Notes on Aesthetics by György Lukács



The understanding of art as one of the human activities is done within an ontological register, as it “deals with the aesthetic as a moment of being, of social being”

The recent publication of the first volume of Aesthetics by György Lukács by Editora Boitempo perhaps brings the Hungarian author to the scene, after his prolonged “exile in post-modernity”, to use José Paulo Netto's happy expression.[I]

This is not an easy work for the reader, nor was it for the author. György Lukács's excessive theoretical ambition encountered insurmountable difficulties in writing the Aesthetics. The encyclopedic nature of the undertaking, following the example of Hegel's work of the same name, came up against the complexity of the 20th century and its effects on artistic production, as well as the gigantic accumulation of new knowledge in the scientific field. Furthermore, while Hegel deduced the historical phases from the internal development of the Idea, the Marxist György Lukács, on the contrary, wanted to capture the real process in its effectiveness, giving the priority of being over consciousness, an infinitely more difficult effort.

Na Aesthetics of Lukács, Hegel's idealism is mitigated by the observation that in art the object only exists because it was posed by the subject. The anteriority of the object, of matter over consciousness – the basis of all criticism of materialism to idealism – would therefore not be valid for artistic creation. With this modified formulation of the identical subject-object, György Lukács was able to make an intense materialist appropriation of the categories of Hegelian logic to, with them, build his Marxist aesthetics.

Nicolas Tertulian inventoried the “impressive number” of Hegelian concepts mobilized at the time: “the critique of the beautiful soul (die schöne Seele) Of the Phenomenology of Spirit (the scathing lines written by Hegel about interiority isolated in itself, refusing the contamination of contact with the effectiveness of the world, present themselves to Lukács as a premonitory questioning of the modern cult of “introversion”); the Hegelian description of to and from movement of subjectivity: alienation from oneself and “reintegration” (die Entaüsserung und ihre Rücknahme); the thesis about self-awareness as an internalizing memory (Er-Innerung) of the decisive stages of its development; the dialectic of self-consciousness as a dialectic of the distinct and the indistinct (Dialektik des Unterschiedenen); considerations about “ethical substance” (sittliche Substanz) as overcoming immediate, “natural” subjectivity, etc.”[ii]

It is interesting to note that György Lukács sticks mainly to phenomenology of the spirit and Science of logic, and not the grandiose Aesthetics from Hegel, to extract the “rational core” of dialectics, (the “true ontology”) and, with it, base his “Marxist aesthetics”. In this, art stops being the “sensitive manifestation” of the Spirit, as in Hegel, and starts to be understood as a special form of reflection – mimesis. The defense of realism, in the controversial forays of György Lukács in the 1930s, now takes on a new look, as it migrates from the epistemological sphere to ontology.

The novelty here is the founding presence of the work, a central theme in Ontology of the social being, but also appears in the Aesthetics. In the first book, György Lukács showed that work is an activity carried out together and, therefore, in addition to action on nature, action on men themselves is necessary to achieve a certain end. It is, therefore, in both cases, about making choices between alternatives. In the confrontation with nature: choosing among the use values ​​those to be pursued. In the second case: action on the conscience of other men. We therefore move from the economic sphere to the ideological one, where higher objectifications are located, such as law, philosophy, politics and art.

Art, in this way, is called upon to participate in the dispute between alternative values ​​that permeate social life. As an anthropomorphizing reflex, she finds herself grappling with the process of reification that relegates men to the condition of objects. “There is no innocent ideology”, wrote György Lukács in The destruction of reason. Art, therefore, is at the center of a dispute between alternative values. At this point, she continues the teleology of work. The best interpreters of György Lukács insisted on the correlation between work and art.[iii] The simplest forms of work already presupposed a correct reflection of reality, as well as knowledge of the causal chains present in the object to be transformed. The reflection is never a mechanical copy of reality, as this is not a “thing”, as Émile Durkheim would say and as naturalists portray it, who, like the founder of sociology, fall within positivism. Jean-Paulo Sartre once stated that the social fact is not a thing, but rather one thing is that it is a social fact, as it is a product of the social praxis of men and, therefore, full of meanings. Understood as a process, reality (the social fact) contains tendencies, latencies, open possibilities that challenge men and invite them to compete for the direction of the process.

Retrospective inferences – the autonomy of art

Na Aesthetics, a common literary motif brings Lukács closer to Hegel: the odyssey.

A phenomenology of the spirit narrates the odyssey of consciousness to absolute knowledge, through successive movements of alienation until reaching the knowledge of what it is in itself. At Aesthetics, Lukács narrates the odyssey of art in its long process of becoming autonomous in relation to magic and religion and then following its circular movement of departure and return to everyday life. In this movement, the subject loses himself in contact with external reality, and the individual, thanks to this contact, returns to everyday life enriched by the lived experience.

