Notes toward a history of art in ascendant and decadent capitalism

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The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means.” (Trotsky, Communist policy toward art, 1923)

 “Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.” (Trotsky, Art and politics in our epoch, 1938)

  1. Art in capitalism

The rise of capitalism unleashes unprecedented, hitherto unimaginable forces of production that bring into being new feelings and new ideas, together with new means for artists to express them. The extension of this new mode of production over the entire surface of the globe and its penetration into all areas of human experience dissolves the barriers between national cultures and local fixed styles, creating for the first time a single world culture.

By constantly revolutionising production and raising productivity, capitalism also destroys old, rigid social relations and turns everything, including art, into a commodity. From being a hitherto ‘revered’ and ‘honoured’ artisan producing directly for a client, the artist is more and more reduced to a paid wage labourer whose products are thrown onto an anonymous market and subjected to the laws of competition.

Beyond its use as an investment or embellishment to the private life of the individual capitalist, capitalism is inherently hostile towards art as a diversion from its single driving force: the accumulation of capital for its own sake. Moreover, as an exploiting system, capitalism is fundamentally antagonistic to the interests of humanity and therefore to the humanist ideals of the best art. The more conscious art is of this, the more it is led to protest against the inhumanities of capitalist society. In this way, the best artists are able to transcend the limits of their epoch and class origins to create powerful condemnations of the crimes and human tragedies of capitalism (Goethe, Balzac, Goya).

This antagonism between capitalism and humanity is not fully apparent in the earliest stages of the new mode of production when the bourgeoisie is still engaged in a revolutionary struggle against feudal absolutism. The best art is able to reflect the progressive moral and spiritual values of this new exploiting class, whose energy and confidence – and generous patronage – enables the artistic achievements of the Renaissance long before its own rule is established.

  1. Art in the era of bourgeois revolutions

In the era of bourgeois-democratic revolutions (c1776-1848) art is still able to express the revolutionary aims of the bourgeoisie, but the sordid realities of capitalism are already becoming clear. Romanticism (Blake, Goethe, Goya, Pushkin, Shelley, Turner) reflects the contradictory nature of this period, rejecting feudal and aristocratic values in art but also passionately protesting against the brutal effects of capitalist industrialisation on art and the individual. 

Against the ‘rationality’ of the new exploiting class, romanticism argues for the power of subjective experience, imagination and the sublimity of nature, drawing its inspirations from the Middle Ages, mythology and folk art. Politically it often takes a reactionary, backward-looking form, but it also gives rise to a definite revolutionary tendency which expresses an internationalist, communist vision (Heine, Blake, Byron, Shelley).[1] The most profound poetic insights of this tendency anticipate not only the later artistic ideas of Expressionism and Surrealism but also the theoretical developments of Marxism and psychoanalysis.

Once it comes to power and the proletariat appears on the historical stage, the bourgeoisie sheds its progressive values and buries the whole idea of revolution as a mortal danger to its class rule. From this point on, the attempts of art to understand reality and express the interests of humanity inevitably come into conflict with capitalist ideology.

  1. The birth of modern bourgeois art

The defining characteristic of bourgeois modern art is that it appears just as the conditions for capitalism’s further progressive development are reaching their zenith.

The decisive victory of industrial capitalism by the mid-19th century in the most advanced countries of Europe and America is reflected in the growth of rationalist, positivist and materialist ideologies in the sciences and philosophy, and realist or naturalist approaches in the arts. Marx and Engels consider realism in literature (Flaubert, Balzac, Elliot) to be the supreme achievement of world art. Realism in the visual arts, (Courbet, Millet, Degas) is a reaction to both classical art and to the emotionalism and subjectivism of romanticism, affirming instead the goals of truth and accuracy and depicting scenes of everyday life, including hitherto ignored harsh realities of working class life. To the bourgeoisie, any art that accurately depicts the ugly realities of life in capitalism is by definition revolutionary and to be rejected.

