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On the Question of Marx’s Aesthetic Views

11 December 2015


The second event of the field research project If Our Soup Can Could Speak… Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties is dedicated to the philosopher’s groundbreaking research on the works of Karl Marx, and his discovery of their aesthetic dimension.

Most Russian readers know Mikhail Lifshitz for his anti-Modernist masterpiece The Crisis of Ugliness (1968). He is less known the groundbreaking work on Marx he began 40 years prior. Lifshitz was the first to read Marx and Engels “aesthetically,” and David Riff’s lecture introduces Lifshitz’s early discovery of Karl Marx’s hidden aesthetic philosophy through a close reading of one of the scholar’s first articles on the topic, On the Question of Marx’s Aesthetic Views (1927), which appeared in a Vkhutemas publication in 1927. In this lecture, Riff will elucidate Lifshitz’s position in relation to his avant-garde contemporaries and the later ascendence of Stalinism, showing how Lifshitz resisted both groups over the next four decades.

In Lifshitz’s view, the founders of Marxism were never merely political philosophers, scholars of economics, or co-inventors of a social science. Instead, their work always contained a philosophy of art that was crucial to the understanding of their work. Lifshitz set out to prove this claim while still a lecturer at the avant-garde art school Vkhutemas, and then as a researcher of the Marx-Engels Institute (1930-1933). With access to unpublished material, he worked assiduously to identify and systematize everything Marx and Engels ever said about art, literature, or theater. The result was the anthology Marx and Engels on Literature and Art (1937), accompanied by a volume of commentary, the first version of which was published in 1933 and translated into English in 1938. Lifshitz continued to refine this text, finally publishing an extended version in his Karl Marx. Art and the Social Ideal (1972). The consistent principles of Lifshitz’s conviction reflected back into his anti-Modernist writing. This lecture asks what Lifshitz’s conception could mean today, in the age of Modernism’s unquestionable victory.


David Riff is a writer, translator, artist, and curator. He was born in 1975 in London. Riff is a member of the art collective Chto delat (What is to be done?), whose newspaper he co-edited from 2003 to 2008. He also co-edited the arts section of the internet portal from 2007 to 2009. Riff has written widely on contemporary art in Russia and extensively translated important texts from Russian to English. His most recent project is a forthcoming translation of the work of Soviet aesthetic philosopher Mikhail Lifshitz. Riff has also produced and shown work as an artist, focusing on collaborative projects such as the Learning Film Group, The Karl Marx School of the English Language, and the Lifshitz Institute. Recent curatorial projects include: Monday Begins on Saturday, Bergen Assembly 2013, Bergen, Norway (with Ekaterina Degot); the discussion platform and exhibition Auditorium Moscow, Moscow, Russia (2011, with Ekaterina Degot and Joanna Mytkowska); the international exhibition The Potosí Principle (2010–2011, curatorial correspondent); and the 1st Ural Industrial Biennial, Yekaterinburg, Russia (2010, with Cosmin Costinaş and Ekaterina Degot). Riff is a member of the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne, where he is currently the Head of Publications. He lives and works in Berlin, Germany.

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