No to ‘Marxist art’

We need a Marxist theory of art, argues Rex Dunn

The debate about Marxism and art has been long and vexed. Chris Cutrone touches on this in a recent letter (Weekly Worker September 3).

Of course, I agree with Chris’s opening remarks: “Marxism and art cannot definitively judge, let alone prescribe … cannot tie down art ... But Marxism can raise consciousness of history and historical potential for social change.” On the other hand, this does not preclude the possibility, indeed the necessity, of a Marxist theory of art. To this end, I offer the following, which is based on the work of Marxist aestheticians in the 1960s-70s (long since abandoned) and my own observations from the 1980s to the present.

“Dialectical and historical materialism is the context in which the aesthetic thought of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels is cradled.”1 For Marx, art is the harbinger of human freedom or a future homo aestheticus, which is the telos of humanity. Therefore it is integral to his world view. On the other hand, Marx and Engels make very few aesthetic statements in their work. But this does not diminish art’s importance. Finally, because this is so, there is all the more reason to develop a Marxist theory of art.

Cutrone fails to appreciate all of the above, because he says that we do not need such a theory. A possible explanation for his own emphatic denial could be that either he is unaware or he rejects the role of essentialism in Marx’s thought: in particular, his preoccupation with teleology. This is understandable in the light of (a) the failure of the social revolution - at the subjective level (consciousness) - to supersede the old society, despite the fact that the latter has created the objective conditions for the transition from capitalism to socialism/communism; (b) the obfuscations of post-war ‘philosophy’, which emerged as a consequence. (Therefore, with hindsight, one could argue that the owl of Minerva has had a bad day!)

In terms of early debates about philosophy, Marx errs on the side of Aristotle’s essentialist/organicist view of reality - and history. This permeates his materialist dialectics: the idea that everything in the universe, along with human history, society (both the economic base and the superstructure: eg, philosophy, art, etc.), is subject to the category of form (essence), because, “what a thing is, and what things of its kind are, cannot possibly be explained in terms of their constituent matter (atoms), since that changes, while the entity retains its nature and entity over time”.2 In this regard, the pendulum swung away from essentialism and back to atomism or Democritus’s idea of reality as “atomistic small bits that combine and repel in a void”.3

This idea goes hand in hand with the notion that the historical process is entirely accidental. As the historian, EH Carr, observed, “it is in periods of uncertainty and decay that historians are wont to indulge in extensive reflections on chance, and to discover great wisdom in the theory of history as a chapter of accidents”.4 A hundred years ago, such scepticism was expressed in positivism (which confines itself to verifiable facts and avoids speculative theory in all its forms, including dialectical materialism). But in the last part of the 20th century, atomism manifested itself in structuralism/post-structuralism/postmodernism. Arguably, a contributing factor to both is the fact philosophy has been contaminated by the actual experience of Stalinism.

So what does constitute a Marxist/essentialist approach to the historical process? “The essentialist distinguishes between two kinds of change: those that are merely accidental and those that are necessary (or … expressions of something deeper). An organic entity, whether it is a cat or a society [including art], undergoes changes of both kinds.”5 The necessary development of society - eg, from capitalism to socialism and communism - may be derailed by a historical accident. Given Marx’s base/superstructure model, sooner or later, this must affect the latter: art in our case.

Marx on art

Marx’s view of art must be seen in this context. This is the only way to understand his idea of art as integral to humanity’s struggle to realise itself as a ‘species being’: ie, as homo aestheticus in a future communist society.

In this regard, he acknowledges that the big gain for art under high capitalism is its achievement of (relative) autonomy. By this, we mean the emergence of the apractical art object (poetry, literature, drama, fine art) as an end in itself; which offers a unique form of human self-affirmation, both for the producer and the consumer of art. Such art is freed from its old function, which was to service the ideological needs of either the church or the state. Such art objects now stand alongside practical art (public works, such as buildings, bridges, etc).

Integral to the art object is the necessary unity of form/content. This allows art to distance itself from prosaic reality, which is the best way to critique the latter (by sensual or cognitive means; preferably both). Therefore, for Marx, aesthetic value is the antithesis of exchange value. But, when the two are combined in the service of capital, it is the former which suffers or is extinguished altogether. The art work loses its objective character - ie, a standard of taste derived from a knowledge of the history and theory of art. Henceforth the value of the art work is determined by price alone. Accordingly a Rembrandt drawing might be worth less than a Hirst dot painting, etc.

