Saturday, 18 October 2008


This blog is an exploration of how Marxism, from Marx and Engels until the present, can help to explain the origins and nature of art — be it music, literature, architecture, theatre, the visual arts or other branches.[1] Its aim is to answer the most important questions about art. Why does art exist? Is it necessary? Are there universal standards by which all art can be judged? Does ‘beauty’ exist, and what is it? Can, and should, art play a political or even revolutionary role? Is it the creation of great individuals, or of social forces outside our control? How has capitalism affected art? What makes art ‘great’ — or is the term even legitimate? Is there such a thing as ‘genius’?

Karl Marx, though of bourgeois origins himself, was the greatest thinker of the working class movement — of the proletariat. In modern Western society art is often seen as an elite activity, baffling to the masses. Yet across human history, all layers of society have engaged in the making of art. Art is for every human being, because it is a fundamental human activit­­y, and creativity imbues everything we make, from the spires of a Gothic cathedral to the shape of a button, from Stone Age handaxes to mobile phones. To fail to be interested in such creations is a tragic limitation on ourselves as human beings. It is to fail to be interested in our humanity.

For this reason we must dismiss from the outset the misguided notion that rigorous analysis destroys the effect of art. If we are to try to understand art, we must study it as scientifically as any other subject, basing our conclusions upon evidence. This approach poses no threat to art. Science will never completely unravel the infinitude of causes and combinations that influence our creativity. Art will always therefore be a little evasive and mysterious, just like the human mind that creates it — this does not mean we cannot investigate it as far as our means allow. Of course, as the art historian Arnold Hauser put it:

There are still people who do not feel quite happy when spiritual phenomena, or, as they prefer to call them, the higher spiritual values, are in any way brought into connection with the struggle for existence, class conflict, competition, prestige, and the like... Requiring the spiritual to be preserved from all contact with the material frequently turns out to be a way of defending a position of privilege.[2]

In the process of studying art, we will encounter archaeology, economics, history, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines, because the division of areas of study into fixed categories is artificial. Art, like everything that exists, is in a constantly changing relationship with, and is inseparable from, other processes. Most of this research is currently undertaken by bourgeois specialists, i.e. people who are not Marxists, but I refer to their work upon the strength of their arguments as science — the best materialist analysis can be readily embraced by Marxism.

The need for this breadth of reference should be obvious. Further topics analysed by this blog will include: how art originated, how it has changed across different societies, what beauty is, why we still appreciate the art of cultures utterly unlike our own, the relationship between art and society, the nature of artistic cognition, form and content, Marxist criticism and aesthetic value, the impact of capitalism upon art, romanticism, alienation, racism and sexism, women in art, cultural imperialism, mass culture, postmodernism, art and propaganda, socialist realism, the debate over proletarian culture... and much more. By the end, I shall also offer some speculation about what art can look forward to in a socialist society.

The aesthetic theory of Marx and Engels

Despite their immense level of culture, Marx and Engels were usually busy with economic theory and practical political work and never wrote a theory of art or aesthetics, nor did they encourage a school of followers on the question. Some of the writings they did leave have been published in anthologies like Baxandall and Morawski’s Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art; or see the online archive Marx and Engels on Literature and Art. Such anthologies are not a substitute for the treatise that neither Marx nor Engels wrote. However, brief as some of their remarks are, they should not be seen as throwaway or accidental, as they are consistent and arise from a highly-developed system of ideas: a scientific world view centred upon the liberated and whole human being. Their thought was so ground-breaking, and universal in its implications, that no field, from art to zoology, has remained untouched by it.

In the absence of a rounded aesthetic theory by Marx and Engels themselves, their successors must construct one, based upon their remarks on art and general philosophy. This may be done with confidence, and has resulted in an incredibly rich body of theory, but such extrapolation does require care. Engels for example praised realism [3], but this does not mean that he advocated it in preference to all other styles, or that socialist artists must therefore limit themselves dogmatically to realism at the expense of other movements. Engels said nothing about modernism because he did not live long enough to see it, nor do we know what he would have said about it. There are also all sorts of questions upon which he and Marx offered no opinion at all. What we have is a profound philosophy that would have influenced aesthetics whether or not Marx and Engels had written comments upon art, and which provides a basis for further exploration.