Also in Ontology of the social being, history is also interpreted in a Hegelian key as “the explanation of the being-for-itself of the human race”. The human race, as we have seen, begins its trajectory with the leap represented by work, signaling the transition from the organic being to the social being. The progressive development of human consciousness towards self-awareness replicates the Hegelian trajectory of consciousness “putting itself in line with reality” to thus become self-aware [iv].

Lukács warns that the “center” of his work is found in the “philosophical foundation” of the peculiar mode of aesthetic positivity and, therefore, “it does not penetrate the concrete questions of aesthetics”. The aim is to clarify “the place that aesthetic behavior occupies in the totality of human activities and human reactions to the external world” [v] . It is, therefore, an investigation of a philosophical nature in which “dialectical materialism” “dominates”, and not the “historical materialism” projected for the second and third parts (which ended up not being written).

I observe here the deviation in relation to the ontological perspective and its unitary character in this arbitrary separation between system and history and the consequent division of Marxism into two separate “disciplines”. Such division, curiously, did not exist in Hegel, a fact that deserved the best praise from Lukács, but reappears in Aesthetics to perhaps highlight the “orthodoxy” of the enterprise.

The unitary character of reality, claimed by dialectics, causes the same categories to reappear in all fields. These are not “the result of an enigmatic productivity of the subject”, but “constant and general forms of objective reality itself [vi]. They are, therefore, “reflective categories” or “determinations of reflection”, as Lukács stated with emphasis on the Ontology.

Praising Hegel's “philosophical universalism” and “systematic way of synthesizing”, Lukács intended, in the three envisaged parts of his Aesthetics, carry out “an approximation – only partial – of this elevated model”.[vii] Without much difficulty, critics realized the limits of this approach, as well as the deficiencies of some chapters (cinema, architecture, music). Not to mention the unusual inclusion of an entire chapter dedicated to gardening.

The same privilege, however, was not granted to lyrics, a central presence in pre-Marxist youth works.[viii] Poetry, in fact, has always been a permanent challenge for Marxism, as it, as a priority, privileges the historical and social character of aesthetic objectifications. How to capture the reflection of the outside world in the artist's subjectivity in a sphere as mediated as poetry? The first Marxist theorist to face this thorny challenge, Christopher Caudwell, made a bold approach between Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis. With this procedure, however, he broke with realism: poetry for him is irrational, as it springs from the most obscure mechanisms of the psyche, the unconscious. It does not reflect reality, but rather the artist's isolated subjectivity. Its educational function would consist of emotionally preparing individuals for social life, a preparation that has as its substrate not social life itself, but a previous, ahistorical instance, impenetrable to reason: the unconscious. In this way, social determinism gave way to indeterminacy [ix].

The universalism intended by Lukács – never fully achieved – had repercussions on the very structure of the work, leading it to a “disorderly growth”. Guido Oldrini observed in this regard: “The lack of organicity in the growth of Aesthetics it penetrates its contents in the same way, disturbing the doctrinal rigor of the exposition” [X].

Despite its gaps, the disorderly growth, the lack of organicity and doctrinal rigor, the absence of lyricism, the Aesthetics is a strong and insurmountable moment in Marxist studies on art, always remembering that Lukács' central reference continues to be literature and his commitment to valuing realism, an obsession that has accompanied him since the 1930s and that serves as a reference for studying the other artistic forms. But here another difficulty arises.

In literature, realism presupposes the narrative method, the use of typicality, the “adequate accentuation of the essential”, the omniscient narrator, etc. When generalizing the literary realist method, Lukács was faced with the resistance offered by other forms of artistic objectification. Guido Oldrini, noting the fact, stated: “It is difficult to find space in a realism of the type in arts such as painting or sculpture or music” [xi] . In fact, the object mimetically reproduced by music is not objective reality, but “the inner life of man”. The passage reality-inner life-music therefore includes a new mediation. Acting on the inner life, the world of music is a doubled reflection, the mimesis of mimesis. Therefore, we are led to a slippery “indeterminate objectivity”.[xii]

Specific issues aside, Lukács' work presents us with a powerful reflection on aesthetics. Although he modestly states that what he did is not original, but merely an explanation of Marx's ideas, the Aesthetics opens new paths that go far beyond Marxian texts, as well as previous theories about art. The effort to explain the peculiarity of the aesthetic and relate it to other human activities and, therefore, determine the specificity of the aesthetic reflection, starts from a first fact: everyday life. This is no longer the realm of “inauthenticity” (Heidegger) nor the territory of alienation (Adorno), but the solid ground where men act and where the struggle for the values ​​that should guide social development takes place. We are, therefore, facing an original and innovative ontological turn.