Another casualty is the subjective side of art. Given our knowledge of the tragedy which surrounds the life of Rembrandt, the feelings which might be evoked by looking at the actual drawing of his son, Titus, are not matched by its price; whereas a series of dots, which evoke little or no feelings, are still ‘worth more’. Both art and humanity are debased. Art does not merely reflect a decadent society: it is itself decadent! This is the stage we have now reached, as far as the history of art is concerned.

This is a far cry from Marx’s account of art’s evolution in his Economic and philosophical manuscripts (EPM) of 1844. In one passage, he argues that the objective mode of the ‘beautiful’ is mass. The latter is based on: (a) “reproduction of the structures of physical reality” (shapes, which were associated with the best way to make tools, pots, etc); (b) “various specific attributes, such as symmetry, regularity, proportion and harmony”, which constitute an “attractive and coherent whole”; now it begins to “rival the shapes of material reality”. (Cf the notion of aesthetic structure - leading to the autonomy of the art object - including its role in human self-affirmation.) On the other hand, the dealer in minerals does not think of the beauty of a woman’s necklace when it is worn; he only sees its commercial value; “not the beauty and peculiar nature of the minerals”, whilst “the man who is burdened with worries and needs has no sense for the finest of plays”.

Marx also refers to the wage worker, who is “depressed both intellectually and physically”, and is reduced to a “machine-like type of labour”.6 He is no longer able to enjoy his work as a play of his own physical and psychical powers. Whereas, the objects of medieval handcraft reveal that it is “still half artistic; it has still the aim in itself (Selbstzweck)”. Thus Morawski adds: “Surely we are barred from these foregoing passages from lending a basically utilitarian teleology to Marx’s concept of aesthetic experience.”

As for the achievement of a unity of form and content in the art object, this requires individual skill and imagination, in order to achieve “the necessary harmonious organisation of the parts which constitutes a whole artistic structure”. In this regard, both Marx and Engels emphasise the ‘primacy’ of content; but for them, this in no way undermines its form, which determines the existence of the artwork as an end in itself. Without a consciously produced form which allows the content to shine through, there would be no aesthetic value (cf conceptual art, which dispenses with form). As for style, this is not to be confused with form, although it is closely related. The former is “the imprint of the individual artistic personality on the work of art”.7

Marx does not see the aesthetic as a purely subjective matter either. Art appreciation requires an objective standard of taste, based on historical knowledge, as well as theories of the aesthetic (eg, Hegel’s Lectures on aesthetics 1820-21). In his notebook of 1857-58, Marx refers to Vischer’s Aesthetik: “Beauty exists only for the consciousness.” Vischer, quoting from Schiller, also goes on to say: “Beauty is simultaneously an object and an objective state. It is at once form, when we judge it, and also life, when we feel it. It is [both] our state of being and our creation.”8 (Therefore the work of art has a life of its own; it does not require a univocal viewpoint - cf philosophy - so it is open to interpretation as part of the process of production.) Schiller, of course, famously called for an “aesthetic education”, whose aim is to reunite reason and feeling, as an antidote to “the blind struggle of egoistic interests in capitalist society”. (Cf Marx in the EPM: “If you wish to enjoy art, you have to be an artistically educated person.”9) But, unlike Schiller, he goes on to say that, this must be open to all; hence we need a social revolution.

Last, but not least, Marx agrees with Hegel’s idea of “the inevitable decadence of art”, as long as capitalism exists, because art ends up being included within the system of capitalist production. Thus humanity needs a communist revolution for a true “renaissance of the arts on a much broader and higher basis”. (I shall return to this latter point at the end of the article.)

Adorno’s aesthetic theory

Adorno is important because he tried to develop a Marxist theory of the aesthetic for the 20th century, and arguably beyond (even if we do not agree with him!). Although his magnum opus (published posthumously) is characterised by an abstract approach to dialectics, as far as his aesthetic ideas are concerned, Adorno is in broad agreement with Marx.

