Firestone on Art and Culture

Another of the surprising things that Shulamith Firestone’s ‘The Dialectic of Sex’ claims is that in the future post-revolutionary society, there will be no art and no culture. That of course sounds distinctly grim, but what is really meant is that there will not be the distinctions between art and science, and between culture and everyday life.

I’m going to try to lay out where Firestone is coming from, but I should confess in advance that I am not very artistic. I very rarely find art galleries more than slightly interesting, and my response to poetry has often been something along the lines of ‘why not just write that in prose?’ So my perspective is likely to reflect that.

Anyway, here’s the set-up. Some of our activities, like almost all the activities of other species, are non-cultural in that they respond more or less straightforwardly to our surroundings: we see the task that needs to be done, and we do it; we see the food and we eat it; we get told to go away and we go away. ‘Culture’ is when we formulate an idea far removed from reality, and then try to do something with it. Firestone describes this as the attempt to “realise the conceivable in the actual”.

This culture/non-culture division, then, that Firestone thinks must disappear, is the separation of our dreams from reality. For there to be ‘no culture’ means for our everyday activities and our highest aspirations to coincide and merge. What exactly that looks like, I’m not too sure, but I’ll come on to that.

The second division is then within culture, based on two modes of responding to the gap between dream and reality. The aesthetic mode (‘art’, the humanities, literature, etc.) is based on retreating from the world to an unreal world, where dreams can be realised, and expressing this in whatever way – on canvas, on pages, on a piano, on a stage. The technological mode (science, technology, crafts, etc.) is based on submitting oneself to the task of understanding how reality works in order then to master it. One is the ends without the means, the other the means without any ends.

One of Firestone’s key points is that this split has been identified with the gender binary: technological activities demand the set of emotions and attitudes judged ‘masculine’, because it is ultimately about the expression of power, while aesthetic activities demand the the set of emotions and attitudes judged ‘feminine’, because it is ultimately about the expression of powerlessness.

Historically, technological progress has usually been so slow and meager that the aesthetic mode was the socially dominant one: culture was dominated by art, not be science. Corresponding to this cultural dominance, art had an important social role – a role embodied in its close connection with religion. Working in unison, the priest tells people not to worry, because after death they will go to another world, and the artist supports this by depicting that other world, or by depicting a world that suffering humans can find satisfaction with. Its social role was essentially a conservative one – just as the doctor who puts soldiers back together, worthy as their work may be, is playing a ‘conservative’ role in relation to the war, helping it to keep going. What Firestone doesn’t discuss as much as I would have liked is the tension between the ‘feminine’ nature of art and its control by male artists, and more broadly the idea of sections of men who held roles that were both feminised and socially respected.

But anyway, around the middle of the second millenium, the balance between the two tipped: technology was finally developed enough to really take off. Science emerged, and with it “hundreds of anonymous technicians” became the driving force of culture. At this point, Firestone argues, arts and aesthetic culture went into a long period of decline. Science had largely displaced religion: the ‘other world’ to which people were to displace their hopes was no longer in the afterlife, but in the future of this world. And correspondingly the social function of art disappeared, as the aristocrats who had generously funded it were replaced by the more hard-headed bourgeoisie.

Firestone describes art as follows:

“Its life blood drained, its social function nullified altogether, art is thrown back on…the nouveaux riches…The sequestering of intellectuals in Ivory Tower universities, where, except for the sciences, they have little effect on the outside world, no matter how brilliant (and they aren’t, because they no longer have the necessary feedback); the abstruse – often literally unintelligible – jargon of the social sciences; the cliquish literary quarterlies with their esoteric poetry; the posh 57th street galleris and museums…staffed and supplied by, for the most part, fawning rich-widows’-hairdressers types; and not least the vulturous critical establishment thriving on the remains of what was once a great and vital culture – all testify to the death of aesthetic humanism.”

Pretty harsh, huh? She’s even more scathing about ‘modern art’.

So when Firestone says that art will disappear, she means that partly because she thinks it’s already decaying. The very fact that so many people can feel so little interest in art, that so many human lives can progress without art, indicates to her that art is not worth keeping. Rather, whatever there is of value in it should be freed from the ‘art’ structure and returned to the life and society that it hs sequestered itself from. The special construct ‘art’ is a product of the gender binary – just as male humans are forced to be Men, and female humans forced to be Women, so everything that involves understanding the world is forced to be Scientific, and everything that involves imagination is forced to be Art.

Now I’ll admit that I don’t know what art is. So when she talks about ‘merging’ art and science, I don’t think I have a clear vision of what that’s like. That, I suppose, is part of why it’s so revolutionary. But some of the associated ideas seem to include:

1) imagination being grounded in reality – Firestone mentions science fiction as an example of something that, while still art, operates closely with science.

2) an end to the amorality of science, the driving of science simply in whatever direction its paymasters push it, such as the development of white phosphorus.

3) All activities acquiring the character of ‘play’ i.e. activity for its own sake. Science, according with its ‘means’-type nature, is often done for the sake of something else, for the sake of its applications. Art seems to be done for itself. Of course, scientific learning for its own sake certainly exists as a part of science.