The starting point is man's conduct in everyday life, conceived through the Heraclitean image of a river in its uninterrupted course: from it, in the superior forms of reception and reproduction of reality, the scientific and aesthetic reflection emerge. Born from the needs of social life, these forms of objectification gradually become autonomous to “flow back into the river of everyday life” [xiii]. Everyday life, therefore, is a starting and ending point, permanently enriched by the development of all human activities. Art, in this sense, is not, as in some theories, a protected “national park” that, in its isolation, intends to remain distant from the “inauthenticities” of the real world. The understanding of art as one of the human activities, on the contrary, is done within an ontological register, as it “deals with the aesthetic as a moment of being, of social being” [xiv].

Art did not always exist and aesthetic sensitivity is not an innate gift, but an integral part of the humanization process or, as Marx said in the Manuscripts from 1844, “the formation of the five senses is the work of all past history”. A late product of historical development, art slowly and progressively asserted its autonomy in relation to other forms of activity (work, magic). Lukács does not intend to tell us the entire history of humanity to explain the formation and development of the categories that will form the aesthetic reflection.

It uses the research of authors such as Gordon Child, Lévy-Bruhl, Frazer, Pavlov, Thompson, etc., and. With this historical and anthropological reference, it aims to clarify the categorical structure that accompanied the formation of art. It also uses “retrospective inferences”, following the “present as history” method, which conceives “the evolutionary trends, the genetic starting points visible in the initial states, based on fully developed objectifications” [xv] .

The result of the undertaking, according to Rainer Patriota's fine observation, is bewildering: “Its categorical movement expands through accumulation and densification, generating increasingly richer complexes and thematic circles of mediations. However, the connections established by the philosopher are surprising, escaping conventional paths. The argument itself reproduces this procedure, branching out too easily, distancing itself from the thematic axis and developing in unexpected directions.” [xvi].

The genetic tracking of aesthetic categories follows the historical process, that is, the “retreat of natural barriers”. Categorical analysis and history are thought of in their unity. Lukács, therefore, studies the basic manifestations present in nature, which were gradually developed with the resources specific to art: rhythm, symmetry, proportion, ornamentation – the so-called “abstract forms of aesthetic reflection”. In the first volume of Aesthetics, Lukács studies in detail the migration of these natural manifestations to the world of human purposes, to the artistic terrain.

The elements of rhythm have always been present in nature (day and night, the four seasons that follow each other) and in the somatic existence of man (breathing, palpitation). We are still in the natural world, because only with the advent of work, of work done together, does rhythm begin to have a social utility, serving to pace human effort, establish regularity and predictability in the task and, in this way, mitigate the fatigue. Rhythm, at this moment, is a phenomenon of everyday life, very far from the abstract form it will take in art.

During the slave regime, says Lukács quoting Bücher, the pace of work was governed by “semi-animal sounds”, “meaningless”, expressing a lament, an emotional content, an evocation of self-awareness. A reflection of reality, the rhythm maintained its formal character, but gained an emotional content that gradually developed until it became universal, detached from work, became autonomous and, thus, entered the domains of aesthetics, leaving to be a complement to the work. The evocative function in an embryonic form becomes dominant, in telos.

The third and last of the abstract forms of reflection, ornamental, clearly explains an advanced moment in the process of art's autonomy. Both animals and humans remove objects from nature to use as adornments. Animals, however, are driven by physiological needs, while men seek to respond to social needs – for example, inserting signs of belonging to a certain community. Torn from the objective connections of the real world, natural objects make abstract connections of a predominantly geometric nature explicit, as, for example, in tapestry. Here, however, we do not reach the domain of aesthetics, as beauty is still at the service of utility. The process takes effect only when the geometric shapes are freed from usefulness to become content intended by the artist.

 The aesthetic reflection, in addition to presupposing knowledge of the material being worked on, also has an evocative character: it requires the intensification of significant features that remain latent in the immediate reality of everyday life. In this way, the artistic reflection is not a mere copy of reality, but its transfiguration into the world of human meanings. The long process of gestation of art came to full fruition in Greece, in that period that Marx called the “infancy of humanity”. Greek art, the product of a slave society that disappeared centuries ago, transcended social conditioning, providing, even today, according to Marx, “aesthetic delight” and persisting as an “insurmountable norm and model” of artistic creation.