This period also sees the growth of the workers’ movement, and it is therefore unsurprising that realism gives rise to a revolutionary tendency that explicitly identifies with the working class and the struggle for socialism. Courbet, leader of the realist movement in France, affirms: “I am not only a socialist but also a democrat and a republican, in a word, a partisan of revolution and, above all, a realist, that is, the sincere friend of the real truth.[2]

Impressionism (Pissaro, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet) is an artistic response to the growth of industrial and urban society; to new technological developments and scientific discoveries (photography and optics), the globalisation of trade (seen in the influence of Japanese prints), and the growth of the middle class as a clientele for new art. It retains a commitment to truth and accuracy but focuses on the subjective perception of movement and light: “Whilst the old academic style said ‘here are the rules (or images) according to which nature must be depicted’, and naturalism said ‘here is nature’, then Impressionism said ‘here is how I see nature’.[3] Impressionist themes and influences can also be seen in music (Debussy, Ravel) and in literature (Lawrence, Conrad).

As a genuinely modern bourgeois art movement, impressionism is a contradictory development. Whereas the classical art of the Renaissance expresses an underlying sense of unity that derives from the vision and confidence of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, impressionism reflects the victory of capitalism and the atomisation of the individual in industrial society. By basing itself on subjective or sensory perception it correspondingly represents reality as a patchwork:

And so Impressionism was, in a sense, a symptom of decline, of the fragmentation and dehumanization of the world. But at the same time it was, in the long ‘close season’ of bourgeois capitalism ... a glorious climax of bourgeois art, a golden autumn, a late harvest, a tremendous enrichment of the means of expression available to the artist.”[4]

  1. Art at the end of capitalist ascendance

The period between c1890 and 1914 – the so-called ‘Belle Époque’ or ‘Gilded Age’ – sees capitalism apparently at its most optimistic and technologically advanced, with particularly powerful economic growth that creates fertile conditions for artistic and scientific developments (Freud’s theory of the unconscious, quantum and relativity theory). But beneath the surface this is also a period of gnawing uncertainty and doubt, with the rise of militarism and imperialist tensions, increasing state intervention in society and massive working class struggles: all signs of a growing crisis at the heart of capitalism.

The artistic movements that emerge from this period (cubism, expressionism, symbolism) inevitably reflect these contradictions, expressing both a final flowering of progressive bourgeois art and the first symptoms of its end. Cubism (Picasso, Braque), showing the influence of the latest scientific and philosophical theories, abandons the depiction of objects from one viewpoint, analysing, breaking up and re-assembling them in abstracted form from multiple viewpoints. Expressionism rejects realism altogether, depicting subjective meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality. It is also influential in literature (Kafka), and in music (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) where it rejects traditional tonality for a-tonality and dissonance. Symbolism (Baudelaire, Verlaine) is a poetic reaction against realism and naturalism in favour of mysticism and imagination, which is later described as “a dreaming retreat into things that are dying”.[5]

A radical tendency within bourgeois modern art sees itself as the avant garde of a new progressive society with new artistic values, arguing that art has a role to play in modernising capitalist society. This ‘modernist’ avant garde appears just as the possibilities for reforming capitalism from within are about to end. Futurism (Marinetti, Mayakovsky, Malevich), which is influential in painting, poetry, architecture and music in the early 20th century, especially in Italy and Russia, glorifies themes and symbols of capitalist progress such as youth, speed, dynamism, and power. But other modernist elements, especially in Germany, are more critical of capitalist ‘modernity’ and express the alienation of life in bourgeois society (Munch’s ‘The Scream’).

5. The death of bourgeois modern art

The outbreak of the First World War divides this Modernist avant garde into the glorifiers of capitalist progress like Marinetti and the Italian futurists, who enthusiastically side with barbarism (and later with fascism), and more radical tendencies like the Russian futurists and German expressionists who oppose the war and, in a more or less confused and partial way, begin to relate to the proletarian movement.

The first specific artistic response to the war is dada. An international anti-war and anti-capitalist movement, dada sees the slaughter on the battlefields as proof of the bankruptcy of all bourgeois culture. Its ‘programme’ is close to anarchism: the demolition of culture and the abolition of art, and its practice embraces chaos and irrationality (poems made from randomly-assembled words clipped from newspapers, etc). The Berlin dadaists (Heartfield, Grosz, Dix, Ernst), closer to the anti-war struggles of the working class, take up more explicitly communist positions, even forming their own political party and actively supporting the German revolution.[6]

