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John Molyneux

Art, Alienation and Capitalism:
A Reply to Chris Nineham

(Autumn 1999)

From International Socialism 2:84, Autumn 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Chris Nineham’s critical response (Art and Alienation: A Reply to John Molyneux, International Socialism 82) to my article on The Legitimacy of Modern Art is welcome because one of the main purposes of that article was to stimulate debate in an area in which there is not and cannot be an agreed ‘line’ and because it allows me to clarify a number of misunderstandings or misreadings that have evidently arisen regarding my position on art and alienation.

Especially welcome is the casual ‘of course’ in Chris’s opening declaration that it ‘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’. [1] If that is how things now stand, I am delighted. I have to say it was not quite how they looked to me when I embarked on this project some 18 months ago. Nor was it the hostility of the likes of Roger Scruton that was my main concern. Rather at that time it seemed a serious argument was required to persuade not all, but a substantial proportion of International Socialism readers that contemporary visual art was worth serious consideration. I think also that I should concede the accuracy of Chris’s criticism that I overstated ‘the level of mainstream hostility to contemporary art’. [2] This is a question of degree, for there is certainly quite a lot of such hostility still around, but he is right that it has lessened markedly in recent years and that in quite wide circles modern art is currently very fashionable.

But however much I welcome the debate I cannot agree with the main thrust of Chris’s critique. Stripped of all extraneous elements, subsidiary comments and historical illustration this critique is as follows:

  1. my definition of art as a product of unalienated labour is false because alienation is rooted in capitalist exploitation and capitalist relations of production and no aspect of society or part of the production process can escape the alienation imposed by the capitalist market;
  2. my definition of art is not only false but dangerous because it encourages or runs the risk of encouraging an attitude to art which is uncritical, elitist and ahistorical.

Before offering a response to these points I must note a peculiarity in the way Chris approaches this whole issue: namely he criticises my definition of art but offers no alternative definition of his own. He worries repeatedly about the ‘risks’ involved in my position, but seems to think he can avoid those risks himself by taking no position at all. Perhaps he thinks it is satisfactory to rely on a ‘common sense’ definition of art but surely he must realise that on this question, as on so many others, the common sense definition is going to be a bourgeois one. (I, at least, attempted a specifically Marxist definition using specifically Marxist categories.) Perhaps he thinks no definition is necessary or possible. This is an arguable, though in my opinion mistaken, position but Chris does not argue it. He simply fails to acknowledge the problem. But there is a problem – a real problem.

The reactionary opponents of modern art argue again and again that modernist works are not art. This was the case made against Brancusi [3], against Pollock, against Carl Andre’s ‘bricks in the Tate’ and, of course, against Hirst. Nor is it just a question of the opponents. Many of the leading practitioners of modernism have clearly been addressing this question themselves – think of Duchamp with his readymades, of surrealism, minimalism, pop art, conceptual art and so on. Each of these movements has overthrown accepted ‘conventions’ or ‘definitions’ of art. Each has defiantly addressed critic and public alike with the challenge, ‘So you think you know what art is – look at this!’ Therefore the question cannot be ignored. If we are going to discuss art and art works we need criteria for distinguishing art from non-art. Naturally I understand that the question is a difficult one or rather that answering it is difficult and I have no problem in accepting that my definition may be flawed or incomplete. I can even accept that it is completely wrong – on one condition: that I am shown a better one. This is a task Chris has not even attempted.

On the question of whether or not art is a product of unalienated labour let me begin by returning again to Marx’s analysis of alienated labour in the 1844 Manuscripts:

What constitutes the alienation of labour? First, that the work is external to the worker, that it is not part of his nature; and that, consequently, he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless. His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of work for the worker is shown by the fact that it is not his own work but work for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person. [4]

Do any or all of these primary characteristics of alienated labour apply to artistic work. Plainly they do not. Michelangelo was sculpting, carving marble, to within four days of his death at the age of 89. Was this for the money? Not at all. Was it work in which he denied himself or was mentally debased? The opposite is the case. Was it ‘imposed forced labour’ or labour ‘avoided like the plague’ in the absence ‘of physical or other compulsion’? Absolutely not. But is Michelangelo exceptional in this respect? No: Titian, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Moore and innumerable other artists worked on into extreme old age and infirmity long after any material pressure on them to do so had disappeared. Renoir is a case in point. In his last years he was crippled by arthritis, yet continued to paint with the brushes wedged between his twisted fingers. Was this alienated labour or was this because painting was essential to his being? The answer is obvious.

