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International Socialism, March 1999


Chris Nineham

Art and alienation: a reply to John Molyneux


From International Socialism 2:82, March 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Molyneux’s article in International Socialism 80 is of course right to defend the validity of modern art against anyone who rejects it outright as a fraud or condemns it all for being unrealistic. Marxists have always taken maximum freedom of expression as a precondition for authentic art. In Trotsky’s words, ‘Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence cannot tolerate them’. [1] But as well as preserving a fierce defence of freedom of expression we should not lose the habit of lively criticism and discrimination in the arts. The problem is that in his haste to take on right wingers like Roger Scruton who oppose anything modern by instinct, John ends up presenting a one sided analysis of art in capitalist society. In the process his defence throws up some arguments which have doubtful implications for Marxist theory.

To start with John overstates the level of mainstream hostility to contemporary art. He says much, if not all, modern art ‘is regarded as a dubious or perhaps downright fraudulent activity by a substantial proportion of at least four groups of people’. [2] Judging by media coverage of the arts, the massive expansion of the art market, and the figures he himself gives for exhibition attendances, I suspect modern art is all the rage among at least one his groups, ‘the educated/cultural middle class’, and hardly controversial in another, ‘the philistine bourgeoisie proper’. Even the media’s attitude has changed dramatically from the days of scoffing at ‘the bricks in the Tate’. John’s judgement here is not accidental; for him art is fundamentally counterposed to capitalism. In his conclusion he says his argument leaves socialists ‘defending art for its rebelliousness, its creativity and human values, while recognising that art as a privileged sphere of these qualities is the other side of the coin of a society which denies the vast majority creativity and humanity in their daily work and lives’. [3] Surely our job is a bit more complicated. Isn’t the fact that art exists in this ‘privileged sphere’, separated from the life and concerns of the vast majority, going to have some fairly devastating effects on the art itself? And doesn’t this have implications for our attitude to art?

At the heart of John’s argument is the contention that art can be defined as unalienated labour. For Marxists, the root of alienation lies in capitalist exploitation, in the fact that the capitalist owns the means of production in society and runs production for profit. Labour becomes a means to create maximum profit by maximising output. In the process the worker loses control over the finished product and the nature of the product itself is determined by the dictates of the market; ‘the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another’. [4]

The worker ceases to recognise himself in the product of his labour; ‘he is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object’. [5] Worse still, by losing control over his own labour the worker is separated from his own essential powers; ‘How could the product of the workers’ activity confront him as something alien if it were not for the fact that in the act of production he was estranging himself from himself?’ [6]

It seems rash to suggest that artistic production is in a simple way immune from such powerful processes. Marx certainly didn’t think so. He argued that ‘capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of production, in particular, art and poetry’ and ‘the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’. [7]

In early capitalism, art was regarded as distinct from commercial production. Adam Smith, for example, regarded artistic labour as unproductive from an economic point of view. [8] Indeed, it was only under emerging capitalism that art began to be considered as something separate from the craftsmanship associated with religious institutions or the court. But with the spread of commodity production into every nook and cranny of social life, a straightforward distinction between commercial and artistic production becomes extremely difficult. John’s definition of art as unalienated labour runs the risk of favouring in advance the work of the individual fine artist in their garret who appears to control their productive activity over the collective work of musicians, technicians, actors and so on who produce in the undeniably commercial and therefore alienated fields of film, architecture or popular music. He counters this objection by arguing that, in cases of artistic achievement in such spheres, ‘what makes them art is the non-alienated labour contributed by directors, composers, soloists, designers, architects, etc’. [9] Apart from being a rather circular argument, as well as potentially elitist, this begs the question whether non-alienated labour in John’s usage is a spiritual concept, a state of being true to oneself, or an actual description of a relationship to the means of production.

Either way, I would argue that this uncertainty points to a more complicated and shifting relationship between capitalism and artistic production than John’s basic position suggests. As capitalism has developed, the social role of artists has changed. Commodification of art has shaped artistic production itself and, far from being immune from it, artists have grappled with alienation since the middle of the 19th century at least.

The Marxist cultural historian Ernst Fischer argues that ‘artists in pre-capitalist societies were on the whole integrated with the social body to which they belonged’. [10] In the early bourgeois period artists were still valued for the ideological and spiritual weight they could bring to an emerging class. The proud subjectivity of the artist neatly tallied with the ideology of the bourgeoisie; the unification of the country and of humanity in the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity. The French painter David, for example, was not only the official painter of the French Revolution of 1789, designing festival sets, painting posters and recording scenes from the revolution, he was also active as a legal expert and as a politician in his own right.

