Marx and Aesthetics

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Karl Marx (1818-1883) has continued to be influential in many schools of philosophy, including aesthetics – even though he did not publish a specific treatise on the subject. Thinkers as different as Jacques Rancière, Roland Barthes,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Vilém Flusser were all influenced by Marx’ views. Perhaps Walter Benjamin (1936) was the most directly influenced, who in turn found resonance in the important contributions of Theodor W. Adorno, a philosopher and social critic in Germany after World War II. Adorno was a member of the Frankfurt School, and was also one of the first ‘Critical Theorists’.

I decided to do a little research, and came across an excellent paper by Stefan Morawski (1970). There is another helpful contribution on the historical and philosophical influences on Marx, from the perspective of the Arts of his time, by Margaret Rose (1984), which I might cover in another post.

The classical interpretation of Marx is that prevailing economic conditions drive society and its structures of politics, art, ideologies and so forth. That suggests a causal effect. However, in the aesthetics arena, Marx could be interpreted in more subtle ways.

Marx was quite enthusiastic about abstract thinking, more so than Engels. In many ways, Marx was very open to issues around imagination and aesthetics, starting his life grounded in philosophy. He saw production as a fundamental truth and activity of human society, and he considered that production encompassed consumption – ‘the encompassing moment of the whole human life process’ (Wood, 198: 28).

In this sense, the production of works of art was a sine qua non for human social development, and its consumption was an essential, indeed parallel process.

Marx’s view: (a) originally man artistically shapes the construction of his objects, expressing his power to master humanly the material world, (b) At length his object’s structure (inherent measure, proportion) can become the pivotal purpose of the artistic process; to this stage, in which a predominant functionalism is departed from, is linked the emergence of a practical aesthetic contemplation, (c) Responsiveness to certain properties – such as colour, sound, and shape – appears when the aesthetic sense has become highly conscious, definite, and relatively autonomous. It is the final step of the rudimentary process in which art and its subjective components devolve from mankind’s labour‘. (Morawski. 1970: 305).

Of course, Marx sees all human development in the light of social, economic and political context:

The continual dynamic flux and change in aesthetics and the arts derive chiefly from the rise and decline of the always complex ideological outlooks which, in the final analysis, are conditioned by the general contradictions and evolution of class society‘. (1970: 303).

And he sees it as an historical process, a kind of spiral of influences across time:

Additionally this methodology entails three major historicist notions without which the Marxian approach to aesthetics would be incomplete and incomprehensible. These are the stress upon human labor, which qualifies the foundation of all culture; the insistence upon the epochs of social revolution as essential to the progress of the species; and finally the view that communism is, for man, at once an ideal he sets himself and the real, historical movement of his progress. It is in light of these views that the work processes are regarded at once as the original locus  of aesthetic activity and as a given from which aesthetic culture never can become wholly detached, that the arts are regarded as a conductor of attitudes toward radical social change‘. (1970: 304).

Yet, whilst driven by the social condition, Marx appears to also allow such aesthetic pursuits as a personal activity, combining both the influences of broad social context and individual exploration.

It is of significance in this respect that Marx deems aesthetic experience to possess a synthetic character: as a commingling of intellectual, emotional, and sensual elements, it is a-theoretical‘.  (1970: 306).

Walter Benjamin commented:

What matters … is the exemplary character of [literary] production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators into collaborators’. (1934).

Benjamin seems to be using the dialectic of ‘production’ first, but in an interesting way – that it is in the role of ‘exemplary’ production to shape both new production and collaboration with spectators. He suggests a positive spiral in artistic endeavour and social change.

Marx was quite taken with Greek antiquity, as he saw it a coalescence of thought, social development and aesthetic expression – ‘hanging together’ in modern parlance, and without the jarring and disconnecting effect of (in his time) the industrialisation of society. It would indeed be a moot point to decide which ‘parts’ of that society preceded others – an example of co-evolution?