The October 1917 Russian revolution is the high point of the post-war revolutionary wave and of the attempts by the modernist avant garde to create a liberating art. For a brief period following the soviets’ seizure of power there is a huge surge of artistic experimentation and activity, much of it explicitly identifying itself with the revolution. With the protection of the young soviet state and critical support from the Bolshevik Party, sections of the Russian avant garde (futurists,productivists, constructivists), inspired by Mayakovsky’s declaration “The streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes”, abandon ‘pure’ art for industrial production, embracing architecture, industrial design, cinema, advertising, furniture, packaging and clothes, with the stated aim of using art to transform everyday life. There are heated debates about culture and the future of art. The influential Proletkult movement, tending to reject all previous culture, wants to create a new revolutionary, proletarian aesthetic, while others like Trotsky reject the whole concept of proletarian culture but support the emergence of a new revolutionary art, expecting this to appear imminently.[7]

In the context of the revolutionary wave that shakes capitalism to its foundations in the years from 1917 to 1923 this does not appear unrealistic. The sentence passed by dada on all bourgeois culture and art seems about to be carried out by the world proletariat, in Germany, Britain, America....

But with the isolation of the Russian bastion, and the defeat of the proletariat’s revolutionary attempts in Europe, the Bolsheviks’ initial backing for modernist experimentation is replaced by the suppression of dissent and increasing state control as the Stalinist counter-revolution tightens its grip. Internationally, modernism eventually ends up by being co-opted as an official architectural style by reactionary state capitalist regimes, whether Stalinist, fascist (especially in Italy) or social democratic.

6. Art and the capitalist counter-revolution

In the deepening bourgeois counter-revolution, the Russian artistic avant garde essentially faces the same choices as the surviving communist opposition: either submission to Stalinist totalitarianism with its enforcement of ‘socialist realism’, silence or exile. With the rise of fascism the European artistic avant garde is also increasingly forced into exile and/or takes up an explicitly political oppositional stance.

Surrealism (Breton, Aragon, Ernst, Péret, Dali, Miró, Duchamp) emerges from dada but only becomes a distinct movement when the practical opportunities for revolution are already receding. It is an explicitly revolutionary artistic movement which becomes closely associated with political opposition to Stalinism.[8] Surrealism draws its ideas from Freudian psychoanalysis as well as Marxism and emphasises the use of free association, dream analysis, juxtaposition and automatism to liberate the unconscious. Its attempt to maintain a permanent revolutionary artistic practice within capitalism in a period of deep defeat leaves it prone to decay and eventual recuperation, but surrealist ideas are a huge influence on the visual arts, literature, film, and music, as well as philosophy and political and social theory.

With the triumph of the bourgeois counter-revolution in the 1930s – “Midnight in the century” (Victor Serge) – we see a full flowering of all the classic symptoms of decadence in capitalist culture:

Ideology decomposes, the old moral values run down, artistic creativity stagnates or functions in opposition to the status quo, there is a development of obscurantism and philosophical pessimism. [...] In the sphere of art, decadence has manifested itself in a particularly violent way [...] As in other periods of decadence, art, if it does not stagnate in an eternal repetition of past forms, seeks to take up a stance against the existing order, or is very often the expression of a cry of horror.”[9]

Decadence makes the need for a genuinely liberating art all the more pressing but the deepening crisis of the system and its effects on bourgeois society mean that the minimum conditions for the appearance of such an art are progressively undermined, while the traditional social base of art in the radical petty bourgeoisie is even further eroded and isolated from the life of the mass of the working class.

In these conditions, art which ‘seeks to take up a stance against the existing order’ finds itself increasingly isolated, or is recuperated for use as propaganda by one reactionary political faction or another (Picasso’s ‘Guernica’). Art that expresses a cry of horror at capitalist barbarism similarly finds itself rendered increasingly impotent by the sheer scale of its atrocities:  World War Two (over 60 million dead, mostly civilians, compared to 20 million in 1914-18), the Nazi death camps, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hamburg, Dresden, Stalinism’s mass crimes... To paraphrase Adorno, after Auschwitz it becomes impossible to write poetry without contributing further to an already barbaric culture.

