Thursday, January 3, 2008

Perspective, Ideology and Social Reality in the Aesthetic Theory of Georg Lukacs

(Conference Paper, PHAVISMINDA Conference, Silliman University, 2007)

What is the function of a writer[1]? Consequently, it can also be asked, what is the function of art? To the first question, the response shall be direct – the function of a writer is to reveal reality. It is the writer’s task to inform human consciousness of the reality of the world and to put forward a perspective of the human condition. The second question needs an indirect route, for we need to ask what is presupposed when any aesthetic formulation is conceived. To this, we say, that art must reveal the truth. Truth must be in art; art must be in truth.

The philosopher, writer and literary critic who glorified the paradigm above and rebelled against the prevailing systems of his time was no other than Georg Lukacs[2] (1885-1971), author of the Marxist cultural revolution in Europe, whose influence finds alliance in the Critical Theory of Hokheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse. According to Lukacs, “in any true art, there is no content of which man is not the focal point”. (Lukacs 1963, 19) He adds, “literature must be able to portray the contradictions, struggles, and conflicts of social life in the same way as these appear in the mind and life of actual human beings.” (Lukacs 1981, 143) Furthermore, he notes that it is the task of the writer “to portray the connections between these collisions in the same way as they focus themselves within the human being”. (Ibid, 143) Liberation[3] from human alienation is only possible if man frees his consciousness from the images painted by capitalism, and this comes about by way of the realist aesthetic tradition, which is “not contented simply with the appearances of truth, but builds its edifices on truth itself.” (Lukacs 1978, 31)

Georg Lukacs’ Critique of Modernism

Lukacs’ critique of modernism is elucidated in his two works, namely, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism and Essays on Realism. In order to understand Lukacs’ aesthetic theory, we must begin with his putting into question the aesthetic paradigm of modernism. Modernism[4] for Lukacs is a capitalist instrument. It is, by and large, an artistic medium that thrives in the character of form and style. For Lukacs, modernism fails in showing the substance of social reality. Modernism considers substance as secondary to formal coherence. He suggests, imploring of course his Marxist leanings[5], that what is to be understood in any work of art is not merely the subjective and formal criterion developed by the artist, but more importantly, it is the clear understanding of the totality of his historical consciousness. For Lukacs, the artist’s subjectivity is no longer what matters, because the means in achieving the fullest possible reflection of a totality does not coincide with subjective meaning. The writer[6] must intend to bring forth the meaning of objective reality and not the subjective contents of his mind. For Lukacs, this objective reality refers to man’s roots in a historical totality.

The modernist tradition advocates that “there is no outer reality; there is only human consciousness, constantly building, modifying, rebuilding new worlds out of its own creativity”. (Faulkner 1977, 25) This criterion emphasizes the criterion of formality in modernism. Modernity is devoid of any substance. It dwells on an illusion. But according to Lukacs, the goal for all great art is to provide a picture of reality in which the contradiction between appearances and reality, the particular and the general, the immediate and the conceptual are made clear. (Lukacs 1978, 34) Modernism does not show this contradiction. It only shows the ideal and neglects the real. Modernism paints an illusory[7] world of beauty and color. Any true work of art must depict the pain and struggles of human existence because, according to Lukacs, “the effect of art results from the fact that the work by its very nature offers a truer, more vivid, more complete, and more dynamic reflection of reality. (Ibid, 36)

Important to the understanding of the task of art is an elaboration of the meaning of reification[8]. What is reification? Reification is “the process by which capitalism permeates the whole of reality”. (Ibid, 5) Objective reality, according to Lukacs, has been deeply embedded or reified in the consciousness of the masses. This means that the truth of the human world is objectified. Reification reduces the truth of human activity into an object. The same thing happens in art, where the truth of the human world is replaced by modernist leanings on the glory of form and self-gratification.

