Event, History, and the Work of Art

Here’s material from a talk I gave at the Vanguards / Avant-Gardes: Aesthetics, Politics, History symposium that was held in early April at the University of California at Santa Cruz. These remarks expand on lines of thought that I pursue in a lengthy introduction to my translation of the first volume of György Lukács’s The Specificity of the Aesthetic, which is soon to be published as part of Brill’s Lukács Library.

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Though his expansive accounts and defenses of realism have long since tended to make György Lukács either the boogeyman or the strawman of modernist literary studies, a symposium on vanguards and avant-gardes seems as good a place as any to note that the historical avant-gardes in fact provide an even more formative context for assessing the preoccupations and ambitions of Lukács’s attempts to develop a fully systematized aesthetics, both early in his life in the (never completed) Heidelberg Philosophy of Art (1912-1914) and the Heidelberg Aesthetics (1916-1918) and later in both volumes of The Specificity of the Aesthetic (published in 1963, but, again, never completed). I say “more formative” because situating Lukács’s writings on art and realism in terms of the historical avant-gardes helps us to get down to the principles informing those writings, whereas pitting Lukácsian realism against modernism often just ends up validating a pretty superficial and assumptive narrative in the periodization of art, with Lukács cast as the old fogey holding onto a way of making art (realism) that is no longer possible and needs to make way for the new (be it modernism or, later, postmodernism). What is ultimately at stake in art for Lukács, however, is far more than just a disciplinary squabble over whether or how to periodize. At issue is the possibility for works of art to exist in the first place and the roles they can play (so long as they continue to exist) in the transformation of everyday life into an area of human activity that is more receptive and hospitable to the process of radical democratization.

Early in his career Lukács focuses his attention on a critique, not of art, but of works of art: “There are works of art,” he famously writes at the beginning of both of his Heidelberg volumes, before he goes on to ask, “how are they possible?”[i] As oft-quoted as this sentence indeed is, however, what frequently gets overlooked in it (and in his two early aesthetic manuscripts more broadly) is the degree to which this guiding question is one that historical avant-gardes like Italian Futurism were making thinkable in the first place through their disparate attacks on the very institutions of art itself. As detailed influentially by Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), these attacks took aim at the autonomy ascribed to the work of art, and they did so in order to intervene more directly and effectively into everyday life, in order to become events or revolutionary caesuras (“Artocracy” is Marinetti’s word for it) in the lives of those with whom they came into contact. In Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements (2015), Aleš Erjavec refers to such avant-garde movements as “aesthetic avant-gardes,” which he defines by their efforts to “seek to effect aesthetic revolutions, that is, to substantially affect and transform our ways of experiencing and sensing the world, to change in important ways the manner in which we perceive and experience reality.”[ii] Accordingly, the very category of the work of art itself became ambiguous under the pressures exerted upon it by many of these aesthetic avant-gardes, for which a work of art was neither an event-like action nor an artifact left behind by that eventlike action but rather the virtual (that is to say, real but not actual) synthesis of action and artifact. This shift in conception likewise transformed the very nature of aesthetic judgment from a contemplation of beauty into a question of art is in the first place, and the result has often been that what counts as art nowadays is simply the product of a successful speech act.

I want to tarry with these three areas—the status of the work of art, the relationship of art to the everyday, and the transformation of art into the event—because they make salient the degree to which Lukács’s late aesthetics conspicuously grapples with the dilemmas posed by the historical avant-gardes. It is worth remarking at the outset, of course, that Lukács rejects the stance adopted by the historical avant-gardes in all three of these areas: whereas these historical avant-gardes called into question the very existence of the work of art, Lukács makes the autonomous work of art the foundation of his aesthetics; whereas the historical avant-gardes sought to directly intervene into and radically transform the everyday, Lukács insists that art is indeed tasked with responding to the everyday, albeit in a mediated way that suspends any direct relation; and whereas the historical avant-gardes tried to bring about the event directly, Lukács asserts that works of art are ultimately not revolutionary happenings so much as occasions for habit-forming comportments (in other words, more mundane temporalities are called for by them than those conjured forth by the sudden and radical overturnings of the event).

