Thoughts on Karl Marx and art

A communist revolution in art will break down the barriers between ordinary people and artists as specialist labourers under capitalism, says Rex Dunn

Marx’s ideas about art began to take shape in his 1844 Economic and philosophic manuscripts. But they also recur and are developed further in his later writings, including Capital. We live in an age when artistic decadence has reached its nadir, whereby art as a commodity is the only thing that matters; be that the art of the old masters or today’s anti-art. In other words, it is time Marx’s ideas were re-examined.

Artistic labour is creative and free work: the subject (artist/creator, consumer of art) establishes a particular relationship with the object (creation “in accordance with the laws of beauty” or the “artistic assimilation of reality” in the form of the work of art1). Initially the artist transforms the materials, the ideas at his/her disposal, by giving raw matter a determinate form. The result is a new, aesthetic object, in which the human wealth of the subject is objectified or revealed.

The aesthetic relationship evolves on a socio-historical basis, in the process of humanising nature by means of work and objectifying the human being. The formal elements of art undergo change in line with a change in the socio-historical conditions: eg, classical, medieval, etc. (But this occurs dialectically: it is not a mechanical process.)

Art as superior labour reaches its most developed stage during the bourgeois epoch - although the artist is cut off from the majority of other workers (ie, alienated labour to create use/exchange value). Unlike the latter, artistic labour is freely undertaken, and tends to satisfy the artist’s inner need to objectify, express and reveal his/her essential powers in a concrete, sensuous object. By freeing itself from the narrow material reality of (alienated) labour, art reaches a higher level of objectification and affirmation of man as a human being. These powers are realised in practical aesthetic objects.

What is beauty? Aesthetic objects exist only for social beings. Man elicits the aesthetic from things by means of his material, practical activity, giving determinate form to material nature with the aim of expressing a spiritual (imaginative), human content. Beauty is consciously produced form; ugliness is absence of form. Beauty is the imitation of form in nature/human constructions, as an effective means to express the work’s content, and, at the same time, the artist’s point of view/feelings about his subject. It cannot exist outside of humanity. Beauty is not an attribute of a universal being: it is created by man in artistic objects. Moreover, because it is social and human, the aesthetic object reveals its essence only to man; it exists only for ‘natural human beings’ - that is, for social beings:

Aesthetic consciousness … is not something given, innate or biological; rather it emerges historically and socially on the basis of practical, material labour; the subject exists only for the object and the object exists only for the subject. [But] the aesthetic object cannot be reduced to the subject; it exists independently of subjective perception or evaluation.2

The “aesthetic” therefore is not purely subjective. It is also objective. According to Mikhail Lifshitz, Marx agreed with Schiller’s observation: “Beauty is simultaneously an object and a subjective state. It is at once form, when we judge it, and also life, when we feel it …”3 This means that we need to have an objective standard of taste. Of course, this is fraught with contradictions. This subjective/objective nature of art is analogous to Marx’s discovery of commodity fetishism: it is an objective, scientifically determined observation, which Marxists hold to be true; but it needs to be overcome, because the masses are ruled by commodity fetishism at the subjective level (the need for money in order to live, etc).

The two most important contradictions are the commodity form and the bourgeois division of labour:

The need for money is … the real need created by the modern economic system, and the only need it creates. The quantity of money becomes more and more its sole important property. Just as it reduces everything to its own form of abstraction, so it reduces itself in the course of its own movement to something quantitative. Lack of moderation and intemperance become its true standard.4

This idea is developed further in Capital. The tendency to amass capital is the essence of capitalistic progress: ie, production for production’s sake (compare ancient society); but the contradictory nature of the development of the productive forces is “clearly inimical to some fields of spiritual activity - art, for instance” (Theories of surplus value). So spiritual production calls for a different kind of labour than that used in material production. Marx writes:

Only through the objectively unfolded wealth of human nature can the wealth of subjective human sensitivity - a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form, in short, senses capable of human gratification - be either cultivated or created ... The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history. [But under the commodity form] sense, which is a prisoner of crude practical need, has only a restricted sense. For a man who is starving, the human form of food does not exist, only its abstract form exists [as a means to an end; to live, work - in this sense, man is reduced to an animal. But the idea of food in the literal sense also applies to food in the metaphorical sense: eg, art.] The man who is burdened with worries and needs has no sense for the finest of plays …5

In Wage labour and capital, as well as in Capital, Marx points out that, on the one hand, the bourgeois division of labour permits an increase in the productive forces/man’s power over nature. On the other hand, it is mind-crippling for the workers, given its hierarchical character: ie, it separates intellectual, spiritual, from practical labour - the latter being assigned to the workers. Therefore it “divides concrete, real man, degrading and debasing him”. Hence we have “the exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass, which is … a consequence of division of labour”.6

Under the commodity form, there is also the problem of the inverting power of money: “It transforms loyalty into treason, love into hate, virtue into vice … nonsense into reason and reason into nonsense”7 - compare mass art, which is commercially determined. It presents the most profound human problems only in the most banal and degraded forms (which is hierarchical, because it separates intellectual/spiritual from practical labour), or it merely affirms them, in order to keep man in his place, thus closing the window to his understanding of a truly human world - and with it “the possibility of becoming conscious of his alienation, as well as the means of abolishing it”.8

On the question of the objective side of art, or the need for an objective standard of taste, Marx writes: “If you wish to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person.”9

Judgement of taste was once the preserve of the (semi-autonomous) bourgeois art institution. But in the period of late capitalism the old consensus, based on the enlightenment ideal of art as a ‘free activity of the spirit’, which elevates it above prosaic reality, has been exchanged for post-structuralist theory: ie, the ‘logics of disintegration’. Judgement of taste is purely a subjective matter. What matters more is that art’s value is monetarised, be it a Rembrandt, a Picasso drawing dashed off in a few minutes, a soft-porn picture of Jeff Koons and his wife, or anti-art (eg, Koon’s set of basketballs, or Tracy Emin’s Unmade bed). The obsession with anti-art objects, in which the distinction between the art object and consumerism is blurred, means anything can be art.

But not everyone can be an artist. For that, one needs the backing of the art institution, albeit one which is increasingly tied to the art market. Thus the artist becomes a productive labourer, whose product “comes into being only for the purpose of increasing … capital”.10

If the schism within real and concrete man is to disappear - for art not to be an exclusive, privileged sphere, decadent or otherwise - we need a successful communist revolution. If not, art and society continue to decay. Where does this leave man as a species-being?

Rex Dunn


1. According to Walter du Halde: http://dialectica2epoca.cybersite.nu/text_100542.html.

2. A Sánchez Vázquez Art and society London 1979, chapter 3.

3. M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, p96.

4. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/epm/3rd.htm.

5. Ibid.

6. A Sánchez Vázquez Art and society London 1979, p282.

7. www.academia.edu/7443151/The_Sense_In_Which_Communists_Must_Be_Communitarian.

8. A Sánchez Vázquez Art and society London 1979, pp254-55.

9.My emphasis - www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm. Unlike Adam Smith, Marx sees the artist as an unproductive labourer; but only as long as his labour is part of his nature: ie, not intended to be “subsumed under capital … for the purpose of increasing that capital”; and not just for himself, but for the art industry as a whole.

10. K Marx Theories of surplus value: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/add1.htm.