Art is not a reflection of society but is shaped by social production and cannot escape the alienation of capitalist conditions, argues Chris Nineham

John Molyneux, The Dialectics of Art (Haymarket Books 2021), 300pp.

Parts of this book are refreshing. A great deal of writing about art is fairly unenlightening because it either deals in generalities about beauty, genius or the sublime, or focusses on technical details or the influences of other artists.

Only rarely do critics link works of art to the conditions in which they were created and explore their attitude to that world as a way of helping to illuminate the impact they have on ours. Like other Marxist art critics before him, Molyneux concentrates on these relationships and this makes a lot of the book compelling.

Approaching art in this way is simply to recognise an undeniable fact; creating art is a social process. All art is produced in particular circumstances and the various sensibilities and attitudes it expresses must be bound up with how its society works and the ideas that circulate within it. Art cannot of course be reduced to the conditions in which it is created, but not to consider them is a form of mystification or erasure which is bound to make works of art harder to appreciate.

Looking at it in this way doesn’t mean downplaying art’s emotional, aesthetic or spiritual dimensions. The numbers that flock to all sorts of historical art exhibitions show that art can speak directly to people across centuries. Even so, understanding the contexts of a work of art actually helps access its emotional, spiritual as well as its social significance.

Molyneux proves this many times here. Take for example his discussion of Italian renaissance artist Michelangelo’s giant statue of David, one of the most famous artworks in the Western world. The general and immediate context Molyneux provides helps us appreciate the work.

Michelangelo’s Florence was the most important early capitalist city state in the world. By the end of the fifteenth century it had become a centre of republicanism, emerging democracy, rationalism and humanism in a world dominated by feudal relations, monarchy and religious superstition. This general background combined with the fact that the David statue was commissioned by the republican government to celebrate the city’s recent ousting of the Medici rulers helps to explain the sculpture’s startling combination of monumentality and human feeling. The context allows Molyneux to deftly interpret some of the detail of the work:

‘Michelangelo shows David before the battle, thus providing a basis in the narrative for David’s frowning forehead and making it a work which looks to the future in anticipation of the decisive struggle. Moreover, the David is not in fact in ‘perfect’ proportion; the head and hands, especially the right hand holding the stone, are slightly too large, and this has the effect of making David a brain as well as a body, and a doer and maker as well as an object of desire. Thus what the David celebrates is not ‘man’ as he is, but a vision of the whole man that he has the potential to become.’ (p.79)

In the case-study essays that make up most of the book’s second half, Molyneux repeatedly uses context to ‘open up’ art, to make it more accessible and moving. His interesting examination of Rembrandt’s shifting relationship to the emerging capitalism of sixteenth-century Holland is a case in point. Another is his careful consideration of Picasso’s famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his 1907 portrayal of five prostitutes that caused a scandal and is widely regarded as being the first work of modern Western art. Molyneux explains why Picasso felt the stylistic innovations of cubism, the ‘radical break with traditional forms of naturalistic representation’ were necessary to ‘smash and eliminate any traces of sentimentality and glamourisation’ that might have crept into a portrayal using conventional techniques (p.113).

Readers are unlikely to agree with all the judgements here, that’s inevitable in a book that considers artists as varied as Tracey Emin, Jackson Pollock and Yasser Alwan. But Molyneux’s takes on artists are well-argued and everyone will be educated and challenged.

Art in theory

Admirably, the book opens with an ambitious attempt to outline a unified Marxist theory of art, or at least art under capitalism. Unfortunately, I think this and the other theoretical parts of the book, though always stimulating, are less successful. There is a lot to deal with here, far too much to tackle fully in a review. But there are two problems in particular I want to raise.

The first is that despite Molyneux’s justified criticism of those who see the work of art as a simple ‘reflection’ of external reality, and his insistence on the importance of mediations between life and art, there are times when he sounds a little too much like the mechanical materialists he criticises.

