Materialism and Art. by George Plechanoff (Part 1)
We shall frankly state at the beginning that we intend to view art from the standpoint of the materialist conception of history.
What is the materialist conception of history?
We shall first describe what the idealist conception of history is, and then show wherein the materialist conception of the same subject differs from it.
The idealist conception of history in its true aspect maintains that the development of thought and knowledge is the last and ultimate cause of the historic development of mankind. This view reigned supreme in the eighteenth century, and passed into the nineteenth. Even Saint Simon and Auguste Comte both strongly upheld it, though their views in certain instances were in direct opposition to those of the philosophers of the eighteenth century. Saint Simon, for instance, was interested in the origin of the social organisation of the Greeks.  His conclusions are as follows : “The religious system served as a foundation for their political system. . . The first has been taken as a model for the creation of the latter.” As proof of this, he quoted the fact that the Greek Olympus has been a republican gathering; no matter how much the constitutions of the different states in Greece had differed one from the other, they had one thing in common, they were ail republican.  And this is not all. The religious system, which was the foundation of the Greek political system, according to Saint Simon, was in itself the result of their scientific conception of the universe. Their scientific conceptions were the ultimate foundation of their social life, and the development of those conceptions was the principal cause of the historical development of their social life, the main cause of the changes in the historical forms of their life.
Likewise Auguste Comte thought that “the entire social mechanism rested in the last analysis on opinions.  This is plainly a repetition of the view of the encyclopaedists according to whom “c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde” (the universe is ruled by opinion).
Another variety of idealism found its expression in Hegel’s absolute idealism. How does Hegel explain the historical development of humanity? An example will suffice. Hegel asks: Why has Greece fallen? After pointing out many causes, he shows that the main cause, according to his philosophy, was that Greece had expressed only one stage in the development of the absolute idea, and had to fall when this stage had been accomplished.
Hegel, although knowing that “Lacedaemon had fallen because of inequality of property,” nevertheless maintains that social relations, as well as the historical development of mankind in general, are determined in the last instance by the laws of logic, by the development of thought.
The materialistic conception of history is diametrically opposed to the above view. If Saint Simon, considering history from the idealistic viewpoint, thought that the religious opinion of Greeks explained their social relations, then we from the materialistic point of view will say just the opposite. And if Saint Simon, when asked where the religious views of the Greeks come from would answer that they are the result of their scientific views of the universe, we should in turn reply that the social relations of the Greeks determined their religious conceptions, both of which were determined by the rise and decline of the productive forces which the Greeks had at their disposal.
This is our historical doctrine. It is our point of departure in our investigation about art. It is clear that the investigation of a particular problem, the problem of art, will be at the same time a proof of our general view of history. If this general view be wrong, then it will explain very little indeed of the evolution of art. But if we should find that this theory explains the evolution of art better than any other theory, then this in itself will be a new and strong proof of the accuracy of our theory. But here we foresee an objection; Darwin in his famous book, “The Descent of Man,” brought together many observations as evidence that the sense of beauty plays an important role in the lives of animals. Our attention will be drawn to these facts, and we shall be told that the origin of the sense of beauty must be explained by biology; it will also be remarked that it is unpermissible to narrowly explain the evolution of this sense in men only through the economic basis of their society. And as Darwin’s view upon the development of species is undoubtedly materialistic, it will be urged that biological materialism gives excellent material for criticism of the one-sided historical (economical) materialism.
This objection is a serious one, and we shall reply to it. We will do this more gladly because, while replying to this objection, we shall at the same time reply to a series of similar objections that have been drawn from the domain of the psychic lives of animals.
First of all, we will make clear the conclusions to which we must come according to the facts brought out by Darwin. Let us see what are his own conclusions.