It is in the sense above that modernism must be rejected, since for the bourgeois mind, “a correct theory of objectivity is an impossibility,” (Lukacs 1978, 25), and we must thereby appeal to the realist tradition, which is, “the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking presentation of that which is daily taking place around him”. (Faulkner 1977, 1) The task of art, Lukacs says, is to de-reify reality. The writer must free it from the illusions imprinted in it by capitalism by showing the objectivity of man’s world. A real work of art stands on its own as a real presentation of that objective world[9]. It reflects an objective world where man lives and experiences the miseries of life. It manifests all that is significant in the area of life it tries to depict. In real life, there are real people, real suffering, and real struggles.

In a capitalist society, modernism defines “persons in terms of abstract quantities”. (Ibid, 34) Mass media[10], for instance, sometimes undermine its poor audience by putting emphasis on the latter’s weight, education, upbringing, social status, and worst, their face. In architecture and design, the presence and the interplay of colors inside a mall or a modern fast food chain, and in cimena, the sex and violence menu of a Hollywood flick take away from us our objective consciousness of reality. The human mind is rendered mute by the beautiful images of modernism. In the end, it is man himself who loses the authentic meaning of his humanity.

Ideology and Perspective in Literary Texts

According to Lukacs, “the basis for any correct cognition of reality, whether nature or society, is the recognition of the objectivity of the external world, that is, it’s existence independent of human consciousness”. (Lukacs 1978, 25) Applied to literature, it speaks of the objectivity of the external world as the substance of every work. The truth that matters, for Lukacs, is the truth that concerns man. It is a work that understands man. This understanding results from the conception of a perspective. This perspective refers to the truth of man’s world.

Modernism[11] is insufficient as an art form because it deprives literature of a sense of perspective. (Harrison 1998, 678) Perspective determines the course and content of any realist writing. It is what allows the delineation of what is significant and insignificant. Content determines form, and there is no content which man himself is not the focal point. (Ibid, 676)

Of course, Lukacs names realism as the primary aesthetic mode of the new socialist literature. (Kadarkay 1991, 343) Realism puts forward an aesthetic presentation of man’s historical totality. This totality is lost in modernist art forms because of its “exaggerated concern with formal criteria and the questions of style and technique”. (Lukacs 1963, 17) For Lukacs, as a contrast to this, what matters is “the view of the world, the ideology, the welstanschauung underlying a writer’s work that counts.” (Ibid, 19) Realist literature simply aims at a truthful reflection of reality and what it tries to bring about is the concreteness of man’s life. Realism, Lukacs adds, is not only a style among others, but “the basis of literature”. (Ibid, 48)

Writing, as an ideology, presents the writer’s conscious views about life and the problems of his time. (Ibid, 71) Realism makes human life the subject of all its aesthetic constructions. He adds,

In the portrayal of a story, a real plot leads inevitably to testing human feelings and experiences against the external world, weighing the living interaction with social reality and finding this light or heavy, genuine or false, whereas the psychological or surrealistic introspection of the decadents simply offers the superficial internal life a completely restricted field, entirely free of any criticism. (Ibid, 145)

According to Lukacs, for the realist writer, it is the question of ideology that he takes into account when he writes. The modernist writer, on the other hand, glorifies form and style at the expense of the substantial content of the character’s life. For Lukacs, taking the ideological question means that the writer who portrays real human beings need in no way be completely aware that a portrayal of such is already the beginning of a rebellion against the prevailing system. (Lukacs 1980, 149) For Lukacs, only a realist aesthetic theory provides man with a reply to the question of ideology. “It is important to show the distortions evident in modern society”, and he praises Thomas Mann, for instance, for “showing distortion for what it is, tracing its roots and its concrete origins in society”. (Ibid.)

