In his anthology, Marxism and Art, Maynard Solomon recounted that although both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were interested in the literary arts early in their respective careers, they both were distracted by philosophy.  As a result, “There is no ‘original’ Marxist aesthetics for later Marxists to apply.  The history of Marxist aesthetics has been the history of the unfolding of the possible application of Marxist ideas and categories to art and to the theory of art.”  The same can be said of art history, which has also applied the Marxist idea of a critique of the social and economic system by utilizing a Marxist analysis of a work of art to show the workings of the mode of production upon the artist.  In contrast to the fragments written by both men, what is more interesting is how the ideas of Marx could be used in relation to art.

According to Karl Marx, art is part of the superstructure and is inescapably determined by the mode of production or the economic system.  Capitalism produces commodities, each one of which is a “fetish,” or an object with abstract value.  Fetishism is the projection of human nature and of human desires projected upon an external object.  If one accepts the proposition that all art is commodified, (and art must be a commodity in a capitalist society), then certain consequences logically follow.  All artists are cultural producers, laboring in a capitalist system for the benefits of the market.  All art made within this system is a commodity to be bought and sold as objects of desire upon which human feelings are projected. The work of art in a capitalist society must be a consumer object and therefore must also be an object of desire, a fetish.

The ideology of the market, a place where commodities are bought and sold, is a lived experience in the consciousness of every artist. The mind of the artist is imprinted with History and cannot escape his or her own time. Marxism would   oppose the thesis of a transcendent avant-garde that projects to the future and detaches itself from society.  From a Marxist point of view, art is always about society and the artist is always a part of the culture, art is never independent or absolute.

Because the artist has been abandoned by God, modern art can only be ironic in the sense suggested by Friedrich Schiller. In the contemporary era, modern art can exhibit only human alienation.  With nothing left to symbolize, symbolism gives way to allegory.  The use of symbols directly communicates meaning, but allegory is an indirect cluster or collection of meanings.  As a result of the break down of the union of humans with a sense of spirituality, modern art is always indirect and referential because modern art is tied to capitalist ideology, which is merely bourgeois thought, an illusion that conceals the facts of construction of beliefs.

In his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde Art and Kitsch,” the American art writer, Clement Greenberg, proposed that socialism would provide the freedom the avant-garde artist needs, because the capitalist system rewards the artist for responding to the demands of society, which is under the influence of ideology.  The ruling classes produce an ideology in its own self-interest but put the ideology forward in a way to make ideology seem “real.”  We refer to this operation of reification as the naturalizing effects.  Far from being “natural,” what ideology constructs, whether beliefs or art, is cultural. Through the mechanisms of ideology, that which is cultural becomes natural.

Social relations are presumed to be “natural,” and, hence, people do not recognize or even realize that the ways they interact are “cultural.” Ideology remains unseen.  A work of visual culture expresses the prevailing ideology, not just in terms of what a work of art expresses but also what the work of art does not say. Art bears an imprint of the history of its own time and is not timeless and transcendent.  Far from being free or independent, the avant-garde artist is reconstructed, from a Marxist perspective, is an intellectual servant in the pay of the system.  As Marx remarked,

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every activity hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.  It has transformed the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science into its paid wage-laborers…(intellectuals) live only as long as they find work, and…find work only as long as their labor increases capital.  These workers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market…”

Far from being a rebel, the artist is a cultural worker without a “halo.”  The artist who does not recognize the workings of ideology is complicit with an oppressive system.  From a socialist perspective, what is the role of the informed and aware artist?  According to Auguste Comte, art rises from the study of nature and should facilitate the contemplation of moral values.  The position of Comte, that art is the ideal representation of reality, is essentially the academic perspective that prevailed in his era.  Writing decades later, Proudhon suggested a more specific role for the artist in Du principe de l’art of 1865.  Realism and naturalism had overtaken Romanticism in the 1860s and Proudhon saw art as having a social role, which should subordinate art to political and social ends.  What distinguishes Proudhon’s position is that these “ends” were those of a critique of society and its unjust practices.

In acting as a critic of his or her own time, the artist becomes a prophet for humanity who must condemn current society and who can foresee a better future.  From a socialist standpoint, the artist is a servant of society who has the moral role to reveal the workings of ideology by pointing to the truth.  While it is not correct to state that all Realist artists and writers were socialists, it is correct to say that the mission of the Realists in France and England was to show contemporary life.  Revelations of the realities of modern times would often be considered political by the forces that functioned best when these “truths” were kept veiled by ideology.

Also read:  “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”and “Marx, Engels and Alienation” and “Marx, Engels and Property” and “Marx, Engels and Capitalism”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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