The categorical tracking carried out by Lukács highlights the long process through which the various forms of objectification progressively gain autonomy and specialize in pursuing their specific ends. But they all reflect the same objective reality with the same categories that acquire specific characteristics and weights in each area of ​​activity.

Individual and gender

At all times, in Aesthetics, art is contrasted with science, as both are forms of knowledge. The conceptual knowledge of science runs parallel to the image knowledge provided by art. Lukács distinguishes the anthropomorphizing character of art from the de-anthropomorphizing character of science, from the intensive totality generated in the aesthetic reflection of the extensive totality of science, etc.

Art, considered in this way, provides us with a closed totality, a “own world” suitable for man, a sensitive and evocative reality. The writer creates a “homogeneous environment”, purified of contingencies, in which the trends present in reality are concentrated and made clear. In this way, leveling descriptivism gives way to narration that accentuates essential features. “Typical characters”, “typical situations”, “particularity”, these are the resources of art to overcome the emphasis on abstract generality or mere singularity and, thus, portray human dramas in a concentrated way. But to do so, the writer needs to delve deeply into reality and provide a faithful reflection of it. It must also go further: explain the potentialities of reality that are suitable for human purposes, that is, take sides in the defense of Humanitas, reaffirm the humanizing role of art [xvii].

It is important here to highlight the active conception of reflex. This is not a surrender to the in-itself of reality that condemns consciousness to the role of a passive mirror. Lukács, on the contrary, emphasizes the intentionality of consciousness that operates a selection and accentuation of significant features of reality that are in accordance with human interests. There is a dialectic driving the subject-object relations: neither mechanical mirroring nor complete autonomy of the aesthetic achieved by the preservation of the “beautiful soul” in its refusal to let itself be impregnated by the impurities of the objective world.

Nicolas Tertulian, attentive to the issue, observed that Lukács “places the intensification of self-awareness and the emphasis sui generis of subjectivity at the center of his aesthetic conception. The circular movement between self-awareness and knowledge of the world, between self-knowledge and rootedness in the experience of the world, between interiority and exteriority remains its central thesis”, to conclude that “the impregnation of subjectivity by the attributes of objective world determines, in the combustion of artistic creation, not its reabsorption or its annulment in objectivity, but, on the contrary, its true emergence”.[xviii]

Realism conceived as surrender to reality and, at the same time, intensification of subjectivity, brings to the foreground the evocative character of art, reconnecting the individual to the genre thanks to catharsis, identification with the dramas experienced by the characters. The cathartic effect of realistic art shows that the individual is not a loose piece, but an integral part of the life of the genre. Lukács, in one of several mentions of the topic, observed that in art “the evolutionary process of humanity refers immediately to each individual man. For artistic evocation proposes, above all, that the recipient experiences the refiguration of the objective world of men as its own thing. The individual must find himself – his own past or his present – ​​in this world, and thus become aware of himself as part of humanity and its evolution.” [xx].

It is important to emphasize this individual-gender connection that leaves behind the old opposition present in pre-Marxist works, as well as the classist vision of History and class consciousness. The reference that will guide Lukács from then on is Marx's criticism of Feuerbach, an author stuck with a sensualist naturalism. Marx pointed out the distance that separates the organic being from the social being: the fact that the first is mute. Animals, when procreating and educating their young, serve the genus, but without being aware of the existence of the genus. In a 1969 interview, Lukács refers to the Theses on Feuerbach to state that “man, even at a very primitive level, is a conscious member of a tribe” and, therefore, there are demands of gender in relation to the individual and of this in relation to gender. Man, therefore, is “an indivisible unity of individual and human race” [xx]. Antonino Infranca uses the expression in-dividuum to designate that unity that made the communicability of art and mimesis possible, the possibility of making the human voice heard – from you fable narratur.

From this vision that reconciles individual and gender, art is considered an important moment in the process of humanization, self-awareness and memory of humanity. In the words of Lukács: “It is a greatness of our time that the destiny of humanity penetrates more and more intensely as a reality in the consciousness of men, that men learn to live themselves in the present as parts of humanity, and that the past becomes presents them with ever greater clarity as a path traveled and overcome.” [xxx] . Art is, therefore, defined synthetically as “man’s self-awareness as a species”.

The emphasis on the positivity of the aesthetic reflection highlights the difference in relation to Walter Benjamin in his criticism of official history and in his proposal to “brush against the grain” of history to save what was forgotten in it. The same difference extends to Adorno who sees in art the possibility of rescuing what was repressed and denied by the civilizing process.

