“Art is necessary so that man should be able to recognize and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it.” These words by Ernst Fischer form the crux of his timeless book on the value of art for humankind, Von der Notwendigkeit der Kunst, published in 1959. The English translation of the book called The Necessity of Art was published in 1963. This book continues to be in print because of its universal appeal.
About the Author | Ernst Fischer
To understand what an author is saying, it is sometimes also critical to understand the author. Ernst Fischer was born in the late nineteenth century and produced most of his work in the mid-twentieth century. He was a writer and a politician with strong Marxist leanings.
He started as a Social Democrat. He was later disappointed with its leaders, who could not stand against fascism, and turned to Communism. He fought in the First World War, lived in exile in Russia, and was in hiding for years. Once the war ended, he returned to Austria and became an influential minister in the communist party. His political beliefs and life in exile shaped his essay on the Necessity of Art.
The Necessity of Art
In this book, which is more like a thesis, Fischer explores different themes: Marxist ideas concerning art as labor, individual versus collective art, formalism, and social realism. He also analyzes the influence of magic, religion, religion, politics, and social consciousness in shaping art.
Fischer covers the history and evolution of art and the various realms it covers, from ancient European art to the Modernist era. He begins with a conversation about primitive art in Europe and then delves into its evolution with the changes in social structures and political systems. Fischer tries to establish a link between politics and art, which may not be convincing for all readers. He compares the impact of capitalism versus socialism on art. He also evaluates the role of economics and even psychology in shaping art over time.
Along the discourse, he keeps questioning the function of art: What does it do? Why do we need art?
This book has two basic themes:
- Art as a medium for social critique
- Art as an essential element of humanism
Through his arguments, Fischer analyzes the relationship between economic realities and art of a particular period through his questions on:
- Honesty versus forced political influences on art
- Art as a medium for imagination versus art as a mirror to the real world
- Effect of market influences on art
- The impact of putting a price tag on art
- Consumerism and art
- Form versus content in art
He rejects the theory of art for art’s sake or art just for the sake of aesthetics as a capitalistic theory. He argues strongly against the fast-paced consumerism of art and the dilution of meaning at the cost of market demand. He also opposes the bureaucratization of art under communist regimes. He argues for the need for art to be accessible to everyone as he explains how art is shaped both by the class and classness of both the artist and the connoisseur.
He evaluates the role of imagination in art and its ability to portray realities while insisting that art should be a true reflection of all achievements, as well as flaws in society. Art, according to Fischer, can be a tool to inform, educate, and push for change.
He also reflects on art as a philosophical medium and not just a material one, as it inspires the need for a person to be more than an individual.
Fischer emphasizes the timelessness of art and its influence beyond geographical and political boundaries. A piece of art has the power to influence its audience from across the world over different periods. Art has a universal language that appeals to all humanity despite differences in social and cultural norms.
Fischer’s language and prose in the book are also artistic. He uses poetic language even while making logically strong arguments. Fischer presents his views with a solid rationale and the beauty of the prose.
Another notable feature of the book is the Introduction written by the influential left-leaning English art critic John Berger who agreed with many of Fischer’s political beliefs and views on art. Many readers skim through the Introductions to books because they assume these would contain a rough summary or generic information. John Berger’s fiery writing adds a critical element to the Introduction to The Necessity of Art, emphasizing the importance of this work and Fischer’s contribution to making us realize how to evaluate and appreciate art.
The book emphasizes a great degree of form, which might not appeal to the casual reader. Readers may not agree with many of his conclusions or even the logic he employs in his arguments. They are, however, compelled to reflect and re-analyze their own opinions, considering the facts Fischer offers.
The underlying conclusion of the book is undeniable. Art is universal. It reflects the human aspiration to express, reflect, communicate, and influence others through a work of beauty. Economics and politics have always tried to influence the creation and consumption of art, causing distortion and the loss of free expression. Art, freed from these influences, can continue to inspire and elevate us in intangible yet undeniable ways.
Influence of the book | Ernst Fischer
The book covers some timeless themes:
- Optimism that the depiction of society through artworks would lead to more introspection and insistence on change
- Art is a medium for the need for individuals to reflect on what is happening around the world
- Art as a medium for engagement within human society
- Rejection of increasing consumerism as it devalues the true power of Art (Yes, it was a theme even in the last century!)
It reminds us that art in its purest form is necessary for society to be more than a collective of individuals. Art is a testimony to the power of humanism, growth, and universalism.
Fischer, E. (1963). The Necessity of Art. Penguin Books.
Rabinbach, A. G. (1975). PASSAGE TO POLITICS: Ernst Fischer as Critic, Writer and Dramatist in the 1920’s. Modern Austrian Literature, 8(3/4), 168–189. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24646871
Gunaratnam, Y., & Bell, V. (2022, September 13). How John Berger changed our way of seeing art. The Conversation. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/how-john-berger-changed-our-way-of-seeing-art-70831
Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, July 23). Ernst Fischer. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Fischer