In no small part, this all follows from Lukács’s overriding ambition in The Specificity of the Aesthetic, which is to offer a systematic and consistent account of Marxist aesthetics that relates art, its creation, and its reception not only to all other significant areas of human life (especially to science and the everyday) but also to the behaviors that have promoted or impeded the genesis of art as such throughout the history of the human race in different parts of the world. This entails addressing many areas that otherwise might seem extraneous to aesthetics. For instance, Lukács elaborates at length the principles by and anthropological conditions under which art and science have respectively detached themselves from everyday life, labor, magic, and religion as modally differentiated ways of reflecting a shared reality over the course of millennia. The first volume of The Specificity of the Aesthetic does, however, devote a great deal of attention to the long-drawn-out development of some notable abstract components of form (in particular, rhythm, symmetry, proportion, ornamentation) that have long since been incorporated into works and performances now legible to us as art. Further developing the implicit claim that mimesis is not merely receptive behavior but rather an active form of the acquisition of reality that is not limited to art but rather extends to all higher organized forms of life, Lukács later goes on to itemize and expansively describe the mimetic qualities of art objects that inform and are shaped by the properly aesthetic comportments that ought to be adopted toward them by creators and receivers alike.

In this view the aesthetic sphere is a hard-won zone of highly mediated human activity that is characterized by pluralism in terms of the genres, works, and forms of art it encompasses, though these are all nevertheless ultimately linked together by a shared defetishizing mission that we as their users and makers can fail to live up to. The cost of such a failure—and it is a failure that Lukács would say all of the historical avant-gardes respectively court—is that in the end we do not see the art object or performance for what it truly is nor do we act upon the opportunity it provides for us to reshape our own subjectivities by means of the variety of catharsis-like experiences called forth by such objects and performances. Lukács undertakes all of this while moreover venturing a grand unified theory of social action whereby the autonomous forms of disanthropomorphizing reflection (science) and of anthropomorphizing reflection (art) each in their own way help to cultivate a deeper engagement with the vita activa of a group or people in their everyday lives. Whereas the disanthropomorphization performed by science leads to an ever-greater conscious awareness of human activity and the surrounding world that exists both in relation to and independent of that activity, the anthropomorphization commenced by art is said to eventuate in nothing less than the self-consciousness of the human race as such. This means that, when used by creator and receiver alike in the ways set forth in The Specificity of the Aesthetic, art allows us both to meaningfully experience the identity of the individual with the human (of the singular with the universal) and—just as importantly—to contest, transform, and progressively expand the very definition of what it is to be human by means of the new orientations toward action that are disclosed by such an experience.

Genuine art thus depicts bearings toward a surrounding world and toward a given universal that we believe should be kept hold of as defining features of what it is to be human. Importantly, however, Lukács insists that these features are not given in advance: “If we have determined art to be the self-consciousness of mankind’s development, then the aspect of continuity has thereby become the focal point. On the one hand, because only in this way can the static, idealist presumption of the ‘universally human’ be avoided: it is not a question of the actualization of a humanity that is given a priori (in the idea) nor is it the dialectical unfolding of such an ‘idea,’ in which, as in the Hegelian system, the end contains within itself as concrete fulfillment everything that already existed in abstract form at the beginning. The continuity intended here has no teleological character of this sort. It is—precisely in the literal sense—a real development that has actually taken place in its real ups and downs, with its real branches, attempts, regressions, etc.” Even what counts as the human in the present in its relationship to the past is subject to contestations that do not hold the promise of unimpeded further advance. The precarity of holding on to what has been gained in our humanization as a species and the possibility for further progress remain ineluctably linked and hence are subject to historical conditions that variably promote, obstruct, or otherwise confound momentous changes in what it is to be human, both as this is encountered in meaningful everyday experiences and as such experiences get reflected in art.