But capitalist decadence does not mean that the productive forces come to a halt. In order to survive the system must continue to try to revolutionise production and raise productivity. Rather, we increasingly see what Marx termed ‘development as decay’. Similarly in the sphere of art we continue to see a progression of artistic schools, partly in response to new technological developments and changes in society, but this is increasingly characterised by a frantic recycling of previous styles, violent mood swings between hope and despair, fragmentation, and the splintering and disappearance of each school before reaching its complete development. Human creativity never ceases, but it does find itself increasingly stifled, channelled, blocked and corrupted. We still see artistic developments (jazz), and the introduction of new techniques and styles, but increasingly these developments reflect the decay of a society that has avoided its appointment with its executioner and only survives by cannibalising itself.

This is illustrated by abstract expressionism, the most influential artistic school (at least in painting and sculpture) to appear in the ‘post-war boom’. Abstract expressionism is partly a reaction to the explicit political content of 1930s social realism (Rivera). Influenced by Surrealism and the European avant garde it emphasises the expression of unconscious ideas and emotions through spontaneous, improvisatory or automatic techniques to create images of varying degrees of abstraction (Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Still). Influenced by the trauma of WW2 and the repressive post-war climate in the US, it avoids openly political content, turning to primitive art, mythology and mysticism for inspiration. This and its pursuit of pure abstraction facilitates the promotion of abstract expressionism by the US state in the Cold War as a cultural weapon against the ‘socialist realism’ of its Russian imperialist rival.

Art and the ‘culture industry’

If art by the mid-20th century displays the classic symptoms of decadence in all class societies, there are also specific developments, especially in the ‘post-war boom’, which transform not only the way that art is produced and distributed in capitalist society but also how it is ‘experienced’ by the mass of the working class. The cumulative effect of these developments is to further undermine the conditions for the emergence of revolutionary art and hasten the disappearance of the surviving artistic avant garde. Many of these developments are themselves symptoms of decadence or attempts by capitalism to overcome the contradictions of its historic crisis. They include:

  • the development of the ‘culture industry’ and the application of mass production techniques and assembly line principles to the commodities it produces (music, films, television programmes, etc);
  • the development of state capitalism and in particular of a sophisticated ideological apparatus in order to better control the working class and recuperate any sign of revolt;
  • the rise of the ‘consumer society’ based on a relative increase in real wages for the working class in the post-war period and the increased production of commodities for mass consumption (partly financed by an expansion of credit);
  • the growth of unproductive expenditure and activity, eg. in marketing and advertising.

As a result, for the first time in history capitalism is able to cheaply produce artistic commodities (music, films, etc) for consumption by the mass of the working class, in so doing overcoming its inherent hostility to art as an unnecessary diversion from its drive to accumulate. This greatly facilitates the use of artistic commodities for ideological purposes, not just to help ensure the reproduction of labour by providing means for ‘amusement’ in workers’ ‘leisure time’, but also to recuperate any artistic expression of dissent.

When the proletariat returns to the stage of history in the struggles of ‘May 68, we do see the appearance of radical art movements (Arte Povera) but not on the scale that one might expect. Instead, the most radical descendents of the European artistic avant garde, the Situationists, are distinguished by their critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’, ie. bureaucratic capitalism’s commodification of culture and its use of the mass media to recuperate subversive ideas, and by proposals for practical actions to “bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art”. The Situationists exaggerate the power of this ‘spectacle’ just at the moment when capitalism’s historic crisis returns, but they are closer to reality in identifying the inability of even the most radical artistic activity to avoid recuperation unless it is explicitly political; that is, in this period, revolutionary.

7.Art and decomposition

With the entry of capitalism into its final phase, that of decomposition, the very real possibility exists of the destruction of all human culture, along with art, which will, in Trotsky’s phrase, inevitably rot away “as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture founded on slavery”.[10]

By the 1970s modern art is part of official state capitalist culture in America and Europe, supported and subsidised by corporations and government agencies and safely enshrined in museums. Despite successive waves of working class struggle right up to the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989-91 we see only a further decay of art, accelerated by the spurious economic boom of the 1980s and fuelled by an explosion of debt that leads to a gold rush of speculative investment in art as bullion. The excesses of the market finish off what the counter-revolution, the post-war boom and the rise of the ‘culture industry’ have begun.

