Antonio Gramsci’s fingerprints taken at the time of his November 8, 1926 arrest by Italian fascists.




by Anthony Torres


I recently found myself returning to and re-thinking Gramsci’s notion of the role of the “organic intellectual” in relation to art criticism and, in particular, to the potential for art, art criticism, and curation to form counter-hegemonic interventions for cultural contestation. And while I am still in the process of formulating a more developed articulation of the issues as the concept relates to art and criticism, I will share this as an extended explication of Gramsci’s formulation as I see it.

According to Gramsci, theoretically everyone is an intellectual, since everyone has thoughts and ideas; however, what distinguishes most people from “traditional” intellectuals is that not all people have the professional social function of intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals should be thought of as situated in and defined by their function in maintaining hegemonic authority and their role in making what is economically, politically, and historically variable and contingent appear timeless and natural, by means of educational ideological apparatuses.

In this context, the role “traditional intellectuals” is embedded in a hegemonic process that functions by creating myths that appear as commonsense truths, and by creating values and feelings that are formed from identification with, and in relation to, the maintenance and reproduction of social power.

However, what is critical and what should be remembered is that hegemony is not a stable entity, but rather is the contrary, always in a state of what Gramsci referred to as “moving equilibrium,” in which ideas and positions are continually contested and revised. Ideas are thus not exclusively in the possession of a particular dominant group once and for all, but are instead fought and negotiated through shifts of power, sometimes across and through political blocs and alliances. Hegemonic authority, then, needs to be seen as continually contested, re-semanticized, and reconfigured through social struggle. This is central to understanding the nature of intellectuals, and their work, as sites of social contest, which situates them socially and politically.

Gramsci used the notion of hegemony to establish the function of “traditional intellectuals” — problematic to the extent that they can be spoken of as a unitary entity — in relation to the way in which the dominant class establishes and maintains its rule, both economically and ideologically; and in general, he argued that a class maintains its dominance not simply through the use of force or organizational expertise, but also through the exertion of intellectual and so-called “moral” leadership, which forms an individual’s “common sense” worldview.

Critical here is the recognition that while society is full of complexities and contradictions that manifest themselves in varying intellectual alliances and allegiances, “traditional” intellectuals are distinguished and defined by their function in rationalizing and providing a justification for the nature of society, which in the last analysis is tied to rationalizing existing modes of social reproduction. These intellectuals thus act as mediators who articulate and translate the existing social realities of capitalism into cultural values, which create, elaborate, and perpetuate the values of their class while interjecting their ruling ideas into the masses of society, thereby exercising their social hegemony.

Conversely, Gramsci maintained that the working class, and its surrogates, needs to develop its own “organic intellectuals” to articulate its coherent philosophy, in order to counter a bourgeois hegemony of ideas. Additionally, he believed that with the emergence of new modes of production and the consequent emergence of a new class vying for dominance, there should develop a new class of intellectuals who give the ascending class homogeneity and awareness of its social interests and progressive role, not only in the economic sphere but also politically and culturally.

The struggle for social liberation demands the establishment of a rival hegemony, and thus a struggle to establish a cadre of rival “organic intellectuals” to win over the bulk of “traditional” intellectuals, as well as to articulate the interests of an ascending socially conscious class.

Here, one of the first tasks for socially progressive “organic intellectuals” is to discredit or dispute a dominant ideological hegemony of the ruling class through opposing value systems. This implies that working people and the oppressed must create a continuous expansion of “consent” in which various groups are melded together to form new alliances and historical blocs between “traditional intellectuals” and “organic intellectuals.”

However, perhaps the most important, as regards the notion of organic intellectuals, is that for Gramsci there seems to be an explicit association that impacts and problematically binds his considerations of “organic intellectuals” as being integrally related to an alternative ascendant revolutionary party as the intellectual wing of the working class.

Gramsci, it seems, believes that all members of a political party should be regarded as intellectuals. Here, what is critical is that the formation and function of an alternative party — which should be organizational and directive — be educative, in other words, intellectual.

This directive and organizational role clearly forms the mode in which a socially transformative party would recognize the distinction between two types of struggle: a “war of maneuver” — where there is a strategic break in the enemy’s defenses — in which the workers can obtain a definitive victory, such as in Russia in 1917; and a “war of position,” that is, a protracted struggle across varying and different social and cultural fronts. In this case, intellectuals have the specialized responsibility for the circulation and development of transformative counter-cultural ideas and values as a form of social practice.

It is important to note that there are no simplistic determinations in his formulation, and rarely do different social, political and ideological positions necessarily or simplistically “echo” the class structure of society, nor are they reducible to their economic content or function.

This is significant because he re-articulates the fact that various cultural phenomena function with a certain level of relative autonomy and therefore do not lend themselves to easy one-to-one correlations between the economic “base” and “superstructure.” In fact, for Gramsci the relationship between intellectuals and the world of production is not as direct as it is with the interests of other fundamental social groups or classes, but rather, in varying degrees, the relationship is “mediated” by the whole fabric of society and its complex of superstructures. It is within these ‘superstructures’ that we find Gramsci’s notions of “hegemony” and the “organic quality” of intellectuals articulated, since theoretically, for him, it should be possible both to measure the “organic quality” of the various intellectual strata by their degree of connectedness with a fundamental social group(s), and establish a gradation of their functions within two major superstructural “levels”: the one he called “civil society,” that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private,” and that of “political society” or “the State.”