During the 19th century this organic relationship between the most advanced artists and the bourgeoisie began to break down. The promises of the bourgeois revolution were being betrayed. From Goya in Spain to Beethoven in Vienna, artists expressed bitter disillusion with the high handedness and cynicism of the Napoleonic armies. In France many artists took to the barricades against the government during the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. By the second half of the century the official artists of the academy were churning out empty sentimentalisations of rural life and cringing portraits of government officials in pseudo-classical get up. Courbet, the great mid-19th century realist painter who was later involved in the Paris Commune, refused a Cross of the Legion of Honour from the Minister of Fine Arts: ‘At no time, in no case should I have accepted it. Still less should I accept it today, when treason multiplies itself on all sides and human conscience cannot but be troubled by so much self seeking and disloyalty ... My conscience as an artist is ... repelled by accepting a reward which the hand of government is pressing upon me—the state is not competent in artistic matters’. [11]

At the same time as the state run academy was losing its credibility and the practice of commission was on its way out, a growing market for fine art was emerging amongst the growing middle classes. Walter Benjamin claims that the French poet Baudelaire was the first to notice these changes:

The bourgeoisie was in the process of withdrawing its commission from the artist. What steady social commission could take its place? No class was likely to supply it; the likeliest place from which a living could be earned was the investment market ... But the nature of the market, where this demand was to be discovered, was such that it imposed a manner of production, as well as a way of life, very different from those of earlier poets. [12]

John Molyneux quite rightly accepts in his article that no one can escape the effects of alienation in their everyday life, but I want to go further and argue with Benjamin that capitalist relations increasingly shaped artistic production itself. Ideally, artists control their output, they create objects in accordance with the laws of beauty, humanising the natural world by transforming matter in a way that expresses their own human essence. The activity of the artist attempts a self expression that is denied in alienated labour. But once artists are at the mercy of the market alienation is reintroduced. The market separates producer from consumer. Ours is a social species that emerged precisely through co-operative labour. The fact that an artist must present a finished product to an audience who passively and privately consume it disrupts the free flow of ideas that are essential to real creativity. Success is judged in terms of sales and prices. In this situation there is massive pressure on the isolated artist to second guess the market, especially if their subsistence depends on sales. Once their work is produced even partially in response to external necessities, the artist is no longer in control of their own creativity. Many artists must recognise this dilemma. Some admit that potential buyers are very much the focus of their attention. Britart hopefuls Tim Noble and Sue Webster describe in an interview how they bombarded art speculator Charles Saatchi’s office with faxes and oddball art objects for months before they finally lured him to their studios where they watched his (favourable) reaction to their work through spy holes they bored in the walls. [13]

In an important sense the capitalist market also denies artists an audience. By robbing the mass of the population of control over their own labour, and therefore over production generally, the market robs us – the potential audience – of much of our artistic or aesthetic capacities. At the same time the market, by atomising consumption and reducing value to a quantitative measure, reduces consumption to mere ‘having’; ‘Private property has made us so stupid and one sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc. – in short when it is utilised by us’. [14] It hardly needs pointing out that questions of ownership and quantitative value dominate in most mainstream consideration of art. Paintings most often make the news because they have broken price records at an auction, or because they have been bought by particular famous (and millionaire) collectors. Meanwhile thousands of key artworks are kept in private homes, government buildings or in cold storage, sometimes to try to lever up values of particular artists. Those of the rest of us who have the time and money are left to catch what glimpses we can of our favourite artists in packed galleries on the weekend or make do with reproductions which drastically diminish any art’s impact by removing it from a meaningful context.

All of this has inevitably had a massive impact on artists themselves. The French artist Cézanne, often regarded as a founder of Modernism, fled Paris in the 1860s and became a virtual recluse, railing against the values of the capitalist world of his father who was ‘unable to understand anybody except people who worked in order to get rich’. [15] The Impressionists had ambivalent attitudes to the new situation. On the one hand they spent much of their time recording the leisure pursuits of their new clientele, the urban middle classes. Their technique of painting often small canvasses that quickly captured similar scenes in different light was ideally suited to an expanding middle class market. On the other hand the movement started out with a rejection of the stilted and irrelevant classicism of the academy. Its obsession with fleeting appearance was partly a response to new technology, partly a response to rapid social change, but also an expression of isolation:

Impressionism, dissolving the world in light, breaking it up into colours, recording it as a sequence of sensory perceptions, became more and more the expression of a very complex, very short term subject-object relationship. The individual, reduced to loneliness, concentrating upon himself, experiences the world as a series of nerve stimuli, impressions, and moods, as a shimmering chaos, as ‘my’ experience, ‘my’ sensation. [16]