Firstly, he defends art’s autonomy: aesthetic value is the antithesis of exchange value; at the same time, art becomes part of the hierarchical bourgeois division of labour; therefore the masses are largely excluded from the production and consumption of art. Secondly, Adorno embodies Marx’s theory of artistic decadence - but on the basis of rational pessimism, as opposed to the latter’s rational optimism. Hence Dialectic of enlightenment and the role of instrumental reason is played out in society via the culture industry, linked to administered capitalism: “ ... art respects the masses by presenting itself to them as what they could be rather than by adapting itself to them in their degraded condition”. Post the holocaust and Hiroshima, the rise of the “vulgar in art” - eg, art which dispenses with form or anti-art objects - “is the subjective identification with objectively reproduced humiliation”. But the masses enjoy what is being “renounced” (the beauty of form, but in repressive forms, such as “grinning advertisement beauties”), along with the culture industry or art as entertainment (eg, beautifully choreographed violence).10

Authentic art must rely on semblance (the play of form as a mediating device; it is difficult to understand, yet it comes closer to the ‘truth content’ of the world). Similarly the culture industry relies on mimesis almost exclusively (eg, Hollywood), which is unmediated and easy to understand. But it is a ‘realistic deception’, because it reflects the world as it is, to which humanity cannot be reconciled. It does not point to its opposite: ie, socialism. “The making of every authentic work” (a Beckett play, atonal music, abstract painting, art films, etc) “contradicts the pronunciamento that no more [art] can be made”. On the other hand, “the abolition of art in a half-barbaric society that is tending towards total barbarism makes itself barbarism’s partner”.11

But, of course, Adorno puts the cart before the horse. Although he was critical of the communist parties for their “dogmatic ideology”, he underestimates the significance of Stalinism’s betrayal of the international revolution: in 1933, 1936-39, and again in 1944-45, etc, which opened the door not only to fascism and World War II, but also to the rise of the USA as world hegemon in the post-war period. Vis-à-vis Marx’s base/superstructure model, it is the latter which has failed to “change the world” (ie, the failure of the subjective factor), not the new technologies of mass reproducibility (the basis of both mass consumerism/the culture industry/the new mass media), which is responsible for the “administered society”. As far as history is concerned, it is Stalinism, as the “grave-digger of the revolution”, which must bear the primary responsibility. Like the nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, its poisonous legacy lingers on as a block to the consciousness of the radical intelligentsia (let alone the masses). The British radical playwright, David Hare, is a typical example. In a recent statement he said: “... social democracy [can] no longer deliver betterment … yet revolutionary socialism [is] a dangerous illusion”.12

Yet, given the existing division of labour (a key impediment to consciousness) - especially during the period of capitalist decline, wherein the system lurches from one crisis to the next - the intelligentsia, including artists, playwrights, as well as philosophers, according to Marx’s prognosis, must play a leading role, alongside the politically advanced workers, as the mediators of adequate consciousness on a mass scale; as well as assisting as the organisers of new political forms of struggle. But, when the consciousness of the vanguard is blocked, so that it is unable to move even in a leftward direction, the masses are unlikely to go beyond the sort of spontaneous struggles which we are seeing at present (eg, today’s protests against austerity). In addition to the pervasive idea that ‘there is no alternative’, the problem is exacerbated further by bourgeois ideology, which is becoming increasingly divisive (eg, the cultivation of a ‘gender war’, intersectionality, etc); not forgetting the atomising effects of the new mass media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Marxist critic, Peter Dews, argues that, despite his rational pessimism, Adorno’s “critical theory never abandons the aim of an integrated understanding of the dynamics of modernity. While grounded in Marx and the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, it also seeks to retain the indispensable heritage of classical German philosophy.”13 Dews describes poststructuralism as the “logics of disintegration”, because it draws from a “potpourri” of theories, such as structuralism, semiotics, Freudianism, Nietzsche, etc.

On the other hand, given his rational pessimism, combined with a move towards theoretical abstraction - which opens up a gap between itself and reality - Adorno’s thinking also begins to converge with the rise of poststructuralism: eg, for the former,

The historical process is advancing both towards less and less mediated forms of unity, and towards increasing antagonism and incoherence, because of the abstractions built into the instrumental use of concepts ... The culmination of this process is a social world of which every aspect has become inherently contradictory, and therefore resistant to univocal interpretation ... At the psychological level, the process of disintegration is manifested in the decline of the bourgeois individual, the breaking down of the autonomous ego

… in the administered world [of late capitalism] the antagonistic relation between the individual and society … is replaced by direct incorporation by socialising agencies, such as the mass media [and its latest incarnation, the new social media, etc]. Obliged to conform to an overwhelming social reality … the individual retreats into narcissism, into illusions of total self-containment …14


Whilst Adorno sat in “the Grand Hotel Abyss” contemplating the fate of the world, the explosions of 1968 took place. But in France, this occurred within the very mass consumerist/mass media society, which he associates with administered capitalism.