These examples do not, by themselves, prove my case – even if these artists’ work was unalienated labour this may not be true for all or most art – but they do refute a major part of Chris Nineham’s case because his argument is that, under capitalism, unalienated labour is impossible. (‘… under capitalism no part of the production process can escape the alienation imposed by the capitalist market’. [5])

On this point Chris is simply wrong. Of course under capitalism the majority of labour and the characteristic form of labour is alienated wage labour but this does not make all labour under capitalism alienated. As a university lecturer I have a relatively ‘soft’ job with a relatively high degree of autonomy. Nevertheless I am acutely aware of the distinction between the alienated work I do for my employer because I need to earn a living and the non-alienated work I freely choose to do for myself or because I believe in it, which includes writing for International Socialism and selling Socialist Worker and would include growing flowers in the garden if I did it. Of all the characteristics of alienated labour identified by Marx the most fundamental is that ‘for the worker ... it is not his own work but for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person’. This is true of the labour of the car mechanic who works for Kwikfit. It is not true of the labour that same mechanic expends on fixing her car on Sunday morning.

Chris fails to grasp this distinction because of two confusions. First he confuses art and artists being affected by alienation, alienated labour and capitalism in general with whether or not their art is the product of alienated labour. Second he confuses the commodification of art works with the alienation of artistic labour. Of course artists as people are affected by alienation and so is their art. Alienation is rooted in the relationship of the immediate producers to their work but from this root it pervades and affects every aspect of society – religion, philosophy, sex, sport and naturally, art – and I have never suggested otherwise. [6] Indeed many artists are palpably deeply alienated individuals (Van Gogh, Pollock, Kafka for example) and art, especially modern art, frequently tackles alienation as a theme and not infrequently succumbs to its pressures. This was, and frankly I would have expected Chris to notice this, a central argument in my review of the Royal Academy Sensation exhibition in International Socialism 79. However, it is not the same as the artist having lost possession or control of their labour.

In several passages Chris seems to equate commodification of the art work with the alienation of artistic labour:

(a) ‘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’. [7]

(b) ‘... the undeniably commercial and therefore alienated fields of film, architecture or popular music’. [8]

(c) ‘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 ... Once their work is produced even partially in response to external necessities the artist is no longer in control of their own creativity’. [9]

There is very little precision in the writing here. Passage (a) says a straightforward distinction’ is ‘extremely difficult’. Does that mean a subtle distinction is possible? Passage (b) speaks of the ‘undeniably commercial’ fields of film, architecture and popular music. Are the fields of theatre, art dealing and classical music less commercialised? What does passage (c) mean by the reintroduction of alienation – when and how did it go away? And why does a relative in the first half of the last sentence (‘even partially in response’) turn into an absolute in the second half (‘no longer in control of their creativity’)? Nevertheless it is clear that if commodification of product does equal alienation of labour then Chris needs no other argument to refute my position since it is an undeniable empirical fact, and one I acknowledged in my article, [10] that capitalism brings about the commodification of works of art, in all fields of art. But commodification of the product does not equal commodification of the labour that produces the product, nor does it equal the alienation of that labour. Marx made this clear in a passage I cited in my article:

Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that silkworms produce silk. It was an activity of his nature [i.e. unalienated labour – JM]. Later he sold the product for £5. [11]

In his first paragraph Chris approvingly quotes Trotsky to the effect that art ‘by its very essence’ cannot tolerate orders. If he had thought about the meaning of this quote he would have seen that it supports my position but contradicts his. If commodification, by itself, shapes and determines the labour that produces the commodity then, if Trotsky is right, art would have been destroyed since art works have clearly been commodified. Certainly capitalist commodification threatens to reach back and completely determine the content and nature of the artistic labour thus negating its character as art, which is why art is always embattled under capitalism, [12] but it does not necessarily succeed. Remember, the majority of artists (and novelists, song writers, poets, film makers etc.) accept or actively seek the commodification of their output (they try to sell it) but they also defend their control over the process of production. To give one telling example: Ken Loach had to accept Land and Freedom becoming a commodity or the film could not have been made, but if he ceded basic control of the filming to the studio or business sponsors there would have been no point in making it. [13]