The last chapter of Aesthetics it meticulously follows the long process of art's autonomy through a dense narrative that accumulates historical and philosophical information, in a zigzagging, repetitive pace, which waves in different directions. The author's objective is to explain art's struggle to emancipate itself from magic and religion. In philosophy, the initial reference is Aristotle, the “discoverer of the peculiarity of the aesthetic”. Opposing the Platonic vision of art in the service of the human imitation of transcendence, of copying the copy, Aristotle proposed themes that would be dear to Lukács, such as the pedagogical force of art and the central role given to catharsis. Religious tradition was thus challenged, beginning the long struggle to autonomize art, which placed the earthly, cis-worldly orientation claimed by art against its subordination to transcendence. A similar movement occurred in science in its struggle to free itself from religious tutelage.

The historical conditions that favored or hindered the autonomy of art merited sparse comments from Lukács in his references to Greece, the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of capitalism, the Russian revolution, etc. Painters such as Fra Angélico, Raphael, Michelangelo, etc. were also mentioned. who, even though they shared the religious feeling of the period in which they lived, fought to free art from transcendence, placing the representation of man at the center of aesthetic figuration.

The defense of immanence and the refusal of transcendence has catharsis as its decisive element. It is no longer a question, as in Aristotle, of the purification of passions, as Lukács, in an ontological sense, seeks to connect the individual to the human race. Thus, catharsis “lifts man above his immediately given privacy, and shows him broad and deep perspectives, links of his narrowly personal and limited destiny with the essence of the surrounding world” [xxiii]. Back in everyday reality, the individual, who has gone through this defetishizing experience, can look at the world with different eyes.

In capitalist society, however, the links that connect man to society, man to other men, are hidden by the leveling dominance of the commodity. Says Lukács: “man in the present capitalist society lives in a completely objectified world whose dynamics decompose all concrete mediating links between man and society, with which he reduces all concrete relations of man with his fellow men, with the totality of types more diverse, to a direct relationship between mere privacy and pure economic-social abstractions” [xxiii].

The defetishizing mission of realistic art, centered on defending humanitarians, began with the prolonged process of art's autonomy in relation to magic and religion. At various times, Lukács insists that religion keeps the individual in privacy, restricted to the salvation of his soul, a feat of an individuality that relates to divinity, without mediation. (I note, by the way, that these reflections by Lukács were carried out before the advent of Liberation Theology, which began to emphasize the collective character of salvation).

The meaninglessness of earthly existence in the world of reification, says Lukács, makes man seek meaning in the beyond. Religious necessity, therefore, is thought of in ontological and no longer epistemological terms. Ideology is not an “error”, a product of superstition, a deviation of conscience as the Enlightenment thought. It responds to deep existential and social needs.

Against anything beyond religion, art calls for the immanence of meaning, for the faithful portrayal of the world of men, for the Socratic principle of “know yourself”. The claim for cis-worldliness, for the immanence of meaning, turns against the artistic currents that use allegory, whether in its ancient religious version or in avant-garde art.

Allegory and symbol

Aristotle defined allegory as a “continuous metaphor”, a figurative form in which one thing is represented to indicate another, something concrete is represented to indicate an abstract idea. The classic example of the allegorical procedure is the depiction of justice: a woman blindfolded, with a sword in one hand and a scale in the other. This is obviously an arbitrary representation, as a blindfolded woman is someone who cannot see, a woman with a sword is a warrior, a woman with scales is a merchant, etc. This chaotic figuration, however, only makes sense when interpreted outside of its immediacy. It is the idea of ​​justice, in this case, that gives meaning to this chaotic image. Without it, without recourse to the other, to a universal, to a transcendent element that goes beyond what is represented, to a beyond, the representation becomes meaningless.

Realism (or symbol) developed against allegory, which seeks an immanent figuration. The classic opposition between the two procedures was formulated by Goethe and cited by Lukács in Aesthetics: “There is a great difference whether the poet seeks the particular for the universal, or whether he contemplates the universal in the particular. From the first comes allegory, in which the particular is only valid as an example, as a paradigm of the universal; the second, however, is typical of the nature of poetry: it expresses a particular without thinking about the universal or without indicating it”.[xxv]

The universal and particular categories were also mobilized by the neo-Hegelian philosopher Benedetto Croce in his critique of allegory. According to his understanding, the artistic image “is such when it unites a sensible with an intelligible, and represents an idea”. Allegory, on the contrary, has a “frigid and anti-artistic” character; it “is the extrinsic union or conventional and arbitrary approximation of two spiritual facts, of a concept or thought and an image, whereby it is stipulated that this image must represent that concept”. This insurmountable dualism would be resolved in the symbol, because in it “the idea is no longer present in itself, thinkable separately from the symbolizing representation, and the latter is not present in itself, representable in a living way, without the symbolized idea. The idea completely dissolves in the representation (…) like a lump of sugar dissolved in a glass of water, which is and operates in each water molecule, but we no longer find it as a lump of sugar” [xxiv].

