The Necessity of Art, Ernst Fischer, with an Introduction by John Berger, London: Verso, 2010

in Historical Materialism
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In The Necessity of Art Ernst Fischer develops a Marxist aesthetics in the humanist tradition, arguing art’s necessity as both a vehicle of social criticism and as an essential element of humanity. These twin themes place Fischer’s work, then, at the centre of issues in Marxist aesthetics that have traditionally proved contentious: firstly, about the function of art, both under capitalism and universally; and about the relationship – causal or otherwise – between economic conditions and art. Fischer’s aesthetics overemphasises the humanising possibilities of great works of art to the neglect of an everyday aesthetics that argues the possibilities for aesthetic lives based on good work under communism. But he provides a theoretic start to effectively countering structuralist Marxism, and he was in his lifetime – as John Berger’s Introduction movingly conveys – a powerful opponent of the bureaucratisation of art under Zhdanov’s Socialist-Realist creed.

The Necessity of Art, Ernst Fischer, with an Introduction by John Berger, London: Verso, 2010

in Historical Materialism



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  • 1.

    Fischer quoted in Williams 1970.

  • 2.

    Zhdanov 1977.

  • 3.

    Benjamin 1955; Brecht 1978; Adorno 1973.

  • 4.

    Lukács 1963.

  • 6.

    Graham 1997p. 109 distinguishes between essentialist theories of art that he calls ‘philosophical’ and ‘sociological’ accounts interested only in art as a social phenomenon that he equates with Marxism – I challenge that latter equation in what follows.

  • 8.

    Althusser 2005.

  • 9.

    Althusser 2005p. 227.

  • 10.

    Lethaby 1922p. 167 proposes a ‘philosophy of right labour’ to replace ‘narrow vague and betraying theories of aesthetics’ that ignore conditions of production in accounting for beauty in made things.

  • 11.

    Marx and Engels 1974‘Introduction’ by Stefan Morawski.

  • 12.

    Marx 1977p. 109.

  • 13.

    Morris 1891.

  • 14.

    Marx 1977p. 150.

  • 15.

    Marx 1977p. 151.

  • 16.

    Gropius 1919. Revealingly Fischer makes no mention of any design (or crafts) movements in his account of art.

  • 19.

    Sullivan 1896.

  • 20.

    Benjamin 1955. Note again that Fischer’s text does not provide detailed references so I have surmised the exact source of Benjamin’s argument.

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