In ‘How Art Develops’, for example, he argues for a tight link between economic prosperity and artistic progress and correspondingly that ‘when it comes to periods of artistic regression, these are likewise linked to economic decline or stagnation’ (p.340). There is clearly some truth in this, but as a general statement it involves reading of artistic developments too closely from economic ones, even when the approach is modified by other ‘mediations and complications’ (p.324).

It is a formula that becomes less and less helpful as capitalism develops and so many cultural highpoints have a critical charge. It can tell us little about the interwar artistic ferment in Weimar Germany for example, the artistic outpouring that accompanied the 1917 Russian revolution, or the cultural upsurge that accompanied the decline of the long boom in the later 1960s.

Molyneux also tends to downplay individual experience rather too much. The statement in the same essay that ‘there may even be the odd occasion when specific biographical factors play a major role in propelling an artist’s work in a direction or way that significantly impacts the overall development of art,’ is surely something of an understatement and has an odd ring given the book’s title. Occasional clunkiness is probably unavoidable in any work like this, but it feels like some social dimensions are missing here. These gaps are connected to the second issue I want to raise.

The artist unalienated?

John’s opening argument centres on Marx’s concept of alienation. His contention is that one of the two things that define art is that, unlike most other forms of work or labour in capitalist society, the work process of the artists is unalienated:

‘art is work produced by unalienated human labour and characterised by a fusion or unity of form or content. Furthermore there is a connection between these two elements in the definition in that generally speaking, it requires unalienated labour to achieve such a fusion of form or content’ (p.54).

John and I had a debate about this question many years ago which played out at a number of public events and in the pages of the International Socialist Journal.i Judging by his new book the debate is unresolved, so in the interests of theoretical progress here we go again.

I think John is absolutely right to put alienation at the centre of a discussion about art, especially modern art. But I think the way he treats alienation involves some misunderstandings of the Marxist concept and means he leaves an important part of the recent story of art unwritten.

For Marx, alienation under capitalism is rooted in the way the system works as a whole. Alienation is a product of the fact that capitalism is driven by blind, competitive accumulation, the competition of different capitals for profit. It finds its most extreme expression in the experience of working-class people. When workers go to work, their labour power is bought by capitalists and used to generate profit which they then control. In order to make profits from labour, the capitalist has to own or control the means of production, the commodities produced and the worker’s labour power. Given that the ability to labour is the essential characteristic of human beings, this is robbery on a grand scale, with a very high human cost. As Marx puts it:

‘It is true that labour produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It procures beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labour by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labour and turns others into machines. It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker.’ii

While the experience of alienation is most intense for workers, it is not just a product of the exploitation of the workforce. Alienation pervades the whole system because the system is driven by competition and operates outside of human control. For Marx, even the capitalist is alienated:

‘The possessing class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class feels at home in this self-alienation, it finds confirmation of itself and recognises in alienation its own power; it has in it a semblance of human existence, while the class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees therein its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.iii

Marx stressed the fact that the profit system is so pervasive that it affects the working lives of many outside the working class:

‘The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’.iv

Despite this, Molyneux argues that there are forms of labour that remain unalienated under capitalism. He cites as examples the writing of Capital, setting up picket lines and other kinds of socialist organising (p.38). Of course he is right to say that these activities are different from the ‘normal’ labour in the factory, supermarket or call centre. However, the difference is not that they involve unalienated labour which can only be the free expression of human creativity. They are practices which involve the beginning of a challenge to alienation, they can point towards an unalienated world, but are clearly not the destination. They are in fact imposed on those who are involved precisely because they lack power or ownership in society, by alienation.

Marx and subsequent Marxists have rightly argued that art can fully flourish only in conditions of complete freedom, only when it can be produced in a completely unalienated way. Socialists, including Leon Trotsky as Molyneux points out, have a history of fighting for the maximum freedom for artists (p.64). This is not to say that that world is already here, in fact it means the opposite, that those conditions are still to be fought for.

