Monday, December 3, 2012

A quick discussion on Marxism and Art

Marxism is a social and economic theory which informs art history, history proper and all disciplines that involve history.  With regards to art history, Marxism considers the relationship between everyday people and art by way of attempting to place art in the context of its users or consumers.  The use of Marxist theory to study art history became popular in the 1970s when scholars shifted from using political and military historical methodologies to a social historical lens in an effort to locate the experience of, not just great men or authors of history, but of the proletariat.

Marxist theory is based upon the idea that all human life is governed by material concerns.  According to Marx, all of society consists of two elements.  The individual experiences alienation and repression by way of the “superstructure” and its relation to the “base.”  The “base” describes and contains all forces related to production, e.g. the employer/employee relationship and all relationships between those who own and control forces of production and those who enact production. The “superstructure” is created by the aforementioned relationships and consists of culture, religion, institutions, ideas of the state and systems of power.  The imbalance of power between the “base” and the “superstructure” causes alienation from labor and production as the proletariat is identified by his job, not just socially, but also through self-identification.  This mutually self-determining problem is cyclical and difficult to break and allows for a “false consciousness” to veil the negative qualities of this relationship.  The “false consciousness” is a process in capitalist society which is intentionally misleading to the proletariat and leads to commodity fetishism in the lower classes.  In this way, the individual resolves the experience of alienation and repression through a false belief in a natural law, thereby creating a fundamental need to compete with others.

The creation and existence of art, which in Marxist thought is a manifestation of human desire and imagination, allows for the “base” to be transformed by conscious-altering ideas.  Therefore, art is an avenue by which the individual can break through the debilitating fog of “false consciousness.”  Art can create a state of conscious-altering in a society which can then initiate a revolution.  The avant-garde, then, rises to protect culture against capitalist forces.  By encouraging individuals to think outside of the limits to which their thoughts are regulated by the systems of power, art serves to eradicate the “demystification” present in capitalist society. 

For example the early twentieth-century Art Nouveau, Art Deco and most specifically the Arts and Crafts movements were essentially a revolution against the cheap Victorian style which was dominated by mass-produced objects. High artistry and high quality of workers’ craftsmanship came to dominate these movements in contrast to capitalist mass production valued previously.  The works of Toulouse Lautrec and Mucha from this time period illustrate the rejection of Victorian ideals and social norms in favor of a new, avant-garde style.  This art came in an era when factory workers rebelled against the wealthy industry owners determined to keep them underpaid and without any rights.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the Salon at Rue des Moulins,1894. Charcoal and oil on canvas, 111.5 x 132.5 cm. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec
Alphonse Mucha. Salon des Cents XXeme Exposition (Salon of the 100, 20th exposition), 1896. Poster, 43.2 x 63.6 cm. Musée des arts décoratifs.
 More recently the pop art works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein of the 1960s which commented on mass production (Warhol with his multiple screen prints and canvases and Lichtenstein with his repetition of dots) went hand-in-hand with the 1960s counter-culture of revolution and the 1968 worker revolts and student sit-ins motivated by a general dissatisfaction with the operations of society.  Warhol’s 100 Campbell’s Soup Cans sought to critique capitalism, an economic system which was beginning to show its drawbacks during the 60s.  By using the image of a quotidian object, one which contained no seeable aesthetic value, Warhol questioned the relation between desire and availability and how market forces affect the individual.  His use of the repeated form and method of production commented on the systems of mass production. 

Andy Warhol. Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962. Synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases, each canvas 20 x 16". The Museum of Modern Art.
Roy Lichtenstein. Reverie, 1965. Screenprint on smooth, white wove paper, 30 1/8 x 24". The Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
 Contemporary artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst continue to deal with capitalist tendencies in their works which comment on the commoditization and fetishization of high art.  Koons’ kitschy works and Hirst’s seemingly absurd conceptual art (e.g. the tiger shark submerged in formaldehyde) sell for abominable prices despite their departure from canonical art ideals.  Hirst's spotted paintings also seem to follow Lichtenstein in that the repetition and variety of his subject lead one to think about mass production, the choices made for the everyday people by the elite class, and questions the concept of freedom.  Their works and those of others can be said to relate to current revolutionary trends in “going green," being more aware of our wastefulness of resources, and lessening our carbon footprints as they critique the unnecessary and frivolousness within modern society. 

Jeff Koons. Elephant, 2002-04. Stainless steel with transparent color coating, 38" x 30" x 20". Exhibited at Sonnabend Gallery, Fall 2004.

Damien Hirst. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Steel, GRP composites, glass, plexiglass, fourteen-foot tiger shark, and formaldehyde solution, 84" x 204".

Damien Hirst. Thiosalicyclic, Acid Pharmaceutical Painting, 2004-05. Oil on canvas, 57" x 45". Exhibited at Gagosian Gallery, Spring 2005.

Many twentieth and twenty-first century scholars use a Marxist lens to study the art of the last one-hundred and fifty years.  Scholar Solomon Maynard states that the application of Marxism in the discipline of art history was never carried out by Marx himself and cautions that doing so can lead the student in an endless amount of directions.  T.J. Clark uses a Marxist standpoint to re-examine Manet’s Olympia in Olympia’s Choice” in which he determines that Olympia is art which illustrates how capital is made into an image. 

Edouard Manet. Olympia, 1863-1865. Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 190 cm. Musée d'Orsay. 

 Meyer Schapiro is also a Marxist theorist who uses this social art historical methodology to interpret Monet’s A Painting of Shoes and concludes that the artist’s status in society proves that the shoes belong to the artist not to a peasant woman. 

Through the work of these scholars and artists it is evident that as long as the society operates under capitalistic ideologies, Marxist theories are indispensable in the study of, not only economics, but also art, culture, and society.


  1. this was a very interesting read!


  3. Great article.
    For a student of art history who studies the important theoreticians it was very helpful.
    Thanks !

  4. Very informative. It astounds me that in my senior year as an Art History major this is the first I have heard of Marxist theory.

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