Based on his ‘wholistic’ view of Hellenistic society, Marx is often seen as a precursor of Soviet ‘Realism’ as an appropriate, revolutionary aesthetic. However, it is worth noting comments by Margaret Rose, following her analysis of Marx’ artistic investigations and observations:

It is .. a widely held belief that Marx could be described not only as a ‘Realist’ but also as an authority, or apologist, for the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism.

The study of the visual arts in Marx’s time … has shown Marx to have been involved in debates concerned not … with the conflict between Realism and Modernism, but with the political patronage afforded the religious Romantic art made popular in the early nineteenth century by the German Nazarenes’. (Rose. 1984: 164).

In other words, Marx’ aesthetic views are congruent with his thinking that art and society are intertwined. One wonders how Marx would view the alienation observed with today’s global, networked society.

Marx was not defining an approach to a specific kind of art (Realism) as much as he was exploring the mutual evolution of art and society. In that sense, there is no causal effect. To quote Durmuş and Alan:

‘While Marx regards the economic aspect of a society as the determinant of other aspects he also recognizes that art, philosophy and literature are relatively autonomous and possess an independent ability to change men’s existence‘. (Durmuş and Alan 2017: 107).

Marx in the political and economic arenas did go on to examine how society must change, with humanity’s core activity (and value) of individual production being replaced by capital – but that is beyond the purview of this short post. Still, to my knowledge, he did not attempt to define or put limits on how art should develop in any specific direction, other than its being a co-evolving activity with society as a whole.

Marx thus lays solid groundwork for the interconnectivity of society and artistic expression, and the necessary symbiotic nature of artistic production and its spectatorship, predating much recent literature on photography. And in this, he is suggesting that art is intrinsically implicated with social and technological change.

Whilst this might be an intellectual ‘stretch’, I can see echoes of this in Vilém Flusser’s treatise on the difference between traditional and technical images.

The difference between traditional and technical images .. would be this: the first are observations of objects, the second, computations of concepts‘. (Flusser, 1985: 10).

The majority of images during Marx’ time (even photography, as it purported to mimic nature – consider Adorno, here) were thus observations of objects, Flusser’s ‘Rung Four’ of human development. However the massive, popular shift to photography, and then to digital and networked images (Flusser’s ‘Rung Five’, where technical images exist), show an interwoven spiral of technology and society – just as Marx implied.

Whether art can lead social change, or simply reflects it, seems irrelevant, and, to my knowledge was not directly addressed by Marx. The concepts are but two sides of the same coin. Indeed art is necessary within society.


Header: Picture Alliance/Romain Fellens. 2014. Karl Marx Installation by Ottmar Hörl at Porta Nigra, Trier. Available at: (accessed 08/04/2019).

Karl Marx in front of the Porta Nigra. As part of an installation by the artist Ottmar Hörl, 500 meters of Karl Marx figures made of plastic were erected around the landmark of the city on the Moselle. Karl Marx was a son of Germany’s oldest city.


BENJAMIN, Walter. 1934. The Author As Producer. Available at (accessed 08/04/2019).

BENJAMIN, Walter. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 2008 Edition. London: Penguin.

DURMUŞ, Erdinç and ALAN, Bülent. 2017. Marxist Criticism, The Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin. Journal of Academic Social Science Studies, Spring 2017. Available at:ç.%20Dr.%20Erdinç%20Durmuş.pdf (accessed 08/04/2019).

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1985. Into the Universe of Technical Images. 2011 Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

MORAWSKI, Stefan. 1970. The Aesthetic Views of Marx and Engels. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Spring 1970. Available at: (accessed 30/03/2019).

ROSE, Margaret. 1984. Marx’s Lost Aesthetic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at: (accessed 30/09/2019)

WOOD, Allen W. 1981. Karl Marx. 2004 Edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

ZUIDERVAART, Lambert. 2015. Theodor W. Adorno. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). Available at: (accessed 30/03/2019).

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