Later the more radical fracturing of the plane of illusion initiated by the Cubists suggests a deepening crisis in the artists’ relationship with their subject and uncertainty about their role in society. There were many other responses to the same crisis. Some artists defiantly raised the banner of ‘art for art’s sake’ in an attempt to distance themselves from the establishment and from the art market. The Surrealists tried to find refuge from commodification in the pure subjectivity of the subconscious; the Russian Constructivists looked outwards, trying to bind the future of art to mass production. One Marxist critic suggests that ‘modern art, in its most heroic moments, is the attempt to escape the reification of existence’. [17] Of course the Modernists were responding to a tremendously turbulent, changing world but their attempts to escape or challenge reification were so radical precisely because art itself was under threat, because artists felt strangled by commodification. Once the bourgeoisie had championed art as a virtuous activity, a token of its commitment to freedom of expression and individuality within a harmonious society, now their own system was threatening to undermine art’s very basis.

Throughout the 20th century the struggle for artistic control and authentic expression has continued. From Diego Rivera and Orson Welles to the Sex Pistols, the most challenging artistic products are often the results of a struggle with the hostililty of the culture industry, and all too often, as well, a destructive struggle of the artist with themselves. As a result the commodification of art and the resulting alienation of the artist is a theme running from All About Eve to Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons. The story of the artist ‘selling out’ to the system has become a commonplace. However well they handle it, artists cannot escape their contradictory situation; however much they struggle to conquer a scrap of production for humanity, their product will itself be commodified.

Why does all this matter? First, I think we are deluding ourselves if we believe that any aspect of our lives completely escapes the alienation imposed by capitalist relations. Despite our best efforts, everything from our health to our personal relations is deeply affected by our lack of control over the central social processes. Certainly it is key to socialist politics that under capitalism no part of the production process can escape the alienation imposed by the capitalist market. The priorities of a co-operative or a state run industry or a whole national economy run by the state will ultimately be distorted by the needs of competitive accumulation, and in the process genuine popular control will be lost. It is not the formal ownership of the means of production that matters, but the real relations of production. John’s example is a case in point. The man building his garden wall may own the bricks and the garden, but his labour is not unalienated or freely chosen, it is imposed by a system based on the absurdity of privatised domestic life.

Secondly, the idea that artistic production is unalienated could easily encourage an uncritical attitude to art. It could even lead us to accept the simplistic and elitist distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture so beloved of the right. As well as encouraging critical artists and cultural work we need to be aware that under capitalism a great deal of cultural production in the galleries as well as on TV is quite simply pap, pandering to the most backward ideas generated by the ruling class, reflecting rather than challenging the artist’s own alienation.

Finally, it is important to treat art historically. As I have tried to suggest, John’s definition of art as unalienated labour tends to take art out of historical development. John points out that Marx warned against crude reductionism when tracing the link between social and economic developments and cultural production. But this warning has to be seen in the context of Marx’s repeated insistence that society must be seen as an interrelated totality. This is the very core of his historical method. It would be wrong to argue that art is in long term decline, but John’s statement near his conclusion is also unsatisfactory: ‘The record of human creativity being what it is, we can reasonably expect to encounter late 20th and early 21st century masterpieces just as there are masterpieces from every century and half century since Giotto and the beginning of the Renaissance’. [18] If only by omission John implies here a trajectory for artistic development separate from the rest of society. Of course, we should avoid oversimplification; human creativity is highly unpredictable, but all art is a product of real people living in concrete circumstances, and wider social developments must impact on it. To see the great period of Modernism in the first 30 years of this century or the late 1960s as cultural high points is not to say art is in terminal decline, just that it thrives on discontent.


1. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art (New York 1977), p. 106.

2. J. Molyneux, The Legitimacy of Modern Art, in International Socialism 80 (1998), p. 71.

3. Ibid., p. 97.

4. K. Marx, Early Writings (Penguin 1975), p. 326.

5. Ibid., p. 324.

6. Ibid., p. 326.

7. K. Marx, The Communist Manifesto (Phoenix 1996), p. 8.

8. A. Sanchez Vazquez, Art and Society (Monthly Review Press 1973), p. 218.

9. J. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 83.

10. E. Fischer, The Neccessity of Art: A Marxist Approach (Penguin 1963), p. 51.

11. Quoted ibid., p. 72.

12. Quoted ibid., p. 69.

13. The Guardian, G2 section, 7 December 1998.

14. K. Marx, quoted in I. Meszaros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (London 1970), p. 205.

15. Quoted in G. Mack, Paul Cézanne (New York 1989), p. 160.

16. E. Fischer, op. cit., p. 75.

17. A. Sanchez Vazquez, op. cit., p. 117.

18. J. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 97.

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