Despite the Hegelian matrix, the two authors follow different paths in defending the symbol. For Croce, art is a product of intuition. Speaking about poetry in Breviary of Aesthetics, he states that it is “lyrical intuition” or “pure intuition”, in the sense that it is pure from any historical and critical reference to the reality or unreality of the images from which it is woven, and captures the pulse of life in its ideality” [xxv]. Lyrical intuition, a product of intuition (and not perception), remains separate from any contact with the outside world. Nothing could be further from Lukács' realistic conception, which understands art as a reflection, emphatically highlighting its social and historical character.

The problematic cycle of the pleasant

In the fourth volume of Aesthetics there is a surprising chapter entitled “The problematic cycle of the pleasant”, a moment in which Lukács studies the “fluid border” between great art and smaller productions such as soap operas, detective films, comics etc., which may please, arouse our interest, but do not fit into what Lukács understands as art. The inclusion of this chapter within the general architecture of the work is strange.

Guido Oldrini considers it a deviation, “adding more disorder to disorder” in a work that, as he stated, suffers from disorderly gigantism. The Italian critic observes that Lukács: “is concerned with an issue which, far from entering again into just one of the “marginal issues of aesthetic mimesis”, as a specific issue (…) could be the introduction to a unified general treatment of all semi-arts or pseudo-arts, or arts inclined to strange tasks (such as belletristics in relation to literature), without, however, ever entering into any relationship with the authentic arts” [xxviii] .

Agnes Heller, in the opposite direction, although reaffirming the centrality of “authentic arts” in Lukács' thought, observed that he sometimes “seems surprisingly close to some postmodern theoretical positions. A man who was so attracted to the unity of life and culture in popular festivals would have been the last to object to the happenings. Likewise, he would deeply sympathize with the idea of ​​“artistic practices” in everyday life. (…). He distrusted the “high priests” of culture and considered the cultural market to be a loci much less appropriate for art and literature than any street corner.” [xxviii].

Both the demand for expository rigor defended by Oldrini and the benevolent and sympathetic attitude that Heller attributed to Lukács (certainly a product of the disciple's long coexistence with the master) do not give up the defense of the specificity of the aesthetic reflection. The question posed, therefore, concerns the uncomfortable presence of this strange body, of pseudo-art, within serious aesthetic reflections – whether seen as a deviation or with benevolent sympathy. In any case, we are facing exclusion, as art hovers above not only smaller works that can please and excite us, but also the immediacy of everyday life that they cannot transcend. To highlight the “altitude” of art, Lukács used a topographic image: “the totality of life's phenomena is an undulating landscape from which works of art stand out like peaks or high mountain ranges.” [xxix].

The superior role given to art, however, is not done in opposition to life. This, observes Lukács, is not an imperfect material to be “corrected” by art, as idealism wants, nor, we add, a negation, as Adorno wants. It is also not correct to dissolve the aesthetic in men's daily lives as certain artistic trends would like. Art, as we saw previously, is born from everyday life and returns to it to expand men's consciousness. Here lies the “decisive criterion” that separates, according to Lukács, the two forms of objectification: art overcomes private singularity by connecting the individual to gender. This movement of overcoming, which educates man by putting him in contact with the epic of the genre, does not exist in minor forms, regardless of the techniques they use, the content they focus on and the formal innovations. In them, private singularity remains without being overcome, restricted to social class, nationality, etc., without producing an increase in men's social consciousness.

Therefore, Lukács implicitly admits the limits of his aesthetics, restricted to masterpieces. These, however, are few and coexist with others that “appear artistic, penetrate the field of art and are a statistical majority”. The barrier between them persists. Lukács takes up the phrase from the Old Testament, according to which many are called, but few are elected, to add: “there are still many more who are not even called (…), but it must be noted that it is aesthetically essential to draw with the limits between the uncalled, the called and the elected, and, on the other hand, that it is also essential to recognize, including from the point of view of aesthetics, the need and existential justification of this very broad movement that does not reach the aesthetic except in exceptional culminations” [xxx] .

It is therefore necessary to understand the existential needs that lead the vast majority of the public to consume artistic productions included in the “problematic cycle of the pleasant”. To satisfy the public, says Lukács, an “industry” of the pleasant was formed which, like Adorno’s cultural industry, satisfies the need for “pleasant emotions”. But such needs should not be ignored, as they are “moments of life” and, as such, should deserve the attention of those who understand Marxism as an ontology of social being. Lukács states regarding small literature that aesthetic failure “does not nullify its role in the daily lives of men” [xxxii].