4) The end of the difference between expensive things designed to be beautiful and a joy to use and cheap things designed to be ugly but functional.

Something else that jumped out at me is – computer games. Like art, they embody the activities of the human imagination, they represent a sort of dreaming. But unlike art, they don’t centre around a contemplative or passive attitude, but around acting (in a way), mimicking our most common way of engaging with the world. And their possibility depends on complex scientific technology.

So in summary, the post-patriarchal revolutionary communist society will be full of computer games. Or something.

7 Responses to “Firestone on Art and Culture”

  1. rumblegumption Says:

    You’ve read this, I presume? http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n01/lanc01_.html

  2. Lindsay Says:

    There are a bunch of other things that occurred to me as blending “Art” and “Science” — this is as good a place as any for me to tell you I do a lot of both: I have a degree in biochemistry and another one in literature, and I also like to draw and am fairly good at it. But for me, drawing is not about reproducing things from some imaginary world: it’s one of the best ways I have of thinking about, and coming to understand, things in this world. Drawing lots of human and animal features, whether from life or from photos, in all sorts of poses — especially trying to draw an animal in motion at a particular stage of its motion — requires that you know a fair amount about how bodies move. To someone without access to classes in anatomy and physiology, close observation and detailed sketching can be a pretty good way to improve your understanding of biomechanics.

    In a similar vein, what’s philosophy? Is it passive fantasizing, contemplating the eternal Forms, or is it an active attempt to understand the world and ourselves?

    I do like your list of implications, though, particularly this one:
    an end to the amorality of science, the driving of science similarly in whatever direction its paymasters push it

    I think a just society, a healthy society, would leave no sphere of human action morally unfettered. One of the biggest things that annoy me about capitalism is its contention that market forces are natural forces that we measly humans can only adapt to. Um, no … markets are themselves human creations, and will do whatever their creators have set them up to do! Capitalism was designed to transmute a steady stream of raw material expropriated from various colonies into wealth for the colonizers. Its core assumption is that we will never run out of things to turn into products and ultimately sell, which is a ludicrous and destructive assumption on a finite planet.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I have now! Thanks.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “drawing is not about reproducing things from some imaginary world: it’s one of the best ways I have of thinking about, and coming to understand, things in this world”
    I know exactly what you mean. In school I remember doing an ‘art’ project that was mainly science – it was about ‘mythical beast’, manticores and dragons and so forth, but the most interesting thing to me was to try to reconstruct an evolutionary history, an ecological role, a plausible anatomy, etc.

    “what’s philosophy? Is it passive fantasizing, contemplating the eternal Forms, or is it an active attempt to understand the world and ourselves?”
    I’ve tended to suspect that there may actually not be any single thread to unify all philosophical issues – they’re just the grab-bag of stuff that’s left over for philosophers to think about. Once a problem approaches being sorted, when there’s an established procedure of how to approach it, it stops being philosophy. I don’t think that quite answers your question.

    “a healthy society, would leave no sphere of human action morally unfettered”
    Indeed – although I’d put it more in terms of having all spheres of action consciously democratically controlled – that would do all the ‘moral’ work I want done, i.e. make sure every person is taken into account, without letting some nutjobgodbag gets their ‘morals’ all over everything. I’ll admit that line rather breaks down when dealing with non-human animals, but then so do many of the best lines…

  5. Lindsay Says:

    a healthy society would leave no sphere of human action morally unfettered

    I’d put it more in terms of having all spheres of action consciously democratically controlled – that would do all the ‘moral’ work I want done, i.e. make sure every person is taken into account, without letting some nutjobgodbag get their ‘morals’ all over everything

    Maybe “ethically” is a better word than “morally” — I did want explicitly to include nonhumans (animals or not; an understanding of ecology leads one to suspect there could be ethical obligations to plants, to bodies of water, to landforms, to whole ecosystems, which may or may not be fully represented in terms of ethical obligations to the animals who depend on them), and as they cannot participate in democratic institutions (what with the lack of a common language), I didn’t think to use that construction. But you are right about “morals” having godbaggy connotations. When I use that word, I think I use it interchangeably with “ethics”. I can’t think of a moral value I have that cannot also be defined in ethical terms; maybe lack of religious or spiritual beliefs makes morality and ethics equivalent.

  6. Lindsay Says:

    (I am also slightly unclear on what morals, as opposed to ethics, even are. The closest I can get to a definition is a suspicion that ethics are always relational — i.e., you have certain responsibilities to other beings, and that responsibility increases with the extent of your involvement with those other beings — while morals do not have to be relational, or indeed to involve other beings at all)

  7. freethinker Says:

    looks like i came here late.

    i’m glad the morality question came up. you’re right lindsay. our sense of what’s right and wrong should emerge from our everyday interactions with those around us. morality that has to be imposed from on high (god, an ideologue, your elders) becomes about more about obedience than an ethical responsibility, and leads to conflicts and hypocrisies.


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