For Marx, against Althusser

What is the nature of art under capitalism? Rex Dunn responds to Paul Demarty

Instantly commodified

I disagree with most of what Demarty says in his article, ‘What is art and can it survive?’1 for three main reasons: Firstly, he ignores the fact that classical philosophy and aesthetics are integral to Marx’s thought as a whole. Secondly, there is a nihilist tendency in his thinking. Thirdly, he has a mechanical, undialectical view of bourgeois institutions - that they are merely a means to dispense patronage and regulate mass consumption; hence we have the elitist privileging of high art over low art.

The root of Demarty’s problem is clear: he rests his whole argument on Althusser’s structuralist theory of Marxism (which turns the latter into its opposite). Unless he is of an eclectic disposition, then he must also accept Althusser’s basic premise of a dichotomy between the young, humanist Marx of the Paris manuscripts and the mature, scientific Marx of Capital. This is a fallacy.

The essential Marx

As a young man, Marx read the classics of world literature, which provided the germ of his key ideas about the nature of capital and the reification process. To give one example, In his Economic and philosophical manuscripts (1844), Marx quotes from Goethe’s Faust, specifically the speeches of Mephistopheles (man is duped by money, just as Faust is duped by Mephistopheles). This is carried over by the mature Marx into Grundrisse and Capital Vol 1; and used again in Capital Vol 3:

Capital assimilates labour into itself ‘as though it had love in its body’. In capital that bears interest the movement of capital is abbreviated to the fullest extent; the mediating process is omitted ... a capital of 1,000 … is transformed after a time into 1,100, just as after a certain period of time wine kept in its cellar improves its use value … by incorporating living labour-power into a dead substance, the capitalist converts value - past, materialised, dead labour - into capital, into value big with value, a monster that has life breathed into it and begins to ‘work’ as though it had love in its body.


A few pages later, a table, an ordinary object perceived by the senses, is transformed - as a commodity - into a “sensual-supra-sensual” object. This corresponds to Mephistopheles admonishing Faust for not making the most of Gretchen’s flirtations: “You supra-sensual, sensual wooer. A slip of a girl leads you by the nose!”2

Art is both subjective and objective, but Demarty more or less rejects this idea. This is clearly evident in his discussion of Kant’s Critique of judgement, along with its rejection by the populist critic, John Carey. As an idealist philosopher, Kant recognises that beauty is both a “subjective and universal” (objective) judgement. But he attributes this to each individual’s innate ability to experience beauty; regardless of the inequality of income and educational opportunity within capitalist society. Thus, for Kant, beauty is a universal property. Carey rightly dismisses this as idealist, without which, according to Demarty, “aesthetics does indeed appear to be just the opinion of one individual”. Hence he polemicises against the “religion of art”, related to the state “subsidising high art”. Yet, says Demarty, “there is absolutely zero evidence that going to a gallery or a concert [as a mere spectator] has any positive effects whatsoever”.

Carey’s points “have some validity”, argues Demarty. Vis-à-vis the question of “an objective standard of beauty … it is possible: but only with a historical, rather than an aesthetic, perspective”. By saying this, he leaves the door open to dismiss high art, which is based on the unity of form and content (beauty is form; ugliness is the absence of form). But in today’s world it is immoral to celebrate beauty: eg, ‘art for art’s sake’. So the art terrorist is justified when he physically attacks it!

But this flies in the face of Marx. Aesthetic sensibility - the appreciation of beauty - is innate in man; but it can be eroded by material circumstances, as well as ideology.

I shall return to this point later, but here I want to consider its relevance to Marx’s concept that art is both subjective and objective. This is derived from Schiller’s aesthetics, quoted by Vischer in his Aesthetik. Marx refers to this in his notebook (1857-58). Because beauty is an innate human quality, it was theorised by the classical philosophers. But it cannot be explained away by means of structuralism/post-structuralism/postmodernism; just because the social revolution was derailed:

The beautiful exists only for consciousness … it is a property of man … [But] this does not mean … that the ‘aesthetic’ is purely subjective.