On the other hand, however, this emphasis on the historical nature of art’s revelation of the self-consciousness of mankind carries with it an implication that bears the occulted impress of the attacks of the historical avant-gardes on the institutions of art and on the autonomy of the work of art itself. After all, it suggests that the work of art which ceases to disclose to us aspects of human development that are worth holding on to is no longer, properly speaking, art. In order to remain art, a work or performance must thus carry with it the vivid sense that it continues to have a bearing on us: “the aesthetic evocation of the past is the lived experience of this continuity, not the lived experience of something that is supposedly ‘universally human’ for all time. We remain conscious of a temporo-historical remoteness, and yet we are immediately faced with a nostra causa agitur in fates, people, etc. that have long since vanished: this tension betokens this temporo-historical side of the aesthetic as the self-consciousness of mankind; [. . .] it is the memory of mankind at the same time. However, whereas memory performs all sorts of functions in everyday life (among other things, merely registering and keeping ready to hand facts that can perhaps be of practical importance for the person concerned), the central function that is exclusively operative here is that of bringing up to date.” Lukács does not tarry with or expound upon the implication that it is therefore possible for specific works of art to cease to make their cause our own and accordingly to be worth our efforts to make them contemporary, but it remains in play whenever he emphasizes the continuity of art and its ability to perform its role as the self-consciousness and memory of the human race.

When read between the lines, The Specificity of the Aesthetic thus implicitly offers its own qualified version of the death (or end) of art argument that the historical avant-gardes raised and that has attracted a great deal of attention—critical, revisionary, or otherwise—since Hegel’s formulation of it in his introduction to Lectures on Aesthetics. For Hegel, the death of art means simply that the highest vocation available to spirit is no longer to be found in the realm of art: “For us art counts no longer as the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself. [. . .] We may well hope that art will always rise higher and come to perfection, but the form of art has ceased to be the supreme need of the spirit. No matter how excellent we find the statues the Greek gods, no matter how we see God the Father, Christ, and Mary so estimably and perfectly portrayed: it is no help, we bow the knee no longer [before these artistic portrayals].”[iii] The death of art thus does not mean that genuine works of art have ceased to be made or that they necessarily fail to improve upon the art of the past. Hegel cannot be refuted by adducing the works of Dickinson, Gauguin, Schoenberg, or Le Corbusier. Instead, his death of art thesis entails that “art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. [. . .] The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is” (1:11). From here on out, philosophy and aesthetics lead the way, and new art either does or does not follow (if it even matters whether art does so or not).

More recently, Arthur C. Danto has returned to and revised this Hegelian view to argue instead that philosophical concerns have indeed increasingly become the focus in art (Danto’s periodization is “circa 1900,” but it stretches as far back as the Nazarene movement in the early 1800s and goes all the way to the present), which means that these concerns are being worked out in art itself by artists themselves. Works of art have become a way of philosophizing, and the root of many of their concerns has to do with “the problem of what makes something art when something phenomenally indistinguishable from it is not art.”[iv] In short, what makes Warhol’s Brillo boxes legible as works of art that are distinct from Brillo boxes for sale at a grocery store? According to Danto, the answer to this question for the time being cannot come from what we see of the two sets of boxes but rather from how well or poorly the Brillo boxes made by Warhol fit our particular understanding of what the essence of art is or might be. What Warhol makes conspicuous, however, is the necessary failure of any such understanding to “be compatible with all possible sets of manifest properties” of everything designated as art (345). That is to say, art made “circa 1900” marks the end of one way of telling the story of what art is, and ours is a period of confusion (masked by pluralism) until the next chapter of the story or a new way of telling all of the chapters up to this point presents itself: “But once art makers are freed from the task of finding the essence of art [. . .] they too have been liberated from history, and have entered the era of freedom. Art does not end with the end of art history. What happens only is that one set of imperatives has been lifted from its practice as it enters what I think of as its posthistorical phase” (344).