Yet the student revolt, along with eight million workers who had occupied their factories, failed to develop an adequate consciousness en masse; because the necessary ‘political form’ which is required did not materialise. Rather Stalinism stepped in to defuse the May events in Paris, whilst it crushed the Prague spring with its tanks. It was the last act of the “grave-digger of the revolution”, before its own demise two decades later. The outcome proved to be a turning point, vis-à-vis the class struggle and the intelligentsia, especially in the spheres of philosophy, sociology and history. The latter turned its back on the idea of the proletariat as the agency of social revolution, which is both possible and necessary.

Bubbling underneath was a mood of despair. Philosophy swung back to an atomist idea of reality. Dialectical materialism, the struggle between opposites, gave way to difference: power is seen as insurmountable; the knowing subject is replaced by the ‘subjectless subject’, etc. Hence we have a new cynicism about the past and the future, offset by an ambivalent attitude to modernity or the experience of ‘here and now’; the commodity form suddenly becomes exciting, glitzy (whilst the tendency of the system to generate ever more inequality, along with the alienating effects of the ‘callous cash-nexus’, is overlooked!). This coincides with the move from structuralism to the nihilism of post-structuralism and postmodernism - albeit not according to an organicist approach to concepts!

Structuralism has an atomist, ahistorical approach to reality regarding the interrelationship between structures. Aristotle’s essentialism or an organist account of species, genera, things (including thought) based on the category of essence is rejected: ie, the idea of “the persisting nature of things, including their transition from one form to another. Now things may be explained merely in terms of their constituent matter (atoms).”15

Such an approach is to be found in Lacanian psychoanalysis, as well as Althusserian Marxism. Unlike Marx’s own organicist approach to reality, Althusser repudiates what he calls “the ideological myth of a philosophy of origins and its original concepts ... There is no longer any original essence.” On this basis, he argues that The German ideology of 1846 is the cut-off point for the young, humanist Marx and the mature, scientific Marx of Capital emerges. This is despite the fact that, in his later as well as his early writings, Marx shows a preoccupation with the theme of artistic freedom in opposition to alienation (which begins with his opposition to Prussian censorship in 1842). But the idea of art which opposes itself to prosaic reality - the commodity form - is restated decades later: eg, in volume 4 of Capital.

Consider his reference to Milton as an “unproductive labourer”: “He produced Paradise lost for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk: it was part of his nature.” (The fact that he sold it later for £5 is not the point.) Whereas “the literary proletarian of Leipzig, who fabricates books … under the direction of his publisher, is a productive labourer; for his product is from the outset subsumed under capital”. He is using his literary talent, not as an end in itself (cf Milton), but as a means to an end: ie, he allows himself to be exploited “only for the purpose of increasing that capital”.16

Post-structuralism was a reaction to the rigidities of the structuralist approach to reality. But it is a case of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’: eg, it emphasises linguistics, which is separated from non-linguistic reality. Post-structuralism is hostile to the idea of human phenomena, which are the products of law-like generalisations, such as dialectical materialism. Instead it chooses to celebrate the formless, the subjective and the spontaneous (eg, Lyotard’s ‘libidinal economy’).

Postmodernism is more focused on the arts. It celebrates surface and the superficial style, as well as irony and parody or pastiche. As for philosophy, the grand narrative is rejected (ie, Kant, Hegel, Marx). In linguistics, there is a denial of fixed meaning or a correspondence between language and the world. Once again, objectivity is rejected, because it is identified with power, including the authority of the academy and the canon, which are seen as a bastion of white male privilege. The dismantling of objectivity (and how it interrelates with the subjective) is seen to be a means of liberating political radicalism.

On this basis, according to the postmodernist view of art, the author is replaced by a floating text (intersubjectivity); an interplay of identity and non-identity, of the conscious ego and the unconscious subject; relativism or the idea that all cultural products are equal in value (see my comparison of Rembrandt and Hirst above). Hence we have the notion that the new technologies of mass reproducibility open the door to a ‘democratisation’ of the arts, albeit within capitalism. Apropos ‘high’ art, which is ‘elitist’, thanks to the new mass media (latterly the personal computer, the internet, and the smartphone), now ‘anyone can be an artist’ and ‘anything can be art’. But this is a myth, as I shall explain.

