Marxist aesthetics is a theory of aesthetics based on, or derived from, the theories of Karl Marx. It involves a dialectical and materialist, or dialectical materialist, approach to the application of Marxism to the cultural sphere, specifically areas related to taste such as art, beauty, etc. Marxists believe that economic and social conditions, and especially the class relations that derive from them, affect every aspect of an individual's life, from religious beliefs to legal systems to cultural frameworks. From one classic Marxist point of view, the role of art is not only to represent such conditions truthfully, but also to seek to improve them (social/socialist realism), however, this is a contentious interpretation of the limited but significant writing by Marx and Engels on art and especially on aesthetics. For instance Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who greatly influenced the art of the early Soviet Union, was not following Marx's statements on the subject so much as the humanist Ludwig Feuerbach.
Marxist aesthetics overlaps and bleeds into the Marxist theory of art and there is no clear separation of the two, although there is an obvious distinction in that aesthetics represents a tackling of the more fundamental and philosophical questions. It is also very concerned with art practice, and so with defining a prescription of what art should be like and what it should do, socially, rather than act only as an interpretation or reflection.
The aim of science is also important to a Marxist aesthetics, although it may not appear to be an obvious target for all theorists, the materialist economic and social foundations of the subject imply that this is necessary in order to be properly Marxian in the sense of scientific socialism.
Some notable Marxist aestheticians include Anatoly Lunacharsky, William Morris, Theodor W. Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Louis Althusser, Jacques Rancière, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Williams. Roland Barthes must also be mentioned here.
Not all of these figures are solely concerned with aesthetics - in many cases Marxist aesthetics forms only an important sub section of their work, depending on how you define the term; for example, Brecht may be said to have a Marxist aesthetic that is revealed through his artistic work, but his aesthetic theory is something distinct and appears as theory by him about his own artistic production, about art in general, and on questions of taste and its role in society.
One of the chief concerns of Marxist aesthetics is to unite Marx and Engels’ social and economic theory, or theory of the social base, to the domain of art and culture, the superstructure, seamlessly (base and superstructure of society being an important Marxist concept since at least Marx's The German Ideology). In this respect Marx’s early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 have always been seen to be important, given the themes of sensuousness and alienation. Its late publication (because of the decision to cancel publication in 1846, the text first appeared only in 1932, an English translation only became available in 1959 ) meant, however, that it was not available to art theorists during, for instance, the often antagonistic debates on art in the early Soviet Union between the constructivist avant garde and those championing socialist realism, and as it turned out a lot was at stake; the controversy over the unusual design Marx created with the original documents of the 1844 Manuscripts adds another twist to this (see notes, Margaret Fay, Gary Tedman).
Many theorists touch upon important themes of Marxist aesthetics without strictly being Marxist aestheticians, Joel Kovel, for instance, has extended the concepts of Marxian ecology which deeply implicates aesthetics. He is also a part of the struggle to bridge the space between Marx and Freud, which has Marxist aesthetics as a central concern (see the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism). Current themes within the field include research on the effect of mass-produced industrial materials on the sensed environment, such as paints and colors (Singh 2007). A strong current within the field involves linguistics and semiotics, and arguments over structuralism and post-structuralism, modernism and post-modernism, as well as feminist theory.
Visual artists, as diverse as Isaak Brodsky or Diego Rivera and Kasimir Malevich or Lyubov Popova, for example, for whom written theory is secondary, nevertheless may be said to be connected to Marxist aesthetics through their production of art, without necessarily declaring themselves aestheticians or Marxists in writing. Likewise, in this spirit Oscar Wilde, Dziga Vertov. Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Pablo Picasso, Richard Paul Lohse, for example. Such a view could apply to many visual and other artists in many fields, even those who have no apparent and/or voiced connection to Marxist politics or even those ostensibly opposed. In this respect consider Anton Webern.
Probably it would be fair to say that two of the most influential writings in Marxist aesthetics in recent times, and apart from Marx himself and Lukacs, have been Walter Benjamin's essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. Louis Althusser has also contributed some small but significant essays on art and his theory of ideology also impacts in this area (Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses).
The field remains polemical, with camps of modernists, post modernists, anti modernists, the avant garde, constructivists, social realists and socialist realists all referencing back to an ostensible Marxist aesthetic theory that would underpin their art practices by grounding an art theory.
- Tedman, Gary. (2004) "Marx's 1844 manuscripts as a work of art: A hypertextual reinterpretation." Rethinking Marxism 16.4: 427-441.
- Fay, Margaret, "The Influence of Adam Smith on Marx's Theory of Alienation", Science & Society Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), pp. 129-151, S&S Quarterly, Inc.
- Singh, Iona. (2007) "Color, Facture, Art and Design." Capitalism Nature Socialism 18.1: 64-80.
- Text Etc: Literary Theory: Marxist Views (formerly Poetry Magic)
- Understanding Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Verso Books, 2003, ISBN 978-1859844182.
- Aesthetics and Politics: Debates Between Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno. 1980. Trans. ed. Ronald Taylor. London: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-722-3.
- Adorno, Theodor W. 2004. Aesthetic Theory. London: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-7691-0.
- Brecht, Bertolt. 1964. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. British edition. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-38800-X. USA edition. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-3100-0.
- ---. 2000a. Brecht on Film and Radio. Ed. and trans. Marc Silberman. British edition. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-72500-6.
- ---. 2003a. Brecht on Art and Politics. Ed. and trans. Thomas Kuhn and Steve Giles. British edition. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-75890-7.
- Eagleton, Terry. 1990. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-16302-6.
- Marcuse, Herbert. 1978. The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Trans. Herbert Marcuse and Erica Sherover. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art, ISBN 1-905510-02-0
- Macdonald Daly, A Primer in Marxist Aesthetics, Zoilus Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-9522028-1-3
- Singh, Iona. 2012 "Color, Facture, Art and Design", Zero Books. ISBN 978-1-78099-629-5.
- Tedman, Gary. 2012. Aesthetics & Alienation, Zero Books. ISBN 978-1780993010.
- Rose, Margaret A. 1988. Marx's Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521369794.