Lukács would accede to neither Hegel’s nor Danto’s arguments. In the case of Hegel, the death of art argument is clearly an artifact of subjective idealism, which Lukács repeatedly criticizes and contrasts with his own dialectical and historical materialism. He certainly does not understand all modes of reflecting reality to be equal, but the hierarchy structuring those modes articulated by Lukács in The Specificity of the Aesthetic does not, for instance, place art above science or science above art; instead, he sees both as significant achievements in the reflection of a shared reality, and passing judgments as to which better serves man’s highest vocation at this moment in time is not a problem we are being asked to solve, either by history or by its bearing upon our contemporary everyday needs. More specifically, as to the relationship of art to philosophy, Lukács explicitly insists that it is art, not aesthetics, which has always called the tune: “Even in the case of great figures such as Aristotle, [the philosophy of art] always only cropped up post festum, and its most significant results were, just as in the works of Aristotle, the conceptual fixing in place of a level of artistic development that had already been achieved. This is not an accident.” That is to say, Hegel’s “truth and life” still happen in genuine art, and while we may need a philosophy of art and of the human senses (in a word, an aesthetics) to conceptualize their co-occurrence, this “truth and life” cannot make self-conscious subjects or personalities of us by means of our thinking alone; instead, the happening of art’s “truth and life” can only come to pass in the total effect of works of art on their creators and receivers. Aesthetics gives us the means of theorizing the stakes of this encounter and the norms by which it has been ensured over time, but it is no substitute for the meaningful experiences that such an encounter calls forth in us—mentally, bodily, and spiritually. Aesthetics thus follows art, not the other way around.

Yet this does not mean that Danto’s end of art argument must be swallowed whole either. Lukács insists that the continuity of art and the human over thousands and thousands of years calls for philosophy to specify the customary expectations, forms, and experiences by which that continuity has been evoked, which means that genuine works of art are never free of the essence of art or of the need to relate to the history of art. Such “liberated” works may be called art by us today, but Lukács would insist that they will not survive the test of time or the demands for continuity. Or if they were to persist as art, then that would be because their liberation from essence and history was ultimately an occulted expression of a momentous transformation of that essence and history which has since been incorporated into the ongoing formation of art. That is to say, the version of the death or end of art argument tacitly expressed by The Specificity of the Aesthetic never ceases to posit that art will endure as an autonomous sphere of human activity so long as there exist people receptive to works and performance that do indeed evocatively carry out the humanizing and memorializing tasks he describes, in spite of the assaults made on art by the historical avant-gardes. While Lukács does not address a prospective coming world in which art as such will have ceased to perform these tasks, individual works of art (irrespective of their age, familiarity, or venerability) are by not guaranteed to continue to fulfill them into the future. In this view, the end of art prompting the speculations of Danto is merely the confused acknowledgment that the ludic provocations of the avant-garde and postmodernism will have always never been art.

In no small part, the inability of the historical avant-gardes to be art worthy of the name for Lukács has to do with their attempts to dissolve the work of art into everyday life, whereas The Specificity of the Aesthetic defends the autonomy of the work of art from the everyday even as it elaborates the specific ways in which the work of art flows from and back into the everyday. On the one hand, Lukács argues, we lose ourselves in the performance or work of art so as to gain a heightened sense of ourselves as personalities that we otherwise likely would not obtain. On the other, we thereby enter into a mediated relationship to the object world that appears immediate. This second immediacy achieved in art as an intensive this-worldly transcendence is in striking contrast to religion, where second immediacy is founded on an otherworldly transcendence, and to reification, where there is second immediacy but no transcendence.