Moving on to what Chris sees as the dangers of my position I want first to consider the charge that ‘it could easily encourage an uncritical attitude to art’. [14] Now it is true that my definition of art is rooted in and encourages a fundamental bias in favour of art (in all its forms). I believe that, in general, the production and consumption of art is of benefit to human beings, contributing to their spiritual growth and their understanding of the world. This is a bias, or rather a judgement, that is clearly shared by Marx and by all the great classical Marxists. In this respect my attitude to art is analogous to my/our attitude to education and medicine. I defend them despite the fact that the art world, like the education system and the health service, is dominated by the bourgeoisie and distorted by capitalism and despite the fact that some would be artists, like some would be teachers and doctors, do more harm than good. But does my definition lead to an uncritical attitude in the sense of an unwillingness or inability to make the necessary distinctions between good and bad art, the outstanding and the mediocre? I don’t think it does and I don’t see why it should. In my article on Sensation I attacked Marcus Harvey and the Chapmans and praised (some of) Hirst and Whiteread. In my review of Pollock (Socialist Review, April 1999) I say some of his paintings are failures and others are masterpieces. Obviously Chris may disagree with my critical judgements but I don’t see how he can deny that I make them.

Chris says – and I think it is intended critically – that for me ‘art is fundamentally counterposed to capitalism’. [15] If by this Chris means that I think all or most art is consciously anti-capitalist or that art is bound to move in an anti-capitalist direction or that I underestimate the capacity of the bourgeoisie to co-opt art and use it for its purposes, then he is very wide of the mark. The only senses in which I counterpose art to capitalism are the sense in which Marx wrote ‘capitalist production is hostile to ... art and poetry’ (a quote discussed in my original article) and the sense in which Trotsky wrote:

Generally speaking art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. This is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. [16]

Chris also seems to think I underestimated the damage done to art by class society:

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? [17]

Obviously the answers to these rhetorical questions are ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, and the implications are that we seek to defend art from those devastating effects as far as possible, while encouraging democratic access to art and the development of critical and revolutionary art and at the same time fighting for the overthrow of class society so that, amongst many other things, we conquer the realm of art for the oppressed and liberate art from the constraints under which it has hitherto laboured. But if Chris is implying that in rotten and exploitative societies you only get rotten art or you don’t get wonderful art he is palpably wrong, whether we are talking about the slave societies of Ancient Egypt and Greece or the feudal societies of Europe and Asia (check out Trotsky on Dante) or even the horrific capitalism of the 20th century. The interesting question, in my opinion, is why, despite the oppressive nature of society, despite the barbarism that is history, there still exists such magnificent art? The answer, I suspect, has something to do with the nature of human creativity and how it finds expression in unalienated labour.

Few debates on cultural questions last long before the bogey of ‘elitism’ is raised and, sure enough, Chris cannot resist throwing this charge into the pot. But what does ‘elitism’ mean in this context? Logically it should mean defending the privileges of the ruling elite, or maintaining that the mass of ‘ordinary’ people are congenitally inferior, ignorant or incapable of ruling or appreciating art whatsoever. But I doubt that even in the heat of polemic Chris would accuse me of these sins. In fact he makes two specific charges. The first is that my definition of art ‘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’. [18] Well, doubtless I do run this risk, much as if I ride a bicycle I run the risk of falling off, but actually it makes no difference whether the artist is in a garret or an airy studio or whether they work individually or collectively. I suspect Chris is just trying to mobilise stereotypes here. With equal logic he could have claimed that my position ‘runs the risk’ of favouring the ‘free’ spontaneity of jazz over the discipline and tradition of the classical symphony, or favouring the individual singer-songwriter Bob Dylan over the collective bourgeois aristocratic corps de ballet. [19]