Art and Social Reality

A literary work of art should not only arouse our imaginations, but more importantly it must reflect the ideological decay of contemporary capitalist society. The only way to free man from his alienation is to bring him to a conscious awareness of his social totality. Lukacs has shown the connections between history, with all the material struggles of man, and literature, which for him must be no more than a reflection of human reality. The reality of man is the totality of his material struggles which forever define his way of life and survival, and therefore, the very meaning that he creates for himself, including his conceptions of the aesthetic. Writing must be true to man’s material conditions, so that writing as an art does not become a mere reproduction of gibberish mediums. Writing must enable man to retrace his roots in a totality, a totality that reveals his authentic state of being.

For Lukacs, “the concept of totality is a dynamic reality that enjoys an ontological status”. (Kadarkay 1991, 272) This totality manifests the reality of man as a being who is situated in social, political, economic, and historical conditions where he experiences the struggle for liberation. This totality defines the reality of human existence. Literature must therefore be grounded on this truth.

The work of art must therefore reflect correctly and in proper proportion all the important factors objectively determining the area of life it represents. (Lukacs 1978, 38) A literary subject of this kind is thus already rich and developed because a genuine love of life and human beings arises in it as the result of its own contact with life. (Lukacs 1981, 147) For Lukacs, the great novels of our time reveal the driving forces of history that are invisible to actual consciousness.

Lukacs explains that the essence of discourse is the category of concrete totality; it is the category that governs the notion of reality. Truth emerges out of this discourse. But modernism’s theoretical and practical conception of the world is not faithful to the real conditions of man. Its basis of action is not the essential nature of man’s real problematic. The man found in modernist art forms is not the man who suffers from the political and economic tragedies of his time.

It is the function of art to make us see, however painful it might be, the sufferings of men, the sufferings of real men, and not the artificiality of modern life. Art must uncover the undercurrents in the real world of man. Real human life can be found in the slums, in the lives of street children, in the palengke, in sugarcane plantations, and the bodegas where there are real people. Real people do not exist inside the mall. Every color, every shape, and every smile inside the mall is nothing but imaginary and artificial.

Present day spectacles like cultural and social gatherings, elections among elitist clubs, intellectual conferences and meetings are but ways of pretending to see the truth about man but in truth they are no more than a hypocritical way of showing concern for man’s socio-economic and political conditions. These events are mere illusions. Held in plush venues stacked with delightful meals, the theme, participants and topics misrepresent social reality. Real people, many of them victims of injustice and inequality, dwell outside.

As writers, it is our task to lay claim to our real, objective life. Philosophical ideas are not only a symbolic expression of the world but must be the presentation of the real world, the real objective world with all its conflicts and anguish. Human thought must reflect in a manner that is clear the important factors objectively determining the meaning of life. Thinking in this sense must be an objective portrayal of the individual’s social and economic conditions. Lukacs asserts,

The more artless a work of art, the more it gives the effect of life and nature, the more dearly it exemplifies an actual concentrated reflection of its times and the more clearly it demonstrates that the only function of its form is the expression of this objectivity. (Lukacs 1971, 52)

Any literary piece or artwork must express reality and send the message of truth it represents to those who involve themselves in its evolution through time. Thus, art must go beyond the mere expression of beauty, for art is also about real life. Art must express the human problematic. It is the duty of the writer as an artist to reveal the truth of the human condition. After all, man writes for his fellow human beings. It is the writer’s ultimate obligation to tell his readers the truth of human life.


Sources on Lukacs

Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971)

____________ The Historical Novel (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press,

____________ The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (London: Merlin Press,

____________ Essays on Realism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981)

____________ Writer and Critic (London: Merlin Press, 1978)

Other Sources

Curtis, Michael The Great Political Theories (New York: Avon Books, 1981)

Deleuze, Gilles Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983)

Faulkner, Peter Modernism (London: Harper and Row, 1977)

Harrison, Charles. Art in Theory (Malden: Blackwell, 1998)

Kadarkay, Arpad Georg Lukacs: Life, Thought and Politics (Cambridge:
Blackwell, 1991)

Marx, Karl Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (New York: Prometheus
Books, 1988)

Nietzsche, Friedrich The Birth of Tragedy (New York: Dover Publications, 1954)


