The Necessity of Art

By David Osbaldeston, 3 May 2012

Is this a historical book about history? Some things have legs and, like an old pair of vintage 501’s, Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art returns in paperback, except with a personal account by friend and associate John Berger detailing their close understanding and interactions together during the final days of the author’s life. Berger recalls the shared moments of what must have been a deeply respectful friendship fully aware of its impending close. This sets in the readers’ mind a poetically retrospective tone for Fischer’s outlook, life and work underpinned by his contemporaries through a ‘heretical’ application of Marxist theory during the early to late middle period of the C20. This account fittingly bridges the space between the recollection of a profound understanding for a man who’s personal life was shaped not only by individual relationships but by the possibilities and counter possibilities arising out of a loving commitment for humankind’s complex relationship with nature, and the culture produced to articulate it.


The Necessity of Art applies the thoughts of a philosopher and writer at his most lucid and urgent. Many of Fischer’s series of investigations navigate a compelling journey into how both cultural and technological advances were one and the same thing, unified, and emanating from the same creative impulse for humankind’s ability to control and conquer nature. Whilst many propositions are lyrically yet analytically animated by anthropology he describes, through the onslaught of mechanistic cybernetic technology, our subsequent separation from it. Ultimately resulting in a profound alienation between ourselves, nature, and final inability to comprehend our fabricated world. Written during the East / West post war era, yet prior to the 70’s oil crisis, The Necessity of Art anticipates a historical moment when capitalism, as we have come to understand in its late form became the alpha and omega underpinning all human relations. Broken down into five sections exploring arts relationship to Function, Origin, Form & Content, Capitalism, and finally, Reality.


Today, reading Fischer’s text through the lens of a forty-year period that’s witnessed the hegemonic triumph of private wealth over collective interest and the pervasive absolute of free market economics, makes for the kind of prescient reading that’s simultaneously connected for the same reasons now as then, but in two entirely separate temporal spheres. It was Calvino who observed that ‘the classics are those books which exercise a particular influence, when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable.’1 Whilst ‘classic’ as a proverb may well be an overused term closer to the truth of marketing speak, unfixed from its meaning, in this case it’s somehow entirely appropriate. When questions are being raised of a dysfunctional system of human arrangements presently under crisis yet still incapable of being re-thought and reapplied to more egalitarian ends, then Verso’s decision to re-print The Necessity of Art right now lends itself well to the debate for anyone concerned in the making of culture, which in the end includes us all.


The Renaissance, Romanticism, the Enlightenment, Modernism, Neolithic society, the advent of the Industrial Revolution, are analysed through Fischer’s clear and compassionate application of Marxist thinking. Such analyses, particularly those that detail the shift from ‘when the artist and arts entered the fully developed world of capitalist commodity production’2 provide key moments for insightful and poetic writing to take hold upon the reader. Indeed, Fischer’s exploration of Romanticism, its subtexts and destination, is appropriately afforded enough space for an excellent critique of the collective, individualization, the bourgeoisie, and technological innovation. ‘For the Romantic mind, social reality was, if not ‘abolished’, then at least extravagantly distorted and dissolved in irony.’3 Indeed the acceleration of social complexity as a consequence of hitherto unprecedented systems of production and their attendant inequalities provide the backdrop to much of the polemic.


Key to the arc of Fischer’s thinking is the loss of humanity’s connection with itself through the differentiation between social groupings and class, ownership, goods & property, and perhaps most significantly the commodification of identity itself. Whilst the overriding theme is one of separation, as Fischer discusses the aforementioned historical triggers and key periods and their profound consequences upon the disruption between art & society ‘As a result of the differentiation of skills, the division of labour, and the separation he was alienated not only from nature but from his own self.’ 4 Although perhaps reading this in context of C20th critical theory tells us something we already know; under circumstances which at best render a polarized view of individual and collective concerns. Fischer elegantly draws upon several passages from Hegel, Marx, and Benjamin, Baudelaire and Brecht, which are effortlessly woven into the script to offer a set of articulations and methodologies that unfortunately go way beyond the allotted space here. Nevertheless Fischer demonstrates a concise understanding for the conditions, necessities, and difficulties in which art & culture made to exist; working both for and against historicised stylization, objectification, and fetishisation, simultaneously shifting, yet unbreakable and axiomatic.


Later sections of the book relates the complexities of both music and poetry to collective and individual imagination. But there are moments when his close proximity to the context of cultural production under communist ideology (which he is both alive towards, and critical of) become evidently clear. This in no way undermines the content of his polemic but instead sets a critical tone and context for his last work to take place. Whilst contemporary cultural theorists such as Chomsky, Eagleton, Mouffe, Ranciere, Zizek, et al, may provide much of the basis for contemporary critical and cultural theory, thus setting the stage for art and artists to reciprocate common experience in the context of globalization. Fischer’s feeling, and range for the organisation and disorganisation of human relations sets a tone that puts contemporary life into sharp relief.


Paradoxically, in the Modern context, it could be argued that in emulating the conditions of industrial production, the figure of the artist has become so much integrated for the system as to be indistinguishable from it. So, where does this leave the Fischer’s interpretation of the artist, or more significantly the necessity of what an artist does both in and out-with society through his assertion of the artist as a mythological figure or agent of human relations to transmit common experience for the healthy co-dependent society? Fischer not only sheds light upon the morphing circumstances that have redefined our shifting metaphysical relationship to the ‘magic of culture’ and those who produce it from inside and outside of societal norms. But perhaps most significantly like all ‘classics’ gives us a way to rethink the future by its own particular influence through the eyes of the past.




Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, first published Penguin 1971, re-printed Verso 2010





1. Calvino, I., 1999.p4. Why Read The Classics? Jonathan Cape.

2. Fischer, E., 2010.p63. The Necessity of Art. Verso.

3. Fischer, E., 2010.p72. The Necessity of Art. Verso

4. Fischer, E., 2010.p53. The Necessity of Art. verso