Chris’s second charge is that ‘it could even lead us to accept the simplistic and elitist distinctions between “high” and “low” culture so beloved of the right’. [20] Since I did not address this question and Chris offers neither evidence nor argument for his assertion, and since the issue is complex and space is short, I will make only brief comments. First, I do, in general, consider the ‘canon’ of so called ‘high’ culture (Shakespeare, Mozart, Picasso etc.) superior in quality to most of what is most successful in terms of popularity (Coronation Street, Michael Jackson, Titanic etc.) and I wouldn’t mind betting Chris does too. But this does not mean I reject all forms of ‘popular’ culture or the possibility of outstanding work emerging from these genres (e.g. Billie Holiday, Charlie Chaplin). Second, Chris himself makes a statement I essentially agree with and think important:

In an important sense the capitalist market [I would say ‘system’; it is the same under state capitalism – JM] 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. [21]

But these are sentiments that would instantly be condemned as elitist by the kind of anti-intellectual populism (and postmodernism) that is just as beloved of the right as ‘high culture’ snobbery.

Last but not least comes Chris’s claim that my position ‘tends to take art out of historical development’ and that I imply ‘a trajectory for artistic development separate from the rest of society’. [22] I must confess to being temporarily nonplussed here. The idea of art existing outside of history or separate from the rest of society is to me so absurd, so alien, that I was somewhat taken aback and it took me a while to figure out what he meant. Where we really differ – I think – is that I believe it is possible, at least to some extent, for powerful art to develop not outside of history or society but in dialectical opposition to the dominant trajectory of society. This is because, as we all know, historical development is the resultant of opposed forces and there is always resistance, both progressive and reactionary, to the main trajectory. Thus in a society where the main trend is the victory of fascism there can arise a powerful anti-fascist art (Heartfield, Brecht, Picasso’s Guernica etc.). In a feudal society in decline there can be significant art that laments or fears that decline and also significant art that is linked to the rising bourgeoisie. (Shakespeare somehow managed to do all of this.) And in capitalist society in crisis there can be great art that responds to this crisis from a variety of points of view. Chris seems not to believe this or not to understand it. This is the only sense I can make of his claims here and his comment that my expectation of ‘late 20th and early 21st century masterpieces’ is unsatisfactory.

This brings to a close my direct rebuttal of Chris’s case. I want to conclude by reasserting what I see as the advantages of understanding art as the product of unalienated labour. Firstly, it offers a distinctively Marxist criterion for distinguishing between art and non-art but one which is inclusive and non-sectarian – it excludes no significant art form (film, poetry, photography, drama etc.) nor any tendency in art on the grounds of its form, technique or ideology. Secondly, it rejects both the position – which really is elitist – that art is what is produced by artists who are defined by special qualities, innate or acquired, which set them apart from other people and the idealist position that art is just what people say it is. Thirdly, it locates within a Marxist analysis of the fundamental characteristic of the human species, creative social labour and in so doing lays the foundation for (though is not in itself a substitute for) an historical materialist account of the gradual emergence of ‘art’ as a distinct area of human activity as well as anticipating the eventual reintegration of art within productive labour as a whole in the communist society of the future. Fourthly, it helps us to understand the ongoing complex and contradictory relationship between art and capitalism which combines – on both sides – hostility and dependence, ridicule and adulation, rejection and incorporation and why the great Marxists in the classical tradition have always maintained a critical defence of art and a supportive engagement with it.


1. C. Nineham, Art and Alienation: A Reply to John Molyneux, International Socialism 82, p. 75.

2. Ibid., p. 75.

3. In the instance of Brancusi there was actually a court case held to decide whether or not one of his sculptures was art when it was imported and customs claimed it was scrap metal, not art, and as such liable for scrap metal duty.

4. K. Marx, Early Writings (London, 1963), pp. 124–125.

5. C. Nineham, op. cit., p. 80.

6. I have to confess to being not a little irritated by the way Chris on several occasions implies or suggests that I regard art, or that my definition of art leads to a view of art, as existing in some kind of ‘alienation free zone’ or as somehow ‘immune’ to alienation. Chris writes, ‘It seems rash to suggest that artistic production is in a simple way immune from such powerful processes’ and ‘... we are deluding ourselves if we believe that any aspect of our lives completely escapes the alienation imposed by capitalist relations’. It is not just that I did not write this, it is that I wrote the direct opposite:

By non-alienated labour I do not mean labour that exists ‘outside’ of capitalism (which is increasingly non-existent), or labour that does not produce commodities (the massive commodification of art under capitalism is obvious) ... Still less do I mean that ‘artists’ are not alienated or that their work does not reflect and express alienation – alienation affects everyone in capitalist society. What I mean is labour that remains under the control and direction of the producer.