There should be no place in this exploration for reductionism, decrees upon ‘official’ styles, or other dead-ends and distortions. We can agree with the Spanish-Mexican Marxist, Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, when he criticised dogmatic and one-sided applications of Marxism, and concluded:

All this obliges us to bring to the fore the true nature of Marx’s aesthetic ideas, not in order to limit ourselves to an exegesis and reiteration of them, but to develop them creatively, in a living and constant relationship with life itself, with artistic experience, and thus to lay the foundations for a true Marxist aesthetic. We can find in Marx the roots for a conception of aesthetics in general, and of art in particular, which in my view allows us to deal successfully with the most complex artistic problems.[4]

The work on extending Marxist theory into the huge and complex area of the arts — into psychology, the imagination, the origins of creativity, and countless other issues — is still far from complete, and can never be complete. New forms arise (e.g. cinema in the 1900s, and virtual reality today) and demand new theory; aesthetics becomes sub-divided and specialised. It is essential however to return always, though never uncritically, to the writings of Marx and Engels. Firstly, because they are scientists, who sought the dialectical totality of things and scorned academic cul-de-sacs. Secondly, because they believed in the complete human being, with the artist exemplifying a creativity which is an innate part of being human. Thirdly, because the worst excesses of some workers’ states — like the Soviet Union after the rise of Stalin — were possible because of their divergence from and distortion of Marx’s ideas, and these mistakes must never be repeated. The fourth reason is simple: contemporary developments consistently prove them right in the main points of their theory.

In the same spirit, we should not take something as fact simply because Marx or Engels said it. Today we have access to a mass of archaeological, anthropological, neuroscientific and other information that Marx and Engels could not consider. We need to test their ideas against contemporary levels of knowledge — without forgetting that current knowledge will itself in some respects be superceded. It would be absurd, for example, to insist upon the pattern of early civilisation laid out by Engels in The Origin of the Family, with all its limitations of 19th century archaeology, and thereby refuse to learn from over one hundred subsequent years of scientific study.

This includes learning from the bad example often set in the old ‘communist’ bloc, particularly regarding artistic freedoms. Marx himself was in no doubt as to the relative autonomy of art and the importance of its freedom from political interference. In his very first articles he fiercely defends the freedom of the press against the Prussian censorship:

The law permits me to write; it asks only that I write in a style other than my own! I am allowed to show the face of my mind, but, first, I must give it a prescribed expression! Where is the man of honour who would not crimson at this imposition... You admire nature’s enchanting multiplicity, its inexhaustible richness. You do not demand that the rose smell like the violet; and yet, the mind, which is richest of all, is to be allowed to exist in but a single mode? I am inclined to humouristic writing, but the law bids me be serious. My style is bold, but the law orders moderation. The sole permissible colour of freedom is grey on grey. An inexhaustible play of colours glitters from each dewdrop in which the sun shines; and yet the mind’s sun is to engender but one colour, the official colour, no matter how many individuals or which objects may be refracted![5]

“The real, radical cure for the censorship,” writes Marx after his dissection of the decree, “would be its abolition; for the institution itself is a bad one”. Marx never changed this position. His articles on the freedom of the press, along with other writings that we will study, bear witness to his concern for freedom of expression and freedom for the arts, goals which have motivated the revolutionary working class movement from the beginning. If Marx had lived to witness the twentieth-century bureaucrats’ abuse of the arts in his name, he would have stood side by side with artists in opposing it.

[1] I prefer the terms ‘Marxist’ and ‘Marxism’ in this blog, for two reasons. Firstly, ‘socialism’ existed before Marxism, and the term today covers a range of political positions — some of them, e.g. social democracy, not Marxist. Secondly, ‘communism’ has been crudely equated with Stalinism in popular discourse and I see no advantage in using it here.
[2] Arnold Hauser, The Philosophy of Art History (1958). Hauser was a British writer, born in Hungary, whose major work The Social History of Art has a materialist perspective strongly influenced by Marxism.
[3] See for example his letter to Margaret Harkness (April 1888). This, along with many other of the primary texts cited, is available for free at the excellent
[4] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez: Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973). Born in Spain, Sánchez Vázquez emigrated to Mexico during the Spanish Civil War, where he became a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. This book is a superb theoretical contribution.
[5] Marx, Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction (1842).

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