Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 38, Number 10. 22nd May 1975
Your editorial defending Salient's policy on arts reviews smacks of that kind of instrumentalism which requires that art should illustrate stereotyped political ideas. The implications contained in your editorial are hardly original — facist-minded citizens and dictatorial politicians of many persuasions adhere to theories of instrumentalism: i.e. art it excellent when it illustrates officially proclaimed goals; it must never be 'negative' except in dealing with hostile or competitive social systems.
Despite your personal prejudices on this matter, the chief goal of art criticism is understanding — readers seek from art criticism a way of looking at art objects which will yield the maximum of knowledge about their meanings and merits. A good art review should reveal information about the art work to the reader, and furthermore should inform the reader how that information about a work is related to its excellence. At its best, Marxist thought can be convincing in its explanations of the social relations between creators and users of art, but it tends to be unsatisfactory in the formulation of criteria of artistic excellence. Marxism also encourages the critic to seek out the social, moral, or psychological purposes art may serve. It emphasises the legitamacy of art related to the dominant concerns of life and thus acts as a corrective to the artistic tendency to become excessively involved with purely technical problems. Unfortunately, Salient's naive 'Marxist' reviewers are hardly capable of criticism of that calibre for they insist that art should represent scenes of mass class struggle, the impoverishment of the masses under capitalism, the heroism of workers, and so on. Indeed, Salient's 'Marxist' critic's arts reviews embody the most vulgar application of instrumentalism, and thus do much harm in undermining the true value of Marxist analysis. Moreover, these mealy-mouthed 'reviews' are an insult to the intelligence of even your most uninformed readers.
(It is interesting to see what the points I made in my editorial look like when turned upside down.
Firstly, on the question of instrumentalism. If you are the expert you claim to be on marxism and art you will realise that what I said is the opposite of what you have described as instrumentalism. I said that all art, whether it wants to be or not, is political I tried to describe in my editorial the different ways in which art is political — you seem to have missed those points. Now, given that artists are pushing politics when they push their art, they have two choices facing them: they can ignore the political aspect or they can recognise the political aspect and from that recognition they can consciously decide on the politics in their art. So we have two artists, one who consciously directs the political content of his/her art and one who is blind to the political purpose his/her art is serving. You say that the person who consciously directs his/her art for a political purpose is illustrating 'stereotyped political ideas'. I would say he/she is far less a prisoner of a political viewpoint than an artist who is not even aware of the political ideas he/ she is propagating.
Secondly, understanding. Yes, of course art criticism is about understanding. But it is a matter of what you consider
it important to understand. I think art criticism should not just try and understand the artist and his/her art in isolation. Art criticism should be based on an understanding of society so as to place the artist and his/her art in their proper context, a context that is manifestly political.
Thirdly, I would agree that some of our so-called Marxist reviews have not been of outstanding quality but I never heard you complain of the terrible reviews we've had by people without 'marxist' pretentions. It seems even your criticisms are governed by politics - Ed.)