Beauty [in art] is simultaneously an object and a subjective state. It is at once form, when we judge it, and also life, when we feel it [either directly from nature or via the art object; both in its form and content]. It is at once our state of being and our creation.3


Furthermore, beauty cannot be denied, just because Marx and Engels were in the privileged position - as members of the bourgeoisie themselves - to take advantage of the objectivity of concepts. The latter (backed up by empirical evidence, where possible) can be shared and debated, which is the basis of all knowledge. Hence they were able to distinguish between high and low art works. On the one hand, Marx saw much merit in Eugène Sue’s novel, The mysteries of Paris, because the main character, ‘Fleur-de-Marie’, possesses “a vitality that goes beyond her bourgeois context”. On the other, he criticised Lassalle’s political play, Franz von Sickingen, because “his characters are hollow”; mere “mouthpieces of the Zeitgeist”, etc. Engels agreed with him.

Both realised that, while it is true that the making and appreciation of art is the preserve of the educated classes, at the expense of the direct producers of surplus value, high art is not elitist in itself. Rather, as Demarty himself points out, the problem is that the bourgeoisie have a monopoly of this. A Marxist movement has to challenge the bourgeois division of labour, so that the masses are able to know and appreciate high culture for themselves. To condemn high art as elitist is a red herring; Therefore it should not be thrown out with the bathwater à la Bohemian nihilism.

Art’s autonomy

Like the Russian constructivists, etc, Demarty is basically saying that Marx is wrong in relation to the question of beauty, despite the fact that it is bound up with his idea of man as a “species-being” (“Man is a species-being, not only because he practically and theoretically makes the species - both his own and those of other things - his object; [but also] because he looks upon himself … as a universal … and free being”).4 This is also linked to his concept of art’s - relative - autonomy.

In the EPM, Marx argues that:

the objective mode of the beautiful is ‘mass’ ... (a) reproduction of the structures of physical reality (their shapes mainly [dating back to pre-history]); and (b) various specific attributes of symmetry, regularity, proportion, and harmony, which provide an attractive and coherent whole, [which also] rivals the shapes of material reality.5


Of course, Demarty could argue that Marx is out of date here, because he is clearly espousing a mode of the beautiful which predates 20th century modernism. The latter is characterised by opposing values, apropos the organisation of forms; not forgetting fragmentation, and so on. The point here is that Marx may or may not have sided with Lukács on the question of modernism. But I think he would have recognised aesthetic modernist art works as art: eg, cubism, futurism, abstract expressionism, a Joycean novel with its disjointed inner thoughts, etc - because, (a) they still represent the realisation of aesthetic use-value, based on a “free play of the physical and psychic faculties”; (b) they are art objects (compare post-modernism, which ‘rationalises’ anti-art objects).

Whether it has a cognitive, ideological aspect or not, for Marx, the art object is the harbinger of human freedom: ie, his vision of “an expanded artistic activity and freely playful spontaneity in work and leisure”; the realisation of “an enriched human being who will appropriate the world with a fullness of the senses” and is “in need of human life-activities”, which “existing social conditions suppress and distort”: ie, the emergence of homo aestheticus.6

In The German ideology, along with Grundrisse and Capital, it is possible to identify three elements regarding Marx’s expectation about art in a future communist society:

  •  The creative abilities of each individual shall be developed to their full potential, based on individual aptitude.
  •  Labour itself, either at the workplace or during leisure time, will become more aesthetic.
  •  Every person will be able to achieve a degree of artistic achievement in each domain of the arts.

For example, there will no longer be ‘professional painters’, but, at most, ‘people who engage in painting among other activities’. (Note that Demarty also quotes from The German ideology, but he omits this last point!) Thus it would be wrong to suggest that

Marx anticipated the disappearance of the art object. If this were so, then Marxian disalienation would paradoxically provide a retrograde utopia, an atavistic lapse into the time when aesthetic structure had still to be consciously developed ... [arguably] a dimming of the Marxian original into mere reverie on the idea of technological benefits.7