Two points here: first I think it is reasonable to expect Chris to pay closer attention to the argument he is criticising and not to caricature it like this; second if he wishes to deny the existence under capitalism of ‘labour under the control and direction of the producer’ then how does he account for working class revolutionary activity, for the building of the street barricades or the writing of the Communist Manifesto or for resistance and self emancipation as a whole?

7. C. Nineham, op. cit., p. 76.

8. Ibid., p. 77.

9. Ibid., p. 78.

10. Again it seems to have escaped Chris’s attention that in discussing the causes of the crisis of legitimacy of modern art I assign considerable importance to the role of commodification of visual art in the form of extremely expensive luxury items for the super-rich.

11. K. Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, cited in M. Solomon (ed.), Marxism and Art (Brighton 1979), p. 75.

12. And why, as I have already argued, Marx describes ‘capitalist production as hostile to ... art and poetry’.

13. Underlying Chris’s confusions about art and alienation is a deeper misunderstanding of Marx’s original theory of alienation itself. Unravelling this misunderstanding takes some time and trouble but is worth it if it leads to greater clarity about this important aspect of Marxism. Chris writes:

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.

This formulation makes alienated labour appear as a consequence, an effect of capitalist exploitation and capitalist relations of production, whereas for Marx alienated labour is constitutive of capitalist exploitation and analytically prior to it:

The relation of the worker to labour produces the relation of the capitalist to labour ... Private property is this product, result, and necessary consequence of externalised labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself.

Private property thus is derived, through analysis, from the concept of externalised labour ... But the analysis of this idea shows that though private property appears to be the ground and cause of externalised labour, it is rather a consequence of externalised labour ... Wages are a direct result of alienated labour, and alienated labour is the direct cause of private property ... As we have found the concept of private property through analysis from the concept of alienated, externalised labour, so we can develop all the categories of political economy with the aid of these two factors, and we shall again find in each category – for example, barter, competition, capital, money – only a particular and developed expression of these primary foundations. (K. Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, cited in L.D. Easton and K.H. Guddat (ed.), Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (New York 1967), pp. 297–299.)

Both alienated and unalienated labour existed in pre-capitalist modes of production (as did exploitation, oppression, classes, money, and commodities). Under feudalism, for example, the peasant performs alienated labour when working unpaid on the lord’s land but unalienated labour when working to produce his/her own subsistence. (Some of what the peasant produces is sent to market, i.e. commodified, but that is not the same as the peasant’s labour being commodified – or alienated). Capitalism does not invent alienated labour but its development enormously increases and intensifies it precisely because capitalism rests on the commodification of labour power. However, this intensification of alienated labour, and therefore alienation in general, does not totally eliminate all forms of non-alienated labour – including that form which is art which develops in dependence upon but also dialectical opposition to the bulk of alienated labour.

14. C. Nineham, op. cit., p. 80.

15. Ibid., p. 75.

16. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art (New York 1977), p. 104.

17. C. Nineham, op. cit., p. 76.

18. Ibid., pp. 76–77.

19. To this I plead guilty, but I also think Chris fails to practise what he preaches here. When he writes about Courbet and Cézanne, artists he rightly admires, he somehow fails to mention the canvas manufacturers, paintbrush makers, models etc. whose collective labour contributed to their paintings. And when he discusses Battleship Potemkin or The Threepenny Opera does he remember to credit the actors and technicians or does he, like the rest of us, just say Eisenstein and Brecht? And does this make him an elitist or is it that he recognises that it is the labour of Courbet and Cézanne, Eisenstein and Brecht that is of principal significance in determining the works’ artistic character.

20. C. Nineham, op. cit., p. 80.

21. Ibid., p. 78.

22. Ibid., p. 81.

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