The appearance of ‘post-modernism’, especially from the 1980s, is in one sense only the final inevitable recognition of this long drawn-out death of modernism. ‘Post-modernism’ has its origins in the arid regions of the leftist intelligentsia (Derrida et al) as a ‘democratising project’. It theorises the abandonment not only of any further avant garde role for art but also of any concept of forward movement in history itself. It therefore fits perfectly with all the bourgeois ideological campaigns in the 1990s about the ‘end of communism’ and the ‘end of history’, only adding to general demoralisation and despair.

Even before the entry of decadent capitalism into its final stage, that of decomposition, we can therefore point to the advanced decomposition of art, ie. “the vacuity and venality of all “artistic” production: literature, music, painting, architecture, are unable to express anything but anxiety, despair, the breakdown of coherent thought, the void...”[11] In fact this description does not go far enough. We can add to it by identifying a trend in art to destroy itself, to become, in the words of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, ‘anti-art’. In decomposing capitalism, even anti-art is ... art: “Art has something which destroys its own cells. Damien Hirst is a great anti-artist. To go to Sothebys and sell your own work directly is destroying art. But in doing it to such exaggerated extent, it becomes art ... the fact that it was two days before the [2008] crash made it even better.”[12]

Beyond the cynical manipulations of ‘artist/entrepreneurs’ like Hirst, whose exploits now appear as one more symptom of capitalism’s pre-2007 speculative bubble, there is a more fundamental truth. The expressionist poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) compares the artist to “a dancer whose movements are broken by the constraint of his cell. That which finds no expression in his steps and the limited swing of his arms, comes in exhaustion from his lips, or else he has to scratch the unlived lines of his body into the walls with his wounded fingers.[13]  If the artist is indeed like a prisoner in a cell, then in decomposing capitalism the best artists are more and more forced to revert to the equivalent of a ‘dirty protest’ at the intolerable conditions of capitalist life and the impossibility of genuine artistic expression. But even smearing the cell walls with your own excrement is no longer enough, it seems, to avoid commodification and recuperation. In 1961 the Italian artist Manzoni produced a work consisting of 90 tins of his own shit. In 2007 Sotheby’s sold one for 124,000 euros. 

MH 6/12



[1]  See Heinrich Heine: The revolution and the party of the nightingales’, ICC online. (http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2007/march/heine).

[2]  Courbet, a supporter of Proudhon, was imprisoned for his active role in the Paris Commune.

[3]  Culture and Revolution in the Thought of Leon Trotsky, Revolutionary History, vol. 7, No. 2, Porcupine Press, London 1999, p. 102 (http://www.marxist.com/ArtAndLiterature-old/marxism_and_art.html).

[4] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, Pelican, 1963, p.75. The impressionist Cézanne was well aware of this regression: in the work of the old masters, he says, “It is as though you could hear the whole melody of it in your head, no matter what detail you happened to be studying. You cannot tear anything out of the whole. ... They did not paint patchwork as we do...” (Fischer, p.75).

[5] Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle, 1931. The symbolists were also known at the time as ‘decadents’.

[6] Formed in early 1919, the ‘Central Council of Dada for the World Revolution’ called for “1) The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical Communism; (...) The immediate expropriation of property (...) and the communal feeding of all (...) Introduction of the simultaneist poem as a Communist state prayer.” (Wikipedia). 

[7] Trotsky, Communist policy toward art, 1923. For more on the Proletkult movement and the debates within the Bolshevik Party on culture, see the series “Communism is not just a nice idea” in International Review nos. 109, 111.

[8] Although some surrealists like Aragon became apologists for Stalinism while Dali supported fascism. Leading surrealists made contact with Trotsky and the movement became closely associated with the Left Opposition but the leading surrealist poet Benjamin Péret broke with the Trotskyist Fourth International in 1948 over its reactionary political positions and worked closely with Munis’s group.

[9] The Decadence of Capitalism, ICC pamphlet (http://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/decadence/ch3).

[10] Trotsky, Art and politics in our epoch, 1938 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm).

[11]  “Theses on decomposition, the final phase of capitalism’s decadence”, International Review no. 107, 2001.  We could add to this the whole crisis of the education system and its effects on traditional art skills, knowledge and techniques, etc.

[12]  Guardian, 9.12.11.

[13] Quoted in Norman O. Brown, Life against death. The psychoanalytical meaning of history, 1959, p. 66.