All of the above expresses what Marx means by the relative autonomy of art, both now and in the future. The artist, if he/she wishes, mediates the material/social world via impractical (as well as practical) art objects. Therefore Marx’s idea of art’s autonomy is not an “illusion”. It is an aspect of the real world and humanity’s desire for freedom and fulfilment. This is true, even if we object to the fact that, under capitalism, the making and appreciation of art, such as this, is an activity of a privileged minority of the population. But today, of course, many artists and academics choose to attack art, as we have come to know it, for reasons that are already becoming clear. This is another reason why art’s autonomy is a relative thing. After the holocaust, Adorno attributed the rise of the anti-aesthetic to “a destructive discontent with culture”, which is essentially correct.8

Russian nihilism

Early on in his article, Demarty refers to the jailing of ‘comedy terrorist’ Aaron Barschak for damaging the Chapman brothers’ artwork, a pastiche of Goya’s Disasters of war. If he merely objected to the standard of the work in question, then I would agree with him; but the judge was right to point out that “anyone could see that the Chapmans’ Goya project was art, and Barschak’s stunt was not”. Demarty makes his own position pretty clear in his following statement: “… a great deal of writers on aesthetics have fallen into the trap of fetishising the work of art, as such”.

There is an echo here of the nihilism of the Russian left avant garde, which sprang up after the October revolution. They were optimistic - and impatient - about the new possibilities for art that were opened up by October. Some of them also wanted to destroy bourgeois art, because, (i) it is made by privileged people, who had the money and the time to enjoy impractical art objects; (ii) as Alexei Gan stated in his ‘constructivist manifesto’, “Art is dead!” The notion of aesthetic structure, such as easel painting, is “as dangerous as religion. [It is] an escapist activity.”9 The victorious proletariat requires a new kind of art which is useful to the revolution; such as photomontage posters - even symphonies based on factory hooters (yes to the former, but no to the latter!).

Gan’s attitude is based on subjective idealism, not dialectical materialism. Like others, he fails to realise that the human senses are innate, but they are skewed by class society, especially under the capitalist mode of production. As Marx’s says in his EPM,

… just as the growth in the division of labour increases the accumulation of capital, … the worker becomes more and more uniformly dependent on labour, and on a particular, very one-sided and machine-like type of labour ... he is depressed, both intellectually and physically to the level of a machine, and from being a man becomes an abstract activity and a stomach.



The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history. Sense which is a prisoner of crude practical need has only a restricted sense.10


The worker has a right to become an all-rounded human being, which includes the cultivation of his/her senses to their full potential. But this will not come overnight, even after the social revolution is underway.

Trotsky knew this too (despite the fact that the EPM was not yet available to him): In his Literature and revolution (1922), he writes:

The working class does not know the old literature; it still has to commune with it; it still has to master Pushkin, to absorb him and so overcome him ... A Bohemian nihilism exists in the exaggerated futurist rejection of the past, but not a proletarian revolution. We Marxists live in traditions, but we have not stopped being revolutionists on account of it.11


The harsh reality is that, by attacking the freedom of art, the Constructivists, et al, were hoist by their own petard. Once the bureaucracy had a firm grip on power, Stalin opted to preserve conventional forms, including the art of the past, for his own ends - to keep the masses on his side. Thus experimental art was brutally suppressed, replaced by official Soviet art, within which ‘Socialist realism’ (which was neither) would stand alongside bourgeois art.

During World War I, the Dadaists also attacked bourgeois art, especially its latest incarnation: aesthetic modernism, or ‘art for art’s sake’ (eg, expressionist, cubist, futurist artworks). Dada responded by introducing ready-made anti-art objects: eg, Duchamp’s famous Urinal (1917). In 1918 Tristan Tzara’s Dada manifesto proclaimed that “a work of art should not be beauty itself, for beauty is dead”. Other Dadaists were influenced by surrealist ideas; and were more politically motivated. They produced irrational, anti-art objects or ‘provocations’, aimed at bourgeois culture as a whole, since the latter is “no more than a mask of civilisation laid over by a deeper barbarism”. In 1920 the Berlin Dadaists staged an art fair, which featured grotesque cut-outs of war cripples, along with Grosz’s dummy (a pig dressed in a German officer’s uniform). This was their answer to the bourgeoisie, who used instrumental reason to slaughter millions of workers on the battlefields of Europe.12 At the same time, the work of the Dadaist, Francis Picabia, was being bought up by the collector/couturier, Jacques Doucet.