Marx argued that capitalism deformed art in a number of ways. Most importantly, the division of society into artists and non-artists, ‘the exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass’, is deeply damaging to art itself. It means that the artist is separated from her or his audience and that the artistic development of the majority is suppressed. The only connection between them is through the market. The result is in the words of one of the great Marxist writers on alienation, István Mészáros, that the artist under capitalism:

‘has been set free from all the bonds against which the Renaissance artists had to fight, but only at the price of submitting himself to the impersonal power of the art market. Artists in the pre-capitalist societies were, on the whole, integrated with the social body to which they belonged. By contrast, artists under capitalism have to experience the fate of being “outsiders” or even “outcasts” … the main effect of alienation in this regard is the appearance of a “public” which is barred from participating in the processes of artistic production.”v

For Marx this subjection of all labour to the market and the specialisation which separates off the artist from wider society can only fully be overcome with the end of the division of labour and the return to the ‘social mode of existence’.vi

This is the general case, but there are a thousand ways in which market processes and other forms of domination over artists shapes the way they work. As it happens, Molyneux himself points to some of them. Although he doesn’t consider the ideological importance of art for the ruling class that much, in his discussion of the Sensations Exhibition he notes that, ‘in general the bourgeoisie as a class is aware of the power of art and culture and, desirous of maintaining its hegemony in this sphere as in others’ (p.230).

Elsewhere he actually points out that the ownership or control of the means of production by the ruling class must shape artistic production:

‘As we know from Marx, in class societies the ruling class dominates the culture (though seldom completely). However the domination in the field of visual art, especially painting and sculpture has been more complete, more extreme than in other art forms. This is because whereas the poet or the novelist needs only pen and paper, visual art must be embodied in materials (which are very expensive) sorted and exhibited either in museums or galleries or public galleries or in public places (which of course are never controlled by the public) (p.274).

In his powerful essay on the photography of Yasser Alwan he notes the way that photography is used in capitalist society generally – ‘mug shots, ID, passports etc’ – has a big impact on its artistic use:

‘In the world of art it has given rise to the elements of the freak show, objectification, mockery and exploitation, found in varying degrees in the work of Diane Arbus, Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Martin Parr’ (p.285).

In just these three quotations, Molyneux recognises that a) the ruling class actively tries to shape cultural production ideologically and therefore limits artistic freedom, b) that it often uses its ownership or control of the means of the production or distribution of art to ‘dominate the culture’ and c) that these and other aspects of a commodified world shape what is produced.

How can cultural labour be unalienated, if a ruling class that seeks control over culture often owns its means of production, and if its output is shaped by commodification? To argue this consistently would be to deny the whole premise of Molyneux’s book and Marxist criticism itself, that art is closely influenced by the conditions of its own making.

There is no sensible way that the outcome of these processes can be called non-alienated labour without the phrase losing all meaning.

Creating a need

So where do we go from here? Alienation remains central to any serious discussion of the arts, but the argument in my opinion needs to be reorganised. What I think we can say is that artistic production often challenges alienation. It is a realm of production that has the appearance of being free and often involves a struggle for free expression.

The art world in its modern form is a product of the bourgeois revolutions which promised freedoms which it could not deliver. Art since these times has been caught up in a contradiction. As Eugene Lunn explained well in Marxism and Modernism, the bourgeoisie offers artistic freedom on one hand and snatches it back with the other:

‘Bourgeois society – with all its progressive advance over “feudal” constrictions – is also inimical to many forms of art, for example because of the division of labour, the mechanisation of many forms of human activity, and the predominance of quantitative over qualitative concerns.’

Lunn points out that commodity production shapes every level of artistic conception and production.vii

Yet, because of its historical origins, the artistic world can be a site of at least partial challenge to alienation and commodification. To quote Lunn again:

‘Even with its halo removed, art was capable of diagnosing, and pointing beyond alienating social and economic conditions … All art has the capacity to create a need for aesthetic enjoyment and education which capitalism cannot satisfy.’viii

This historical grasp of the world of art as a contradictory product of class society which can involve a struggle for free expression seems to me to be essential. Such an approach has the advantage of pointing up both art’s value to the ruling class and explaining the art world’s ability to draw upon popular energies.

For the ruling class the art world is partly about self-affirmation. As they survey the damage caused by their addiction to profit, it is no doubt consoling to engage with a sphere of production which appears to be dedicated to human creativity.

