Marxism as Methodology

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. Marx dabbled briefly as a theater critic and as a poet; Engles also attempted poetry, but they were better suited to a more analytical form of writing.  As a result, as Solomon wrote, “Because of the early subordination of their aesthetic proclivities to the requirements of a revolutionary movement and to the more pressing need to devote themselves to the investigation of history and political economy, Marx and Engels left no formal aesthetic system, no single extended work on the theory of art or even a major analysis of an individual artist or art work..Marxism accordingly  does not begin with a theory of art. 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.

One wonders why neither Marx nor Engels came up with an art philosophy. They both lived during a time when European regimes freely deployed art like a weapon in the state’s effort to communicate “national values” to the subjects. Artists were, in Marxist terms, producers of commodities and were beholden to the patrons. As pointed out in earlier posts, in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, the artist continued the role played under the aristocracy, producing art approved of by those in power who defined art. However, both philosophers were also working during a period in which Kantian aesthetics dominated the discourse, especially in France and Germany. On the surface, a Kantian philosophy of art or the Kantian definition of art was an abstract one, transcending the material world, detaching the artist from the laws of the economy and placing him or her in the realm of “artistic freedom” and “art-for-art’s sake.” Of course such supposed transcendence was discursively useful in establishing the artist as an independent creator, freeing him or her from the whims of the client. However, the ideal was a concept that existed on the printed page. The reality of the artist was an economic one and as Marx and Engels were working through their theories of capitalism, artists were struggling in a micro-economy that was totally opposed to their economic success.   The position of the artist was complicated by the myths and legends of the artist as some kind of mystical maker of an object that rose above the muck and mire of the filthy marketplace. In other words, art defied the laws of capitalist gravity.

Because art is part of culture, because art emerges from a larger social, economic, gender, religious, ethnic context and so on, it reflects its own time and place. If Marxism has been less interested in issues of gender and ethnicity, this economic philosophy is eminently suitable for examining the interaction between art and commerce and the artists and capitalism. This task of analyzing works of art from an economic perspective was taken up by later art critics and art historians who use art to critique the larger history, its class system, the practices of exploitation, and the process of alienation. There are other analysts, such as Pierre Bourdieu who considered the inverted way in which capitalism works in the so called art world, whether visual or performing. Economic capital or actual money becomes less important than cultural capital, and, unlike other professions, the arts make strange uneconomic demands upon the cultural producer: rare success, even rarer economic security, in exchange for recognition or cultural capital. Writing of the “value” of art in Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Dave Beech said, “Of course, artists and artworks encounter money in various forms but capital in the strict sense..plays an extremely limited role, and in the majority of cases no role at all, in the production and circulation of art. While mainstream economists and Western Marxists are happy to assert that art is a commodity like another, the pioneers of classical economics and the Marxist economic analysis of art demonstrates not only that art is economically exceptional but, in the case of the latter, it is exceptional to the capitalist mode of production in particular.”

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. Greenberg was writing during an unprecedented period of the use of art as propaganda in Nazi Germany and the art critic was a living witness to the damage state control could do to artistic production. He ended his essay, pleading for socialism, arguing that within a collectivity, the incentive for artists to work for a reward would be eliminated and the artist would be free from capitalism and its temptation. In addition, Greenberg was viewing what he thought was “kitsch” or art that looked like art being produced under the kinder and gentler auspices of the American government, The many federal programs supporting artists were augmented and complemented by the regionalists artists, such as Grant Wood, who were also producing a sentimental “Americana” in a time of economic desperation. In other words, Greenberg had ever reason to mourn the impact of power and money upon the pre-war artists of the 1930s and he used an Americanized versions of Marxism to critique the “golden chain” that bound artists to their sources of income.

The artist is a cultural producer who makes a commodity called “art.” The Marxist analyst throws cold water upon the notion that art somehow transcends the social realities of its time and rises to the level of humanist expression. A seemingly neutral Dutch still life from the seventeenth century is also a portrait of the economic dominance of the Dutch in international trade. Men painting women in the nude is an expression of male social and economic domination of women and the subordination of women, revealed in paintings which express male desire. The viewer who looks at such paintings as “art,” are from a Marxist perspective, missing the content embedded in the image and are inhaling ideology: exploitation of cultures of color and traffic in slavery in the name of capitalism is acceptable; male suppression of women’s political aspirations is “normal.” Social relations are presumed to be “natural,” and, hence, people do not recognize or even realize that the ways they interact are “cultural.” Ideology in art remains unseen, and yet it parades itself before the unseeing eyes of the spectator. 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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