Paradoxically, in no time at all, anti-art objects had became artistic commodities themselves, thanks to the role of the art market. They also ended up as exhibits in private/public galleries. At the same time, anti-art would become a subject to be studied by academics within the art institution. As with the rise of the art object itself, this was a dialectical process. But let us not blame the art object: it is capitalism and the commodity form which is the problem and must be overthrown.

Althusser and art

Althusser introduced his structuralist theory of Marxism in the 1960s. This is another form of nihilism, because it involves a complete break with the classical Marxist tradition, which includes Marx and Engel’s ideas about art. (Yet, at the same time, their ideas were being collated by Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski, which I am using here.)

What does this mean for art? Althusser drives a wedge between the young, humanist Marx of the Paris manuscripts and the mature, scientific Marx of Capital. Hence he eliminates the idea of the “knowing subject”, etc. Therefore one can reject Marx’s idea of “great literature” and the notion of genius, as idealist humanism (but wasn’t Marx himself a genius?). It follows that Althusser/Demarty must also reject Marx’s idea that, prior to the epoch of capitalism’s decay, there emerged artists who reacted against the alienating effects of the commodity form. Given their attention to form as well as content - ie, the making of an art object: eg, by developing real individual characters within the novel, etc - they were able to transcend mere exchange values and point to “the values of a society that has yet to be born”, despite their privileged social position (eg, Shakespeare, Goethe, Flaubert, Tolstoy).13

Althusser’s notion that the individual is constituted by ideology, backed up by bourgeois “institutions of patronage”, also feeds into a nihilist approach to art. High art only survives because of such patronage. So why not turn to nihilism (albeit in the form of Dadaist stunts, rather than that of the Russian constructivists)? This is the underlying message in Demarty’s article.

In the section headed ‘Art and culture’, he writes:

Art is a subset of cultural production as a whole; and its defining feature is neither the genius of its makers nor the inherent qualities in the objects that constitute it. At the core of art is an institutional relationship of patronage; along with that relationship goes the regulation of its mass consumption.


But first we need to know a bit more about Althusser’s system. What follows is a series of key statements by Althusser, taken from Terry Lovell’s book, Pictures of reality (1983):

Ideas are seen as reflections, distorted or otherwise, of material reality. Althusser, in For Marx and Reading Capital, proposed a redefinition of the social formation as what he calls a “structure in dominance”. The social formation consists … in a series of “material practices” which are mutually interdependent. Each practice is relatively autonomous, both determined and determining within the whole of which it is a part.

Althusser defines ‘practice’ as: “the transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation effected by determinate human labour, using determinate means (of production)”.

He identifies, in For Marx, four practices (or levels): “the economic, political, ideological and theoretical, which operate independently within the whole; albeit not always and everywhere with the same efficacy” …

“in real history determination in the last instance by the economy is exercised precisely in the permutations of the principal role between the economy, politics, theory, etc.”

[Therefore] The economic level, in all social formations, retains only this privilege of determination in a last instance which never comes [ie, the economic transformation of society as part of the social revolution].


Two points:

(i) If the institution functions as a filter for theory that is tainted by ideology, then either Marx’s ideas are false or he possessed a divine gift to somehow rise above this. Of course, this is nonsense, because it omits the possibility of “the knowing subject and experience in the production of knowledge”.

(ii) Althusser dismantles Marx’s base/superstructure model - or the struggle between ideas and material forces: productive forces/the forces and relations of production. The latter must be mediated by ideas, initially created by representatives of the educated classes in conjunction with advanced workers, organised in a vanguard party, capable of mobilising the masses to its cause, leading to the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of communism, “the true realm of freedom”.

Instead, for Althusser,

all levels are constituted by practices and all practices are material … Both the ideological and the theoretical are redefined as practices which produce particular products and, as such, are as much material forces as are economic or political practices.14


This is crude mechanical materialism, not dialectical/historical materialism.