From an objective standpoint, postmodernism provides an intellectual fig-leaf for the increasing role of the art industry and therefore the degradation of art in the period of late capitalism, the epoch of its decline and transition (with or without the social revolution). In 1998, for example, the Saatchi Gallery bought and exhibited British artist Tracy Emin’s Unmade bed. Later it was sold to the Tate Modern Gallery. It has since been written up by the European School of Graduate/Post-Graduate Studies, which includes a section called ‘Philosophy, Art and Critical’. Another comment by Marx in his EPM springs to mind: “Money … appears to have an inverting power in relation to the individual and to … social bonds ... It transforms loyalty into treason, … virtue into vice, … nonsense into reason and reason into nonsense.”17 The empress without her clothes!

There is no evidence for the idea of a “new epoch of democratised art”. On the contrary, in the hands of corporate capitalism, the new mass media, in and of itself, cannot possibly lead to “a new renaissance of art on a broader and higher basis”, let alone a revival of communist mass consciousness, because the chief impediment - division of labour, as Marx defines it - remains intact (in fact it has become even more complicated than before). Therefore the internet and smart mobile phone, etc reinforce all the others (private property relations, alienated labour and commodity fetishism, culture industry). Most of the time, most of the stuff which appears on the internet takes the form of individualised commodity exchange; including the pornography industry (in the USA alone, the latter is still bigger than the GDP of many countries).

Furthermore, most of the creative stuff which is individually made and uploaded onto YouTube is an imitation of Hollywood, both in terms of its form and content (eg, rapid scene changes, violent themes or trivia), which perpetuates the infantilisation of the masses: ie, it is a distraction, which discourages independent critical thought). Of course, there is always the exception that proves the rule.

Finally, apart from the fragmentingeffects on human consciousness of the bourgeois division of labour, technology itself (the internet, the social media, etc) reinforces the atomisation of the masses as well. But when mass movements do erupt - eg, the Arab spring, Occupy, the rise of left populist movements in Europe against austerity - whilst the internet is a great mobiliser for the struggle, it is not a substitute for a revolutionary strategy and programme. Spontaneous movements rise and fall.

‘Inevitable decadence’

I shall draw my remarks to a close by way of a brief outline of the concept of the “inevitable decadence” of art in modern times, and then try to draw some conclusions from it.

Marx takes this idea from Hegel and then he supersedes it: Hegel refers to the “paralysing effects of the division of labour, the increasing mechanisation of all forms of human activity, the engulfing of quality in quantity - all these typical characteristics of bourgeois society [he] recognised as inimical to [art], even after he acknowledged capitalism to be the essential foundation of progress”. Whereas Marx goes on to argue that the “anti-aesthetic sphere of reality [the proletariat] could readily assume a revolutionary character, [only] the communist revolution of the working class [can lay] the basis for a new renaissance of the arts on a much broader and higher basis”.18 But if that fails then “The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange, weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.”19

This is the stage which we have now reached. Even if he put the cart before the horse, arguably Adorno’s theory of the culture industry and its negative effects on consciousness (despite his pessimistic prognosis for art and society in the period of late capitalism) may yet be the price which humanity must pay for the decline and transition of capitalism to a new form, sans the social revolution. Time, however, is running out (eg, the need to halt environmental destruction and global warming). Adorno’s ‘Blade runner’ view of administered capitalism is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thus I agree with the first and last part of Cutrone’s conclusion, if not the middle: no to the theory of Marxist art (which is the product of Stalinist authoritarianism). But yes to a Marxist theory of art, which is needed for all the above reasons. Finally, yes to his call for “Marxist politics”. But the question remains, how do we get from today’s ephemeral left populism to something more substantial: ie, a genuine revolutionary movement? For not only the future of art, but also the future of humanity, is at stake.



1. L Baxandall, S Morawski Marx and Engels on literature and art New York 1977, preface.

2. S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx Illinois 1985, p9.

3. Ibid.

4. Quoted in ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/epm/1st.htm.

7. L Baxandall, S Morawski Marx and Engels on literature and art New York 1977, pp14-18.

8. M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, pp95-96.

9. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts, in Early writings London 1975, p379.

10. TW Adorno Aesthetic theory Minnesota 1998, pp239-40.

11. Ibid pp249-51.

12. www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/21/david-hare-v-establishment-memoir.

13. P Dews Logics of disintegration London 1990, pxvii.

14. Ibid p22. (In 2014, one trillion images were posted on the internet, of which 30 billion were selfies!)

15. S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx Illinois 1985, p9.

16. Quoted by II Rubin in Essays on Marx’s theory of value Montreal 1982, pp262-63.

17. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts, in Early writings London 1975, pp378-79.

18. M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, p101.

19. Ibid p102 (speech on the anniversary of the Peoples Paper, April 14 1856).