Lukács's militant spirit notes the exclusion of the “unelected” and “uncalled” as well as the fact that there are existential needs for the vast majority of the public. But, how can we account for this enormous production that coexists with the few masterpieces enjoyed only by the intellectual elite? One can follow the easy path of denouncing great art, of condemning it as a child of privilege, an accomplice of class domination or, at the limit, denying the humanizing character of art, as the great critic George Steiner did. On several occasions, he pointed out the coexistence of aesthetic sensitivity with barbarism.

I quote one of the passages: “Men like Hans Frank, who administered the “final solution” in Eastern Europe, were avid connoisseurs and, in some cases, interpreters of Bach and Mozart. We know that members of the bureaucracy of torturers and ovens cultivated a knowledge of Goethe, a love of Rilke […]. One of the main known works on the philosophy of language, in the entire interpretation of Hölderlin's poetry, it was composed almost at the distance of being able to hear what was happening in an extermination camp. Heidegger's pen did not stop, nor did his mind remain mute”.[xxxi]

Art alone clearly does not have the power to stop barbarism. Lukács was very cautious about the effectiveness of the art and the predisposition of the recipient. There are many factors that prevent or hinder the reception of art and the individual's reunion with the human race. Furthermore, Lukács places himself in a historical and anthropological perspective, understanding humanization as a long process subject to setbacks that interfere with the enjoyment of art.

The question of borders, however, remains. Decades after Lukács wrote the Aesthetics, a debate began in literary departments about the canon, the referential masterpieces of each historical period [xxxii]. Evidently, the selection criteria adopted are always subject to revision: works that have an impact in a certain period can be reevaluated, works that remained in the shadows become valued. Alongside literary criteria, identity movements loudly demand the inclusion of works that represent so-called minorities. The “literary field”, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, became the scene of a fierce dispute for recognition that goes well beyond aesthetic criteria.

Lukács, as we have seen, sticks only to great culture, to the “peaks” and “high mountain ranges”, which coexist with the “undulating landscape” where a subliterature proliferates that follows in the footsteps of canonical works, tries to copy their procedures without manage to overcome the sphere of “merely pleasant”. Its overwhelming presence in everyday life demands an explanation from Marxism. This is a difficult challenge for those who are used to looking “upwards”, at canonical works. Few Marxist authors deigned to look “below”, as Mikhail Bakthin and Antonio Gramsci did.

Mikhail Bakthin wrote important works about popular culture, highlighting its transgressive character. Comedy is finally valued, remembering that the aesthetic tradition that goes back to Aristotle did not consider it art, as it “does not educate”.

Antonio Gramsci went beyond Mikhail Bakhtin when studying the different forms of popular culture (folklore, detective novels, melodrama, etc.), pointing out their contradictory and ambiguous character, and not just transgressive. The fascination with the culture consumed by “subalterns” shines through in one of his letters: “I have a blessed ability to find interesting aspects even in the lowest intellectual production, such as serial novels, for example. If I had the opportunity I would accumulate hundreds and thousands of files on various topics of diffuse social psychology” [xxxv]. To cope with these productions, Gramsci broke with his old master Benedetto Croce and his “coldly aesthetic” interpretation, taking as a model Francesco De Sanctis and his militant criticism guided by a “passionate fervor” of profound humanity and humanism. [xxxiv].

Croce shares with Lukács the commitment to formulate an aesthetic theory using Hegel as a reference. But, in your philosophy of the spirit aesthetics remains on a contemplative plane, while in the Marxist Lukács these two spiritual spheres – philosophy and aesthetics – are closely linked to everyday life, to the passions that drive men, to the class struggle. Nothing, therefore, similar to Crocian “coldness”.

Gramsci, in turn, moved the analysis from the aesthetic field, in which Croce and Lukács are located, to the cultural field. Art, for him, should be seen as an integral part of culture. In this way, he opened a fruitful path to studying that sphere that Lukács called “the problematic cycle of the pleasant”, so important in everyday life (starting and ending point of artistic objectification) that, nevertheless, remained outside his monumental aesthetics. , like an uncomfortable counterpoint.

*Celso Frederico He is a retired professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula) []


[I] NETTO, José Paulo. “G. Lukács: an exile in postmodernity”, in Unrepentant Marxism (São Paulo: Cortez, 2004).

[ii] TERTULIAN, Nicolas. “The thoughts of the last Lukács”, in October, number 16, second half of 2007), p. 239.