Unlike other intellectuals, for some reason, Althusser refused to break with the Parti Communiste Français, despite Stalinism’s betrayal of the world revolution. Hence post-1945, the door was opened - even wider - to the US hegemon, along with the unprecedented rise of the société de consommation, the ubiquitous spread of the culture industry, etc. But, for Althusser, the subjective factor - the role of a vanguard party - is excluded from the revolutionary process.

Thus we have a rationale for the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as well as the defeat of the événements in 1968, wherein Althusser’s own party, the PCF, played a decisive role.15

We can now return to Althusser’s theory of art (“At the core of art is an institutional relationship of patronage”, etc). First of all, Demarty fails to define what this institution actually is: an alliance between the artist, dealer, art market (for which the price of the artefact has become the dominant factor), on the one hand; art theory (which artists increasingly buy into) and art galleries (private or public), on the other. Therefore he fails to see the institution as a site for contradictory struggle, including ideas; that it is capable of change (not necessarily for the better); which is a reflection of the ebb and flow of the class struggle.

During the middle part of the 20th century, for example, Marxism was a part of the university curriculum. But in the 1960s academic Marxism (for all its faults) was undermined by Althusserian structuralism, along with the ideas of the late Frankfurt School, in the form of ‘cultural studies’, until both were replaced by the ‘negation of the negation’: ie, post-structuralism in the late 1970s and 80s.


In his book, The logics of disintegration (1987), Peter Dews analyses how post-structuralism came about. At the same time, his analysis does not overlook the influence of political events (viz 1968). It shows - very clearly - that these changes within the institution relate directly to the class struggle.

Consider the work of Althusser versus Jean-François Lyotard. In a section called ‘The politics of desire’, Dews tells us that the problem for Althusser and Lyotard was how to explain away the upheavals in French society, which began with the student revolt at Nanterre. Each starts out with the common aim of “stripping Marx’s thought of its Hegelian residues”, which they allege is characterised by an historicist assumption that the proletariat is “the predestined grave-digger of capitalism, whereby the latter becomes conscious of itself - and that ‘Marxism … is no more than the theoretical expression’ of this”. But henceforth their ideas diverge. Althusser “insists on the ontological separation of knowledge and the real, in order to preserve a positive conception of Marxism as a science, but at the same time downgrades the lived experience of capitalism, so that a gulf opens up between the enlightened Marxist theoretician and the ideologically ensnared proletariat”.

Lyotard, on the other hand, wants to retain Marx’s concept of alienation, which he calls the “lived experience” of capitalism, whilst “rejecting the notion of Marxist theory as simply the recovery of the reality hidden within this alienation … [rather it becomes] the speculative self-confirmation of a political elite”. So he recognises the revolt, but then limits this to a “type of political intervention which [can only] disrupt the very forms of political activity, rather than simply filling them with a new content”. Instead he falls back on Freud’s theory of drives: “a complicity of Eros and Logos” are replaced by the death drive, which can only “stare down” at the “chaos of the primary process” (the commodity system and its market).

So there is a correspondence between the libidinal and the social: when the workers jump on the factory production line, they are merely “supplanting the produce with the labour-power which it produced; nothing more”. Similarly, when the students “invade a metro station and urge passengers not to have their tickets punched, these actions are not aimed towards a transformation or democratisation of political power”. But, once again, the role of revolutionary leadership and organisation by the party is left out.16

The post-structuralists argue that the epoch of modernism, which emerged at the end of the 19th century, came to an end in the 1960s-70s. It has been replaced by a new epoch, which they call postmodernism. In reality, it is merely the ‘fag-end’ of modernism: part of art’s decay during the period of late capitalism. It is characterised by the following: the idea of the death of the subject; blind faith in the age of mechanically produced images (reinforced by the digital age, now expressed in the form of techno-fetishism); an ambiguous relationship with mass consumerism, including mass entertainment; pluralism (therefore high and low art are equal in value). By so doing, postmodernism exhibits a strange mix of “euphoria and self-annihilation”.17

Demarty briefly refers to this. He correctly points out that “contemporary academics in cultural studies” spend a lot of their time “identifying the ‘transgressive’ and ‘subversive’ features of soap operas, Madonna singles, etc.” Therefore the products of the culture industry are equal in value with the high art of the past. He is also right to say that “Adorno’s pessimism is infinitely preferable to this desperate modishness”. Yet in the same paragraph, he links this with the “fallacy of beauty”. Once again, he means the beauty of form embodied in the art object (as a means to express its content or for its own sake); hence it has acquired an unhealthy cultic value.