In the second chapter of the first part of his book, “The Descent of Man,” we read :—
Sense of Beauty: This sense has been declared to be peculiar to man. I refer here only to the pleasure given by certain colours, forms and sounds, and which may fairly be called a sense of the beautiful; with cultivated men such sensations are, however, intimately associated with complex ideas and trains of thought. When we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colours before the female, while other birds not thus decorated make no such display, it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner. As women everywhere deck themselves with these plumes, the beauty of such ornaments cannot be disputed. As we shall see later, the nests of humming birds and the playing passages of bower birds, are tastefully ornamented with gaily coloured objects, and this shows that they must receive some kind of pleasure from the sight of such things. With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined, as far as we can judge, to the attractions of the opposite sex. The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love are certainly admired by the females, of which fact evidence will be hereafter given. If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments and voices of their male partners, all the labour and, anxiety exhibited by the latter in displaying thleir charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this it is impossible to admit. Why certain bright colours should excite pleasure cannot, I presume, be explained any more than why certain flavours and scents are agreeable; but habit has something to do with the result, for that which is at first unpleasant to our senses ultimately becomes pleasant, and habits are inherited. With respect to sounds, Helmholtz has explained to a certain extent on physiological principles why harmonies and certain cadences are agreeable. But besides this, sounds frequently recurring at irregular intervals are highly disagreeable, as everyone will admit who has listened at night to the irregular flapping of a rope on board ship. The same principle seems to come into play with vision, as the eye prefers symmetry or figures with some regular recurrence. Patterns of this kind are employed by even the lowest savages as ornaments, and they have been developed through sexual selection for the adornment of some male animals. Whether we can or not give any reason for the pleasure thus derived from vision and hearing, yet man and many of the lower animals are alike pleased by the same colours, graceful shading and forms, and the same sounds.
And so the facts given by Darwin show that lower animals experience aesthetic tastes that coincide closely with those of man. But this does not explain the origin of these tastes; if biology does not explain the origin of our anesthetic tastes, it can even less explain their historical development. But let Darwin speak for himself:
The taste for the beautiful, at least as far as female beauty is concerned, is not of a special nature in the human mind, for it differs widely in the human mind; it differs widely in the different races of man, and is not quite the same even in the different nations of the same race. Judging from the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their aesthetic faculty was not so highly developed as that of certain animals, for instance, as the birds. 
If the conceptions of the beautiful are different with different nations of the same race, it is clear that we cannot look for the causes of these differences in biology. Darwin himself tells us that we should carry our search in a different direction. In the second English translation of his book, “The Descent of Man,” we read the following:
With cultivated men such (aesthetic) sensations are intimately associated with complex ideas and trains of thought.
This is very important. It leads us from biology to sociology, as it is obvious, according to Darwin that social causes determine a civilised man’s conceptions of beauty and the association of the complex ideas connected with them. But is Darwin right in thinking that such associations take place only among civilised people? No, he is not. It is known that skins, claws and teeth play an important role in the ornaments of primitive man. How is it to be explained? With the combinations of the colours and lines in those objects? No. The savage attiring himself, for instance, in the skins, paws and teeth of a tiger, or skin and horns of a bison, exalts his own skill and strength. He who conquers the skilful is skilful himself, he who conquers the strong is himself strong. It is possible that there is some superstition intermingled with the idea. Skulcraft relates that the red-skinned tribes of North-western America love ornaments made from the claws of a grey bear, the most ferocious animal of that region. The red-skinned warrior thinks that the ferocity and bravery of the grey bear is transferred to the one who attires himself in that animal’s claws. And these claws, remarks Skulcraft, are partially an ornament, partially an amulet.  In this instance it is impossible to think that the red-skinned men liked animals’ skins, claws and teeth only because of the combinations of colour and line.  No, the opposite is much more probable, i.e., that these things first were worn merely as a sign of bravery, skill and strength, and only afterwards did they begin to call out aesthetic feelings and become used as ornaments. From this it follows that aesthetic feelings not only are associated with complex ideas among savages, but that they arise through the influence of such ideas.
It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as those of man, would acquire exactly the same manner. As various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker bee, think it a sacred duty to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.
If the stomach is provided with a certain amount of food it sets to work according to the general laws of digestion. But is it possible through this to explain why there is in your stomach every day tasty and nourishing food, and in my stomach such is a scarce guest? Do these laws explain why some eat too much and others die of hunger? It seems that this explanation is to be sought somewhere else, in entirely different laws. The same is true with a man’s mind. Once he is put in a certain condition, once the surroundings give him certain impressions, he combines them through certain general laws; and here also the results differ extremely, according to the diversity of the received impressions. But what puts it in this state? What determines the affluence in character of those impressions? This is a question which is not to be solved by any laws of thought.
 Greece had a special meaning for Saint Simon, because, according to his opinion, “c’est chez les grecs que l’esprit humain a commence a s’occupeur serieusement de l’organisation sociale. ”
 See his Memoire sur la science de l’homme.
 Descent of Man, p.50.