[iii] See VEDDA, ​​Miguel. “The concrete suggestion (Buenos Aires: Gorla, 2006) and INFRANCA, Antonino. Work, individual, history. The concept of work in Lukács (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014).

[iv] HEGEL, G.W. Phenomenology of Spirit (México-Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Econômica, 1966), p. 291

[v]  LUKÁCS, Georg. Aesthetics, vol. I (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2023), p. 153.

[vi] Idem, P. 196.

[vii] Idem, P. 154.

[viii] See SILVA, Arlenice Almeida. “Lyrism in György Lukács”, in Kriterion, 50, June, 2009.

[ix] See CAUDWELL, Christopher. Illusion and reality: a Marxist poetics (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1972).

[X] OLDRINI, Guido. György Lukács and the problems of Marxism in the XNUMXth century (Maceió: Coletivo Veredas, 2017), p. 387.

[xi]. Same, p. 388.

[xii] LUKÁCS, Georg. Aesthetics, vol.4, Preliminary aesthetic considerations (Barcelona-Mexico: Grijalbo, 1967), pp. 8 and 44.

[xiii] LUKÁCS, Georg. Aesthetics, vol.1, cit., P. 154.

[xiv] LUKÁCS, Georg. Thought lived. Autobiography in dialogue (Santo André: Ad Hominem/Federal University of Viçosa, 1999), p. 139.

[xv] LUKACS, G. Aesthetics, Vol. 2 (Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1965), p. 153.

[xvi] PATRIOT, Rainer. The subject-object relationship in Aesthetics by Georg Lukács: reformulation and outcome of an interrupted project. cite, p. 16.

[xvii] It makes no sense, therefore, to José Guilherme Merquior's criticism, which, amid praise, states that Lukács has a “political vision of art” linked to a narrow sociologism prisoner of extra-literary factors: “The category of type, derivation of Hegelian particularity, mediator between the singular and the universal, becomes the core of his aesthetics. However, if the type embodies a social trend – in fact, the direction of the social movement – ​​its reflection covers not only the present, but also, or above all, the future. Not all reality is socialist, Albert Camus reminded us. Us Essays on realism, Lukács even considers the guy a “prophetic figure”. However, where does the determination about the prophetic value of the type, if not the political spirit, of the messianism of Marxist theory come from?” MERQUIOR, José Guilherme, Art and society in Marcuse, Adorno and Benjamin (Rio de Janeiro: Tempo Brasileiro, 1969, pp. 70-71). Lukacs's reference to the human race has nothing to do with politics (remembering that many Marxist authors criticized Lukács for his apoliticalism). The defense of Humanitas and the evocative character of art, in turn, is far from any imputation of sociologism.

[xviii] TERTULIAN, Nicolas. Georg Lukács. Stages of your aesthetic thinking (Unesp: São Paulo, 2003), pp. 262-263.

[xx] LUKACS, G. Aesthetics, Vol. 3 (Barcelona-Mexico: Grijalbo, 1967), pp. 308-309.

[xx] LUKACS, G. Essential are the unwritten books (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020), p. 134.

[xxx] LUKACS, G. Aesthetics, Vol. 2, cit., P. 192.

[xxiii] Idem, P. 476.

[xxiii] Idem, P. 522.

[xxv] Idem, P. 424.

[xxiv] CROCE, Benedetto. Aesthetics breviary. Aesthetica in nuce (São Paulo: Ática, 1997), pp. 47-48.

[xxv] Idem, P. 156.

[xxviii] OLDRINI, G. György Lukács and the problems of 20th century Marxism, cit., P. 378.

[xxviii] HELLER, Agnes. “Lukács and the Holy Family”, in Fehér, Heller, Radnoti, Tamas, Vadja, Dialectic of forms. The aesthetic thought of the Budapest School (Barcelona: Península, 1987), p. 182.

[xxix] LUKACS, G. Aesthetics, Vol. 4, cit., P. 217.

[xxx] Idem, P. 250.

[xxxii] Idem, P. 207.

[xxxi] STEINER, George. At Bluebeard's Castle. Some notes for redefining culture (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1991), p. 88. Similar observations can be found in Language and Silence (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1988): “we have very little solid evidence that literary studies effectively contribute to enriching or stabilizing moral perception, which they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies actually makes man more human”, p. 81.

[xxxii] See BLOOM, Harold. The western canon. Books and the school of time (Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 1995, third edition).

[xxxv] GRAMSCI, A. Prison Letters, Vol. 1 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2005), p. 176.

[xxxiv] GRAMSCI, A. Prison Notebooks, Vol. 6 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2000), p. 66.

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