[1] This paper is an attempt to put into words my view of the human world. I have always thought that life is difficult and that however beautiful others may want to paint it, reality is that there exist in this world the many faces of injustice, hatred, inequality, discrimination, domination, and many other evils. A writer must be honest to the truth of human life. It is, to my mind, the writer’s task to tell people what the world, our world, is really like. This I believe is the function of writing as an art. To quote Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “art saves man, and through art, life.” (Nietzsche 1954, 59)
[2] According to Rodney Livingston, “Georg Lukacs is one of the most controversial figures of his own age and of ours. As a Marxist philosopher, he has been credited with the most profound development of Marxist theory since Marx. He has been widely regarded as a major influence on writers as diverse as Heidegger, Benjamin, and Sartre. He played a big role in the Hungarian revolution after the First World War… From inside party lines he has been accused of deviations from the current party line as well as revisions of Marxist doctrines. From outside Marxism he has often been identified as one of the chief spokesmen for the dominant communist cultural ideology.” (Lukacs 1978, 7)
[3] Alienation is also the alienation of human consciousness. Human consciousness, according to Lukacs, is imprisoned in a false consciousness. Political economy hides the slavery that one can find in the modern work place. The colors, lighting, and overall ambiance of beautiful workplaces hide the reality that the poor worker earns a pittance compared to the huge profit of the corporation. As Marx says in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, “the more the worker exerts himself, the more powerful becomes the alien objective world which he fashions against himself.”(Marx 1988, 44) To change this system, Lukacs advocates for the elevation of the consciousness of the proletariat, saying that because of the nature of a capitalist economy, objective consciousness is lost and must be recovered.
[4] Lukacs asserts that “modernism suggests that the form of an object is always determined by the self, through the self’s inner activity. Aesthetic pleasure is always objectivized self-gratification”. (Lukacs 1978, 33) Such notion is in congruence to the function of capitalist technology where emphasis is on the fulfillment of human desires.
[5] Lukacs is known for his brand of Marxism as Western Marxism. Lukacs says that orthodox Marxism, the wing to which he belongs, is not about a blind obedience on the thesis of Marx. Orthodoxy, he says, refers to method, a method that leads to the truth. Method for Lukacs is something that can be developed if only to satisfy the demands of the present.
[6] Lukacs’ literary criticism is best elucidated in The theory of the Novel (1920) and The Historical Novel (1936). Both trace the history of the novel as a genre.
[7] This illusion is made manifest by malls, glossy magazines, American Idol, Hollywood, Harry Potter and others, alienating man from his real conditions. On the other hand, there are films which vividly illustrate the human condition. We can cite “Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang” (social critique), “Himala” (popular religion), “Ora Pro Nobis” (political persecution), “El Crimen de Padre Amaro” (church ethics), and “Romero” (religion and politics) as prime examples.
[8] The theory of reification is one of the major contributions of Lukacs to Marxist thought, along with his ideas of ideology, false consciousness, and class-consciousness.
[9] Think, for instance of “Presumed Innocent” (crime) by Scott Turow, “The Brothers Karamazov” (guilt) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Old man and the sea” (the human will) by Ernest Hemingway, “Death of a Salesman” (meaning of work) by Arthur Miller. These works represent the objective human world.
[10] It is important to explain the phenomenon of modern television. Modern TV, the toolbox of hyper-nonsensicality, brings us to a cultural bankruptcy. Talents are hidden beneath an array of foolish and gibberish re-reproduction of Western literary inventions, shown for the sake of entertainment and not truth. Our children know nothing about us, for the tools of modernity alienate them from their roots. Their consciousness is forever embedded in an identity that does not know itself. Kris Aquino exemplifies the non-sense of modern television.

[11] The lack of perspective in modernist writings is in view of its reduction of objective reality to the subjective conditions of the writer. This leads to the alienation of human nature. For Lukacs, modernism alienates us from our true historical conditions by freezing objective reality in the reified ideas immanent in modern literature.