It also has a connected wider ideological role. The massive tax-free endowments given by big corporations to the big art galleries shows that corporate leaders understand the ideological importance of what has come to be called ‘art-washing’. To have a high-profile sphere of production and consumption dedicated to ‘free expression’ and the celebration of human and national culture is a valuable part of the projection of corporate capitalism as the free society.

The twist is that art-washing is accelerating the commodification of the art world. It is testimony to the way neoliberal capitalism has of undermining its own legitimacy. Artistic production is attractive to the wider population because it offers a tantalising promise of the kind of creative freedom denied elsewhere. The struggle of the artist against isolation and for authenticity has become a cliché because it is so pervasive. From Goya and Beethoven to the impressionists and post impressionists, the nineteenth century is littered with the history of artists struggling for autonomy from the demands of government and the self-interest of the market.

As Molyneux himself points out, some of Picasso’s greatest achievements in the following century involved attempts to express and protest at the disturbing commodified flatness of the world in which he lived and worked (p.225). And as John Berger argues in The Success and Failure of Pablo Picasso, for a good deal of his life Picasso gave up the struggle and learnt to live with this world, if not to love it. At times he adopted a factory style of production, employing workers to help churn out what were essentially copies of his previous works. These were years of artistic failure. But few would argue that in this time he stopped being an artist.ix

It seems to me that the struggle against artistic alienation and commodification is helpful too in understanding why so many modernist innovators were attracted to the left and revolutionary movements. Surely the convention-busting formal artistic rebellions of Hannah Hoch, Ferdinand Léger, André Breton, Frida Kahlo, Kazimir Malevich and so on and so on are linked to their political radicalisation. They realised that the battle against their own alienation could only finally be won at a collective, social level.

The struggle for authenticity against accommodation and in some cases despair continues. As I put it back in 1999:

‘Throughout the 20th century the struggle for artistic control and authentic expression has continued. From Diego Rivera and Orson Welles to the Sex Pistols, the most challenging artistic products are often the results of a struggle with the hostility of the culture industry, and all too often, as well, a destructive struggle of the artist with themselves. As a result the commodification of art and the resulting alienation of the artist is a theme running from All About Eve to Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons. The story of the artist “selling out” to the system has become a commonplace. However well they handle it, artists cannot escape their contradictory situation; however much they struggle to conquer a scrap of production for humanity, their product will itself be commodified.’x

No artist or cultural worker can escape alienation in their work. To argue they can, is to underestimate the extent and damage done by capitalist commodification. In a world that is so obviously careering out of human control there can be no ‘safe spaces’ of unalienated labour. Suggesting that there are risks reproducing an elitist distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture which downplays all sorts of important artistic contributions. The historically produced world of the arts has created a complex and contradictory sphere of production which presents itself as free, sometimes non-commercial and at least encourages ideas of creativity and personal expression. At the same time it is a site of massive exploitation and megaprofits. Many artists in this sphere struggle to produce work of integrity and human vision which point beyond the deformed reality in which we live. Their work involves all sorts of challenges to alienation but is not its overcoming.


i See John Molyneux, ‘The Legitimacy of Modern Art’, in International Socialism Journal, September 1998 and Chris Nineham, ‘Art and Alienation: A Reply to John Molyneux’, in International Socialism Journal, March 1999.

ii Karl Marx, Early Writings (Penguin 1975), p.325.

iii Karl Marx, The Holy Family, quoted in F. Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (Pluto 1990), p.8.

iv Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin 2015), p.5.

v István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (Merlin Press 1970), p.210.

vi Ibid. p.212.

vii Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno (University of California Press 1984), p.12.

viii Ibid. p.16. I am indebted to Judy Cox for pointing out Lunn’s argument here in her excellent article,

‘An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation’ in International Socialism Journal, July 1998.

ix John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (Penguin 1965).

x Chris Nineham, ‘Art and Alienation: A Reply to John Molyneux’, in International Socialism Journal, March 1999, p.80;

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.