The this-worldly transcendence of art’s second immediacy is the meaningful experience of the aesthetic subject’s being at one with the human race, of being what Lukács calls der Mensch ganz [the man-made-whole]. This otherwise purely intellectual sense of identification necessarily takes on an intensively lived, felt, and undergone quality in art that only happens by way of exception (if ever) in the everyday. The whole man of the everyday [der ganzen Mensch] is always an integral unity of body, mind, sensory impressions, and personal memory, but only by means of art is he made to experience himself as being in complete continuity (affectively and cognitively) with the species of which he and all other humans are a constitutive part. Our being a part of the human race is not something that subsumes us but rather is experienced as inhering within us by means of the work of art. The measuring-stick for aesthetic subjectivity is thus necessarily relational (the creator and/or receiver of art in terms of the human species), which Lukács insists prevents it from lapsing into mere subjectivism and accords to art an idiosyncratic objectivity that nevertheless possesses an essentially subjective character (the anthropomorphizing of art does not cut it off from objectivity, but it does demand that objectivity in art always be related back to man, that the intensive totality of the work of art reflect a social totality). The corollary of this claim is that aesthetics is ultimately a matter of comportment, of a way of behaving, which contrasts strikingly with the way in which most other aesthetic theories have tended to pose it in the West, where aesthetics has primarily been a matter of judgment, taste, representation, expression, or experience. Lukács does not do away with any of these facets of the aesthetic, though he does repurpose them to serve and inform that conduct which is proper to art: the creation and reception of art are first and foremost a doing, and not only is this doing socially grounded, but also it has the effect of humanizing us, of evocatively expanding, deepening, and consolidating our sense of ourselves as members of the human race with skin in the game.

For Lukács in the 1960s, art thus had a formative role to play in the process of democratization insofar as it educates us to have a lived understanding of what social action might mean in history while also habituating us to become its actors: “A person is therefore neither causally influenced nor completely determined by his ‘milieu’ as an external power; rather, his essential individual existence takes part in such a higher social order (or in several), and this taking part constitutes an essential (often absolutely decisive) aspect of the kernel (of the substance) of his personality.” Again, art does not make us subjects in the human race; it makes us subjects of the human race, and in doing so, Lukács momentously revises himself: the identical subject-object of history in The Specificity of the Aesthetic is not the vanguard formed by the proletariat, as it was in History and Class Consciousness, but rather the collectivity formed by the individual creators and receivers of works of art, for whom the adoption of the proper comportment toward art not only makes possible the meaningful experience of totality but also discloses possibilities for doing and taking part, which would make the lives of the people-made-whole by art resemble a Goethean Bildungsroman, where, as Mikhail Bakhtin has described it, human emergence “is no longer man’s own private affair. He emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself. He is no longer within an epoch, but on the border between two epochs, at the transition point from one to the other. This transition is accomplished in him and through him. He is forced to become a new, unprecedented type of human being. What is happening here is precisely the emergence of a new man. The organizing force held by the future is therefore extremely great here—and this is not, of course, the private biographical future, but the historical future.”[v]

In his final years, Lukács began to articulate a new Marxist theory of politics that would, among other things, reconceive historicity (the basis for the relationship between past, present, and future) and its bearing on everyday socialist life. In The Process of Democratization (never completed but written after the violent repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and published posthumously in 1985), this involves, among other things, a shift in focus from the dramatic overturnings that characterize the event and revolution to the less dramatic but more enduring temporalities of habit and habituation. In that work he observes, “Concerning the relationship between past and future, we can and must state that the reconstruction of socialist production is not merely an economic endeavor. It should be looked upon as laying the basis for the transformation of man, for his habituation to a dignified human existence in everyday life and the permeation of this dignity to all his manifestations of life.”[vi] In particular, Lukács notes that this “practice of habituation can only become effective if men become accustomed to putting aside forms of behavior that fall below the dignity of species being, that often incorporate self-destructive and counter-human drives. Habituation must create a social being that discards any aggressive attitudes toward fellow human beings or their own lives (both are inherently inseparable). The creation of a being that is social in content is the end result of the gradual process of habituation. Such an inner transformation of man cannot be carried out without a restructuring of the external world of everyday life. Regardless of whether material production has developed itself to a high level, a communist society can never arise unless everyday life becomes not only an arena of political decision making but also the basis of social being” (163). Such a material restructuring of everyday life is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the emergence of the process of democratization insofar as the new measuring sticks (“dignified human existence,” “the dignity of species being,” “a social being that discards any aggressive attitudes toward fellow human beings or their own lives”) by which it is to be gauged in the everyday lives of people are what works of art are uniquely capable of disclosing to their creators and receivers in ways that are likely to become habit-forming. That is to say, it is art which acclimatizes us to be the democratic subjects of the communist-society-to-be.

