Marxism and Art
- LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2022
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0023
- LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2022
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0023
Marxism combines a theory of history with a philosophical worldview that aims to transcend the contemplative posture of earlier philosophies and provide the intellectual means for humanity’s emancipation from oppressive social and political forms. It offers a holistic perspective that necessarily encompasses the aesthetic, which is central to both its critique of capitalism and its vision of communism. The collected works in English of Marxism’s founders, Karl Marx (b. 1818–d. 1883) and Friedrich Engels (b. 1820–d. 1895), comprise fifty substantial volumes: a corpus of books, articles, pamphlets, manuscripts, and correspondence produced over a forty-year period. Key texts such as The German Ideology (1846) were not published in the authors’ lifetimes; even Capital (1867), the single volume for which Marx is best known, was only the first installment of a projected four-volume work of which Volumes 2 and 3 appeared posthumously. The fragmentary and diverse nature of this legacy is one reason why it has been possible to put such diverse interpretations on Marx’s work. Many of his key terms and categories were given no single unambiguous definition, and subsequent Marxists have sought to deduce them from different usages and contexts. Another factor complicating interpretation is the long collaboration with Engels, which began in 1844 and lasted until Marx’s death. It is widely accepted that Engels’s later philosophical writings departed from the positions he and Marx shared in the 1840s and served to give Marxism a crude positivist cast that facilitated its transformation into a political ideology. Moreover, some interpreters—most notably Louis Althusser—have seen a break within Marx’s thought between an early and a mature phase, which is also a distinction between prescientific and scientific status. These differences are symptomatic of a tension within the Marxist synthesis between elements deriving from German idealist thought and a more naturalistic conception of a science of society that continues to divide Marxists. The history of Marxism as a theoretical tradition is a succession of attempts to turn this complex heritage into a unified system at the same time as refashioning and developing it in response to different historical and political conditions. Given Marxism’s totalizing ambitions, Marxist art history has been as responsive to these twists and turns in the larger character of Marxist thought as other specialist disciplines. Accordingly, this article includes a periodization of Marxist thought that also marks—at least roughly—phases in the development of Marxist art-historical methodology. The scope of the article is confined to Western art.
Neither Marx nor Engels wrote systematically on aesthetics, although Marx planned to do so in 1841–1842 and again in 1857. As with their ideas on a whole range of topics, their thinking on the arts must be extrapolated mainly from statements made in texts addressing other matters from across their diverse literary remains. It was not until the period of the Third International that an extensive compilation of these statements was made under the direction of Mikhail Lifshitz. (For Lifshitz, see Third International and Official Marxism.) The fruits of this labor were a sequence of Soviet bloc publications that include Marx and Engels 1953 and Marx and Engels 1976. These remain useful, but Marx and Engels 1974—which was not produced under the shadow of Stalinism—is a more balanced presentation. Prawer 1976 exhaustively traces Marx’s readings in literature and his literary opinions throughout his life; it also restores to them the historical dimension largely absent from the Soviet anthologies. Marx’s statements on the visual arts are far less extensive than those on literature, but his judgments on the relative value of different style epochs were linked in important ways with his larger historical perspective, as Rose 1984 shows. Solomon 1973 remains impressive in its nonjudgmental presentation of a wide array of thinkers associated with the Second and Third Internationals as well as with the Western Marxist tradition. It also has a useful bibliography. To date the only book-length presentation of the history of Marxist art history is Hemingway 2006, which includes essays on five of the most important and influential Marxist art historians, together with three on Marxist thinkers whose work has had a particularly profound influence within the discipline (Benjamin, Lefebvre, and Morris), and a further three evaluating the contributions of the art-historical New Left.
Hemingway, Andrew, ed. Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto, 2006.
An anthology of essays on Frederick Antal, Walter Benjamin, Arnold Hauser, Francis Klingender, Henri Lefebvre, Mikhail Lifshitz, William Morris, Max Raphael, and Meyer Schapiro, together with three appraisals of New Left art history. Written by an international group of scholars.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Über Kunst und Literatur: Eine Sammlung aus ihren Schriften. Edited by Mikhail Lifshitz. Berlin: Henschel, 1953.
Larger and better organized than Marx and Engels 1976; although his foreword is brief, Lifshitz’s interpretation is clearly embedded in the structure and headings.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. On Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings. Edited by Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski. New York: International General, 1974.
A concise and well-organized compilation of texts illuminating the fundamental issues with a judicious introductory essay by Morawski.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. On Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress, 1976.
Introduced by B. Krylov. Partial translation of Marx and Engels 1953. Far more comprehensive than Baxandall and Morawski’s selection (Marx and Engels 1974), but the commentary is only of interest as a period piece.
Prawer, Siegbert Salomon. Karl Marx and World Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.
A high-level analysis that is an extraordinarily useful source on the formation of Marx’s aesthetic ideas.
Rose, Margaret A. Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
The first six chapters trace ways in which debates around the visual arts among the Young Hegelians and Young Germany movement informed Marx’s early writings and (arguably) defined the long-term character of his aesthetic views. The claim that there is a “latent Saint-Simonian aesthetic” (p. 34) in his work long term is contentious.
Solomon, Maynard, ed. Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Compiled by a New York musicologist and record producer, this remains unsurpassed as an anthology of Marxist thinking on the arts, ranging from the founders of Marxism to the Frankfurt School. The term “essays” in the title is somewhat misleading in that most texts are extracts from larger works.
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