants seront proprietaires, et les proprietaires savants. Therefore, your task will be complete, and you will not protest against it. / En attendant in this supreme harmony (…)».Cf. Charles BAUDELAIRE, “Salon de 1846”, in idem, Complete Oeuvres, text, text and annotation by C. Pichois, Paris, Pléiade/Gallimard, 2002, vol. II, p. 415.

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