File spoon-archives/marxism2.archive/marxism2_1996/96-07-31.055, message 49

Date: Thu, 18 Jul 1996 00:46:18 -0700 (PDT)

Today I stumbled upon an essay, which is not only interesting in
its own right, but has passages in it confirming my hypothesis
about Blake's divergence from Culture-worshippers.  Instead of
summarizing the article, permit me to cite a couple of

In Re:

McGann, Jerome J.  "Blake and the Aesthetics of Deliberate
Engagement (To the New Historicists)," in: SOCIAL VALUES AND
MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 32-49.

Blake is distinguished from Kant and Coleridge in his aesthetics
and its relation to the status quo on p. 43.  Then:

"In the first place, the separation of 'subjective' and
'objective' artistic orders is canceled at the level of artistic
practice.  The point is that, insofar as 'meaning' is involved in
his work, the poetry does not deploy a set of 'images' which 'have
reference to' a secondary order of ideas.  The Kantian idea of a
disinterested art standing apart from social practice, within its
own sphere of autonomy, is the antithesis of everything Blake
believed and made."  (p. 44)


"Blake's position on poetics -- it has much in common with
Shelley's and Byron's -- was not to prevail over that of Kant and
Coleridge.  The complex of ideas which holds that poetry neither
affirms nor denies anything, that it erects a virtual and
autonomous world of its own -- in short, that art is not among the
ideologies -- came to dominate cultural thinking until late in the
twentieth century.  Blake's work itself was eventually interpreted
within the general Kantian/Coleridgean framework.  But there is no
question that Blake saw poetry very differently.  He believed, for
example, that poetry's world is not a virtual reality separated
>from the quotidian order; on the contrary, it is engaged with that
order -- engaged in an adverse and critical relationship."  (p.

And now I'll cite the entire final paragraph of the essay:

"In a framework where everything is as it is perceived -- and all
modern theories of artistic work rest on such a premise -- the
problem of art becomes that of the relation between artistic
perception and social engagement.  Criticism formulates that
problem in the question: how does 'interpretation' acquire its
social meaning or significance?  Marx expressed the same problem,
for philosophy, in his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: 'the
philosophers have only _interpreted_ the world in various ways;
the point, however, is to _change_ it.'  What Blake showed,
however, was that there could be an ideological production, even
in the modern world of capitalized productive fragmentation, where
gaps would not be fostered within an artistic interpretation and
its social reproduction.  In a capitalized world, all work may be
abstracted and objectified.  But some works resist the process
more vigorously than others, and may offer positive alternative
forms of communicative action, may suggest these forms even to
criticism."  (p. 49)

You might think I would be ecstatic to see Blake tied in with
Feuerbach and Marx in the same paragraph.  Instead I am perturbed,
for I feel I have been left hanging.  McGann knows that Blake's
engagement with society was not Marx's, and though Blake sought to
change it, he did so by interpreting it.  Marx's thesis 11 says
that the point is to change the world, but he doesn't say that the
point _of philosophy_ is to change the world or that _it_ can do
so.  If we wanted to pursue this call to activism seriously we
could wring our hands like Jack Lindsay over Blake's failure to
engage in any political action or organizing of any sort.  McGann
suggests the more modest notion of the artist's critical
engagement of society in his work.  I won't argue with that, but
the invocation of Marx's thesis 11 is posits a question, not an
answer.  The question is, what does the unity of theory and
practice mean for intellectual and cultural work in itself?  The
relationship between the categories of the intrinsic
characteristics of an activity and its utilitarian, instrumental
deployment has been flubbed many a time, not least by invocation
of this Marxian quip.  I have no fear that McGann has a Stalinist
view of art; I just don't understand the implications for artistic
practice of his specifically 'Marxian' conclusion.

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