1920s >> 1926 >> no-267-november-1926

Materialism and Art by George Plechanoff

(Concluded from last month.)

Another example. Some writers have expressed the thought that in the appearance of man that seems ugly which reminds him of the features of lower animals. This is right in applying it to civilised people, though even here are many exceptions : a lion’s head to none of us seems ugly. Nevertheless, despite such exceptions, we can assert that civilised man, conscious that he is an incomparably higher being in comparison with the creatures of the forest, is afraid to resemble them and even tries to exaggerate his unlikeness.14 But in applying this to primitive man we find a large and sweeping contrast. It is known that primitive men often pull out their own incisor teeth, in order to resemble ruminant animals; others file them sharply in order to resemble ferocious animals; some plait their hair so that it resembles the appearance of a horn. Often this tendency to imitate animals is connected with some religious faith of primitive man. But this does not in the least change the matter. Had primitive man looked upon the lower animals as we do, then there would have been no place for animals in religious performances.15 Primitive man, then, looks upon them differently. Why? Because he stands on a different step of culture. That means if in one case a man tries to resemble animals and in another he is trying not to, then the different attitudes depend upon the conditions of his culture, i.e., again upon the social conditions above mentioned. Besides, we can express ourselves much more clearly if we say it depends upon the degree of development of his productive forces, upon his means of production. And so as not to be blamed for exaggeration and unilaterality of vision, we shall cite some quotations from the learned German traveller, Von-den-Steinen :

“We will only then understand those people—says he about the Brazilian Indians—when we begin to view them as the products of a hunting state of existence. The most important parts of their existence are bound up with the life of animals, and from this experience their outlook and, correspondingly, their artistic motives have been formed. It is possible to say that their wonderfully rich art has originated entirely in their hunting life.”

Chernyshevski wrote in his dissertation, “The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality” :

“In plants we like the freshness of colour and the splendour and richness of form, which reveal a life full of energy and strength. The withering plant is not good, nor is a plant with little life juice good.”

Chernyshevski’s dissertation is extremely interesting and singular in setting oppositions to questions of aesthetics according to the general principles of Feuerbach’s materialism. But history has always been a weak place for this kind of materialism, as is well seen from the above-quoted lines. “We like plants.” But who are the “we”? The tastes of people are extremely changeable, as Chernyshevski many times indicated in his book. It is known that primitive tribes—such as Bushmen and Australians—never ornament themselves with flowers, though they live in a country redolent with their presence. It is said that Tasmen were an exception, but it is impossible to verify the truth of this : the Tasmen have all died. At any rate it is quite well known that in the ornaments of primitive hunting people who had taken their motives from animals, plants are entirely absent. Contemporary science can explain this in no other way than upon the plane of productive forces. “Motives of ornaments, taken by hunting tribes from nature, consist exclusively of animal and human form,” says Ernest Grosse. They choose only phenomena which have for them a practical interest. The picking of plants, which, of course, to the primitive hunter is an occupation of a lower kind, is relegated to the woman and he himself takes no interest in it whatsoever. This explains why in the art of ornamentation no sign of vegetative motive is richly developed among any civilised people. In reality the passing over from animal ornaments to vegetative presents a symbol of great progress in the history of culture : “the transition from the hunting state to the agricultural.”16

Primitive art so clearly reflects in itself the conditions of productive forces, that now in doubtful moments the state of those forces is judged by art. Thus the Bushmen very willingly and with comparative ease draw people and animals. In the places inhabited by them some grottoes represent very picturesque galleries. But they never draw plants. In only one known exception of the rule : in representing a hiding huntsman in a bush, the crude drawing of the bush shows how unusual this subject was for the primitive painter. On this ground some ethnologists conclude that even if the Bushmen ever had a culture of a higher standard than now, which talking an general is impossible, then they most certainly have never known agriculture.

If all this is correct, then we can formulate the conclusion made by us above from the words of Darwin : the psychological nature of the primitive huntsman creates his aesthetic tastes and conceptions, and the state of productive forces, his hunting state, determines that only these and no other tastes and conceptions are formed. This conclusion, throwing a bright light upon the art of hunting tribes, is also another argument for the validity of the materialist conception of history.

Among civilised people the technique of production more rarely shows direct influence upon art. This fact, to the superficial observer a contradiction to the materialist conception of history, in reality, when considered in the profound manner of a sociologist, gives it brilliant support.

14 Lotze. Geschichte der .Aesthctiken, Munchen, 1868. IS. 568.)
15 Compare J. G. Frazer. “Totemism,” 1898, {P. 39), and Schweinfurth, ” In the Heart of Africa.” (P. 381.)
16 The Beginning of Art. (P. 149.)

Translated for “Modern Quarterly” by Bessie Piretz.

(Socialist Standard, November 1926)

Leave a Reply