He uses this to confirm his thesis, which he restates in his conclusion: that the “monopolies of patronage” are behind the “illusion of art’s autonomy”, the “cult of genius”, beauty, and so on. Surely there is a conflict going on here within the art institution - between those academics who espouse this nonsense about the culture industry (re Madonna, etc), on the one side, and the promotion of high art by means of public subsidies, on the other (eg, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre). The former, like Lyotard, seek to reconcile themselves with an increasingly commodified society, whilst the latter struggle to resist it. (But they are showing signs of weakening - the latest BBC version of Shakespeare’s history plays ratchets up the violence at the expense of the bard’s words. It looks like a Game of thrones!)


Demarty’s fundamental problem is structuralism itself, upon which he bases his theory of art. Not only is this anti-Marxist: objectively, if not subjectively, it is a rationale for the defeat of the proletarian revolution in the 20th century. Structuralism bases itself on the “constituted subject” (as opposed to a ‘constituting’ one), at the mercy of “ideology in general”. But it has now been replaced by post-structuralism, which celebrates the irrational or “the politics of desire”: viz a sort of bacchanalian dance of death before the idol of the commodity form!

Demarty accuses others of “fetishising the work of art”, whereas he is fetishising the art institution (which he does not define). The latter is not the problem per se, because it is being subsumed by the monopoly of capital itself. The art institution did not produce the “illusion of art’s autonomy”, etc. Rather this is the product of the “knowing subject and experience in the production of knowledge”. Meanwhile the fate of art - and culture as a whole - is being decided by the rule of capital, even whilst it shows signs of its own decay.

The other problem, of course, is the defeat of the proletarian revolution: the subjective factor, as well as objective ones, went in a different direction from that envisaged by Marx (ie, the historic betrayals of social democracy, Stalinism and its offshoots; the latter’s poisonous legacy; the great depression, imperialist war; the rise of the post-war société de consommation and the culture industry).

One can only hope that the proletarian revolution will not only resume, but go beyond where the Bolsheviks left off. This must include the struggle for a Marxist theory of the aesthetic, and a democratised art institution, wherein the argument about ‘what art is’ and ‘what function it plays’ can finally be resolved.


1. Weekly Worker April 28 2016.

2. SS Prawer Karl Marx and world literature London 2011, pp83-84, 323-28.

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

4. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts London 1975, p327 (my emphasis).

5. See Stephan Morawski’s introduction to Marx and Engels on literature and art New York 1977, p15.

6. Ibid p24.

7. Ibid p22.

8. T Adorno Aesthetic theory London 1984. Marx also provides another - historical - aspect to his concept of art’s relative autonomy. This is based on his theory of the ‘non-uniformity of historical development’: ie, between the material and spiritual spheres, first stated in The German ideology (1845-46). Lack of space prevents me from addressing this question here (see M Lifshitz op cit pp87-89).

9. C Gray The Russian experiment in art 1863-1922 London 1986, p256.

10. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts London 1975, pp285, 353.

11. L Trotsky Literature and revolution Michigan, pp130-31.

12. C Harrison and P Wood (eds) Art in theory 1900-1990 Oxford 1993, p219.

13. See SS Prawer op cit p105.

14. T Lovell Pictures of reality London 1983, pp30-34.

15. For Marx and other key works were, of course, published before 1968. But they were republished at least twice during the 1970s: ie, after the PCF’s betrayal. Despite a self-criticism which also appeared during this period, Althusser’s essential position remained unchanged, as Lovell’s quotations clearly show.

16. P Dews Logics of disintegration London 1990, pp128-30.

17. 16. See Fredric Jameson’s essay, ‘The deconstruction of expression’, in C Harrison and P Wood (eds) Art in theory 1900-1990 Oxford 1993, pp1074-80.