This has at least two important consequences. First, the talk of habit and habituation in The Specificity of the Aesthetic is not to be reduced to the frameworks in which Lenin famously presents them in State and Revolution (1917), even though Lukács himself draws parallels between the two throughout The Specificity of the Aesthetic. Norman Levine has pithily summed up the parting of the ways between the Leninist version of habituation and the one developed, both implicitly and explicitly, by Lukács in his final works: “In State and Revolution, Lenin uses the idea of habituation as a substitute for political procedures, and as a synonym for the most extreme form of democracy. [. . .] When Lukács evaluates the idea of habituation as an extreme form of democracy, he praises it highly. One aspect of State and Revolution is its democratic plebeianism, and the actual processes of society would be vested in the people in general. When Lukács evaluates the idea of habituation as a substitute for political procedures, he only has negative comments. Lenin wants to show that learned responses, behavioralism, could perform the same tasks that social protocols do: behavioralism would ensure that people perform social functions without political compulsion. Lukács replaces behavioralism with democracy: he replaces psychology with politics. He recognizes the need of protocols to enable society to reach its collective decisions.”[vii] This directly bears on the second consequence, which is that Lukács’s late aesthetics does not present art, its creation, or its reception as a substitute for politics. When read alongside The Process of Democratization, The Specificity of the Aesthetic makes it clear that works of art and the adoption of proper comportments toward them have key roles to play in the formation of subjects with political agency, of personalities who understand themselves to be more doing than done-to. Art, in this view, is not so much a sublimation or displacement of politics as it is the incubator of political passions and commitments.

We could let things rest there and continue to see the same old Lukácsian aesthetics we have always seen, perennially opposed to the aims of the historical (or, if you prefer, the aesthetic) avant-gardes. Yet I think there is one important insight that can be disclosed by situating The Specificity of the Aesthetic in particular (and Lukács’s aesthetic writings more broadly) in this way, and that is the degree to which both Lukácsian aesthetics and the historical avant-gardes share the same horizon of the event, and they both (it must be admitted) have been failures to date. The historical and aesthetic avant-gardes have no more transformed reality in the ways they set out to do than Lukácsian aesthetics has brought about real existing socialist democracy. Yet it must be noted that this failure is a lot more damning for the avant-gardes than it is for Lukács, whose focus is not on the event itself but on the processes by which it may be brought about and through which those subjects may yet be created who, to use the terminology of Alain Badiou, decide the event and are faithful to it. That is to say, history did not end with Italian Futurism or with Surrealism or with the Situationist International or (in Lukács’s case) with realism, and that is precisely what The Specificity of the Aesthetic contends works of art exist to remind us of: that we are history’s respondents and actors, not its fratricidal gravediggers or its artocrats.


[i] György Lukács, Werke (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1974), 16:9; and György Lukács, Werke (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1975), 17:9; my translation.

[ii] Aleš Erjavec, “Introduction,” in Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-century Avant-garde Movements, ed. Aleš Erjavec (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 1-18, here 3.

[iii] G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 1:103. Further references provided parenthetically.

[iv] Arthur C. Danto, “Narratives of the End of Art,” in Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 331-45, here 334. Further references provided parenthetically.

[v] M.M. Bakhtin, “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel),” in Speech Genres and Other Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 10-59, here 23.

[vi] Georg Lukács, The Process of Democratization, trans. Susanne Bernhardt and Norman Levine (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 165. Further references provided parenthetically.

[vii] Norman Levine, “On the Transcendence of State and Revolution,” in ibid., 3-62, here 53.

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