The State is the realm of force not to be understood in the narrow sense of the government but, additionally, as the larger arena of political institutions and legal constitutional control. By distinction, “civil society” constitutes the “private” or “non-state” sphere, which includes the economy, and which operates by popular “consent.”

Gramsci felt that these two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony,” which the dominant group exercises throughout society, and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the State and “juridical” government. Since the functions in question are precisely organizational and connective, it follows that “traditional intellectuals” are the dominant group’s “deputies” who exercise the related functions of social hegemony and political government.

According to Gramsci, hegemony is tied to his conception of the capitalist state, which he claims rules through force — plus consent. It functions by the “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group, historically caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its elevated position and function in the world of production.

This is reinforced by the state’s apparatuses of coercive power that “legally” enforces discipline on those groups who do not “consent” either actively or passively to their power. These apparatuses are, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed, and thus repression is necessary.

Therefore, those concerned with developing an alternative party to counter the existing social system of the current two parties of the dominant class, must develop “organic intellectuals” to allow the development of an alternative hegemony within civil society, allied to the interests of the working class.

The complex nature of modern civil society, for Gramsci, meant that the only tactic capable of undermining bourgeois hegemony and leading to qualitative social transformation is a “war of position” — a sustained multi-front counter-cultural and educational social struggle.

Yet, a central question remains as to how to distinguish between intellectuals as an organic category and intellectuals as a traditional category. This distinction is critical, since from it flows a series of problems and possible questions for historical research.

According to Gramsci, one of the most interesting problems is related to the nature of political parties, their origins, developments and forms, and in particular their character in relation to the role of the intellectuals. Here he makes certain distinctions. He recognizes that the political party for a certain fundamental social group (the working class) is nothing other than their specific way of elaborating their own ideological “intellectual” interests in the political and philosophical field — not as bound to the field of productive technique — and as integrally bound to the life, conditions of formation, and development of this ascending social group.

For Gramsci, the political party is the mechanism that carries out in civil society the same role that the State systematically carries out over a larger scale in political society. In other words, the party is responsible for welding together the “organic intellectuals” of the working class — the largest and dominant group — and the “traditional intellectuals.” The party carries out this function by elaborating its interest through its own component parts, those members of a social group that has developed as an “economic” group, and turning them into qualified political intellectual leaders and organizers of all the activities and functions inherent in the organic development of an integral society, both civil and political.

The critical issue that one needs to remember is that for Gramsci theoretical writing was a means of engaging the practical concerns of articulating social agendas and informing political practice. “Theory,” for Gramsci, was meant to illuminate concrete historical cases to inform social and political questions, in the quest for fundamental structural change. The central issue is that theory and practice must indeed unite if organic intellectuals are to move beyond the narrow confines of academia in an effort to serve the progressive interest of social transformation in a variety of forums.

However, a question arises of how applicable Gramsci’s notion of an organic intellectual, which is clearly integrally connected to the interests of an ascending class, relates to our current context, in which the issue of “class” is deemed highly problematic given the nebulousness of identifications associated with the term, the convolution of clearly defined class interests and delineations impacted by status and power, and the dissipation of class struggle centered in a demand for fundamental social transformation in contemporary society.

Adding to the complexity is the way in which Gramsci formulates the subject of ideology, and the ways in which he refuses any idea or pre-given unified ideological subjectivity, basically arguing that consciousness is a multi-faceted collective constellation of ideas and experiences, based in discourses situated in the cultural terrain of society.

It seems to me that critical issues related to art, art criticism, and curation have to reflect the relative autonomy of intellectuals and the fluidity of ideological identifications with issues and causes; the shifting nature of hegemonic authority in the contestation of ideas and positions through ideological struggle and education; and the possibility of forming political blocs and alliances as suggested in Gramsci’s formulation.

Here, I think that an argument can be made for art, criticism, and curatorial practice as forming a politics of articulation in which aesthetic theory and criticism can be practically applied in various cultural contests as an oppositional social strategy, since it seems possible that discussions concerning art have the potential to explicate and connect works of art and exhibitions to histories of culture contact and conflict; and in resolutions that are interpersonally negotiated and conditioned by a range of factors and forces that bind us; and in the potential for interpreting art and exhibitions as vehicles for discerning and relating how they engage and reflect a range of art historical, social, and ideological discourses through artistic representation.

Here, the formal hybridity of the work should be viewed as a means and basis for developing intercultural communication in an inclusive and expanded redefinition of interconnected hemispheric art; thus, engagement with art and exhibitions needs to be wholly centered in analyzing and assessing a complex range of formal practices by artists — always in specific contexts — and challenging simplistic conceptions of cultural “difference” as an abstract aesthetic category, with a greater focus on initiating intra-cultural communication by excavating a myriad of trans-historical, cultural, and ideological sources embedded in art works and exhibitions.

–Anthony Torres

Further Reading:

The Return of the Repressed: Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man by Anthony Torres, 7/30/09

The Personal is Political by Anthony Torres, 7/23/09

Art Review: Theophilus Brown: Recent Abstract Collages by Anthony Torres, 7/16/09


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